Conceptual art, according to Dutch artist Rabin Huissen

The Dutch conceptual artist shares his thoughts on creating art in different cultures and how he lets his intuition guide the way.

The first time the name ‘Rabin Huissen’ came to my knowledge was when I visited a small exhibition at BACC Bangkok. I remembered taking photos of what were titled ‘Hat Dresses’, the conceptual works that looked mysterious and stunning at the same time. A short while after, I heard that the artist would have a one-day exhibition before heading back to his homeland, and I ended up missing it. So when a chance to talk to Rabin Huissen came again, I grabbed the opportunity instantly. Of course, you might wonder why. Huissen is not only a rising conceptual artist, but also an artist who spends a lot of his time in artist residency programs around the world. I was curious about how he translates different cultural attributes into his works, and how being in different places has shaped his artistic practice. Currently based in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, the artist shared his thoughts on these subjects.

Since when did you realize that you wanted to be a conceptual artist?
“In the early stages of my life, I think when I was about ten years old, I developed a strong fascination for traveling. I think that’s when it all started. 

Together with my father I traveled by train often from Rotterdam, my hometown, to Den Haag (The Hague), where my grandparents lived. As a small boy I was intrigued by this. It was that feeling of moving in this train, while sitting still on a bench and staring outside. It felt like traveling through time, like those time machines that I see in science fiction movies where a character is transported to another place in a few seconds. This still fascinates me. During these travels I always wanted to know where I was at that moment, so I looked for landmarks to get a grip of where I was while traveling together with my father from A to B. I think my first landmark then was the old Rotterdam Central Station. This railway station was a rectangular building with a subtle curve, built with concrete and glass. The words CENTRAAL STATION were placed on the roof with large letters. Standing in front of this big glass facade I could see the hanging, big, round golden clock that consisted only of twelve stripes and two clock hands. In the central hall on two sides there were two walkways made of steel and glass. Then there was this echo of a lady’s voice announcing the arrival and departure of the trains. On these walkways I saw the train conductors rushing back and forth. This totally intrigued me. Maybe because it was so mysterious and unclear what they were doing there. This is a memory I never will forget.

When we left Rotterdam by train we passed a second landmark. It was a big brown brick church with a green oxidized tower. Then we passed the nest site of giant storks next to the Blijdorp Zoo. After a few minutes I saw three high offices that looked like three proud brothers in a triangular formation, then I knew we left Rotterdam… until we entered the 19th-century Neo-Renaissance railway station Holland Spoor (Den Haag), our final stop. During this period of6 years I developed my fascination for time, movement, landmarks and memories. I didn’t understand what a conceptual artist was then, but I knew that I was interested in this idea of time travel by train. Something I missed when my grandfather passed away and my grandmother moved to Rotterdam. I also was obsessed with puzzles. I could sit for hours trying to solve this game. In elementary school one of my teachers advised my parents to send me to a secondary school that focused mainly on graphic techniques. Drawing class was also part of that learning system. Something I also loved to do and became interested in was making collages and thinking of concepts before I even draw anything. Sometimes I just draw nothing because this idea was enough for me. This is where it all started for me.”

Unfolding Series No.4

How was it like to grow up in the Netherlands which has a strong art culture? How did it shape your career as an artist?
“Growing up in the Netherlands was great. My parents were ex-hippies when I was born and were still living free and wild. They taught me to be myself and follow my heart, which I still do. It was not that they explained what to do. It was non-verbal and I understood what they meant. They taught me to trust my instinct and this really shaped my career as an artist and is a characteristic of my work. I am grateful to them for this free childhood. But because my parents lived a simple life, it was not that easy to find my way to art. I didn’t have friends around me who were creative or could guide me. Art was abstract for them. But I found my way to art in my secondary school when I started to have friends who were also creative like me. I was also self-taught, studying art books at the local library in the evening. I really had to learn this language of art by looking. And I still do. Art has different forms and is always evolving. 

But it’s true that the Netherlands has a strong art culture. It’s such a small country (16,040 sq. mi) with an estimated population of 17,336,891 citizens and that’s a lot. We live close to each other, so we adjust naturally and adapt or even copy what other people do. So culture develops quickly in small countries like the Netherlands. We learn from each other and then culture changes quickly.”

Could you tell us more about the connection between your artist residency experiences and the works you produced in each location? How does the unfamiliar environment contribute to the making of your art?
“In my practice I consciously bring along what I have studied and learned before in the process of making. This process is an important aspect of my work in general. If you would put all my works side by side, then you would be able to see my life in fragments. I have the urge to leave my daily context and place myself in an unfamiliar environment such as a residency. Then I have to find new ways to survive and adjust in this new situation. The beginning of every process can be lonely and hard. Sometimes I can feel even cut off from this world. But getting free from my daily rituals and patterns is necessary for my working process. It’s like resetting myself and using my human instinct to get closer to my inner self. That is where I want all my new works to begin.”

