He’s on fire

Guido van der Werve has walked on ice, been hit by a car and com­pleted a 1,000km triathlon for Chopin – all in the name of art. He talks to John-Paul Stonard

The Guardian - Review - - Arts -

When I called the artist Guido van der Werve last year to ar­range a meet­ing, Pauline Por­trait, his stu­dio man­ager, told me he was re­cov­er­ing from a se­ri­ous bi­cy­cle ac­ci­dent that had left him with grave in­juries. I met with Van der Werve some months later in his stu­dio in Pren­zlauer­berg, Ber­lin, and talked about his work as a film-maker, and the af­ter­math of the ac­ci­dent. It had been a close call – doc­tors said it was only his very strong con­sti­tu­tion, built up through marathons and triathlons, that had got him through. You could say he had been saved by art.

For more than a decade Van der Werve, now 40, has been mak­ing films based on ex­treme phys­i­cal en­durance and skill, in­volv­ing climb­ing, cy­cling, swim­ming and run­ning. He com­bines th­ese with mu­sic that he com­poses, and of­ten per­forms, pay­ing trib­ute to the Ro­man­tic com­posers he ad­mires. He is by his own ad­mis­sion a ro­man­tic, but a rather mad one, un­der­cut­ting the ex­is­ten­tial se­ri­ous­ness of his work with an off­beat hu­mour of­ten veer­ing into ab­sur­dity.

We sit around a com­puter screen and watch one of his first films, Num­mer Twee, Just Be­cause I’m Stand­ing Here Doesn’t Mean I Want To (all his works are num­bered in Dutch and sub­ti­tled in English), made in 2003 while he was a stu­dent at the Ger­rit Ri­etveld Academie in Am­s­ter­dam. It shows Van der Werve walk­ing back­wards into the sub­ur­ban street in front of his child­hood home, be­fore be­ing knocked down with some force by a car. Bal­leri­nas ap­pear from the back of a po­lice van and dance around his in­ert body to Corelli’s Christ­mas Con­certo.

“It was very strange, con­sid­er­ing what has hap­pened,” Van der Werve says grin­ning, typ­i­cally dead­pan. He wore pro­tec­tion on his leg, he ex­plains, and con­sulted a stunt­man, who told him to lean away from the car, putting his weight on the other leg – that way he would bounce over it rather than get­ting dragged un­der.

Van der Werve is not the first artist to sub­ject him­self to of­ten vi­o­lent phys­i­cal test­ing in the name of art, us­ing his own body as an artis­tic medium. Dur­ing the 1970s the Amer­i­can artist Chris Bur­den had him­self shot with a .22 cal­i­bre ri­fle, and nailed to the bon­net of a Volk­swa­gen. The Dutch artist Bas Jan Ader was lost at sea in 1975, try­ing to cross the At­lantic in a tiny one-man ves­sel. But no other artist has pur­sued the idea with such a sense of the epic. For Num­mer Ne­gen, the Day I Didn’t Turn With the World (2007) Van der Werve stood still for 24 hours on the ge­o­graph­i­cal north pole, shuf­fling slowly, ro­tat­ing in a cir­cle as the world re­volved the other way – an­ti­clock­wise – be­neath him. The film is shot in time­lapse, com­pressed into eight min­utes or so, show­ing him jerk­ing about, try­ing to keep warm. He used the same meth­ods as the guards at Buck­ing­ham Palace, he says, and lis­tened to au­dio­books to help beat the bore­dom. Even more spec­tac­u­lar was his Num­mer Acht. Ev­ery­thing Is Go­ing to Be Al­right, in which he was filmed walk­ing alone on sea ice in the north­ern­most part of the Baltic Sea, fol­lowed by a vast ship, break­ing through the ice with a ter­ri­ble creak­ing and shat­ter­ing sound. Num­mer Acht was the per­for­mance art equiv­a­lent of Cas­par David Friedrich, up­dated for an age of en­vi­ron­men­tal apoc­a­lypse.

