Questioning Beauty: A Conversation with Silvia B.

In the Netherlands, it is common to refer to criminal suspects with the initial of their last name to protect their privacy. Likewise, people with whom one is on casual terms often write their first name and last initial. Silvia B. has chosen her professional name and thus has exploited the duplicity of familiarity and anonymity. In the development of her artistic persona, she provides an insight into the types of contradictions and extremes found in her work. She has founded the smallest museum in the world (Museum Van Nagsael) and has just completed a monumental commission (Ultra). She works with animal and human forms and often merges them in enticing and disturbing ways.

Almost Perfect (detail), 2004. Skin-colored leather on synthetic materials, suture thread, artificial hair, lashes, and eyes, and wooden clogs, 160 x 75
x 30 cm.

Silvia B. was trained in fashion design and sculpture (1983–86) at the Rotterdam Art Academy (now the Willem de Kooning Academy) and is active in the Dutch alternative art scene through her participation in artists’ initiatives such as Het Wilde Weten (The wild knowledge). This collective took over an abandoned monastery, turning it into studio spaces, guest studios, and project spaces for invited artists. In addition to her own projects, Silvia B. organized exhibitions and projects with members of the group.

Silvia B.’s early works focused on site-specific installations. In this interview, she explains how and why her work has evolved into freestanding objects. Her recent works challenge many of
the concepts and canons of beauty and ways of attaining beauty through elective interventions and enhancements, which havebecome common in contemporary Western cultures.

Almost Perfect, 2004. Leather on synthetic materials, suture thread, artificial hair, lashes, and eyes, and wooden clogs, 160 x 75 x 30 cm.

Barbara S. Krulik: What are your hybrids and why do you make them

Silvia B.: I made figures between man and animal, between kid and toy, between sexes and between ages, like Almost Perfect (2004), a skinny teenager. Her skin is sutured together, like some sleek designer cat suit, the stitching more emphatic on her face with its fashionably oversized lips. Her pose is stilted, self-conscious of her budding breasts and tiny penis. I very much like that sort of ambiguity: doubt is a great state of being, the starting point of all thinking. I see it as a sign of the times: room for androgyny in people; new scientific developments like genetic manipulation, cosmetic surgery, and Artificial Intelligence.

BK: Do you see it as anomalous that your works are so meticulously made?

SB: Well, I do want to entice people to come very close to the objects. Therefore, I try to make the sculptures as beautiful as possible. Once I have the viewer’s attention, the next level of sensation can be introduced—the disturbing sensation. The highly crafted aspect of the work keeps it from becoming a joke or a prop. One needs to be very careful with approaching the realm of fancy fair amusement.

On the other hand, I should also be aware of my perfectionism, but I can’t help it, can’t stop myself. I am a control-freak. For example, I wrote in the proposal for Ultra, “She will get a coupe soleil of bird-shit in her hair and her own shadow in rust on the pavement.” A Dutch critic laughed her socks off, because she saw that I didn’t only describe exactly what Ultra would look like when it was finished, but also over time.

BK: Tell me about how the commission for Ultra came about.

SB: It is a one-percent commission: one percent of the building cost is to be spent on commissioned art. In 1997, the City of Groningen asked Richard Deacon to make a proposal for the space. They loved it, but it cost twice the allocated budget. Eventually they started a new round. I was asked to send in my documentation and was invited to compete with Hewald Jongenelis/Sylvie Zijlmans from Amsterdam and Steven Gontarski from London to make a proposal in 2002. Mine was chosen because the committee thought that it would be a strong presence against the architecture. They also liked the fusion of historical and contemporary styles. In the autumn of 2003, we agreed on the final design, and I started making her. In October 2004 she was unveiled. I worked full-time for two years on the whole project

Ultra, 2002–04. Cast iron, polyurethane paint, stainless steel, and Cor-ten steel, 825 x 435 x 1,000 cm.

BK: Do you think a piece of commissioned art should look so fashionable?

SB: Friends thought I should give Ultra an air of timelessness. But I very strongly disagree with them. I love to see the styles of clothes, hair, and posture in ancient and pre-modern sculptures because they tell us so much about humanity’s relation to the world, both physically and spiritually.

BK: There is a 19th-century feeling about her.

SB: It came to me that the fin de siècle phenomena of the past two centuries show a lot of similarities. New technologies were celebrated. Social progress went hand-in-hand with public threats like war and terrorism. Extremes were in vogue in both periods: fascination for freaks of nature, technology, and exotics. Exaggerated forms in clothing were also hot: the “queue de Paris” (overdraping and bustles for dresses) was trendy during both periods—think of contemporary designers such as Vivienne Westwood and Comme des Garçons.

