I had a different title in mind for this book: OUTPUT. The cover was laid out and ready to be published. I felt it came very close to reflecting, for me, how the creative process unfolds. I love to observe, sometimes for hours at a time, people’s behaviour, how colour relates to texture, how structures visually gain or lose strength depending on the light they catch. How similar are the lines that surround us, how the curves of a beautiful body echo the rolling of the sands in the desert, the waves of the sea, a flag in the wind. How associations arise in my brain that I often have no explanation for. You could call all this INPUT. And how differently that input behaves when transposed to a slightly different, parallel universe and time, to a different logic. Safe and recognisable enough to feel comfortable and yet with the certainty that a trompe l’oeil is somehow fooling you. I love it, because it makes you think, makes you tilt your head slightly, makes you look again, scrutinising.
But something was gnawing away at me, as though this title didn’t quite do justice to a hidden, underlying layer of my new work. In deciding on a title, was I moving too quickly? It may have been the right choice to convey the process of externalising thoughts and ideas, yet I seemed to be overlooking an important question. Why this selection? Indeed, why did I create the works I created? Why did that enormous volume of input result in this particular carefully chosen output? What was left behind the filter, and why? That this new work fits into a long-standing search for beauty and authenticity isn’t explanation enough.
I started to find the answer to this question when I visited the Johannes Vermeer exhibition in Amsterdam. 450,000 tickets were sold in no time at all, to people from all over the world. Just a handful of works were on display, the most famous of which we can recall with our eyes closed. Visitors and guides spoke of how ingeniously Vermeer handled light. Justifiably so. Someone wondered aloud what prompted the master to immortalise almost exclusively everyday scenes, and where his choice to work so much with lateral incoming light came from. Whether he himself saw Girl with a Pearl Earring as his magnum opus. Whether he knew The Milkmaid had the potential to become such an iconic image, or that it was only a matter of time before the moderate recognition he received during his lifetime became endless admiration after his death. Whether it would have given him pleasure to know that, after so many centuries, his work would draw hundreds of thousands of people. That last question in particular intrigued me immensely. Had he envisaged a form of personal immortality with his art? That question, that very existential question, I would like to have asked him. I’m willing to bet he would have enjoyed the interest and the idea that, thanks to his paintings, his existence has not been forgotten. For which artist can really claim to disregard either audience or award? Who only wants to serve himself by creating, without affirmation or eternal fame? That urge to tame the temporary is deeply ingrained in many of us. It is said of writers and their books that they remain, of philosophers that they have forever moved a stone in the river, of great minds that their genius will never be forgotten. That yearning for a form of continuation, whatever that form may be, seems to be inseparable from our humanity. And with that insight came the realisation that the inspiration for the works in my new book came from somewhere deeper, that its darkness could not be separated from the fleetingness of life and of shrinking time.
But another question immediately arose: do we mortals not overestimate ourselves? Set against the dimensions of time and space, our presence is no more than a footnote. Will everything that man has produced, and will yet produce, not one day return to dust? That includes the pyramids, the paintings of Johannes Vermeer, and the book that you, dear reader, are holding. Isn’t it liberating to know that nothing is forever, that nothing has to be forever, that we are just passing by? And to know that that’s fine.
EVG, Lamu, 24 April 2023