PRO­FILE: Artist Saskia Bod­deke.

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“I am driven by let­ting peo­ple un­der­stand how im­por­tant art is. It is as im­por­tant as eat­ing and drink­ing.”

Saskia Bod­deke

The im­mer­sive works of mul­ti­me­dia artist Saskia Bod­deke re­flect her be­lief in the need for deep, emo­tional en­gage­ment in art. It was a pas­sion shared by Matisse’s Rus­sian pa­tron Sergey Shchukin, the sub­ject of Bod­deke’s film in­stal­la­tion in the Mas­ters of mod­ern art from the Her­mitage ex­hi­bi­tion.

At the core, or heart, of the Mas­ters of mod­ern art from the Her­mitage ex­hi­bi­tion is Saskia Bod­deke’s work. Her po­etic film in­stal­la­tion Chtchoukine, Matisse, la Danse et la Musique pays homage to one of the most im­por­tant art pa­trons of the early 20th cen­tury. It tells a story of courage, artis­tic lib­er­a­tion and in­flu­ence.

You are im­mersed. The room is dark, the car­pet green and soft. Or­nate chan­de­liers hang from the ceil­ing. There is a line of blue benches invit­ing you to sit. Five screens, play­ing a com­plex mul­ti­chan­nel story, wrap around you. Rus­sian art col­lec­tor Sergey Shchukin is on the left screen, French painter Henri Matisse on the right. From si­lence come the glassy notes of a vi­o­lin. Avant-garde artists from Rus­sia ap­pear, sym­bol­is­ing sup­pres­sion and pro­hi­bi­tion. Ballet dancers dressed in or­ange – as if hav­ing stepped out of Matisse’s Dance

– bend and sway and swoop. Their slow and rhyth­mic dance mir­rors Matisse’s idea about art: that it should calm you down, pro­vide seren­ity and re­lax­ation.

Now it­er­ated at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Chtchoukine, Matisse, la Danse et la Musique made its first in­car­na­tion at the Fon­da­tion Louis Vuit­ton art and cul­tural cen­tre in Paris. The video, or vis­ual poem, imag­ines the re­la­tion­ship be­tween Matisse and Shchukin. It shows the his­tory of Euro­pean avant­garde art col­lec­tion in Rus­sia, and artists forg­ing new ways of see­ing the world in the late 19th and early 20th cen­turies. When the piece was ini­tially com­mis­sioned, the ex­pec­ta­tion was that Bod­deke would make a doc­u­men­tary. She told the gallery’s cu­ra­tor she in­stead wanted to cre­ate art that ex­plored the re­la­tion­ship be­tween the two men.

We sit to­gether on padded benches in a gallery room, where work­men are un­der­tak­ing fi­nal prepa­ra­tions for the ex­hi­bi­tion. The walls have been painted pale yel­low, the paint­ings hung. On the wall be­hind Bod­deke is Matisse’s Woman on a Ter­race. To her left, Game of Bowls and beyond that, Nymph and Satyr. Bod­deke laughs and smiles and sweeps her hand around to in­di­cate the paint­ings. While peo­ple in Paris were laugh­ing at Matisse, Shchukin recog­nised his tal­ent and sup­ported him, she tells me. The artist would not have had a ca­reer with­out Shchukin. “Art pa­trons, col­lec­tors and phi­lan­thropists who sup­port artists are enor­mously im­por­tant,” she says. “Be­ing an artist is hard work and you earn very lit­tle. You must be a bit crazy to live this life.”

Born in 1854, Shchukin was the son of a pros­per­ous mer­chant who owned one of the largest man­u­fac­tur­ing com­pa­nies in Rus­sia. As a child, Shchukin was skinny and timid, with a se­vere stut­ter and a dis­pro­por­tion­ately large head. He was thought to be des­tined for a short and painful life. But he grew strong, mar­ried, had chil­dren and ran the fam­ily busi­ness in large-scale com­merce.

And he be­gan to ac­quire paint­ings. When he spoke about art, his stut­ter would dis­si­pate. He moved be­tween two worlds: the palaces of pre-rev­o­lu­tion­ary Moscow and the sa­lons and stu­dios of bohemian Paris. At the time, Matisse was yet to be taken se­ri­ously as an artist. His work was con­sid­ered clumsy – fail­ing to con­vey re­al­ity. But Shchukin re­garded Matisse’s work as dar­ing and in­no­va­tive, and col­lected 37 of his paint­ings, along with work by the most in­no­va­tive artists in Europe, fill­ing his pala­tial home in Moscow with the world’s great­est pri­vate col­lec­tion of mod­ern art: the works of Pi­casso, Matisse, Monet, Cézanne, van Gogh and Gau­guin.