BK: Ultra’s bust resembles porcelain.

SB: Porcelain was a new technology in the West at the end of the 19th century—hence the great popularity of porcelain dolls, with fragile faces and cloth bodies. Today, I love to see tight doll-like faces on the bodies of living older women. The style-clashing eclecticism of the architecture in the project stimulated me. Its parade of forms and color made me think of the carnivals that were popular at the end of the 19th century. As for the practice of exposing freaks: today, anti-beauties are again very attractive, but self-made, like the French performance artist, Orlan, and Marilyn Manson.

She is maybe human, maybe doll. A wink to Gepetto or Pygmalion? Every sculptor must think of Gepetto while making a naturalistic human figure that could possibly start breathing. And, like Pygmalion, one tries to reach perfection to the standards of one’s own reality. But now, in these Photoshop and A.I. days, you can’t know what’s real anyway and that makes it even more exciting.

Les bêtes noires, 2000. Lambskin and human hair on synthetic material, eyelashes, and paint, 2 parts, 84 x 32 x 18 cm. and 90 x 46 x 18 cm.

BK: How does Ultra reflect our time?

SB: We are super-proud of our new technologies and at the same time terrified of them. How could we live without our digital technologies, and wasn’t the millennium new year much more exciting with the threat of the “bug”? So we show off with all of our new extensions (like cell phones and iPods) and expose our prostheses and orthoses (bras, glasses, braces) and at the same time prepare for survival, longing for nature by wearing military outfits, combined with tribal accessories like piercing and tattoos.

Ultra is like a little person: she shows us her corset and crinoline, proudly worn prostheses. The arm extensions are like opera gloves. She has customized her looks so that she really is a giant diva, giving herself a touch of the tribal with the piercing and mocking her greatness with her childish hairpins. I like the fact that imperfection is considered more beautiful now than perfection.

BK: Your sculptures avert or close their eyes.

SB: I do that to give the viewer freedom to gaze. If they were real, you wouldn’t. I also like them to be content with themselves, self-assured, living in their own world, not needing our approval. In Les bêtes noires, the little sisters also have their eyes closed. I like that they deny you all possibility of entrance, they are a unity—everybody else is shut out. Also, in the blackness, the closed eyes help to stress the feeling that you can’t see as you would want to, even if you’re on your knees two inches from them.

BK: You talk about the sculptures as if they were real and had made the choices.

SB: I like to think of them as having their own existence. Do you think that is strange? Do you feel uneasy with it?

BK: So you create an atmosphere of confrontation, disturbance, and uneasiness?

SB: Yes, attraction and repulsion are very important to me. They drove me to my project La vie est si gênante, an installation of an ever-growing collection of animal and insect curiosities in which animal parts are transformed into knick-knacks, fashion accessories, and all manner of paraphernalia. These objects are meant to prettify our homes, but they are actually proof of brutality and cruelty—my “collection of animalities,” as I call it.

I went, literally, hunting in flea markets and felt torn between sensibilities: as a sculptor, I love the sensuality of the animal materials and the craftsmanship, but the little girl in me hates that animals were killed to become ashtrays. The objects come from a time when nobody thought that hunting could lead to extinction—so a nostalgic sweetness surrounds them too. Environmental correctness came later. In most countries, bringing home such souvenirs is forbidden now.

La vie est si gênante, part II, 1998. Ceramic baby faces and found objects, dimensions variable.

BK: Would you say that you make socially engaged art?

I definitely want to make art that is about now, our present day. Usually, I do not make statements. What I do is exhibit my own questions. This collection is a pile of questions about ethics and aesthetics. To add to the indeterminable state that pile brings, I present little baby faces in ceramic without any hierarchy in the collection. They have animal features and sometimes the features of kitchenware. Of course, this is about us not doing such things to our own kind. That is indeed leading the viewer in a certain direction and it makes this project a little different. However, it is more subtle than a demonstration placard. These little sculptures balance on the line between art and kitsch and are very hard to distinguish from the other objects, thus adding again to the aesthetic question-pile.

Museum Van Nagsael, 1995. View of Paul van den Hout’s exhibition “Museum of Weapons of Mass Destruction.”

BK: Why are the hybrids mostly children?

SB: I think that children are more engaging. If I did them in large scale, as adults, they would be more confrontational. As children, the cuteness and innocence conflict more with the aberrant; the viewer’s thoughts and feelings become more disordered. A viewer will behave differently with a child: to try and understand, one literally has to bow or kneel.

BK: You like to work in different scales—a huge head on the street, little children, and a giant diva. Why?

SB: I think that approaching something of another scale makes one more open; one’s prejudgments are on ] hold when something seems to come from another world.

