DeNicolai & Provost


    DeNicolai & Provost

    Simona DeNicolai and Ivo Provost are an artist duo living and working in Brussels.

    Form Follows F***tion

    by Bram Van Damme

    “Form follows function was the dictum of High Modernism. (…) As our model of reality has become more layered and less concrete, art has moved increasingly into the realm of form follows fiction.” Jeffrey Deitch – 2002

    In 1919, after the bombing and total destruction of Ypres, Winston Churchill proclaimed that the Commonwealth would preserve the ruins of Ypres in honor of the hundreds of thousands of British dead.
    I should like us to acquire the whole of the ruins of Ypres. No ground is more sacred to the English race, explained Churchill (1).

    Ypres is a provincial city with 30,000 inhabitants on the border of France. In the 14th century Ypres obtained wealth and power through its textile industry, and for the following three hundred years fostered and sustained its medieval heritage. The market square is still dominated by the Cloth Hall, Europe’s biggest, medieval, secular building from the gothic period. The gabled houses from middle ages are still a dominant feature of the city-scape.

    In 1918, after the end of the war, the former inhabitants of Ypres gradually returned to the destroyed site where they lived temporarily in wooden houses as reconstruction sporadically began. The discussions about the resurrection of Ypres, after the trauma of 14-18 did not involve the average citizen but rather local heads of state, the Belgain government, and British generals and diplomats. But the Churchill proposal to aquire all the ruins was unacceptable. The British continued with diplomatic pressure to preserve at least a fragment of the ruins in Honor of their fallen men. Modernist architects and unbanists suggested in vain that the destroyed city was a tabula rasa. They wanted to start afresh, building according to their ideas would help to eliminate the burden of their memories. In the 20s the city found its direction. The former mayor initiated a plan in which the Cloth Hall would be restored to its original medieval design and the British would receive a plot of land at the entrance of the city. There the Britains constructed a grand memorial with the names of more than 54,000 missing soldiers. The Menin Gate was an elegant and diplomatic solution that satisfied the many demands of the concerned parties. The monument held a prominent position in the city while not intruding on the nostalgic reconstruction of the Cloth Hall and the main square.

    Ypres soon became a destination for British veterans and relatives to commemorate the memory of the hundreds of thousands lost. The expanding generations that followed provided a steady increase of visitors to the gate. After its recent remodeling, the war museum in the Cloth Hall, now known as In Flanders’ Fields, received over 300,000 visitors in one year. The residents of Ypres adapted to their new role as inhabitants of a war memorial city, and have since then willingly integrated it into their lives. War tourism represents a real economic power that is visible throughout the whole city.

    *    *    *

    In 2004 I, along the group “More Talent Than Space”, were invited by the cultural center of Ypres to organize a summer project for the west wing and courtyard of the Cloth Hall. These annual summer projects of the Cultural Centre of Ypres are always produced by guest curators with the silent agreement to formulate a counterproposal to the mainstream function of Ypres as a memorial. It’s significant to mention that the show is next door to the In Flanders’ Fields museum and thus provides some of the context. In spite of the historical significance of the city there is still a strong desire for contemporary art exposure. And I believe the role of contemporary art  (in relation to this project) is to address the ambiguity that arises in a city with a multidimensional history. The More Talent Than Space project is titled Tijdelijk Onbewoonbaar Verklaard as a reference to the official notice that is used by city councils to declare a building derelict.

    Half Star Hotel UMFblyzer

    The aforementioned history is not the original context from which the UMFblyzer was born. Its first conception was for the biennial in Turin, curated by Robert Fleck (2). The artists, Simona Denicolai and Ivo Provoost, had planned to open a half star hotel constructed of wooden cabins gathered under a translucent greenhouse-like ceiling. During the exhibition the artists would manage the daily maintenance of the hotel while offering their guests a chance to spend the night in the artwork. In spite of all the preparations the work was not accepted in Turino due to liability issues. The safety of the artist and the guests could not be guaranteed. In Ypres spending the night in the exhibition hall was not an issue.

    After a five year delay the project had a new start. The eleven cabins (one shower, storage space, eight hotel rooms, and a room for the artists) were installed in the courtyard of the Cloth Hall on both sides of the entry to the In Flanders’ Fields museum. The expected scenario for the guests was the following: in the morning one was woken by the bells in the belfry. And looking from bed one could see the tourists on their way to the museum. After a morning shower there was a breakfast with the artists and the other hotel guests with a view of the market square. Planned activities were a video and performance program, two colloquiums, a release party, and a concert.

