Sybren Renema is no stranger to Glasgow. The artist and musician is often resident of our pedestrian streets by busking and performing saxophone. Moreover, Renema's back-catalogue of exhibitions includes local venues, such as the Hunterian and CCA - relatively close to his studio base at Glasgow Sculpture Studios, situated within The Whisky Bond.
Sybren Renema’s practice is inspired from the German concept of the Bildungsideal: utilising academic faculties, such as research and writing, to build upon cultural awareness. By immersing himself in critical as well as visual histories, Renema appears to be in the pursuit of becoming the ‘well-rounded man’. This, for me, presented its own kind of rarity. In a creative climate abundant with frank portrayals of the ‘self’, art often forgets the disciplines of history and anthropology from which our whole concept of visual vocabulary evolved. For Renema, art is the ultimate preoccupation in which learning can be put at play:
“Perhaps my concepts are indulgent, in some way, but I never consider myself to work with visuals which my audiences can’t identify with. Say, you look at this image - you see the mountains, evocative of the Sublime; you can see the man ascending; evocative of the arctic, of exploration…the layering is part of the composition - a construction of narrative, you see the progression of the man’s ascent. Each element represents something. You don’t have to have an obsession with Scott or Shackleton or know a whole lot about the rivalry between the two to comprehend it. However, for me, it’s significant that my work does start with that kind of focus, trivial as it may seem…”
These relationships, which I had observed, merely ran in a constant rhythm of ideas pulling together and pulling apart, like two tectonic plates caught in a perennial continental drift.
“I don’t know about you, but when I was in school, history was treated with tangible excitement…I still remember my grandfather investing in these encyclopaedic journals, and as a small boy, flicking through them - alphabetic, of course, so you would start at one chapter. A; A, Alexander the Great…Attila the Hun…It felt like a typical boy thing, to read about and to emulate these adventures, and to go on my own conquest. The small child in me is invigorated with every new exhibition. While all of these things might feel irrelevant on the surface, I like to think suddenly all of these subjects are mediated and interconnected through me, the artist. In that sense these concepts are a way of manifesting my interests in something, whilst keeping myself at a distance from my work.”
The persona of the artist is something which influences Renema greatly. One project entailed him collecting images of the death masks of a romantic composers from the early 19th century. By merging these images electronically to create one single image, Renema created a digital representation of the ‘archetypal romantic’, which later transformed into a three-dimensional print:
“After a while, experimentation becomes a instinctive thing… it only seems natural to continue to shift my ideas around into different methods and mediums - that is, until I find something that fits. For example, I’m not the best at working with my hands, at making anything tall, free standing, or sculptural. I’ve tried in the past but the product always ends up lopsided; I tend to focus on the ‘front’. The death mask is like that: it’s has a full-frontal viewpoint. So, as an extension of the project, when I drew the death masks, I decided to treat the faces in partial views - as fragments, drawing them from different viewpoints, but with an emphasis on the one-sided quality. I love their expressions - they all look as though they are listening out for something in their final moments. When it came to curating them, I had them arranged so that the drawings which faced left were aligned to the right, and those facing right to the left, and with one drawing, looking out to the viewer, implicitly in the middle, arranged so that they were fixedly looking toward each other.
“I consciously decided with the first project I did after my BA that I would no longer allow myself to be pictorially ‘present’ within my work. I felt like it was distracting from the themes at hand. In a project for my MFA, I made a collection of shirts with the graphics of desert islands printed on them - I allowed myself only to be seen as a model, from below the neck. No face.”
As seen with the David Livingstone project, all these tidbits of comparative research could be something between a tall tale and a relic of lost information; his art being a platform to propel these histories back into public knowledge. His collaborative book - you took the part that was once my heart - produced with fellow Dutchman Timmy Van Zoelen, plays with the legend that Livingstone’s heart was once buried under a Mvula tree in Zambia, and the quest that ensued to find it. The by-product of a book was an exhibition in Glasgow’s Hunterian and a position as Guest Lecturer at a conference hosted by the London School of Economics at the Livingstone Museum in Zambia; where Renema claims to have once punched a Baboon in the face.
“I attempt to be sincere in communicating my love of learning, but am also aware that there is something inherently silly about a lot of the subject matter I choose.” Handing me a piece of wood claimed to be from the decking of Captain Scott’s ship, The Discovery, in 1902, I exclaim at the possibility that he may have just bought into another historical myth.
“And so what?” He exclaims: “I plan to make my wedding ring from it. Sometimes you just have to believe in these things. Constructed or not, the only relationship we ever have to objects is from the narrative we attribute to them. Besides - even if it is all a lie - I’ll still have a cool ring.”
To find out more about Sybren Renema's work, please visit:
Article by Rachel Boyd