Folkert De Jong - Interview

Beautiful Decay Magazine
March 20, 2008

Few artists have responded to today's political climate with an aesthetic as eloquent and sharp-tongued as Amsterdam-based sculptor, Folkert De Jong. His large-scale installations and figurative sculpture made from insulation foam are known for their gory subject matter, absurdity, and political satire. In his interview with Beautiful Decay, De Jong discusses the influence of iconic filmmaker Fritz Lang, the checkered past of the foam insulation, and how his work uses comedy and the grotesque to lampoon contemporary politics.

Marc LeBlanc:Your work, along with that of a number of young sculptors, provides a new voice for classical figurative sculpture. While obviously your work is figurative in many respects, to what degree do you consider the history of figurative sculpture in your work?

Folkert de Jong:Figurative sculpture is fascinating me in relation to how an object can become a spiritual embodiment or incarnation. The process of a visual and physical experience that we can have with a recognizable object in a space applies to a vital process in our human nature that is needed to understand what our reality consists of; it is this process that I am particularly interested in, how it can be triggered and manipulated.

ML:While your work certainly draws from the horror of war, installations like The Iceman Cometh (2001) - named after Eugene O’Neill’s undoubtedly political play - work with horror in a different sense, are there other pieces of literature or film that have been influential?

FdJ:Plenty … mostly films, in particular silent movies, Fritz Lang’s Doctor Mabuse (1933) and M (1931) are important source materials. The way Fritz Lang was visualizing his time like a prophecy; he seems to have sensed the change of his time in an apocalyptic universe. The interbellum [period] is a very fascinating era with its explosion of a desperate creativity. Ingmar Bergman is one of my other big inspirations. What touches me are his explorations of the depth of human dilemma, expressed in pure cinematic moments.

ML:There is a nearly violent tactile quality to the materials you use; the polyurethane foam is so chemical and caustic, what made you want to start working with it?

FdJ:The quality of these material lies not only in what they are made for; their enormous insulating quality, but they have as well a great ability of mimicking and replacement, that I first discovered after finishing art school in 1996. I started building stage sets with the same polystyrene, Styrofoam, and polyurethane for the recording of video performances. The stage sets were representing apartments or living rooms, where I recorded snuff-movie-like scenes that I had seen in movies and on Internet. I found out how useful all the Styrofoam compounds can be in building fake walls, furniture, decoration and special effects. Although I still build theatrical scenes with characters, not only the stage set but as well the actors have all been replaced by Styrofoam and polyurethane. I like to show the nakedness of the material as it has become the main carrier of my ideas.

ML:Making your work out of a material whose production is notoriously toxic and associated with rampant and cheap construction, places the nationalism and militarism in your work in a critical and contemporary light. Have you always intended your work to be so frank and to have such strong social relevance?

FdJ:My awareness of the historical background of the materials that I use has certainly a strong impact in the making process of my art. My work is always dealing with the dark side of life. The content and the use of material in my artistic process go hand in hand. The candy and mucus colours are the nature of the materials itself. The combination of those colours creates a certain ambivalence; Tactility and repulsion appear in the work at the same moment.
Back in 1839 a German apothecary called Eduard Simon discovered polystyrene. In the 1930s BASF developed a way to commercially manufacture polystyrene. It found its way in WW II as a floating material in life boats and life rafts, and nowadays is being used as coffee cups other household items and as a building material. Companies like DOW Chemicals, BASF and Owens Corning produce the same product that is made from Erethylene and Benzene, but each manufacturer produces it in a different colour, as a granted trademark. The light but eerie looking foam material is just a small chemical invention of its time compared to other products that came to light in the laboratories of some of these companies in the chemical revolution of the early twentieth century.

ML:Many of your installations also draw on a history of not only figurative sculpture, but a history of public and civic statues and monuments. Are there any works, perhaps in Amsterdam, that have been influential for you? Is there a particular quality you feel this type of work brings to your installations?

FdJ:Monumental sculptures are often physical representations of power with religious, political or economical motives. My interest goes out to these sculptural characteristics in general, historical monuments, either public or civic, are just one part of that. What fascinates me is the actual visualization and demonstration of power. Till the industrialization of the 19th century, art was the only medium to represent power for the people to worship. For me historically the medium of sculpture has always been the ultimate, "Ur"-materialization of power. With the references in my work to these traditions, I want to question the relation and function with history and its relevance and influences of those values on our contemporary world.

ML:The life-sized tableaux, like that in your 2005 solo exhibition Golden Dawn at Peres Projects in LA, have a sharp and devilish dramatic effect that is common in written and performed comedy, is there a specific quality that you feel comedy affords your work?

FdJ:Comedy and humor are strategic means in their role for our acceptance of taboo subjects. What fascinates me most is the human drama; the comedy makes the truth even more painful, gives you a safe distance to the human drama that is taking place and makes you feel positively excited about it in the same time. A shock and awe effect, or sublime emotion; Edmund Burke already described this feeling in 1757: ”The combination of pain, death or the thought of pain or death experienced with certain distance causes the sublime emotion.” Especially the dark satirical twist makes it easier for the viewer to look at the cruelties with a smile.

ML:Considering that your works are in a sense a satire of international politics, capitalism, and perhaps nationalism as well as a ridicule of conservative political values, do you feel there a political mandate for improvement or change in your work?

FdJ:I try as much as possible to adapt my work to circumstances. It is important to reflect something on a deeper fundamental level. Actualities are only the effects of the bigger picture. I want my reflections to emerge from this to a spiritual level. Every artwork brings me closer to an understanding, for me that’s a big improvement.

ML: Each of your installations combine people and artifacts of culture from different historical periods, it's an anachronistic selection. In addition, you also mix pop fictions with traditional histories, what guides you in deciding what to put in and what to leave out?

FdJ: That’s an intuitive but very careful process of selection. I organize my compositions from everything possible to a total complex construction. All melts in the end in a physical and mental energy taken from my source material together in my artwork.

ML: The use of the grotesque in your work melds war atrocities with the fantasy of horror films so cohesively that it's physically disturbing, is their a specific relationship between the two that intrigues you?

FdJ: My interest goes out to the process of how we perceive powerful visualizations. Many dark subjects or representations of human drama can easily become perverse. The element of the grotesque draws the attention beyond perversity, on the heart of the subject, where you can look closer at the motives and as well on the mechanism of perversity.

ML:Also, your most recent solo exhibition at James Cohan Gallery in New York, Les Saltimbanques, has brought a new figure - the harlequin – to your work. As a character found in feudalism, the harlequin has been known as a witless performer, agile in entertainment, but of no intellect. As you have them stacked on oil barrels made from foam, there's an allusion to politicians and other bureaucrats, the harlequin suggests incompetence and ignorance in leadership. Given this outlook, how do you see democracy today, is it no longer functioning?

FdJ:Most important for me in this body of work is the representation of silence, and the moment of spiritual contemplation that the characters express, as if they submit themselves to their burden. For me the reference to Picasso’s painting is vital, as well as to question the position of art, art history and the artist in all times. The harlequin is for me representing anti-leadership; his task is to unmask power structures, to reflect on the true nature of our existence. As an artist, I reflect my experiences; democracy is a word that never comes to my mind as it probably does not exist.