Fol­low­ing the sud­den death of his wife, and the deaths by sui­cide of his brother and two sons, Shchukin found so­lace in art, sit­ting in front of paint­ings for hours. It was Shchukin that Matisse thought of when he said, “Art should func­tion as a good arm­chair.” The Rus­sian col­lec­tor opened his home to avant-garde artists, pro­vid­ing the only op­por­tu­nity many Rus­sians had to see Western paint­ings in their full colour.

Bod­deke is a firm be­liever in the civil­is­ing power of art. “I am driven by let­ting peo­ple un­der­stand how im­por­tant art is,” she tells me. “It is as im­por­tant as eat­ing and drink­ing. Art is an ab­so­lute ne­ces­sity; it is a uni­ver­sal thing we share. All over the world, we ex­press our­selves in paint­ing, in mu­sic, in speak­ing, in putting words in an or­der that touch your heart. That is how we recog­nise things. Art makes us civil. Art makes us look – not only at paint­ings, but at other peo­ple. It shows us the beauty in dif­fer­ence.”

Come the rev­o­lu­tion, Shchukin fled Rus­sia and his col­lec­tion was seized by Lenin. In Oc­to­ber 1918, the 258 works were de­clared the prop­erty of the Rus­sian Soviet Fed­er­a­tive So­cial­ist Repub­lic. The paint­ings are now held jointly by the Pushkin Mu­seum in Moscow and St Peters­burg’s Her­mitage.

Pub­lic ac­cess to art is an­other of Bod­deke’s pas­sions. “It is the role of the ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem and the world around to make sure we con­nect to art and artists. It is not the obli­ga­tion of the artist to make sure the work is seen. I don’t know when art is good or bad, but I know the ne­ces­sity of it. Art should be in the world. A lot of young peo­ple can’t see it any­more; they can­not see the frame. You need to re­ally see what is go­ing on. I think what is most im­por­tant is that we are able to see, that we are not blind to it. To view art – to prop­erly see it and see the frame – is to slow down.”

Bod­deke, 56, is a mul­ti­me­dia artist and film­maker. In the Nether­lands she di­rects her own opera pro­duc­tions. She has worked along­side Dario Fo, Peter Stein and Pierre Audi. Work­ing in col­lab­o­ra­tion with her hus­band, the film­maker Peter Green­away, she pro­duces mul­ti­me­dia in­stal­la­tions and per­for­mances that are ex­hib­ited in ma­jor mu­se­ums around the world. Through­out the past two decades she has de­vel­oped a lan­guage em­brac­ing the use of mul­ti­ple screen pro­jec­tions and so­phis­ti­cated com­puter pro­gram­ming. In the on­line vir­tual world Sec­ond Life, Bod­deke is well known for her art in­stal­la­tions and child­like avatars.

Her gallery in­stal­la­tions are im­mer­sive ex­pe­ri­ences. “The sound, smell, the touch of the floor, the light, video… all the lay­ers,” she says. “I lead peo­ple through an emo­tion and let them re­spond to art­works in a dif­fer­ent way. To play with all the lev­els, you can pro­vide fo­cus to the au­di­ence. I use mu­sic like a med­i­ta­tion so that peo­ple calm down and there­fore open up to prop­erly look at things. That in­flu­ences emo­tion and how peo­ple re­late to the work.” She puts car­pet on the floor so the sound is “dense”. She pro­vides benches so you are in­vited to stay and not rush through. In any­thing she does, dance is im­por­tant. Dance is an art form that gives pos­si­bil­ity to cre­ate emo­tion, she says. You may not un­der­stand it, but you can feel it.

When Bod­deke started to make in­stal­la­tions, they were al­ways cred­ited to her fa­mous hus­band. “Peter and I did a lot of work to­gether – he in­flu­ences me and I in­flu­ence him. I got re­ally ir­ri­tated that all the cred­its went to him, so I cre­ated an al­ter ego. I be­gan cre­at­ing art in­stal­la­tions in a dig­i­tal world known for its sex [Sec­ond Life]. But even then, peo­ple still thought they were the creations of Peter.” In the vir­tual world, she could ex­per­i­ment freely and make things as com­plete as pos­si­ble. Cre­at­ing im­mer­sive in­stal­la­tions in that on­line world made her re­alise it was the di­rec­tion she wanted to take with art in real life. “Peter made in­stal­la­tions but they were not im­mer­sive enough for me. If I had never en­tered that world, I would not have done the work here. First I make my in­stal­la­tions in the dig­i­tal world and then we copy them to the real world.”

