Jeroen Nelemans, born in the Netherlands, currently resides in Chicago. He works with a variety of media, mostly video, and is interested in the relationship between perception, the landscape and the moving image. Nelemans has shown extensively, and is represented by The Mission Gallery.
Interviewed by: Kristina Daignault, Michael Soto, and Christopher Grieshaber
We begin our visit with a tour of the house and some of the video pieces Jeroen and his husband Jefferson have collected.
Chris: How far does this lady go, anyway?
Jeroen: Her name is Kate Gilmore. She’s a video artist. She used to put herself in very confined spaces and break out of them. This was shown at the ICA in Philadelphia, and it’s interesting because it’s the first piece that actually showed the physicality of her breaking through an object or some kind of layering. So the leftover stayed in the gallery, and the video was a separate piece. I like that you don’t see her face, and she’s really struggling.
C: Who picked the video, you or Jefferson?
J: Both. Jefferson started collecting. It was kind of like a love from his study of architecture related to film and cinema. He started working with MCA as well, and he just started pushing and pulling video more and more. One of the things we wanted to do for the longest time, because we always had people over, was to show other people that you can live with video. The second bedroom has a projector, so it can have more video for longer narratives, whereas these ones, I like to put one of them at a different height. I still use the tube vs. the flat screen. That one’s not actually an art piece; it’s just our TV. The way we design it is still heavily based on moving images, but still you can experience them individually and cohesively at the same time, and it doesn’t take over. It’s really interesting how you can easily dismiss a moving image, just like you dismiss a photograph or a painting and re-enter it again. It goes back to the loop scenario.
C: Do you find yourself paying attention to that more as part of your work?
J: I used to. Not anymore. I feel like my work now has its own kind of individuality and personalization that I’m not necessarily influenced by deflection. But I used to, for sure. I was doing frame-by-frame kind of work that was heavily focused on what we would get from galleries. Gallerists would send us DVDs to look at, so we got exposed to a lot of contemporary video work, and I was inspired and did my own thing and made a lot of mistakes because I never learned video at school, so I had to learn it myself, and that was, I like to think, some awesome videos that I made.
C: The one… “This is how to disappear”?
J: Yeah, “How to Disappear Completely” was one of those that I did still during the Art Institute. That was very much an interesting piece in the sense that it touched upon post production and digital manipulation, which I think my work is now heavily associated with.
C: Your work tends to be displayed on the floor. What’s up with that? A lot of it tends to be in a corner or on the floor at a really low height.
J: I like placing things on the floor. There’s a map series of Eindhoven that I actually made to be seen from the floor because you continue this bird’s eye perspective, where I actually got images from in the first place. But I think if you avoid hanging stuff from eye level and putting stuff off a pedestal, you introduce a new narrative to the viewer in terms of experiencing the piece because you’re taking away obvious heights and standard modes of approaching, showing the work.
Kristina: Is your goal to make it more accessible to their thoughts of, “I could own this, and now I don’t need a pedestal to put it on”?
J: Not a goal, but I definitely have that in my mind, for sure. It’s definitely not an outcome, but if I can put a dimmer on the light box, I’d love that. I think of somebody putting it potentially in a living room and adjusting the light. It’s a big scenario. It’s not a goal, but I’m aware of it for sure.
C: So, alternative methods of placement tend to follow that same idea as well, or is it primarily for engagement of your work?
J: That’s a good question. Which work were you referring to that’s on the floor. Maybe we should start there?
C: Well, “How to disappear completely” is the one that sticks in my mind. That was displayed on the floor, and there were some other things, too. It’s funny that you mention the Eindhoven piece, because that seems very appropriate for the floor, as you were talking about.
