After graduating from art academies in the Dutch cities of Tilburg and Breda (Fontys and St Joost, respectively), Marjan Teeuwen painted for 12 years before changing direction. ‘I’m not painter,’ she says. ‘I’m a builder.’ A series of one-room installations (2000 to 2005) followed, and in 2008 (surely not coincidentally at the outbreak of the financial crisis) she embarked on a sequence called Verwoest Huizen (English title: Destroyed Houses). With these, she reworks derelict buildings into temporary ruined monuments, removing floors, walls and ceilings and filling them with the stacked detritus of the lives formerly lived there. The series culminated in her treatment of 14 council flats in Amsterdam-North (2014); painstakingly dismantled, they seem to commemorate the demise of the Dutch welfare state. Teeuwen lives in Den Bosch.
How would you describe your work?
Marjan Teeuwen: As architectural sculpture. The buildings I work on become sculptures; I carefully model them into an artistic form.
What process do you use to transform buildings into sculptures?
Mine are intensive works in which all the floors, walls and ceilings of a structure are affected – I systematically destroy them. Then I construct an artistic image using materials from the homes themselves, which I supplement with materials from outside. I use these materials to form stacks, which I arrange to proliferate like a kind of virus throughout the house. On the outside, nothing can be seen of my work. Inside, the once modest homes are transformed into large, monumental spaces. It’s all about the forces of construction and destruction, of decay and growth.
Who else works on these projects?
Apart from myself, a small team that includes a contractor.
How long do they take to complete?
Several months. The 14 flats in Amsterdam-North took us between four and five months. We worked very hard, with enormous speed. In total, about 300 doors and lots of other demolition material had to be lugged inside, all taken from the 210 homes on the site. Control is an important factor during the construction period. We often had about six people in the building. That means a lot of chaos and noise.
How do your works reflect your views on life?
The social context – natural disasters, war and political conflict – is increasingly inescapable for me. In my work, I bring events on the global scale back down to the human dimension.
How do people react to your work?
Interestingly, many visitors who comment refer to the fact that they are being overwhelmed by forces greater than themselves. We are all mortal; we all carry that vulnerability with us. Our nothingness, as experienced while seeing the beauty-in-demolition of the building, is a characteristic of the sublime.
How have personal circumstances influenced your work?
As a small child in a far from harmonious family, I became disabled due to polio. I was hospitalized over and over again. I had to break free. So the artistic process coincides with who I am. Wanting to overcome obstacles has become part of my life and my personality. As a disabled person, I belong to a minority group. This makes me alert to the forces of power and powerlessness, construction and destruction, inclusion and exclusion, flowering and decline.
And you were born shortly after World War II . . .
I was a reconstruction child. Destructive forces dominate the news and usually receive all the attention, whereas constructive powers are often taken for granted, but in my view the two are mutually linked. I agree with Dostoevsky’s conclusion in Notes from the Underground, which goes something like this: Man is equally inclined to build up the world and to destroy it; this polarity is in his genes.
Why did you abandon painting for architectural installations?
In painting, I could not express myself. I have a strong psychological urge to handle things that appear just a little too big. I probably made the choice to go to the max at a very young age, and in 2002 I started making three-dimensional works – more monumental than I would ever have imagined prior to that time. In the process I had to deal with a great deal of resistance, chaos, mess, noise, debris and waste. Thinking big implies that you can fall far as well. Maybe that’s artistic maturity.
Photos courtesy of Marjan Teeuwen and Nouvelles Images Gallery