Nous faisons corps

Interview by Catherine de Zegher
21 September 2023

Edith Dekyndt, Studio views, August 2023. ‘Ne pas laver le sable jaune,’ Greta Meert September 2023, photo Pierre Henri Leman

A Conversation with Edith Dekyndt

In the run-up to Edith Dekyndt’s new exhibition at Gallery Greta Meert in Brussels, Catherine de Zegher met with the artist. Their conversation explored listening, tuning, materials and cyclical rhythms, agency and resistance, and ultimately the conviviality of humans and nonhumans on earth.

CdZ: Since the very beginning, when I look at your work, I have always been struck by your attention to, sensitivity with and care for materials. Of course, many artists have a relationship with the material world, but yours is dedicated to listening to and hearing each material itself, in the sense that Anni Albers expresses in her writings:

‘How do we choose our specific material, our means of communication? ‘Accidentally.’ Something speaks to us, a sound, a touch, hardness or softness. It catches us and asks us to be formed. We are finding our language, and as we go along, we learn to obey their rules and their limits. We have to obey and adjust to those demands. Ideas flow from it to us and though we feel to be the creator we are involved in a dialogue with our medium. The more subtly we are tuned to our medium, the more inventive our actions will become. Not listening to it ends in failure… What I am trying to get across is that material is a means of communication. That listening to it, not dominating it, makes us truly active, that is: to be active, be passive. The finer tuned we are to it, the closer we come to art.’1

Can you agree with this observation? How would you express it?

1 February 25, 1982. Anni Albers, ‘Material as Metaphor,’ in Anni Albers: Selected Writings on Design (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2001), p. 73. The dates of Anni Albers’ quotes are misleading. Just because some of her writings and interviews appeared later in her life doesn’t mean she did not voice her views earlier on as a teacher in the 1940s and 1950s.

ED: What a coincidence!? I read this sentence by Anni Albers a little over a month ago and made a note of it, because it corresponds so much to the way I approach things myself. It couldn’t be said more accurately than she formulates it. I discovered how Albers conceived of her research quite recently, during the exhibition ‘Black Mountain. Ein interdisziplinäres Experiment 1933–1957’ (2015) at the Hamburger Bahnhof, Berlin. Indeed, don’t look for things; they impose themselves according to the nature of the place, the climate, the plants, the geology or other factors. If I go towards objects or materials, it is because of their nature, form, chemical or physical properties. Their origin will guide me towards the most elementary gesture that these things will invite me to make with them. They guide me towards agencies. I don’t try to know, when I start a dialogue with things, where it will lead. It is like a slow choreography; often repetitive, a mechanical movement, hypnotic, absorbed, concentrated, contemplative. Nous faisons corps — we become ‘body’.

CdZ: Indeed, much of your art corresponds to this minimal, empirical and reciprocal approach with matter — matter that matters — to render visible what remains usually invisible, most notably natural processes in the works created during the development of your exhibitions at Le Consortium in Dijon (2015) and at WIELS in Brussels (2016) —the latter, a beautiful exhibition in relation with the modernist history of the former brewery building and its use of yeast in the manufacture of beer. On small and large canvasses, you experimented, or should I rather say, you empathised with different organic and inorganic substances, such as blood, beer, wine, silver, wool, velvet, flowers, hair and remarkably with earth. 

ED: ‘I put an apple on my table. Then I put myself inside that apple. What a tranquility!’ These words by Henri Michaux from his poem Magie I beautifully describe an inner relation with things. The apple, when it is on the table, is a thing. When I eat it, what does it become? Is it an apple in a body or does it become my body? Our bodies are mostly water, with a microbiota of fifteen to thirty thousand bacteria and microfungi and calcium. We are flora, liquids and stones. Our bodies are situations. We have forgotten what it is like to have a body that grows. By moving away from the ground, we have tended to forget that when we live close to the small, everything is big, infinite. When we spend the first moments of our lives in a domestic universe, between the garden and the kitchen, the kitchen and the chores, we sometimes mix these worlds, as we stay close to the ground while observing the sky, the air, the wind or the sea. That’s where everything came from. All the cells in my body that once made up what we imagine to be ‘me’ have disappeared to make way for others. And yet I continue, albeit in other forms, to make costumes of cloth, to plant potatoes, to bury them, to go and look for them a little later and observe the bluish-red roots that have torn their clothes. I continue to mentally imagine sand constructions based on the way in which the sea will impregnate and then dissolve them. I continue to mix culinary ingredients with fabrics, no doubt because our bodies’ empathy with these potions is more intense than sight, more visceral.