Apart from the invitations from galleries, how did you find residency programs?
“Besides being invited for an artist-in-residence programs, there are many websites where you can apply online. And there are a lot of them, each with different conditions. It all depends on what you’re looking for and your research. I would suggest this website, https://www.transartists.org. It’s an organization that offers artist-in-residence programs globally.”

You exhibited your works in Thailand in the Sou-ve-nir – A thing that is kept as a reminder of a person, place or event exhibition many years back. After spending some time in Thailand, what are the good and not-so-good souvenirs about Thailand you took home with? Why did you title your last exhibition here ‘Fragments’?
“During my residency at Rajamangala University of Technology Thanyaburi (RMUTT) I thought a lot about the meaning and value of a souvenir. I had interesting conversations with my video artist friend Robert Stroomberg about this subject, with whom I did the exhibition that you recall at BACC. Our conclusion is that a souvenir is just a token of a memory, but the memory itself is something on its own. There is no good or wrong in buying a souvenir, don’t get me wrong. Not long ago I loved collecting souvenirs during my travels. Things that connected me to a place, a memento or even a person. I noticed that it sometimes hinders my freedom in life. Material things hold me down and the memory itself can be enough. Apart from my art practice I also teach arts to demented elderly people. With them I see that memories have great value. With them sometimes a memory is clearly there and sometimes it’s far hidden, but if you can push the right buttons, it can suddenly appear again.” 

In ‘Fragments’ I am interested in all my personal mementos that are all connected to each other and tell a story. It visualizes a timeline of my residency period at Rebel Art Space run by Thai artists Vasan Sitthiket and Sai Wannaphon. The installation is like a time capsule that represents my human conditions as part of my personal history.”

Could you tell us more about your HAT-DRESSES project? 
“Sure. Hat-Dresses is based on the idea of expanding a hat that it evolves into a garment. The project is unique because it challenges and explores existing views on what an accessory is and what it could look like. It brings new ideas to what a piece of clothing can be. At the same time the Hat-Dresses project underlines the potential value and the importance of accessories in the fashion industry; while fashion is seen as something seasonal and changing, accessories have longer value. One of the aims of the project is to widen up the domain of accessories into pieces of clothing, making the fashion industry more sustainable by developing long lasting products. The project consists of a series of soft sculptures made from natural fiber and nylon plastics, combined with fashion design, video and photography in a form of an installation.”

Hat Dress project by Corsage Studio (image: Iconique magazine)

What do you think is your signature working method? Or which method that you are currently interested in right now?
“My signature working method is listening to my intuition. And that starts immediately as I have a conversation about a commission, collaboration, new concept or intervention. I try to feel how my body reacts. For me it’s important to be close to myself. It has to be pure and come from within. This sounds very vague but this is how I work. A few days ago I had a conversation with a haptonoma who is also interested in how food can give you balance. My zodiac sign is Libra (hahaha). So I find this so interesting. In my work I look for connections between myself, an object or people and use my senses to ‘read’ me/ it /them and to look for signs that can lead me to understand myself, it or them. It also can lead me to better relationships, new concepts or ways of working. I think that art can have the function of building a relationship or even breaking it up. The last point is not much the case, but it’s possible.

For two years I am very interested in using my body as an instrument to talk about my human conditions and try to use it as a universal language at the same time. I want it to connect with a viewer and that the person can feel this human action that happened, say, in the past. I combine photographic techniques with light sensitive emulsions mixed with pigments, ink and watercolour. Besides this I am interested in interventions and installation.”

For the residency, where to next?
“My next residencies will be in China and Korea. In China I will focus on ceramics and the meaning of color in China. Working on ceramics is something new for me and I am really excited to work with this new material. In Korea I want to do research on Korean culture and look for dialog between myself and my new environment and focus on sumuk (ink) technique.” 

Last boring question, many said that art, especially conceptual art, is created to communicate. Do you have specific messages you want to convey to your audience? 
“Hahaha. Interesting question. I would like to convey that maybe the term ‘Conceptual Art’ is not exactly a right description today. It’s a term that finds its roots at the beginning of the last century. Now almost one hundred years later the spirit of time has changed. Here is American artist Sol LeWitt’s definition of conceptual art, one of the first to appear in print: 

In conceptual art the idea or concept is the most important aspect of the work. When an artist uses a conceptual form of art, it means that all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair. The idea becomes a machine that makes art.

Sol LeWitt – Paragraphs on Conceptual Art, Artforum, June 1967

I find LeWitt’s definition from 1967 very interesting. One hundred years later I think I fit his definition of a conceptual artist, except the last part. I see myself as an artist that has my roots in conceptualism. Maybe I have to see myself as partly conceptual, because I believe the part ‘The idea becomes a machine that makes art’ doesn’t fit me. For me the idea becomes a machine that makes art between myself, objects or people. 

Maybe we are in need of a new definition that can embody this idea of ‘Conceptualism’ in the now.”

For more of his work, please visit rabinhuissen.blogspot.com. You can contact him directly at huissenrabin@hotmail.com or his publicist in Thailand, Kullaya Kassakul, by email at yim@fyibangkok.com or by phone at 096 449 9516.

Images: courtesy of the artist

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