Mark Manders interview: Mind, body and language (2014)

R. J. Preece
artdesigncafé - art | 13 September 2014
This interview was previously published in May 2014 in Sculpture, 33(4), pp.24-9 and was featured on the cover.

Mark Manders: Mind, body and language

“I’ve often heard that it’s very difficult to write about my work,” [said Mark Manders after this interview. After publishing over 300 texts on art, among over 700 others, I had the same experience.] “But I think my work is very clear,” he adds. In business discourse, there’s something called the “sweet spot,” when a product or service is strategically placed in between things and [ends up being a construct for success]. Intentionally or not, Manders appears to have done the same in an art context. While attracting widespread interest, his work has created a framework for varied discussion through a positioning of intuitively constructed visual elements that can be very hard to place. [In my attempt writing about Manders in interview, I chose to explore his depictions of the body and mind, and also through the interview process, try to learn more about his mysticism.]

Mark Manders has exhibited extensively over the past 20 years, beginning [mainly] in his native country of the Netherlands and then expanding across Europe and into the United States. Highlights include his solo presentation at the Dutch Pavilion at the 2013 Venice Biennale, as well as solo shows at the Dallas Museum of Art (2012), the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles (2010), Kunsthaus Zürich (2009), Kunstverein Hannover (2007), BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead (2006), the Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin (2005), the Art Institute of Chicago (2003), and the Staatliche Kunsthalle, Baden Baden (1998), among many others.

[The following are excerpts of my interview with Mark Manders to try to learn more about him and his work.]

R.J. Preece: I’ve recently been considering mindfulness, and I’ve become much more aware of the separation of body and mind through thinking and its physical effects. So, I was very taken by your essay “Why do we have time to think about our bodies?” which was published in the catalogue for the traveling exhibition “The Absence of Mark Manders” (2007).[1] How are you depicting the body and the mind in your installation Mind study (2010–11)?

Mark Manders: For me, that work is related to another work with the same title. I tried to make a work with just a few words— a table, chairs, a figure— very normal words that are related to each other. It’s difficult to capture it with language.

Although it’s made with simple words, it’s very complex. It’s really about balancing, like a balancing trick. It looks extremely fragile, but it’s not. At the same time, it’s peaceful but has tension. I’m really interested in how we deal with this work once it’s here. It’s interesting that it’s very difficult to describe this work. In this sense, it is also an image of the mind, a Mind study.

R.J. Preece: When I see Mind study, I see the separation of body and mind in an abstract way, dealing with the self in relation to the table, suggesting some sort of group meeting or group thought, which as we know is very strong in the Netherlands. And as others have mentioned, there is a melancholy element. Would you agree?

Mark Manders: Yes. The separation of the body and the mind is a very complex thing. After working for so many years, I’ve realized more and more that my work is sort of like a machine, in the same way that language is like a machine. Because we have words, we think in language. We cannot think without language. Humans can invent music, religion, or mindfulness— [I don’t know exactly what it is.]

I think that they’re a way to try to escape language, a way to not think “in language.” As humans, we always have to deal with this language machine. Because I create a few works and push them further and further, my work also becomes like a machine, in a way. I cannot stop, and it tells me what to do.

R.J. Preece: So, you made this, you refined and changed it, and then you decided that you were done with it. [Were you going with feelings about how to balance these elements?]

Mark Manders: [It’s very complex.] In my daily practice, I’m working on many projects at once, and all of these works are growing and changing. Mind study has a very long history. It’s related to Figure with three piles of sand / Composition with three new piles of sand (2010), which is in the collection of the Dallas Museum of Art. This work is also like a balancing trick, with three piles of sand. I take small steps. I’m always thinking about the works and making decisions. But the works also “follow their own rules.”

R.J. Preece: What about Composition with blue? Are you referring to the architecture of Gerrit Rietveld [who designed the Dutch Pavilion] and the paintings of Mondrian?

Mark Manders: Composition with blue would be perfectly placed in the 1920s. Of course, I made it now, and it couldn’t have been made in the 1920s, but it fits exactly. Not just the blue— the whole work is perfect in that period.

R.J. Preece: [I’ll tell you how I kind of see Composition with blue, Composition with short verticals (2010) and Working table (2012-13) with the depiction of a sliced head, and maybe you can respond? Going back to body and mind: you have a depiction of the mind, which is a bit abstract, I don’t know if you are referring to a specific person, and the head is rigidly sliced and put into an order of other things. So the way I kind of see it, you have the mind not free, if you will, it’s structured by all of these “things”. So in a sense, it’s like Mind study. Would you agree with this?]

Mark Manders: I’m more and more interested in the language of verticals, horizontals, and colors. In a composition of verticals, if you make one a little shorter or longer, it becomes totally different. So, I tried to make heads as musical chords. Everything fits, though there are lots of mistakes with these heads, and parts are missing. In a way, they are perfect compositions. For me, the whole composition is a “head,” not just the figurative part. There is a lot of tension, but maybe also peace. And I like that the heads look behind you— or through you. They are part of something that you can never reach.

R.J. Preece: With regard to your analytical position, are you influenced by certain artists or philosophers?

Mark Manders: When I was a teenager, I looked at books on Picasso and Lucas Cranach that influenced me a lot. In a book on Picasso’s later work, what really struck me was that you could see the decision-making process in his paintings— he did this, and then that. I was really fascinated. With Cranach, you cannot see his mind making decisions when he is working. There is one image that you cannot read. What I’m doing now is really a combination of these two things. You always see decisions, like putting this wood there, or you see my hand in the clay. At the same time, it’s a clear image like Cranach’s.