J: I’ve shown them once so far, and then I’ve shown them on eye level on the wall. I think if you showed at the [Art] Institute, maybe there’s a bit more creative freedom to do something different. But my decision to hang them on the wall in the gallery wasn’t based on the commercial attitude of the piece. I thought about it and dismissed it. Same thing, I thought about adding another piece to the show, and I cut that out too, and I think in retrospect, I should have cut another photo series out of there. It was a busy show. I knew that going in there, but I felt that conceptually, they all tied together. It is a big space. It’s a beautiful space, the Mission Gallery . It’s the gallery that I work with. Beautiful space partly because it’s like a Dutch room in itself. There’s daylight coming in across the windows, and that whole show was about light—Dutch light.
K: When you say Dutch light, do you mean natural light?
J: No, a lot of Dutch artists dealt with that subject matter, Dutch light—the Northern Light.
C: The qualities of that light?
J: The qualities of that light. So the Dutch painters of the 17th century, even the 18th century. I don’t know how contemporary artists deal with Dutch light. And by Dutch light, I kind of see it more as a background anecdote than “This is what my work is about.” Because my work, I still tend to think it’s about something else. It’s about the construct of an image and the way we are introduced to it, especially the digital image. Most of my work uses digital ready-mades. And I’m interested in nostalgia in imagery; I’m interested in the lifespan of an image. You know, it was a painting, then it became an illustration, then it became analog photography, then it became digitized, and then I steal it and make it into a physical object again. So it’s that kind of history and layering of an image—of a same image, but they’re not the same, of course. Even if you take a screen shot of something, the name is already being altered of that image from a JPG to a PNG. And also, its physical algorithm is changed. I turn to Chris right now for verification. When you take a screen shot, do you change its basic algorithm? Its basic formula?
C: Certainly, and it’s usually a reductive method. You really can’t increase the resolution of an image. The most you can do is go back to its original form and retake it. You’re always dealing, within the digital spectrum, with a loss of information every time you convert or translate, and so it just depends on how you handle that. For example, taking your source imagery at a higher resolution or how your work goes back into the digital realm, as a method of recording. That’s primarily been what our digital world has been about: recording.
J: And I like that you said that because it goes back to my investigation of that, because the Dutch of the 17th century were a society about accumulating images, whether it was scientific, biological illustrations, or artists.
C: That’s a good parallel to now.
J: Exactly. They all very much relied on technical change and also the desire to have something on an image. It wasn’t uncommon for the average household in Holland to have four or five paintings in their home. Middle class, of course, was 85% of the country. Image making was flourishing. It was all about making images, and we live in the same period, where everything needs to be made into an image. I think these correlations are very interesting.
K: Here might be a good point to ask how you shifted from your sculptural work to digital.
J: I would say the change would be more from installation to more object-based design work.
C: Because you still consider your image-based work as physical objects?
J: Yeah, very much so.
K: The ones you put up one your website, the way that we would experience them would be to directly interact with it, either walk in it or around it or through it. So, the experience of your work now is not the same anymore. Did you make a conscious decision?
J: No, not a conscious decision. I think it really is a period that you go through, and you develop things, and I would [no longer] consider growing stuff inside of something else, and you would have to climb into it. That was very experimental for me during my MFA, and I think one of the things that I was telling myself is because I’m a foreigner and I have to think about visas, is I really wanted to go after school to some art residencies, so I wanted to have some works that I didn’t necessarily have to store, but were documented in a beautiful way, and I could use that documentation to open up other doors. So I actually got three residencies after my school, I think partly because of these bigger scale installations.
C: Sneaky. It’s funny because you’re talking about this, and I’m thinking about how you’re still engineering multiple levels of perception. That installation you were just talking about, the Astro turf piece, somebody goes into the middle of it, a very specific derived experience, and you’re telling me you were doing this work for the purposes of turning it into an image so there’s this other layer of specific perception of this piece, and I noticed that continuing to follow through with your work until now.
J: Yeah, but I think the documentation has become the artwork now. As soon as you do ephemeral installation work, you know that your documentation is the last thing that is left over. Not many people saw that grass piece because it was in the base basement in the Art Institute, and it was during the summer.
K: I wish I had seen that piece. It looks amazing.
J: It was an amazing piece. I know how to photograph it really amazingly. Even the green house was really important because I made it, I knew what I was manipulating with the ground floor being mirrored.