CdZ: Your relation with soil is as visceral as it is inevitable. You show that earth is not inert, while the Anthropocene epoch treats it as inert in order to justify exploiting Earth. In Underground [Le Val Saint Germain] and Underground [Le Marais], you buried a canvas in the soil and then unearthed it to let it become art. Mother Earth is round, and her life is cyclical. How did we evolve from cyclical into linear thinking? Why do we still think in a linear way about progress and growth? I read in your gestural act of burying and unearthing that if we are to survive this century, we need to adapt to the cyclical rhythms of the earth and not force upon it the implacable logic of our failing order. Bruno Latour’s research has been particularly devoted to conceptualising what he calls Gaia, the earth as a ‘political thing,’ interpreted as a forum of interdependency. For if we continue to project ourselves into a future without taking into account the body of the earth and the other bodies on earth, we will perish. Did you want, in this immersive gesture, to focus on the rural and/or cyclical rhythms of Gaia and her gifts? Or can we consider it in relation to your earlier sentence: Nous faisons ‘corps’, we become ‘body’.

ED: In fact, I have been greatly influenced by various thinkers whose positions have contributed to the materialist tradition, from Spinoza’s animism to Deleuze and Guattari’s vitalism, right through to Jane Bennett, who looked at this question of the ‘vague essence’ of matter. What Bennett notes is that Deleuze and Guattari’s insistence on the mobile and slow materiality of objects highlighted their historicity, marked their evolution over time and reconfigured their relation to other things, in a continuous production of agency. But as Bennett points out, while it is easy to recognise the composition of various material parts, it is more difficult to conceive of these materials as living and self-organised than as passive mechanical parts, under the direction of something immaterial like an active soul or spirit.

CdZ: The understanding of the proximity and agency of nonhuman presence marks a passage from ignorance to knowledge to awareness. It reminds me of Nan Shepherd’s book The Living Mountain. As a result of her aimless and sensual exploration of the Cairngorms in Scotland, she observes with precision every crevasse, every smooth rock, every slope with a gap in a hedge, a woody meadow. This is distinctive since literature by men tends to focus on the summit to be reached.

ED: I am not trying to direct people’s consciousness, but some of the elements I use express a kind of ‘solastalgia,’ 2 the existential distress caused by landscapes, objects or places undergoing environmental changes. This is the case, for example, with pieces that have their own cycle, a limited lifespan; or whose deterioration, changes of state or material alterations are an integral part of their existence. I don’t think in terms of ‘projects,’ but rather in terms of ‘accompanying’ the ‘actors’. My way of talking about the environment in which we live serves to highlight the elements, the modes of existence of places, as well as the objects and people who live and have lived there, and all the living things that are at work there. The steady withdrawal of human beings from nonhuman beings has gradually been established as something agreed upon by the West. Romanticism was already a reaction against this separation from plants, animals, mountains, lakes, spirits, etc., which was beginning to be triggered by early forms of industrialisation. As parts of a whole, we are temporary inhabitants of a place that infinitely exceeds us in duration. If we destroy it, it will continue to exist without us, with beings more powerful than us, who have been here for millions of years and will inhabit our ruins.

2 Solastalgia is a concept coined in 2003 by the Australian philosopher Glenn Albrecht, referring to the lived experience of negatively perceived environmental change.