In the second year of art school, I decided to stop reading; I stopped looking at newspapers and stopped watching television. I did this for a few years. I later had an exhibition in a hospital. At eight o’clock, they all watched TV. I was not used to the news anymore, so when something terrible happened, I think in Africa, I was very moved by it. For them, it was strange that the news touched me so much.

Then I started reading again. Nietzche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra made a big impression on me. I was also impressed by Daniel Dennett. But I don’t have much time to read because I spend so much time with my work. It’s a pity because I really like reading.

R.J. Preece: So, your essay “Why do we have time to think about our bodies?” isn’t based on anything you read, just on your intuitive way of putting things together.

Mark Manders: It’s [also] a kind of poetic text. When I finish a work, I write a short text. As an artist, I don’t think I have to say anything about my work— I’m allowed to be an artist— but I think I have to talk about my work. I’m allowed to do what I want to do, and society gives me the space. I think that it’s very natural to be open about my work, but you don’t need my texts in combination with my works.

R.J. Preece: How would you describe the figure in Unfired Clay Figure (2005–06) and the other elements in the construction?

Mark Manders: The small objects arranged on the floor refer to an earlier work, a floor plan of a building with three rooms. Then there are the three chairs and the figure above. In a way, the work relates to Mind study. For me, the three rooms, the three chairs, and the figure are related and like one figure. I wanted to create two moments in one work. With the two pieces of wood, there are almost two moments, a way to create time in one piece.

R.J. Preece: I particularly like Ramble-room chair (2010), probably because I find it rather mysterious. Could you tell me more about the figure, depicted as a realistic head and torso ending in a wooden board, and its positioning in the chair?

Mark Manders: Shadow study (2010) also has a piece of wood. I made an image of a bone around the wood; and on the bone, there is a shadow from a cup. In Ramble-room chair, there is also an image made around the piece of wood. There’s a strange thing about the head and the body, there really isn’t a neck. The angle is near 90 degrees. If you stand in front of it, you cannot look at the figure’s eyes. Because of this, it has a peaceful and vulnerable quality.

R.J. Preece: You sometimes remove limbs from your figures. Are they structurally unnecessary for the form?

Mark Manders: There are different reasons. In this case, it feels very natural that the figure is without arms and legs. In a way, it feels “complete.” But without arms, the figure is also extremely vulnerable. It cannot help itself in this environment. Imagine this figure with arms: it would be terrible.

R.J. Preece: If you added arms, you’d have to change the whole piece, wouldn’t you?

Mark Manders: Yes, it would have to be something totally different. I really like how it feels so natural and very complete. The head pieces also feel very complete, even though there is only one slice of a face there.

R.J. Preece: How do you see language, particularly with regard to Finished sentence (1998–2006)?

Mark Manders: This started when I read some of Franz Kafka’s stories— I was so jealous of him. When I make a work or an exhibition, I cannot control what people think or what they see first. But when you write a book, you can direct the reader’s thoughts. So, I wanted to make a work with real objects, and I wanted to “write” with objects. I went to a supermarket to look for the best “writing” materials. I decided to try to write a word, though not really a word, with teabags. I took five teabags and tried to find the best possible way to arrange them so that they tried to say something. Later, this group of teabags became part of a thing called Finished sentence. I attached them to an iron structure, which kind of looks like a machine or musical instrument.

[R.J. Preece: Would you say that this Kafkaesque, or discussion with Kafka, extends to your other works? Your work does seem a bit Kafka-esque.]

[Mark Manders: There is a kind of relationship of course. Yeah, easily.]

[R.J. Preece: With Finished Sentence, and I think you do this with your other works as well, you put out elements to create language, like all works do, but you really play with that, the distance of it. For example, if took eight artwriters writing on this piece just looking at it, they’d probably come up with eight different things, some similarities, some differences. Are you playing with that, creating an openness, which creates this vagueness about your work?]

[Mark Manders: As an artist, you put things in the world. It doesn’t matter in a way what one person says about it.]

R.J. Preece: You suggested Fox / mouse / belt (1992) as one of the works to discuss in this interview. To what extent does this work relate to the others, or are you trying to stress how you test works by installing them in a supermarket and gauging the reaction?

Mark Manders: I imagine that all of my works are tested in supermarkets, and I’ve been able to test a few pieces in them for real. I also imagined Room with chair and factory, which is now at MoMA, at the IKEA in Ghent. Fox / mouse / belt was exhibited simultaneously at the Dutch pavilion, in a Venice supermarket, and at MoMA. I really liked that this work, which is an edition of three, was exhibited in three different places. The work doesn’t care where it is, though the context changes and the public changes.

R.J. Preece: Your ongoing “self-portrait as a building” project, which features fictional architectural plans, represents a fictional alter ego named “Mark Manders,” who is distinct from the real artist Mark Manders. Has this fictional artist by any chance been present in this interview?

Mark Manders: Yes, about 20 percent of the time.

[1] Manders, Mark. “Why do we have time to think about our bodies?” (2004). In The Absence of Mark Manders (2007). Hatje Cantz, 280 pp. ISBN 3775720316. Catalogue accompanying traveling exhibition, with the same title, at Kunstverein Hannover; Bergen Kunsthall; S.M.A.K, Ghent; and Kunsthaus Zürich (2007-09).

In addition to having an art, design and communications background, R.J. Preece is a former Assistant Editor of English for Specific Purposes: An International Research Journal, which focuses on language acquisition.