Bod­deke says she and Green­away work well to­gether, with “ex­tra­or­di­nary trust and re­spect” for one an­other. To­gether, they find ideas and con­cepts. He writes her text and is open to the changes she makes. “But I find it dif­fi­cult the mo­ment the work goes pub­lic. When the work goes out­side, peo­ple do not see me – they only see him. Ev­ery open­ing night is very bruis­ing for me. Peo­ple write about him. I also want to be seen – I want to be recog­nised for the work I am do­ing. If Peter is next to me, I re­ally disappear. It’s not al­ways nice to be the wife of a fa­mous artist. Some­times, it’s ter­ri­ble… es­pe­cially if you want to be seen as well.”

Last year she made the The Green­away Al­pha­bet, an in­ti­mate doc­u­men­tary about her hus­band and the cou­ple’s teenage daugh­ter, Zoë (Pip). Through the use of the al­pha­bet (A for art and autism, L for love, through to X for exit) the doc­u­men­tary ex­plores Peter Green­away’s autism and the close re­la­tion­ship he shares with his daugh­ter. “As he is age­ing the autism is more ap­par­ent. When he was younger, he could dis­guise it more eas­ily,” Bod­deke tells me. “Our daugh­ter could con­nect with him from a very young age. He trained her to look at art post­cards and taught her the dif­fer­ent move­ments and artists. I filmed a lot of it my­self. I chose to call it

The Green­away Al­pha­bet be­cause Peter is very much a per­son of sys­tems. It was also for me, to ex­press my love for him and her.”

To make art, Bod­deke needs to feel some­thing, or “smell” some­thing. She be­gins with a space, an idea or a theme. She tries to feel the space or see the space. With a min­i­mal amount of re­search, she writes her first as­so­ci­a­tions down and be­gins to de­vise a con­cept. Too much re­search, she says, kills her cre­ativ­ity – she trusts her in­stinct. She says she then asks ques­tions of her­self, does re­search and, then, “things fall into place”. Each time she cre­ates art, she says, “I am search­ing for the edge, ask­ing my­self, how far can I go?”

“I think you should read a lot, know your holy books and know your his­tory. You should have a back­pack full of knowl­edge so as­so­ci­a­tions can come out of it. The con­cepts be­come sharper each time. Art is the only way to ex­press my­self. I would not live any­more if I could not do my work. I am in love when I make my work. I see this in other artists, too. Peter is ob­sessed. He is al­ways paint­ing… al­ways writ­ing.”

From an early age she knew she wanted to be an artist. She grew up in Cas­tricum, a small sea­side vil­lage in the Nether­lands, and left home at 15. She wanted to be­come a sculp­tor but didn’t have any money, and she was re­jected by the art academy in Amsterdam. A lo­cal maths teacher en­cour­aged her to study so­ci­ol­ogy, and gave her an al­lowance on the con­di­tion Bod­deke stayed in the vil­lage. She un­der­took the course, but ap­plied for theatre school in Amsterdam to be­come a direc­tor and was ac­cepted. All along, she thought they would find out she was a fraud and would kick her out. They didn’t.

When she was or­gan­is­ing a theatre fes­ti­val, Bod­deke came into con­tact with the Dutch Na­tional Opera. They gave her a job as “the as­sis­tant of the as­sis­tant of the as­sis­tant”. She says she be­came fas­ci­nated by the pos­si­bil­i­ties of the set – the orches­tra, the lights and sound, the singers and phys­i­cal­ity of singers, the cho­rus – and be­gan to make art. As a young per­son, she got to work with Pierre Audi, the na­tional opera’s long­stand­ing direc­tor.

Audi – who re­tired in Septem­ber af­ter 30 years at the helm – has had the most sig­nif­i­cant in­flu­ence on her ca­reer, Bod­deke says. From him she learnt about artist and stage col­lab­o­ra­tion, and about the per­sis­tence of per­fec­tion. She learnt that if some­thing is not help­ing the art, she should take it out. “I got that from him: use only what you need to tell the story and don’t be afraid to kill your dar­lings,” she tells me. “That is how I get clar­ity in my art. For me, that is very im­por­tant. I am an in­tu­itive

• cre­ator … That is how emo­tion comes into my work.”

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