The Meditative Constructivism of Ellie Vossen
Art as Experiential Model
The basis of 20th century modernism, that clear rational order is a condition for freedom, requires discussion. Nowadays, law and order have become a means for curtailing that freedom as the Antwerp architect Luc Deleu ruefully pointed out at a recent presentation of his work that is based on constructivist principles. As one of the last representatives of the sixties mentality, he is still trying to combine order with the imaginative. However, that mental legacy has been discredited. Today, individual freedom is a law unto itself and it exists without principles or structure. The conservative call for law and order is no solution and the Left has also lost its credibility. In architecture, left-wing modernism has led to the failure of Amsterdam’s Bijlmer district, a synonym for the uninhabitable. Bureaucracy has destroyed the great utopia of a world that can be made. In practice, left-wing ideology is no match for the new world order of American origin, where the market rules and freedom is restricted to consumerism. What’s more, none of it matters for post-modern relativism. But things used to be different. In the 1960s, a young generation rebelled en masse against the conventional, which it wanted to replace with an anti-authoritarian order that embraced freedom and the imagination. This was combined with a revival of both modernism and the avant-garde movements from the beginning of the 20th century.
After the Second World War, the need for freedom and a dislike of the conventional had already erupted on a small scale in the spontaneous expressiveness of the Cobra movement, with Karel Appel’s Freedom Scream as its icon. Through theoreticians such as Constant and Jorn, Cobra referred to a Marxist social vision that provided space for each individual’s creativity. Constant felt that painting was too limited and sought a greater degree of social relevance. Deploying the constructivist idiom from the era of the Russian Revolution, he attempted to achieve this in his New Babylon project: a maquette of the environment where the homo ludens of the future would be able to thrive like a new nomad. The rebellious young people of the 1960s, such as the Dutch Provos, recognised themselves in Constant´s vision and considered him to be their spiritual father.
Alongside this youthful revolt, many avant-garde movements were developing in Europe, which were known collectively as the New Tendencies. Their objective was to create a fresh consciousness along with unprecedented visual experiences. Just like the historical avant-garde, they generally operated as an international network of like-minded individuals. Fundamental visual research was a mutual goal. They mostly deployed an elemental, geometric language of forms that used a minimum of means. The serial and aleatoric were preferred to the classical composition method, which was felt to be too hierarchical. In other words: these artists opted for structuring principles that involved chance. At the same time, much value was attached to the object’s level of reality and there were high hopes for interaction and public participation. This trend was represented in the Netherlands by the Zero Movement with artists such as Armando, Schoonhoven, Henk Peeters and Jan Henderikse. In addition, a number of artists connected to Riekje Swart’s gallery in Amsterdam, including Ad Dekkers, Peter Struycken, Bonies and myself, were working on a new systematic form of constructivism. This meant that we aimed at an impersonal product as based on a systematic programming that excluded the arbitrary. Contacts between the Netherlands and Belgium were established through the Pluskern gallery in Ghent.
These alternative rules were just as important for the Happenings, which were currently popular in both Amsterdam and Antwerp. Here too, freedom was mostly based on the option of aleatoric structuring.
The Stijl movement paved the way for Systems Art in the Netherlands, and here the great inspirers were Van Doesburg and, to a lesser extent, Mondriaan. New developments in science and technology also played a major role. Social conditions had altered radically from the era between the two World Wars so that social change continued to be important, just as it had been for the historical avant-garde. In the Netherlands, a Maoist artists union called the Bond van Kunstarbeiders, which included Bonies amongst its activists, explicitly propagated this revolutionary role. Members were convinced that a clear and systematically structured visual language would help the people in disadvantaged neighbourhoods to improve their living conditions. However, little would be achieved in practice.
The visual diversity and the enormous increase in the amount of information that is available to everyone through the computer, has resulted in a greater freedom of choice that has not actually contributed to the individual’s self-determination. In short, the power relations remain unchanged and the opportunities for unbridled consumption simply reinforce passivity
Yet the art of the 1960s derives its power from the future expectations that also formed its basis. The revolution failed in May 1968, but the euphoria that the imagination could come to power would continue to exert its influence. A new generation had entered the spotlight and the power of the established order waned everywhere. In the Netherlands, the University of Amsterdam’s administration centre was occupied. The feminist Dolle Mina´s took to the streets. There were all kinds of factors that influenced female emancipation – starting with the pill – but art certainly contributed to a change in mentality that was spread through the media to every living room in the land. Dutch television programs such as Hoepla undermined the old norms and values such as when the woman artist Phil Bloom became the first person to appear nude on TV or when Wim Schippers emptied a lemonade bottle into the sea as an art project. The pop magazine Hitweek, which was edited by Fluxus artist Willem de Ridder, was the much-read communicator of a new sense of life. Vast numbers of young people, who were labelled longhaired, work-shy scum, could now expand their minds either with or without the help of drugs. This led to a circuit of like-minded people who recognised each other through a shared code for clothes, music and art. Flower Power was the popularisation of a liberated lifestyle that was prepared in the art world and imbued with form.
