Oh Yes, That Serious: Ives Maes In Perspective

"Making art about these things doesn't make me more or less happy, I just think the understanding is important." —Ives Maes

"Are you as serious as you look in the photo you sent me?" I ask Ives Maes over our skype call Berlin-Antwerp, referring to the photo above. "Oh yes, that serious,” he says before letting out a laugh. “No, no, it was after a really intense photo shoot and that was the best one." The man with the sharp look – and deep voice – is a Belgian artist currently living and working in Antwerp. I became attracted to Maes’s work because, as I told him during our interview, I tend to be critical and observant of the world around me and his pieces are always concerned with issues dealing with historical processes and their remains. 

Pursuing a PhD at the University in Ghent, his installation works are a fusion of Photography and Sculpture that display how spaces change through time and their relation to progress. Maes has traveled extensively for the last four years for his project on World Fairs, ​where he's visited the aftermath of these massive events, presents what lingers after their creation and reveals a contrast that dismantles the idea of a modern utopia.​ When the glory fades away, what remains?

Though A Personal Lens

I wonder if the seriousness I sensed in Maes was a consequence of the pessimism I perceived coming from his work. "I just try to have an objective look at the world," he assures me, "And it's not very optimistic. I am a bit serious in that sense – I think it is necessary to deal with that. You can make jokes about it or ironic works of art but you have to deal with some subjects going around in the world because they just can't be ignored. It's not in my nature to make art about nothing." 

Installation view 'The Future of Yesterday', Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, 2012. Photo: Bob Greenspan

Relentlessly, I continue to ask about social awareness, but his reply calms my queries: "I want to make my work; I want to work on myself and my awareness of the world and I want to share that with people in an abstract language. I also avoid to make statements or to point out a certain awareness because then it becomes judgmental – it becomes too closed off for interpretation."

I mention the work of Kai Wiedenhöfer, the photographer currently exhibiting at the East Side Gallery here in Berlin and how his work is focused merely in raising awareness, but not necessarily reaching the big scale. Maes feels similarly: "Art doesn't really change things. I also don't think that is the purpose of art – to have an immediate effect on things. I think it generates some awareness within a limited amount of people. A good example I always use is the singer from Senegal, Youssou N'Dour, who went for the Presidency. He received so many votes he was nearly president. You can see the power of art in events like these".  ​

But what effect could these photographs that show the architectural remains of World Fairs have on people? "What is always more evident is tristesse, nostalgia. This is also a kind of awareness and it is much more open to interpretation. That's enough for me; for people to see where the world is leading to."

Academy of Arts (Interbau, West-Berlin, 1957)  Lambda-print on acrylic, oak, 2008. Photo courtesy of the artist.

However, the artist also photographs architecture that highlights certain historic periods: "In the past years I have photographed very particular buildings because they are tainted with history, not because they are ruins. For example, in Berlin you have the Hansa-Viertel that was the scene for Interbau 57. There are beautiful buildings by Oscar Niemeyer, Le Corbusier, Max Taut, Gropius and so on. They are also living examples of post-war Berlin history."

After being a resident at Künstlerhaus Bethanien for a year, Maes lingered some time in Berlin as a dweller but eventually it became too distracting. It's true: our city can be overwhelming. The artist expressed the necessity of being able to balance exciting surroundings with private time in the studio. The fact that Belgium is a small country means its larger cities (Brussels, Ghent, and Antwerp) are better connected and this provides an interesting platform to travel and interact, whereas the art scene in Berlin is centralized within the city. 

Closing Parade (Shanghai World Expo, 2010) Lambda-print on acrylic, oak. Photo courtesy of the artist.

"Berlin limits you a bit to staying inside the city. And then you find yourself continuously sipping hipster coffee together with hordes of other artists (laughs). There is a big difference between Berlin and other cities like Paris, New York and London. They are introverted; they work with artists that live mainly in the city. They export artists rather than import them. Berlin is the other way, the art world there is a new construction and it is an extrovert construction. They work with artists from outside."

It is somehow a big relief to come across works that still provoke nostalgia, or 'to feel pain for a place'. Like the Paul E'louard poem that begins "Adieu tristesse, bonjour tristesse…," awareness in art is ambivalent: we sometimes cherish the power of being mindful and we sometimes face a certain sadness when coming to terms with it. That space in between saying hello and saying good bye could be thought of as the open interpretation Maes is referring to: lingering for a moment to let the artwork speak for itself.

  • Ives Maes [Price range of works: 5,000 – 20,000 Euros]

Article by Sofía Martinelli