BK: Tell me about the smallest museum.

SB: The museum is famous for being the smallest in the world, scale 1:15, and so is the organization. The museum has no invitations, no openings, and no cash flow. It is, therefore, close to the basics of art: the pleasure of the making, the exhibiting, and the viewing of art. Van Nagsael is open day and night since it is located in a show-window between a vintage clothing shop and a design store.

BK: What do you get out of it?

SB: We are directors. Rolf Engelen, a colleague of mine, rules in the odd months, and I am director in the even months. (Each exhibition’s duration is a whole month; the first of the month is the installation day.) And we satisfy our longing for new ways of showing art and our interest in public space. The museum is half of an artwork in public space that is to be completed anew every month.

BK: Do you see the museum as a work of art?

SB: Yes, since both of us are sculptors, we see the museum as an extension of our separate practices. Engelen’s objects can often be used as furniture or integrated into existing interiors—he likes to provide the space for you to decide how to use them. My interventions in public space used to blend so seamlessly with their surroundings that you would stumble across them almost by chance (before Ultra that is). Museum van Nagsael fuses the two—a space you’re invited to fill, and an art venue for the discerning eye.

Sweet Honey, 2004. Pony fur and human hair on plaster, artificial lashes, eyes, and teeth, and braces, 36 x 44 x 20 cm.

BK: You’ve had a self-effacing quality in your choices about how, where, and what you exhibit.

SB: I’ve made sculptures that integrate so well into their surroundings that you had to discover them. The Museum Van Nagsael is an example. For a small traffic circle, I made a giant bronze head of an old man, sinking into his ruff. Only from one perspective can you see his severe expression. From other points, it is just a bronze ball. And even after discovery, one would think it had been there for ages. In a garden center, I made a shy, 14-foot-high, long-legged child. Covered with creeping plants, it holds itself tight against a tree, completely in its shadow. It really is hiding. And one could say that in the presentation of La vie est si gênante, the ceramic baby sculptures dissolve into the collection too.

Once, in a medieval castle, I organized a large group exhibition. In Cry me a Castle, I tried to make a “solo” exhibition with a collection of borrowed works from other artists. It was intended to express the special castle-feeling, and I did it much better with a collection of works near to my own than I could have done with only my own. I placed the works in atypical locations—rafters, window sills, the dungeon—places where one wouldn’t look for artworks, but where they drew attention to the structure of the castle itself.

BK: Now you make freestanding sculptures. What changed?

SB: I started to make sculptures that didn’t hide. I was fed up with the fact that I never had anything to show when I was asked for a regular exhibition. Because I only made site-specific works, all I had were souvenirs, parts of sculptures that were nothing without the environment. Now, the sculptures have become even more audacious, for instance, opening their eyes. Also I am growing out of the children. Sweet Honey and Almost Perfect are adolescents, and Ultra is a young woman.

BK: Indeed she is, and it isn’t easy to hide her is it?

SB: That’s right, she is a 27-foot-high diva.

BK: How does your background inform your work?

SB: I started out studying fashion at the academy of arts. Fashion trends immediately reflect our feelings on political, social, and religious topics, which is what interests me about them. But I discovered that sculpture was as interesting, and I wanted to combine them. I was impressed and inspired by Oskar Schlemmer’s Triadic Ballet. The combination of the two directions was unusual and not appreciated within the institution of the art academy. I quit after 2.5 years. So, in terms of sculpture, I am almost an autodidact. I tried hard to forget about fashion for years and to be a “serious art person,” because I thought that my background and looks didn’t do me any good at all. Luckily times have changed. I feel free to expose my fascination with trends now. I love all of the extreme accessories that come with them, like muscle cars, strange breeds of cats and dogs, hairstyles for horses, wigs and make-up for men, cosmetic surgery, braces, glasses, cell phones, and socks for iPods. My “collection of animalities” started me in this direction. With all its other qualities, there is also black humor. It opened up possibilities to make art on the edge of fun and reminded me of my pleasure in making Punk outfits when I was 18.

BK: Back to imperfections, beauty, and the human condition.

SB: Like I said before: my art is now very close to Victorian fancy fairs, special-effects props, and Wunderkabinets. I find it exciting to make art so close to entertainment.

BK: And now that Ultra is completed?

SB: I’m embracing my fashion roots and making a line of gloves. I am going to present them on a separate Web site <>; my regular Web site is <>. They are soft sculptures that you can wear, like putting on someone else’s skin with his freckles, hairs, and tattoos.

Barbara S. Krulik has served as Deputy Director of the National Academy of Design, New York, and now lives in Amsterdam, writing on contemporary art and culture.