Provincialism could not survive in this climate. Young artists, who were born after the Second World War, now had every opportunity to free themselves from the pressures of their environment. The world was open to them. Above all there was a generation of young women who were able to break free from the stereotypical role patterns that applied at home.
Ellie Vossen, who was born in 1948, was typical of a generation for whom ‘the sky seemed to be the limit’. She came from an average, middle-class Catholic family who lived in Bunde, a small, southern Dutch village in Limburg. She initially studied fashion at the Stadsacademie art school in Maastricht where she learned to design trendy clothes as demonstrated by the coverage of her creations in the Dutch magazine Panorama.
At the age of 18, she entered the Textile Art Course at Antwerp art school, which was followed by her admission to the Monumental Department of the Hoger Instituut. Although this art school had a reputation for being traditional, she was given every opportunity to develop and to find her own way. Art was flourishing in Antwerp and she was exposed to the most advanced works of the day. Annie de Decker’s Wide White Space Gallery was a leading avant-garde centre. In a building on the Beeldhouwersstraat, Kaspar Koenig presented the top international artists including Joseph Beuys. The ICC, under Floor Bex’s directorship, was just as prominent. He brought James Lee Byars to Antwerp and made it possible for Gordon Matta Clark to saw through the floors of a building on the River Scheldt. De Zwarte Panter created opportunities for Antwerp artists including Fred Bervoets. Outsider artists such as Panamarenko, Hugo Heyrmans and Wout Vercammen held happenings on the Conscience Square. Ludo Mich organised and filmed the swinging fashion happenings of An Salens, the uncrowned queen of hip fashion. Singer Ferre Grignard performed at the Muze, the centre of the underground, and there were also the activities of the Gardsivik group and the Pink Poets. All this and far more clearly provided a young artist with plenty of inspiration.
Ellie Vossen was already making her own contribution while still at the Hoger Instituut. She became known for her monumental installations such as the Variable Situations that went beyond the boundaries of the textile art for which she had been trained and were related to Minimal Art. 7 plus 1 was a typical work and was made in transparent plastic, which was a new material at that time. It was shown at the Biennale de la Tapisserie in Lausanne. With pioneers such as Magdalena Abakanowicz and Sheila Hicks, Lausanne was dominated by the emancipation of textile art as a form of sculpture. Ellie also had the emphatic presumption to present her work as fine art although she continued to use crafts techniques. Experimenting with new synthetic materials in sculpture was a hot issue at that time. When the Rijksacademie art school was occupied in Amsterdam, the leaders’ demand was that laboratory research into plastics should be included in the curriculum. It was only then that research into synthetic materials and products was properly initiated despite the fact that Moholy Nagy had been pioneering similar materials on his own in the 1930s.
Apart from 7 plus 1, Ellie Vossen was making other works in transparent, synthetic materials that included two diamond-shaped wall reliefs. These involved suspended elements that just asked to be played with and which the viewer could set into motion. The works had a strikingly delicate, Eastern crafting that contrasted with the modern choice of materials. In fact, they were some of the first examples of Ellie’s interest in Japanese refinement that was to continue to influence her work.
Although on the basis of her education she was automatically included in the circuit of women textile artists, with whom she regularly exhibited at the invitation of Jan Walgrave, Ellie Vossen emphatically positioned herself in the world of the fine arts. Her first one-man show in Antwerp at De Zwarte Panter was awarded the Belgian Association of Art Critics’ Prix de la critique. Here, she exhibited a series of systematically structured number tape weaves along with the variable diamonds and 7 plus 1, the installation that had been shown at Lausanne.
The weaves involved the simple technique of plaiting, which every child learned at kindergarten, so as to create regular and sometimes relief-like structures that were typical of the New Tendencies. In fact, the traditional plaiting method of horizontals and verticals had been upgraded to create a visual language that reflected Dutch systematic constructivism. The fact that she had contact with artists from this movement is proved by the two drawings by Ad Dekkers that he had given her and that she cherished as being models of simplicity. They consist of just two vertical and two horizontal lines, which had been drawn in pencil inside of a square.