K: Was that moss in there?
J: No, seaweed papers. I actually finished it and walked in it myself and still had this really awkward feeling of perception, so it is something that you do have to experience, and you cannot do that with photos.
K: Do you consider yourself an installation artist now?
J: No, I was very much interested in Dutch design and Dutch landscapes, and I created these physical landscapes for the viewers to experience by themselves. It was a very individual experience, and it was a very physical.
C: More of a sculpture, then.
J: No, I think still an installation because it was a very bodily experience. You really were enveloped in this surrounding. I just looked at space, and I would create a space inside of that space. And after you graduate, it’s like, “OK, what do you do then?” Do you continue that route, or are you still thinking about similar concepts but portraying them differently? And one of the things that changed was that all of a sudden, I didn’t have a studio, and I didn’t feel compelled that I wanted to look for these kinds of spaces and create an opening around it. But I discovered video as a way of translating this time element that was very much a part of my installation work as well. There was still very much process going on, and I realized that with video, I could continue that process. And the crucial video of that is the three goldfish piece with the cameras on the side and the television, so you have two display cases showing “the real thing” versus the [image]. And it’s also choices of what is available to you. All of a sudden, you don’t have access to certain things that were available during school, so you have to make choices. You have to make practical choices. Video for me was something very practical and still conceptually grounded that I could continue that. And now, I’m making, like you say, very nice objects that feel much more like designed objects. That’s seven years apart.
K: Based on your work right now, if someone handed you a form that said, “What kind of artist are you,” what would you write down?
J: A visual artist? Very dry, but truthful because I don’t like writing. I don’t like dance.
K: So, you have a piece, “The more I see, the less I grasp.” I got the impression from the images, because I didn’t see it in real life, for some reason that I was looking through blinds, and I don’t know if that was anywhere in your intention or this is just my interpretation.
J: I think the conversation is again about images. How do you represent the art on your website? I had a really nice conversation with Karen Irvine who’s a curator at MCOP here in Chicago. We were both talking about Chris Burden and this photo of him being shot, and years and years later, seeing a YouTube snippet, and this completely demystified this one image of this piece. And then it went back to my work, “How do you represent these light boxes in the virtual world?” because you do want to communicate that. I’ve done for the longest time videos. I just had video links, and I realized that most people would click on it, but then wouldn’t press play, so I think I lost a lot of potential viewers because of that. And then I realized that iPads couldn’t necessarily open it up, or telephones couldn’t open it up, so I went back in the last half year to just images of it, but it comes back to the question of the experience of an art piece. How do you view an art piece? How do you document, how do you present your work? That’s something that I’m really really interested in.
K: So your real answer to this question is, “No.”
J: But that’s OK. That’s totally fine. I’m totally open when people see different things. I’m actually more intrigued. The same thing is with the latest piece I’m working on with the water droplets. This goes back to the way we experience images. Everybody perceives images differently. Some of them recognize, just like Chris recognized, that there were water droplets on my iPad photographed in that way instantly. In half a second he got it. Other people will not get it even after I explained it. So I think that ambiguity is really interesting, and that’s powerful to the piece.
J: It informs me, but I don’t think necessarily informs me changing it. I think I would be worried if everybody saw the same thing. Then, I would maybe question, “Is this what I’m after?” It’s not necessarily that I’m after something, but I would be more worried if everybody says, “Oh, you did this and this.” Because I think the magic of that piece is that there’s this very kind of low-fi quality. I’m not manipulating anything, there’s no post-production. Really, this is what you see, where you have this droplet on this thing here, especially with a gray scale kind of photograph, not a color photograph. And what I really like is that it’s also my self-discovery of how I am actually looking at the image, too. If I get nostalgic, I google Nijverdal, which is my hometown in Holland. I google Dutch landscapes, or I need to hear some Dutch television. So, everything that I experience from Holland is through this kind of backlit moving image.
