A little while ago we met up with Belgian artist Rinus Van de Velde at Kromus+Zink Gallery in Berlin, just a few days before the opening of his first solo show in the German capital. The Antwerp native, known for his mesmerizing charcoal drawings, created a compelling exhibition telling the fictional story of a hallucinating artist stranded on a lonely island. We had a chat with Rinus about his Berlin adventures, destroyed drawings and awkward fashion shoots.
Your very first gallery was not a Belgian one but Kromus+Zink in Berlin. How did that happen?
In your own country it’s always a very strong statement when you choose which gallery you want to work with. I was certainly not ready to make that choice at the time. Michael from Berlin’s Kromus+Zink came to Antwerp and I directly felt like we had a connection. He’s a super nice guy; I feel good with him and we’re doing good shows. I’m always happy that it was first Germany and then Belgium. It felt like the right thing, I don’t really know why.
What’s your impression of Berlin?
I know the area around the gallery pretty well, Berlin-Mitte. It’s super trendy. It’s actually incredible how many trendy people are walking around here. It looks like the only thing they do is spend time in shops to find the right clothes because they’re perfectly dressed all the time. It’s beautiful to look at. Most of the time I just do the same here and visit a couple of galleries and museums. I’m not this tourist kind of guy. Of course I’ve seen Checkpoint Charlie once but I’m not going to go there again. My friends who came with me to Berlin rented some bikes and really look forward to riding them and discovering the city, but I don’t have this urge at all. I rather stay here in the gallery and talk a bit with the people and look at some books. And I don’t understand why so many artists move to Berlin or New York or L.A.. It must be very hard to get noticed because there are tons of artists. It’s easier to stand out in Belgium.
For this exhibition here in Berlin you’ve integrated an installation in your work for the very first time. What made you do it?
It’s something between a movie set and a sculpture. For a while now I have been making these kind of movie sets which I photograph and then use as a basis for my drawings. Most of the time I just throw the sets away afterwards, but sometimes they were really big, with fake trees and things like that, and I thought it was a bit of a shame to just toss it all out. The end results were just the drawings. With this show I reveal the relationship between the set and my works. There is always this connection between the real and the fake.
You do draw yourself a lot. Is every artist a narcissist?
Everybody is a bit of a narcissist. Like when you take a picture of a group of people, everybody looks at himself first to check if he’s looking good. But in my work I don’t show myself in the best angle all the time. And the reason I draw myself a lot is that I’m always around. It’s very easy to work with myself, and I like the idea of the fake autobiography. It’s more a kind of Cindy Sherman project. She also uses herself because it’s easy, she doesn’t have to hire a model or anything. It’s just a very pragmatic way of working. I’m in my studio and the photographer comes and instead of directing somebody and saying ‘you should stand like this’ I just stand there myself. It also started out like this because as a young artist you can’t afford to hire anybody. And it’s a very satisfying feeling to go outside of yourself and have a look at yourself from above. That’s why it’s such a pleasant feeling to look at pictures of yourself from your youth. It’s a very natural thing.
Are you ever afraid viewers will not interpret your works in the right way?
I can’t walk around and hold everybody’s hand all the time and explain what my works are about. I guess that’s also a bit the job of the gallery and the press. I don’t want to be bothered too much with thinking about possible interpretations. That’s why I also write a text on my drawings, to already close the space for interpretation a bit and give some kind of guideline. I also do that for myself, to know what place a particular work has in the overall story.
The texts on your works are written by a friend of yours. How does that work? He proposes you something, or you tell him exactly what you want?
Koen, who writes the texts for my drawings, knows me extremely well. He has done this for a very long time and knows every single work I’ve ever made. That’s why he’s able to write a text which I immediately like most of the time. Sometimes I make a few changes. Before we always talk about the general idea of the text and which tone it should have. I know Koen for 10 years now. His girlfriend studied with me. I met him through her at a party and he told me he read Ulysses from James Joyce three times, which really impressed me. We became really good friends and since then I basically see him every day. He’s also an excellent cook. I really enjoy these kind of collaborations among friends. With Mark who is taking the pictures it’s the same: he is a guy I know since I’m 16, so it all feels very natural. I don’t want it to feel like a company or that I’m the boss and have to say “at 9 am we start”. I don’t like to work that way. It’s more like a community. It’s also nice that they came with me to Berlin to help me with everything.
You seem well-surrounded, but the exhibition evolves around a lonely artist. Is that something you can identify with?
No, not at all! It’s the exact opposite. It’s this fake autobiography. I often put my fears in my works. Here it’s the fear of loneliness of, hallucinations, a psychosis.
Have you ever thought about using colour?
Actually I started out with colour drawings. In the beginning I made these really small works with colour pencils. But then I wanted the drawings to become more autonomous. And one way to do this is to enlarge the scale. When you move up to a bigger size it’s very difficult to work with colour pencils. It looks very boring in a way and it takes forever to fill an entire space on your paper with colour pencils. I like the fastness of charcoal, something that is much underrated in making art. You have to think about how quick you can make something sometimes.
Because there are already buyers waiting?
No, that’s just about my personal feelings, my character. I’m not patient enough to work on one drawing for a whole month. Drawing is a medium where you can’t hide your mistakes. You can’t overpaint them. So you make a lot of them and then choose the best ones. It has this kind of rhythm in it already.
So sometimes it happens that it goes so wrong that you start over?
It happens pretty often. There are bad mistakes and good mistakes. A bad mistake you destroy. In every work there is some kind of mistake, but you learn how to love them. In the end it’s the mistakes that give you the energy to make another drawing because you’re always in search of the perfect one, the one without mistakes. It of course doesn’t exist but you’re looking for it anyway.
There’s quite a buzz going on around you, you’ve even participated in fashion shoots. How do you feel about all that?
This fashion shoot for example was a total coincidence. A photographer whom I knew proposed to shoot me for an article about artists. It wasn’t purely fashion. And it was a nice experience because I like him and his boyfriend who’s a stylist. But then people from L’Officiel magazine saw it and asked me for an interview and a shoot. I am a bit interested in how these things work, so I went to Paris for a clothes fitting. The important thing was the interview, where I could talk about my work. But then they put me on the cover and from the outside it looks like I’m modelling, which is really not the case. It’s very important to me that my work is the focus. I’m rather in my studio than in a fitting room where I feel a bit awkward.
You’ve already achieved quite a lot – what are your future goals and dreams?
Of course I dream of showing in certain museums, the typical clichés, like everybody. In the beginning you worry a bit about if you will ever have the chance to show your work, but then there comes the moment when you know that you will. So now I’m more busy with thinking about how I can develop my work in an interesting way. Especially when a project like this here is over. There are so many options: I could concentrate more on how to present something, work more on the story I want to tell, or change something about the formal aspect, like trying color. When a show is installed and it’s all over, I like to go back to my studio as soon as possible and try new things and see what works best. These moments are always interesting times. Once you’ve decided ‘this is the way I want to continue’, you have something to strongly focus on again for about half a year and really develop it. And then there’s the next show and afterwards again this point of freedom and positive confusion.