In anticipation of the computer, the number tape weaves were produced in every possible variation of a single structuring principle. She intuitively felt that the technique of weaving, with its regular alternation of warp and weft, fundamentally resembled the digital computer language that was to be introduced to art by artists such as Peter Struycken. In terms of materials, Ellie Vossen opted for common, readymade number tape as used in the clothing industry, a choice that was typical of the 1970s avant-garde. Once she succeeded in tracing the company that manufactured this tape on an industrial scale, she commissioned it to produce her own texts. This was a case of ‘Made by Industry’ – and it also reflected the working method of such Minimal artists as Don Judd and Sol Lewitt with whom she felt an affinity.
Processing common, ready-to-use products remained a constant factor in Ellie Vossen’s work. Here, she distinguished herself from the world of the applied arts that emphasises a traditional, crafts-based treatment of materials. There is also a difference in her conceptual approach. She tackled a particular issue by formulating a program and by taking it to its logical conclusion. Every variation is possible within the rules of the game.
Ellie Vossen was never afraid of monumental dimensions. In Bernard Blondeel’s gallery, she exhibited an installation of large, diamond-shaped number tape weaves that were suspended in the space and where the words ‘positive-negative’ were treated visually so that they formed a positive and a negative image. The words ‘circle’ and ‘square’ were also depicted in several small works. The critics suggested that this was a form of concrete poetry, a mixture of language and symbol, which was very topical at that time.
Ultimately a program has only a limited number of variations although this applies more in terms of quality than quantity. Computer art also has to confront the issue that choices need to be made that are visually satisfying. Moreover, the eye cannot distinguish between all the variations within a homogenous field. Small differences go unnoticed, and a program is exhausted at a certain point.
Ellie Vossen introduced a new element into her work once the number tape plaits had reached that point. She had become interested in the way in which dyes soak into absorbent materials. The dye method and the dye bath feature in techniques such as Batik, and Ellie Vossen began to subject this textile process to systematic research concerning its fundamental characteristics. Here, the simplest example consists of blotting paper that absorbs ink. This involves osmosis, a process that is capricious and difficult to monitor yet is subject to the laws of physics. It can be demonstrated by mixing dyes in the fluid that is to be absorbed, and this leads to interesting visual results. The structuring systematics of the research, which was performed in a laboratory, produced a wide organic diversity. This was what she was interested in. She wanted to break through the cool regularity of constructivism while still maintaining an objective method. Moreover, nature was introduced into her work as a process rather than as a depiction – an approach that is in the spirit of Spinoza’s concept of natura naturans. This opened up new vistas. During the 1970s, various Systems artists had turned their attentions to natural processes. The systematic constructivist Gerhard von Graevenitz organised an exhibition on this theme in the Netherlands. Ellie Vossen also tried to let nature take its course under laboratory conditions that were as objective as possible. She carefully noted the amount of dye that was used in the fluid. As always, she preferred ordinary, domestic substances such as coffee and tea but also used the polluted waters of the River Scheldt, a choice that naturally contained a critical note at a time when the ecology movement was just beginning. Standard, square disposable paper handkerchiefs were used as absorbers. When tied into stacks, they absorbed the coloured dyes unevenly so that each separate handkerchief bore the imprint of a gradually changing image.
The statement ‘I love paper because it sucks’ accompanied one of her exhibitions and proves unequivocally that Ellie Vossen was concerned with the materials’ properties rather than with their beauty.
Osmosis is a slow process. Ellie Vossen demonstrated this in public with an installation at the ICC in Antwerp. This event – where a large quantity of paper handkerchiefs was drenched in coloured dye for the exhibition’s duration – resulted in a series of cubes that reflect this process. She was also able to group the individual handkerchiefs separately according to various systems. Initially Ellie Vossen opted for a regular repetition of squares that had been carefully stitched onto a rectangular surface, which could be exhibited as a freely suspended wall hanging. She later concentrated on revealing the changes that occurred as a result of the various stages of osmosis. Hence, she arranged the packets of dyed handkerchiefs into sequences that were up to three metres long and showed a filmic progression. Their measurements had not been chosen arbitrarily, rather they had been determined by the number of handkerchiefs that showed traces of the absorption process within a given time. Sometimes this resulted in large-scale works that measured up to two by three metres, such as the pieces that she showed at the Merchandise exhibition in Antwerp’s Montevideo.