K: I guess it’s interesting that you mention TV because you have a lot of predominantly light box pieces?
J: Yeah, but that’s also the last year of my work. Most of it was done for that show in January, and my new previous work has only so far one light box. Hopefully, a series of three or four. But yeah, it’s predominantly been only the last year and a half. This was the first one—this one started it, this piece here.
K: Do you get these boxes new?
J: I bought it online. Yeah. And then the square ones you were talking about, I bought them from Borders when they went out of business. I would contact them and ask, “Do you have light boxes available,” and I accumulated like eight of them. Then, I look at them, I look at the inside, and I’m just responding to the light box itself. I’m responding to the structure itself, not necessarily the image. And based on that, I’m creating a new image that I’m putting on top of it. When I opened it up, I realized that the inside was reflective, so I knew that I could do something with that.
K: But finding this one, was that the point of deciding, “I want to play with this now,” or did you think, “Oh, I want to go find a light box”?
J: No, I started being intrigued by something in the light box, and something came. This came. Basically, the way I work is that I probably have like six ideas ready to roll next to the ideas that I’m working on. The ideas will be in the back folder in my brain or the back folder of my computer, more likely, and they will just come up again when I experience something new.
C: “How does this fit?”
J: How does this fit now.
K: How do you know when it’s time to act on it?
J: It just happens. A good example is that I was doing portraits of still lifes and flower arrangements, and I was thinking of representing them, making them black & white and representing them with a patch of the color scale of the colors in this image, but I would rearrange them by the order of the visual spectrum instead of the colors that are represented in the painting that way. That was an idea a year and a half ago, and it just surfaced a couple of weeks ago when somebody visited me, and I was just talking about it. And for some reason, it started clicking again, and now I’m exploring it.
K: So the Vermeer Pieces, they seem meticulously made. Did you use Photoshop? How long did it take you?
J: That took me quite a bit, actually, because I approached that the way I approached it, and now I look back, and I would love to change a little bit. The way I approached it, I thought about making the same light boxes the same size, which is fairly small in terms of painting. I went in there with the idea that I need to record these images myself. So went to the Rijksmuseum, I went to different museums in Holland, a couple in Germany, and I started shooting these light structures. Once I got started and I printed one big, I didn’t like it. It just didn’t look good at all.
I would use the light system, which is mostly daylight and artificial light coming in. So I took these installation shots, and I realized later that I could also use Google Art Project. Google Art Project is this website where you can go in and, just like in Google Earth, see certain levels of that museum. So what it also allowed me to do was go to the ceiling and take screen shots again. And those screen shots are more interesting because they had glitches in them, and I could use those glitches as clothing pattern in my compositions. And if I look back right now, I’d rather have done that for the whole thing, just everything in Google Earth because I ended up having them very small.
C: I want to go back to those light boxes with the tubes in front of them, the ones you did a year ago—those had nature in the background. I read a naturalistic polemic out of them. Maybe not declaring something of made-made vs. nature, but definitely considering that. And you move to this really technological thing, these light boxes, and straight-up industry. I read that from these images. And now it seems like you’re trying to go back to something more based in difference?
J: No, where they all connect is kind of like the landscape. I feel like there’s no natural-artificial connotation anymore.
C: So definitely trying to get away from that.
J: Yeah, or it wasn’t as prudent anymore. Because a good example of the light boxes, “Am I now going to create these idyllic light scenes and go to the forest and put them behind them,” because that’s what I wanted. And basically no, because I couldn’t find them online. I think in availability as well. I am very prudent about my work.
C: So the availability of every kind of image is more important than the particular one?
J: A good example is… do you remember the video with all the insects that are moving? It’s a movie called Microcosmos. The movie was one of the first ones that dealt with these amplified sound systems, also these extreme close-ups of nature. Something that visually, we don’t question anymore because it’s so much a part of our visual vocabulary. So, for me, what I did with that movie is that I dissected every extreme close-up and made it into a smaller image, and all these images, 265 of them, created more of a filmstrip that acted like a specimen in itself. So the image is actually the specimen. So having this film strip that is very organized and that jiggles continuously into this crazy mayhem, I’m really interested in that what you’re looking at is a live thing.
