1. You are living close to the Irish Sea in Ireland, together
with your two sons. How important is this place for you ?
The place where I live means everything to me. I create my artwork with materials that I „borrow“from my surroundings. I live on an island, where the climate can be very rough in winter but beautiful in summer. I live a quiet and isolated life, but I do not feel lonely or monastic. I am a
social animal, therefore I meet up daily, with the mermaids, a group of local women. We do a seaswim every day all year around, by storm, snow or sunshine. At the same time I can very well be alone. I need this loneliness to create my work; my writing, my drawings and finding new concepts of presentation.
2. Your career started in the eighties in Antwerp/Belgium.
When and how did you decided to become an artist?
When I was fourteen years old I wanted to become a vet, because I love animals, or an artist. Getting older it became clear that I preferred to be an outsider. I was choosing a tough life. After art school, in order to survive, I found a job as a graphic designer for a national newspaper. I earned a
lot of money during that time. I got to the point where I needed to liberate myself from that capitalistic attitude and become a free person. I wanted to decide for myself what is good or bad. I wanted to be the owner of my life and my thoughts. So I decided to live the artist’s life.
3. Mostly you work together with other people. Can you describe in a few words how these collaborations function?
Working together is not the best way to describe it. It is more a kind of a permanent dialogue, which is open in all possible directions. I do not want to control. My partners have the
power to continuously interfere. Nothing is fixed, everything is in progress. I prefer to engage in dialogues with very different people, young or old, from different gender and positions in society. There is no difference. I communicate with them on an equal level.
4. With your project the „The Return of the Swallows „ (1999 -2004/Brussels) you engaged yourself in sociological themes. Can you tell us the reasons why you started this specific contextrelated engagement?
The Return of the Swallows was a context related project from the very beginning. I had an exhibition at Etablissement d'en face, called „Shelter„ in 1997 together with Veronika Pot. I moved to Brussels after that. The exhibition was in a neighbourhood called Anneessens, a Brussels district
around the Southstation with a very bad reputation. It made me curious about the people living in it. Communication was difficult in every direction so I started the project by organising auditions for the Anneessens locals. It was a collective process and we created various forms of artistic
expressions like films, performances, drawings, poetry and creative workshops. All these creations would function like a time-based mirror. At the end of the project in 2004 it was clear to me that the inhabitants gained more self-respect also as a community, as they didn’t felt isolated anymore.
They were one among others.
5. Literature and Music have always been a source for inspiration. Would you say that without reading books or listening to music your career would not have exist?
That’s a very possible yes. At the beginning of a new project I take a book out of my library, eight boxes of books that I carry around from one house to the other, and I start to read. If I am lucky, which is a question of trust, I find a quote that inspires me. So I start to work. I always find inspiration in the „Earth World Catalogues“ a kind off pre-internet order guide with an alternative ecological and free spirit. As for Music I need it to draw and write. I mostly listen to minimal sounds with a preference for Steve Reich or Philip Glass. I like the repetition.
6. Tell us something about the way you live. What is the first thing you do in the morning? And in the afternoon? And before going to sleep?
In the early morning I split wood for the fire. I like to do that in my bare feet to feel the cold touch of the earth. I then light the fire and feel the house slowly warming up. Then I prepare breakfast for my two sons before they leave to school. Three or four times a day I am beach-combing looking for wood that can be used to make my art pieces. If there’s been a storm over the sea, there is a lot to collect and I call my friends, the Mermaids, to help. I have a ritual for the evening: I put on a candle and think of somebody that I know, a friend, my brother, a related artist and I send them energy, so to say. In the evening I work with my „Pyrographer„ to create drawings on wood and listen to music.
7. Obviously nature is of great importance for you. What in nature precisely would you say inspires you as an artist the most?
Everything !!! I love the power of transformation which can be found so brilliantly in the cycle of the four seasons and the principle of rebirthing. Life is an opportunity for us human beings to be in a permanent state of transformation. Most of us are afraid to get into this turmoil of emotions and challenges. But if I learned one thing in my life then it is this: one has to trust the primitive source of energy, in dutch called‚ ‚Oerkracht‘. I accept transformation as the most
important part of my life.
8. Let's talk about your piece at the Belgian coast in Middelkerke. You named it „Windswept„. Why?
The Wind in Ireland can be very strong. I learned to live with it and to respect its power. These strong sea winds blow everything away that is not heavy enough. Certain vegetation has developed a way to resist. Others have not. For that reason you can not find many trees in our sea-landscape and those who survive have been sculpted by the wind and bend over.
„Windswept„ stands for a specific moment in time where life and death cross each other. I present an accumulation of different parts of trees that have died already once and they have been brought back to me by the sea as Driftwood. The stormy winds have brought them to me. It is the recycling of nature.
9. In your latest work you use a lot of this Driftwood. What makes this material so interesting?
From the very beginning of my career I worked with found materials, things people left behind as garbage. You could find me on dumping grounds around Antwerp. I was inspired by what people threw away. Driftwood has the same effect. First of all it is left behind, in this case by the forces of nature. Secondly it presents itself in various shapes and forms. Many locals use it as firewood but I give it a new life as an artwork. Great, isn't it?
10. Transitoriness is an important characteristic of your work.
But at Beaufort you decided to realise for the first time a work in Bronze. Why?
Although the exhibition at Beaufort goes until October’21 and a piece could change in form during the exhibition, the aim is to realise a work that could remain there forever. For this reason, presenting this piece with the original driftwood wasn’t an option. „ Windswept“ has been acquired by the city of Koksijde and is a Monument that will survive and could be visited by future generations, if we are lucky.
11. Can you tell us something more about this specific message, you want to transmit.What do you mean with „if we are lucky“ ?
We live in difficult times. Our relation to nature has been put into question due to Covid19 and Climate Change. What is our response to this? Are we willing to change our attitude or are we waiting for the next deluge and yet again do nothing? There were times that nature protected us. This is not the case any more. We are killing nature to survive. But nature gets out of balance. You can sit on „Windswept „ .It is a kind of bench. A shelter, but it doesn’t protect as the branches are swept in the opposite direction. If it rains, you’d become as wet as a drowned rat. Coming back to the idea of the monument, Windswept is not really a monument in the classical sense of the word. It is more of a warning shield and by its nature, it is ready to disappear if we do not change our
relationship to nature. The sea is not far away, and neither is climate change.
12. Imagine you would have to describe your life in one term. What would this word be?
My mother-tongue calls it „ Koortsig „. I can not find a good translation in English for it which is a pity, but the feeling is conveys is living with total passion, fire and necessity.
Necessity also implies the belief that a work can be made under different circumstances. For „Windsweppt„ I had to count on teamwork. Due to the Covid crisis it was impossible
for me to travel to Belgium to be at the foundry for the „Making-Of „ or assist in its installation on the beach. Nevertheless, the piece found its own way to become reality without my presence but with the help of many others. I am very grateful for that.
Thank you, Els.
This interview took place by Whatsapp between the artist Els Dietvorst living in the countryside nearby the Irish Sea and Erno Vroonen, an independent curator and art historian living in a small village nearby the German Alps, in the Month of April 2021.