“I purposely manouevre myself in situations that I am unaccustomed to. I try to avoid hiding behind craft, realising an idea with enthusiasm and an innovative attitude, rather than letting the craft take pole position.” Willehad Eilers is earnest in his pursuit of social experimentation through conceptual art, and his works have engendered complex situations that require us to stop and reconsider some of the idiosyncrasies of modern life that easily escape our notice. Take one of his previous installations, The Unharmonious Dome, as an example: as a reaction against metropolitan governments who attempt to rid the streets of homeless people and drug addicts by playing classical music to make them feel unwelcome and vulgar, he built a temporary refuge within which visitors would be subject to a plethora of unpleasant imagery and sounds. The installation made its rounds of different locations in Amsterdam in 2012, garnering attention from onlookers who were both bemused and curious. Beneath the tongue-in-cheek intention of The Unharmonious Dome, however, is a serious interest in the powerful forces of social conditioning that characterizes Eilers’ other works. How did we come to decide which forms of public behaviour are “morally acceptable”, and why is our comprehension of social decorum almost like second nature to us?
These are questions that were first explored by the late French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, who argued that public life is governed and regulated by a bounded category of activities, dispositions, expectations and tastes known as the habitus. To find our place in any social milieu, we need to know and be able to acquire its habitus, so that we can communicate and interact with other individuals around us. In many ways, Eilers’s multimedia installations confront viewers with the absurdity of our habitus and our judgements of other people’s morality. We all play a role in exerting and maintaining control over society, even if we are unaware of it. Eilers, however, does not leap straight to conclusions about what society deems to be undesirable. Rather, he shuns “fully formulated ‘closed’ stories” in favour of more ambivalent narratives, and waits for his audience to respond.
For instance, he is particularly drawn to the stories of people who typically dwell in the liminal spaces of society: one of his videos features a cagefighter, an amateur erotic model and a German folk music singer. He has a penchant for delving beyond stereotypes to truly gain insight into the lives of real people who have to cope and negotiate with the moral codes that society demands they abide by. As such, his works are not meant to be seen as finished pieces in themselves, but are powerful social agents that elicit conversation and provide him with inspiration to create more art. It is not enough for us to lay eyes upon Eilers’ creative efforts and ponder over them silently and passively; he wants us to react viscerally through our senses rather than purely through intellect and logic. As he states: “It is important to me to touch the spectator beyond an admiration of skill. I want to provide him or her with an image that remains indelible and needs to be dealt with.” All at once, he yanks the carpet of moral superiority from under our feet and urges us to think about how we are complicit in the formation of moral values and social hierarchy.
To refer to Eilers as an artist-ethnographer is not too much of a stretch. Describing his practice as an investigation of the heuristically learnt political and cultural mores that define contemporary society, Eilers gently nudges us towards a poetic realisation of our social selves through his highly performative range of paintings, installations, videos and drawings. Infused with a mischievous, effortless confidence, Eilers’ graffiti-style works offer us anthropological insight into his observations of the flawed human condition and its perpetual evolution. He unflinchingly presents us with images that convey the disposition of the modern individual towards grotesque, even masturbatory obsessions. Underlying his practice is an artistic methodology that recalls the theorist James Clifford’s concept of “ethnographic surrealism”: he assails the quotidian situations that we think are familiar, and renders them unrecognisable. By mounting successive challenges to the hegemonic boundaries of our imagination, Eilers provokes his viewers into directly interacting with his highly unique works, without claiming to represent truth or reality. Much like the fieldworker, Eilers is aware of his own position and subjectivity, but allows himself to recede into the background while his installations take on a life of their own.
Entitled Freizeitgeist (a German term that loosely translates to mean “the spirit of free time”), Eilers’ new installation is part of an ongoing project called “The Plan”. He takes inspiration from the following themes: recreation, escape from the madding crowd, and holiday homes with picturesque gardens. This multimedia installation takes the form of a “travelling home”, and will prompt spectators to engage on a personal level with questions surrounding the trope of the ultimate utopian getaway. In the same vein as his previous works in “The Plan”, Freizeitgeist is interested in the concept of paradise and its diverse connotations. Why is the idea of paradise so pervasive and prevalent when we envision ourselves taking the ideal holiday? Why do we think of leisure time as enjoying as “slice of heaven”, and how is it that “heaven” is such an elusive but alluring experience for most of us? Travel is, of course, intrinsic to the act of going on a holiday, and Eilers adeptly turns our attention to the liminal character of taking time off our everyday routines to simply unwind. Eilers prods us to contemplate the irony of modern life: we have progressed to a point where revelling in quiet repose has become almost unnatural, and relaxation is frequently demonised as the antithesis of hard work and meritorious labour.
Eilers has emphasised that the response and input of his audience is integral to the development of his work. Perhaps this is a sentiment that will quell the sneering derision of those hailing from the anti-conceptual art camp, as he is assiduous in his attempts to make his practice fully accessible to the public. Never one to aspire for the esoteric, Eilers states that he tries to make his works traverse different layers of understanding and factions of society instead of reaching out only to a select few. He will be introducing Freizeitgeist on the Dutch television programme “Kunstuur” on 29 November. Bart Rutten, who is Curator of Paintings and Sculptures at the Stedelijk Museum, will be interviewing Eilers about his work. Eilers hopes to stimulate dialogue about his work by staying true to his vision of making art about people and for people.