Art is al­ways in some way about test­ing lim­its, risk­ing fail­ure. For Num­mer Der­tien, Emo­tional Poverty in Three Effugium Van der Werve at­tempted to climb Mount Aconcagua in Ar­gentina, as a pre­lude to climb­ing Mount Ever­est – for art. “I al­most died,” he says, “it was just very hard and I found my­self at a height where hu­man be­ings shouldn’t be in the first place.” He de­cided not to climb Ever­est af­ter all.

In an­other film he runs for 12 hours around the hol­i­day house he and the artist Jo­hanna Ke­tola, his girl­friend, own in Fin­land. The film is one shot last­ing 12 hours. “Some guy in New York watched the film all the way through,” he says, both im­pressed and be­mused. We fast for­ward to the fi­nal few min­utes, where he dis­ap­pears be­hind the house for a long time, be­fore emerg­ing slowly, drag­ging his legs. An­other epic run is the “ul­tra­ma­rathon” he has com­pleted an­nu­ally since 2010, 33 miles from New York City up to Rach­mani­nov’s grave in the small upstate town of Val­halla. He car­ries a bunch of chamomiles – the na­tional flower of Rus­sia, he ex­plains – to place in trib­ute.

Last year’s run was can­celled, nat­u­rally, but he hopes to be fit enough to restart the tra­di­tion next year. He goes to the re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion cen­tre ev­ery day from nine un­til three. “We’re re­ally fo­cused on the present mo­ment,” Ke­tola says, sit­ting close by, “our sense of time has changed.” A cou­ple of months ago, she adds, they ran 10km for the first time since the ac­ci­dent. He clocks up 100km daily on the fixed bike he rides in the stu­dio, he tells me, on whose frame he has in­scribed, in English, a ver­sion he once read of Chopin’s last words: “I don’t feel the pain any more.”

Van der Werve’s ob­ses­sion with Chopin – the master, as he puts it, of ab­stract­ing emo­tion into the 12 notes of the scale – is at the heart of his 2012 film Num­mer Veer­teen: Home . It is his most com­pli­cated film to date, in­volv­ing a 1,000 mile triathlon, swim­ming, cy­cling and run­ning from War­saw, where Chopin’s heart is pre­served, to Père Lachaise ceme­tery in Paris, where his body is buried. Chopin left Poland at the age of 20 for a mu­si­cal tour and never re­turned: he died in Paris aged 38. His sis­ter, ful­fill­ing his will, had the grisly task of trans­port­ing his heart back to the land of his birth. Van der Werve in­ter­twines his “Chopin Heart and Body” triathlon with scenes based on mem­o­ries of his own child­hood in the Nether­lands, as well as a nar­ra­tive about Alexan­der the Great, shot in lo­ca­tions on the cam­paign that took the Mace­do­nian leader to the Beas River in the Pun­jab, where in 326BC he was forced to turn back, dy­ing in Baby­lon be­fore he reached home. The struc­ture for the film is pro­vided by the 12 sec­tions of the re­quiem Van der Werve

It’s dif­fi­cult not to be se­duced by the film – the in­tensely per­sonal quest, bizarre sce­nar­ios and his pres­ence

com­posed for it, per­formed by an orches­tra and choir who pop up at var­i­ous lo­ca­tions through­out the film.

The mood is one of melan­choly and ex­is­ten­tial striv­ing, leav­ened by a strong sense of the ab­surd. The film opens with Van der Werve, in wet­suit and gog­gles, play­ing the open­ing bars of his com­po­si­tion on a pi­ano in the Church of the Holy Cross in War­saw. The orches­tra pick up the theme, and he wan­ders out to be­gin his epic jour­ney, swim­ming off down the Vis­tula. In a later move­ment the orches­tra, play­ing in a park, re­main in­dif­fer­ent as Van der Werve walks by on fire. He re­turns to his fam­ily home to find it crammed with the mu­si­cians, and is then winched and dan­gled, like a fig­ure in a Magritte paint­ing, in the air over the roof by a crane. His mother and girl­friend meet him along the way, help­ing him on and off the triathlon bike, look­ing help­less in the face of his ob­ses­sive quest. He fi­nally ar­rives ex­hausted at the church of La Madeleine in Paris, tak­ing a seat to lis­ten to the fi­nal act of his re­quiem, be­fore hob­bling to Chopin’s grave.

