Joep Van Lieshout on his controversial examination of the human condition
Joep van Lieshout has been treading the blurry line between art and design since the early 80s. His studio, Atelier Van Lieshout, which he founded in 1995, has created everything from sexually suggestive sculptures to utilitarian office chairs.
Unsurprisingly, his work, sometimes shocking in its frankness, often attracts attention. Most recently he found himself at the centre of a media storm when plans to display his fibreglass sculpture resembling a man penetrating an animal were scrapped by the Louvre at the last minute.
‘It was totally innocent,’ says a baffled Van Lieshout, as he surveys a lamp version of the controversial ‘Domestikator sculpture’. ‘I couldn’t understand the fuss at all, but,’ he adds, ‘I’ve never had so much publicity in my whole life.’
‘Flatpack’ concrete chair, 2016
While the much larger fibreglass sculpture ended up on show at Paris’ Centre Pompidou, the lamp version currently sits in the Carpenters Workshop Gallery in London at his ‘Lust for Life’ show, which opened today.
Here, the Rotterdam-based sculptor’s ponderings on the human condition manifest themselves in lamps and furniture made from cast bronze, concrete and contorted steel.
While the ‘Domestikator’ lamp, he says, is a questioning of what ethical taboos will remain when science and technology can surpass the limits of biology, a series of anthropomorphic cast bronze lamp sculptures explore the inevitable process of aging – an old man with a cane is bent double under one cast bronze diffuser, while a youthful couple in an elegant embrace dance beneath another.
In among the lamps is a brutalist flat pack chair made from blocks of heavy concrete bolted to a steel structure. Nearby a similarly monolithic chair with plywood sides is decorated with tribal carvings.
Most recently, Van Lieshout has been enjoying a more ‘conceptual phase’ in his studio, where he has been exploding gas canisters, contorting steel with hydraulics and dropping anvils into white goods. The result is a series of heavy, butchered metal sculptures and lamps.
The series, he says, is particularly inspired by the early 20th-century Italian Futurists, who were passionate nationalists, anarchists and great admirers of new technologies and violence.
‘In a way our society is in a similar situation now with a lot of technological changes, but also with the incredible popularity of fascism and populism’ explains Van Lieshout. ‘This piece is a statement about design in that you can use not shape or aesthetics or function as a departure point for making, but instead you use the process itself or destruction.’
Next up on his agenda is a ‘24 hours of destruction’ clock – ‘Every minute there will be a new form of destruction,’ he says, ‘hammering, pulling, pushing.’
Despite this fascination for friction, Van Lieshout has a surprisingly positive outlook, concluding, ‘Myself? I am a brutalist optimist.’