CdZ: Solastalgia is sensed by many among us and seems indeed to be implied in your work, which in its turn induces an ability to respond responsibly to the material world and to alterity, the Other. There is a relationship between the way you handle things and materials, with deep respect and attentive interaction, and the way you connect with people in society. In this sense, the material becomes the social as much as the social can be captured in matter. Nondominance of people, animals and nature equals a desire for non-mastery in the arts that is attuned to daily cycles with tender awareness. I can see that your relational oeuvre materialises the immersive and responsive connection women have to the earth and her reproductive cycles, as you describe it above. In your artist’s mind-set, one is no longer at the centre of dominance over the universe, but simply a partaker of the Earth, her inhabitants and the natural environment. In Manifeste animaliste. Politiser la cause animale (2017), French philosopher Corine Pelluchon takes it even further: ‘Our relationships with animals test our ability to feel the common destiny that links us to other living beings. They also indicate the difficulties we have in accepting otherness. We are at war with ourselves and with each other.’ Do you agree? In light of the ecological crisis of the Anthropocene, it is time to finally overcome the anthropocentrism responsible for justifying human subjects over and against a world of things. Does it also seem to you that a space of resistance is no longer restricted to the city, like in the 1960s and 1970s, but is rather felt off centre in the countryside or on an island?

ED: It seems indeed to us today that patriarchal capitalism has led to a ‘de-subjectivation’ of ‘Others.’ Despite a changing collective consciousness, the objectification of human and nonhuman beings is still an actuality. I try to introduce multiple readings into the pieces or installations by using fairly basic means, and in such a way that everyone can see something singular in them. I try to reveal, to highlight, to make visible as well as to make disappear. Nevertheless, the works are generally the result of an intuitive process that blends the conscious and the unconscious, the material and the immaterial, the pure and the impure, the ignoble and the sublime. I observe, register and create processes of natural transformation and material transcendence, asking questions about ‘down-to-earth’ artistic autonomy. The Organ-installation, for example, which was installed since last year at De Singel in Antwerp, a space where music, dance and architecture meet, is a large vivarium inhabited by a colony of Tineola bisselliella, lepidopterans belonging to the Tineidae family. The metamorphosis cycle of lepidopterans is a phenomenon that engenders three successive life forms and has given them the greatest known resistance in the living world. In the natural environment, these moths, known as clothes moths, are essential for the decomposition of keratin, a fibrous protein found in animal cells. The colony is housed in a sheet of felted animal wool, a constituent of certain human musical instruments, where it is likely to live for several hundred years. The two nuptial songs emitted by the colony’s animals, extremely high vibratory waves, were captured by an ultrasonic recording device sensitive to sounds far removed from those discernible by humans. The title Organ designates both a musical instrument and a part of a living body with a particular function.

CdZ: To end our conversation, can you tell us more about the exhibition at Gallery Greta Meert?

ED: The September exhibition at Gallery Greta Meert took shape during a residency of several weeks this summer in the north of Ibiza. In the second half of the twentieth century, the island of Ibiza was the scene of successive arrivals of countercultural people from all over the world. Spurred on by the Summer of Love movement, hippies came there in the 1960s, particularly to escape the United States’ military involvement in Vietnam. Subsequently, artists and musicians came, and some stayed, leading to its emergence as a unique clubbing venue. The counterculture of the United States is also at the root of new technology movements and groups that formed to build places and situations like Silicon Valley. Some sociologists believe that without the hippy culture of direct and permanent pleasure, the very idea of our everyday technological objects, our personal computers, our smartphones, etc., might never have seen the light of day. Computer technologies were not originally intended to be personal objects, but rather machines for the use of private or public institutions. The fact that some need to return to nature, to craftsmanship (still present on the island), to the collective, to ‘cool’, simultaneously gave rise to a boom in technology reflects the way that past technologies have evolved. This is even more so given that it has led to the emergence of a new form of capitalism. Insofar as I have often simultaneously used natural elements, specific know-how and domestic technological objects such as laptops, video headsets and drones, these observations make me wonder about the way in which we situate ourselves and how we create new forms of encounters, uses and creations in the twenty-first century. Ne pas laver le sable jaune (‘Don’t wash the yellow sand’) features assemblages of natural elements such as wood, earth, textiles and plants, and pieces produced in collaboration with the UNFOLD studio run by Claire Warnier and Dries Verbruggen, an experimental Antwerp-based studio engaged in researching three-dimensional printing. This technique, which some believe could represent a new form of self-empowerment for the citizen vis-à-vis the mass retailer (although this is of course open to debate, particularly in terms of access to these technologies) has the particularity, in the case of the projects produced, of creating unique things whose genesis is intuitive, empirical and entropic, but which nonetheless require close collaboration in terms of geometry and physics. The fact that three-dimensional structures are formed by juxtaposing threads resembles crochet, knitting and lace work, among other things.