It is a madly ro­man­tic film, and I’m one of many view­ers who have found it dif­fi­cult not to be se­duced. The in­tensely per­sonal na­ture of the quest, the strange and of­ten bizarre sce­nar­ios, and Van der Werve’s strangely self-ef­fac­ing pres­ence spool you in. The sub­ject is the idea of home, and not be­ing able to get there, but also the des­o­late scenery of the north­ern plains of Europe: the river­scapes and road­scapes, post­war hous­ing es­tates and in­dus­trial build­ings that seem so char­ac­ter­less com­pared with the romance and hero­ism of the past, the lives and sto­ries of Chopin and Alexan­der the Great. The theme of ex­ile, jour­neys and his­tor­i­cal rem­i­nis­cence bring Num­mer Vier­teen into the or­bit of the writings of WG Se­bald, whose books such as The Rings of Saturn and Auster­litz have a sim­i­lar com­bi­na­tion of the melan­choly and the strange.

We watch some of Van der Werve’s most re­cent film, Num­mer Zestien, the Present Mo­ment, made in 2015 and shown at the Luhring Au­gus­tine Gallery in New York in the months be­fore his ac­ci­dent. It is the first of his films shot in a stu­dio, and in which he does not ap­pear, fea­tur­ing rather groups of peo­ple, some of them un­clothed, in­structed by a mind­ful­ness ther­a­pist and a Dutch porn film di­rec­tor. The film pro­gresses slowly in 12 parts, each de­ter­mined in some way by an as­tro­log­i­cal sign, and ac­com­pa­nied by mu­sic Van der Werve has writ­ten for pi­anola. It is strange and dis­con­cert­ing, a bleak vi­sion of hu­man life re­duced to pure mech­a­nism. The work was made in re­sponse to his fa­ther’s death in 2013. As with his sports-based works, he says, it was an act of ther­apy. Van der Werve is less sure if it was at all ef­fec­tive – it at least got rid of some frus­tra­tions, he says.

Be­fore I leave, Van der Werve of­fers to play some­thing on the pi­ano. Pauline drifts in and stays a while as he sits to play Chopin’s Rain­drop Pre­lude. He makes a great ef­fort to con­cen­trate, glanc­ing up and down from hands to the mu­sic, clearly still suf­fer­ing the phys­i­cal af­ter ef­fects of the ac­ci­dent. Yet he plays mov­ingly well: the long slow os­ti­nato mid­dle sec­tion, the re­peated low note, the drops of rain sig­ni­fy­ing, some say, the dead in the Pol­ish-Rus­sian war; and then the fi­nal sun­shine mod­u­la­tion, the re­turn to a ma­jor key and a feel­ing of op­ti­mism anew.

Guido Van der Werve’s work ap­pears in an ex­hi­bi­tion, Me­lan­cho­lia – A Se­bald Vari­a­tion at Som­er­set House, Lon­don WC2, from Thurs­day to 10 De­cem­ber, cocu­rated by John-Paul Stonard. som­er­set­house.org.uk.

an ffling ar art ow la Y ▼ From left, Num­mer Twee, Just Be­cause I’m Stand­ing Here Doesn’t Mean I Want To; the artist; Num­mer Ne­gen, The Day I Didn’t Turn With the World; and Num­mer vier, I Don’t Want to Get In­volved in This, I Don’t Wan’t to Be Part of This, Talk Me Out of It

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