    This description is quite rudimentary in comparison to the flow events that generated the rush of activities. Instigated by the hotel guests, the organizers and the artists, the initial program of UMFblyzer and Tijdelijk Onbewoonbaar Verklaard expanded and evolved according to the immediate circumstances. The collective productivity was fueled by an intensified perception of the here and now which was in accord with the raison d’être of the UMFblyzer experience. In Ypres the temporary colonization of a strategic spot in the city center created a focal point for materialization of ideas: the hotel was acting like a trickster parasite riding on the larger history of Ypres and the museum.

    In comparison to the Menin Gate one could understand the UMFblyzer hotel as an echo in overdrive. The screening of Jeremy Deller’s The Battle of Orgreave set the tone, interfering and mingling with a general public looking for history with a capitol H (3). The juxtaposition of the film, a meticulous reconstruction of a forgotten union uprising in Great Britain’s social history, with the Menin Gate produced a contrast that was so explicit that both seemed as if they were provocations to the other. There was Margareth Tatcher condemning the mine strikers as ‘the enemy within’ on the one hand and Falkland veterans in tears during the ritual of the Last Post (4) on the other. Detecting and analyzing the fractures in this binary stand, UMFblyzer developed a specific kind of savoir vivre, allowing to stay tuned amidst the disturbing traffic of big themes.

    Also the psycological side effects of occupying the entry road to the museum were envisioned by Simona Denicolai and Ivo Provoost: there was a reciprocal voyeuristic relation between the artist and the public. The direct impact on the visitors should obviously be put into perspective, but there was a certain tension -the game of (not) watching and being watched – which was sporadically broken by backpackers, sent over from the tourist office, looking for an affordable place to sleep, after visiting the town and the museum.

    Ypres was a gas

    The fictional dimension of the war memory of 2005- that is meant to reinforce the political and moral position of Ypres as “an ambassador of peace”- was another local topic that was dissected through UMFblyzer. CNN live was broadcast continually in the hallway of the hotel. On the blackboard next to the television slogans from the turbulent 20th century were recycled: the breaking news items from CNN were combined with quotes like bientôt des ruines pittoresques –a reference to the May 68 student uprisings in Paris – and Ypres was a gas  – after Sid Vicious’ song Belsen was a gas (5). In other words, the model insubordination served as a counterweight to the economic and political interest that represents war memory in Ypres.

    Form Follows Fiction

    Jeffry Deitch organized in 2002 an exhibition about the increasing blurring of art and life under the title Form Follows Fiction (6). He realized that the important artists of the last decade had left the modernist dictum form follows function completely behind in favor of an artistic model in which fiction and reality are constantly interwoven. “Form Follows Function” was the dictum of high Modernism. The mainstream of modern art and architecture was generally based on a material reality. Architecture mirrored function and art revealed the materials from which it was made. As our model of reality has become more layered and less concrete, art has moved increasingly into the realm of “Form Follows Fiction” (7).

    Form follows fiction is more than just a precarious art historical model. If one scrutinizes the relation between fiction and reality today one can only conclude that both are often fundamentally disconnected from each other. Especially in a globalized context fiction seems, in opposition to reality, much more tangible and arresting, and especially easier to understand. In other words, form follows fiction can be interpreted in a very perverse manner. The fact that the justification for the invasion of Iraq was completely fabricated is already a classic example. The lies of George W. Bush and Tony Blair were not a great surprise. Their exposure was the next confirmation of the distrust one should foster as an individual toward global media and politics. “We are very sorry, our intelligence was wrong’ said the White House: ‘We’re reforming our intelligence agencies for the incredibly difficult task of tracking enemy activity — based on information that often comes in small fragments from widely scattered sources, both here and abroad” (8).  Chaos is restored; the hypnotising mantra “If you try hard, you can make your dreams come true … ” temporarily lost its driving force.

    News facts have become by definition, unverifiable. From his imagined autonomy every individual composes a personal value system a la carte. From this value system meanings are generally so flexible that one is not forced to take a stand. The result is a kind of mental cul de sac in which the imagination annihilates effort (9).

    Simona Denicolai and Ivo Provoost try to resist the discouraging effects of this accomplished fact with artistic raids as UMFblyzer. With a contagious pleasure they jump back and forward between a fragile stand of activist excitement and a quasi-fatalistic scepticism towards de (non) artistic context where their practice takes place. The dictum “form follows fiction” essentially serves them as a punching ball, and not as a summary of a politic or artistic strategy. Through the decision to reside during seven weeks in the public space of a city, they obviously create a kind of personal UMFblyzer mythology that can be interpreted as a call for mobilisation – as much for the artists as for the public. Certain anecdotes are indeed eagerly recorded in this manner. But their restlessness also includes that they simultaneously want to send back this fiction to reality – and try to test their mental endurance time and time again.

    Maybe this combination of joy and resistance the most efficient form of subversion. Or – in the words of Yves Klein: “L’art, c’est la santé“.