C: Interesting, you’re giving it its own life and sense of self.
J: Exactly, and I think it’s W.T. Mitchell that talks about [how] an image needs a host in order to come to life, and it can be interactive, and it can become its own life form by being reproduced–by being reinterpreted. So for me it wasn’t about this “artificial/natural” anymore.
J: I’m making images. An image can be made by photography, light boxes, but also laser cut or wrapping the film around the tubes themselves. I think very much I’m coming back to photography, but I don’t necessarily think that it’s all grounded in photography. One of the things is that photography is related to the camera. Traditional photography, you hold your camera because it’s the right moment, and then you shoot, and I don’t have a camera. My camera is my iPhone, which I actually use as an art-making tool. And so screenshots is image making, but it’s also photography. I don’t necessarily need a camera, unless it’s practical and it’s available–then I need a camera.
C: Your processes in terms of image making are really defined in photography, right? There’s a certain kinship between photography and printmaking, for example, and I find myself really attracted to printmaking, and in general, my interest tends towards the procedural. I’m really interested in chemicals’ interaction and stacking up layers of an image and all these really process-based things. For me it’s a proclivity that I notice in your work as well. You’re really interested in the process of generating an image, and obviously, while our methods of processing them are completely different, there’s a huge part of piecemeal availability that gets manipulated by you to create a new whole that I see in your stuff, and it’s why I’ve always been attracted to it. Do you see that sort of process when you make an image? Is it kind of a piecemeal thing?
J: Maybe. I don’t know. That’s a good question. This might be a good time to actually read some theory on photography again.
C: Don’t do that, you’ll disappear down 18 rabbit holes.
J: And I’m afraid of that because I haven’t read theory in a long time because of that reason. A rule of thumb for me is that I have to apply theory to my art, and I cannot illustrate theory in my art. And that tends to happen when you read theory–you start to make art related to or because of that theory. I feel like whatever is happening right now is self-discovery, then it becomes really close to my behavior and the way I perceive images. I don’t know how to answer that, the photography relationship.
C: Lots of mechanics. Lots of mechanics visually speaking, too. That thing there, you’re taking a picture with the mechanics behind the screen. Like the Wizard of Oz, you’re pulling the curtain back, and there’s the inside of the light box. But then, you’re completely obscuring it by shoving it back and having a new image on top of it. That’s a really interesting relationship.
J: Definitely, my photography background comes in handy because I know how to manipulate. I know I need a wider angle lens in order to get the sides in there and to get the squareness in there. Little practical photography elements that I know are coming in handy right now.
Michael: There’s no photoshop happening here?
J: This is all photoshop. I shot it through a green screen, and because the inside is reflective, whatever was green, I was now able to insert another image. The pre-production and postproduction are intertwined, it feels like.
C: I was wondering how you did that! I was like, “Was the thing printed on the back of it? What’s going on here?”
K: What kind of camera did you use for that? Not your iPhone, right?
J: These little things, what you tend to forget when you buy a camera, you only talk about megapixels–the lens, the quality of the lens.
C: The thing about this phone, though, is that it’s really interesting because technologically speaking, it’s really focusing, not to make a joke, on the certain camera phone market. The images that come out of that camera, I’m noticing as I see sample photos, are really great snapshots that aren’t blurry, and that’s what the point of that thing is. All of those megapixels are for determining decent photographs, but with the expectation that you’re going to have beautiful ground-shaking images.
J: What I think is really interesting is it does change the way we see images. I think photography has opened up, and even now, even going back to iPhones, I can tend an image, and if I don’t like you in an image, I can click on you, and you disappear, as I just made that image on an iPhone. It’s like post production becomes part of the image.
C: I suppose, but there’s still a huge reliance on the intermediary object that is the camera, as well as overt decisions that you have to make in order to produce the image. Lighting, direction, filtering, all those things that are…
J: That printmaking doesn’t have.
