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Hedwig Houben

Spike Island, Bristol, UK

In the video documentation of Hedwig Houben’s performance lecture Five Possible Lectures on Six Possibilities for a Sculpture (2013), the artist speaks in two voices: her own and that of a character named ‘the Sculpture’. There is little change in the artist’s breathy, measured delivery to signal the shift between the two identities and, regardless of who is speaking, Houben’s fingers continue to dig into the grey plasticine-topped table in front of her, drawing unexpected colour to the surface. The relationship between thinking and making is played out by the two voices, which never enter into dialogue but nevertheless seem to make contact. The Sculpture is able to observe Houben’s activity at the plasticine table, at first somewhat sceptically (‘Hedwig just copied me’) but, eventually, with growing intimacy and pleasure. (‘This feels amazing. The longer and more she pushes, the warmer it gets.’)

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Hedwig Houben, Five Possible Lectures on Six Possibilities for a Sculpture, 2013, video still, performance lecture. Courtesy: the artist and Galerie Fons Welters, Amsterdam

A pristine version of the plasticine table stands in the space of Houben’s solo exhibition ‘Others and I’. It awaits an invited artist from one of the Spike Island studios, who will reprise the performance, voicing both Houben and the Sculpture. Also in the gallery, positioned as if it might be careering around a corner, an enormous 1:1-scale plasticine model of a Volkswagen Polo waits to be activated by a curator and a visitor in two stagings of Personal Matters and Public Affairs (2015), following Houben’s own performance during the show’s preview in September. Climbing like a motor-show model across the bonnet of the car, the artist narrated the relationship between the automobile and a plasticine ‘portrait’ of her head, which she cradled against her chest. The car and the head were introduced as ‘he’ and ‘she’ but, as the artist paced through the lecture, scratching the vehicle’s surface and crushing the model head into its roof, the identities (and, at points, genders) of both car and head, or, as Houben designates them, ‘the Other’ and ‘I’, merged.

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Hedwig Houben, Personal Matters and Public Affairs, 2015, performance at Spike Island, Bristol, 2016. Courtesy: the artist, Galerie Fons Welters, Amsterdam and Spike Island, Bristol; photograph: Lisa Whiting

Between these large pieces, the remaining characters in Houben’s expanding cast are represented by plaster, plywood and plasticine objects arranged on a modular shelving system. Even the shelving system is a character, listed as ‘the Collector’, who has been introduced as part of Houben’s latest work, The Collector and Its Host (2015). This work requires the gallery invigilators to daily disassemble and re-install the plywood shelves in the space, making decisions in their role as another character, ‘the Host’. The personality of the Host depends on the nature of the institution’s staff (potentially ranging, Houben suggests, from ‘generous and committed’ to ‘lazy and negligent’).

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Hedwig Houben, Imitator Being Made, 2015, plaster. Courtesy: the artist, Galerie Fons Welters, Amsterdam and Spike Island, Bristol; photograph: Stuart Whipps

Alongside the daily activity of The Collector and Its Host (2015), the other works in the exhibition are each presented in three overlapping iterations: a set of hand-written scripts, the live performances and video documentation of previous performances. At intervals, the gallery’s staff, from curators to caretakers, collect a script from the sliding drawer of its plywood vitrine and read aloud. Coincidences of timing mean that the visitor might watch a video of Houben gouging bright streaks from a table while standing in the space next to a version of that table, just as the gallery’s finance manager, reading from the script and playing the parts of both Houben and the Sculpture, begins to speak: ‘Who was I, who am I and who will I be’?

Teasing the malleable overlap between the Host and the hosted, the public and the personal, ‘Others and I’ doesn’t offer any answers to these questions but, as the Sculpture tells us, the longer we stay, the warmer we get.

Holly Corfield Carr is a poet and writer based in Bristol and Cambridge, UK. She received an Eric Gregory Award from the Society of Authors in 2012 and was the winner of the Frieze Writer’s Prize in 2015. 

Issue 184

First published in Issue 184

Jan - Feb 2017
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