CultureCalling: Hedwig Houben

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Hedwig Houben at Spike Island
Image Credit: The Hand, the Eye, It and the Foot, Hedwig Houben Others and I, Spike Island, Bristol. Photographer: Stuart Whipps 
Hedwig Houben at Spike Island

15 November 2016
We take a look at Hedwig Houben’s most recent exhibition which questions why we make things we make and what that tells us about ourselves.
Utilising a range of media including clay sculpture and recorded performances, Dutch artist Hedwig Houben explores her relationship with the artworks she creates. Spike Island’s Others and I questions why we make the things we make and what that tells us about ourselves. What are society’s assumptions, rules and expectations?

Others and I, Hedwig Houben, Spike Island, Bristol. Photographer: Stuart Whipps.

The gallery space is located in the historically industrial heart of Bristol, amidst quays, shipyards and warehouses. A former tea packing factory, this is the perfect setting for Houben’s work. The unpainted plasticine, graphite and plaster used for the sculptures seems raw and blends in with the industrial setting. To one side smaller pieces are positioned on rough, minimalist wooden shelving units, whilst further in the exhibition there is a large grey plasticine car which appears startlingly unfinished.

Spike Island aims to showcase up and coming contemporary artists who have often never exhibited solo before. Annually, they host an ‘Open Studio’ event where resident artists allow the public to see their studios and explore their working environments. The studios are eclectic collections of artworks, unvarnished planks of wood, textile cuttings and feathers. As Houben explores the inner ‘process of making’ and artistic descisions, contextually her work fits in completely.

The Hand, The Eye, It and The Foot, Hedwig Houben, Spike Island, Bristol. Photographer: Stuart Whipps

Others and I is the artist’s first solo exhibition in the UK and displays her works and accompanying films from the last five years. On a table sits a white plaster sculpture of three heads: one sad, one smiling and one emotionless. Plaster dust covers the table-top underneath them and harsh scratches on the faces show they have been vandalised. It is only when you watch the corresponding video lecture performance (Imitator Being Made)that you realise the artist herself has attacked her own pieces with a grater. This strange and often confusing relationship Houben portrays with her own artworks is evocative of the entire exhibition.

Discussing the three heads in the film, Houben gives them all distinct identities: The Being, The Made and The Imitator. In this film, she grates faces of The Made and The Imitator, without a comment on why. The sound of the grater against the plaster is horribly uncomfortable to listen to. It is also extremely strange to see an artist vandalising their own work, particularly when the faces are clearly moulded from the Houben’s own. Disturbingly, she sits slowly stroking the face of The Being whilst describing its characteristics. It is as if she is calming her own work and simultaneously calming herself. She maintains eye contact with the viewer, questioning the issue of Creation and the universe. Houben mentions the belief about creation “by His hands.” Meanwhile, she draws attention to her hands caressing her own creation, placing the role of the sculptor and the artist within this context of Creationism.

Others and I, Hedwig Houben, Spike Island, Bristol. Photographer: Stuart Whipps.

This concept of touch and moulding by hands is a constant theme throughout the exhibition. In all the films her work is extremely tactile with all the art being cradled, destroyed, or moved. Interestingly, we as visitors are told not to touch anything, despite the smoothness of the plasticine being as inviting as it is. Perhaps this is another comment on the artist’s relationship to her work: it is her creation alone, we cannot contribute to it by blemishing its surface.

Other works include smooth plasticine spheres, graphite drawings and handwoven carpet. Houben commented of her own works: “how much do authenticity and originality really matter?” She leaves it up to the viewer to reach a conclusion on how her work stands up in this context. Much goes unexplained and left to individual interpretation, but what is clear is that this is a thoroughly personal collection of work where Houben has questioned her very existence and role as an artist and creator. The work thoroughly thought-provoking if not quite disconcerting. The exhibition, and Spike Island as a whole, is an important moment in contemporary art to understand the relationship to artists’ work and of course to one another.
Hedwig Houben’s Others and I will run from 1st October 2016 till 11thDecember 2016 at Spike Island, 133 Cumberland Road, Bristol BS1 6UX. More information online.

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