C: Well, that print-making has is different ways. Print media is kind of a weird intermediary between painting and photography. If you’re talking about a painter who’s looking at constructing an image, obviously, it’s different from a photographer in terms of the materials used and all that, but also the way you’re conceptualizing the image winds up looking functionally very different from a photographer vs. a painter. Rodin talked about how in the physicality of a sculpture, your interpretation of an image becomes alive because of the time element that is spent looking at and interpreting different parts of an image, the image being this three-dimensional object. You get a sense of movement and a sense of a situation of an object versus photography where, because all the data is presented to you at one level, you wind up taking everything in at one moment, and it becomes, conceptually, more of a total snapshot in time, as opposed to a gesture that happens over time—something unfolding versus something presented—and for me, that difference, something presented, is something prevalent also in print media. I wonder how you think about it in the course of your work–if you’re thinking more in terms of presenting or unfolding, and how time and the viewer’s engagement in time plays into your work?
J: This might not answer your question, OK? There’s a lot happening in the studio that does not get processed as an end result presentation. So there is this end result, and there’s a lot of process that happened before that that’s not being shown. What I do think is important is that for the viewer, there’s a certain kind of realization going on of what they’re looking at. So whether that’s process-based or whether that’s just gimmicky or humor or something else, but I don’t want this to become a magic trick. So, I always try to relate that to art and technology where a good art and technology piece is like you make a move and something happens. There’s this action-reaction.
C: And it becomes a situation where somebody tells you how something works, and you’re like, “Oh, yeah, I understand how that works now, and I don’t need to see the thing?
J: Maybe. To come back to your question again, I do really want you to have an understanding of what happened to the image, but that doesn’t mean it has to be my understanding or what I wanted you to think about it.
K: Some people are very specific about their work, and what’s it’s supposed to evoke. I don’t know if you have that thought, “What is this supposed to convey?” Are you just making things? You have some thought into, “Well, I want it to be this -ish.”
C: You go to something, you go to a work of art, and you expect some experience. Something. It’s going to happen. It’s what we’re cultivated to expect from a work, some grand thing that changes our lives. So the first question we want to know because we’re so results-driven is that we go ask the artist, “So what did you want to give? What was your intention?” All these questions that come from that base thing of, “I want my answers now.”
J: Yeah. This is also where titles come in. I think titles are really an immediate display element where you can give a little direction.
K: In another one of our interviews, another artist said that she had spent a lot of time in her neighborhood going from lot to lot collecting garbage and plants and whatever was there and making a natural dye with it, which is what the colors in her piece were formed from, and I didn’t know that from the show. There’s no indication of that, and I feel like if there’s no communication about all the work you put in, it a little bit devalues the effort you put in.
C: Maybe. It depends on what the effect is. Sometimes you only know that you can create a certain effect because of the steps that you took to get there. It’s a case where, “Does process serve result?” — “Yes.” — “Do you care about the process?” — “No, the result is there.”
J: And the process is also you talking about it. I’m not saying that’s part of the art work, but it’s just an extension of the art work.
C: In the event of somebody being affected by your piece enough, if they want to find out more about what made the piece happen, then yeah, you can totally let stuff out. But personally speaking, I feel my work is mostly accessible not when I say that something needs to happen. You are free to determine whatever you will from a work that I present to you.
J: If the viewer picks up something from it and takes it away, is that an extension of the artwork for you?
C: Kind of. There’s a giving and receiving process, so functionally speaking, you can’t not take something away.
K: But Jeroen, your answer to that question is, “Yes. Take away whatever you want.”
J: Oh yeah, absolutely. But before that happens, I want something that I think is quite beautiful and intriguing enough to show the person.
K: I just think, personally, when I hear that extra story, that extra layer, that you’re calling process, I appreciate that.
J: All that information, you can’t call it the work, though. You need to strip off the work from its main meta data. All the little narratives are not all that important, but they’re still valid.
For more information about Jeroen, check out his website!