Constricting the paper packets during the drenching process created three-dimensional distortions that changed progressively along with the colouring. Unfortunately the material is so fragile that the original subtlety of these distortions may eventually be lost. But Ellie Vossen loved this temporality, and the vulnerability of existence is reflected in her work. She did not worry that her art would ultimately turn to dust, for each piece is simply the documentation of a process that continues and can be repeated.
Nonetheless, she devoted much attention to the precise realisation of her work. She regarded it as being a ritual that could be compared to the Japanese tea ceremony. Nature has to be handled with respect, and here her attitude relates to the culture of the Far East, for which she had great regard. A journey to Japan, where she visited Nara and Kyoto, provided her with a shock of recognition, with a confirmation of the working method that she had developed intuitively. Without having much intellectual knowledge of Zen, she had come up with a similar approach to reality. She felt that she was simply an intermediary who revealed the forces of nature that would remain otherwise hidden. The ‘dye-absorbing images’ have a meditative, non-Western character, and this was also the impression that they made on the artists around her. Her friend Wout Vercammen viewed her work as being pure Zen. Yet that is not entirely true, because it is also the product of a typically Western scientific curiosity and discipline. This combination of the concept’s rationality and the sensitivity of its realisation makes it unique, and distinguishes it from most Conceptual Art where the work’s realisation is generally unimportant.
It is also the reason why her legacy continues to be topical. In an era when information technology produces quantity, there remains a real need for quality, for the extraordinary that cannot be created by machines. A robot will never have an imagination and so machines should never come to power as is proved by the story of Frankenstein. However, there is certainly a future for a fusion of Western rationality and Eastern spirituality, a spirituality that is not viewed as something vague or woolly but is down to earth and relates directly to experience, much in the way that Zen does. We must hope that globalisation will create an opportunity for this, provided that it is not under the colours of the United States or falls into the hands of a few multi-nationals. Come what may, the small but refined oeuvre of Ellie Vossen provides a model for this fusion.
The modernist adage that order is a condition for freedom, only applies if that order, if the rules of the game, include a human dimension.
An important part of Ellie Vossen’s work was made in a short period that lasted for ten years in the aftermath of the euphoria of the 1960s.
The fact that she had little more to add, apart from occasional experiments, can be initially explained though her increasing dissatisfaction with the course of history that was heading towards the triumph of the consumer society. The imagination was now anything but powerful. Instead we were presented with the ultimate societé du spectacle. Constant’s New Babylon was perverted into endless shopping malls with Utrecht’s Hoog Catharijne as an early example. Ellie Vossen did not feel at home in this world. She loathed post-modernist eclecticism and could not endure the fact that modernist ideals had been abandoned. As an art school teacher, she fought the bureaucracy that dominated everything around her. She wanted to preserve the art school as one of the few sanctuaries for the imagination, as a place where the extraordinary is encouraged and cherished.
The gap between ideal and reality also proved to be paralysing for her on a personal level. She found it increasingly difficult to fulfil the high demands that she made of herself in a society that had little understanding of this.
In a way, Ellie Vossen was also one of the 'beautiful losers’ of the 1960s, a term that is used for Marianne Faithfull and for other survivors of the sixties. In contrast to Ellie’s contemporaries from the Antwerp scene, such as An Salens and her best friend the film-maker Nicole van Goethem, both of whom were destroyed by alcohol, she managed to maintain control over her life despite suffering from bouts of severe depression. Perhaps it was that excessive need for control that also ultimately blocked her creativity. So far as the outside world was concerned, she remained an impressive and strong woman who was critical of the way things were going.
She had nothing to add to the essence of what she had to say: that a sensible and imaginative order is the condition for freedom. For the rest, she tried to come closer to nature. In her small Zen garden in Antwerp, which measured just a few square metres, she discovered a counterbalance for the negative powers both in herself and in the world. In the Pyrenees, by the rapids of the River Tech, she hoped that isolation and the confrontation with this breathtaking, mountainous landscape would help her to resume her work. The studio that she planned to use was never completed within her lifetime.
In 1998 Ellie Vossen died at the age of 50, the victim of the disordered ravages of cancer.
In accordance with her final wish, the Golden Boulder Prize has been instigated to encourage talented, young women artists at the beginning of their careers by giving them the opportunity to work in the studio in the Pyrenees.
However, her finest legacy is her oeuvre that attests to a conviction that has lost none of its topicality. In this computer age, the meditative constructivism that she strove to achieve is especially valuable as a signal that carefully nurtured quality will always be more important than quantity.
franck gribling, Le Tech, 2004.