Marijn Akkermans is a Dutch artist who started getting into the art world through diary-like small drawings that later transformed into well thought-out, large-scale paintings on paper. His technically built, neat and sophisticated works are the result of experimentation and a philosophical approach towards issues like projection and reality, personal and domestic, contradictions, opposites, emotional phantasies (a word from psychoanalysis indicating there is no differentiation between imagination and reality), existentialism as well as a playful approach towards proportions.
In a digitally driven world where humans are so easily influenced by digital algorithms and the Internet, the artist questions whether imagination is becoming a myth. Myth or not, Marijn Akkermans’ imagination goes out of scale and, in between, translucent layers of washed ink and paint bring us into a different reality: horror-like narratives where creepy family portraits, metallic-looking women, babies with algorithms in their mouths, child-like persons and huge, torn apart teddy bears prevail.
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Tell us about yourself. How did you start painting and when did you realize that painting was something you wanted to pursue as a career?
From the beginning, I have considered myself an artist and not a painter only, or a draughtsman. I studied autonomous art and interdisciplinary research in art school, so I am educated in different media. For instance, in recent years, I have made scenographies for theatre plays as well. But through the intimate approach, in diary-like small drawings, I found a vivid and direct way of working. This, as a basis, generated a flow which gave me ‘easy access’ to thoughts and ideas that were not in my consciousness yet. Eventually, the small drawings evolved into what I do today. In general, from early on, I felt like an artist. Not so much in terms of a career but more as a way of living.
I am curious about your technique. Some of your paintings remind me of classical expressionism, then I see neat, watercolour light pieces and suddenly, I come across futuristic stuff like new-borns with algorithms in their mouths. How do you switch between the themes and what do you like to experiment on?
In general, I technically build up my works in translucent layers of washed ink and paint on paper. And parts of the surface are painted opaque, in contrast. A few years ago, I made a series in fluid watercolour. In eighteen years of work – so far – you try new things. Sometimes, it fits into place right away, in other cases, only after years. But experimenting is always a welcome and healthy part of my practice.
I might switch between subject matter from one work to another, but what all my works have in common are the matters of figuration, narration, and representation. I'm interested in projections and assumptions. When we view figurative work, we tend to think to know what we see, but we might only see our collective agreement on the meaning of certain iconography. Besides that, figuration remains an almost inscrutable projection itself, provoking new and ever-changing projections and so on.
Could you elaborate more on that?
Basically, art is all smoke and mirrors. Viewing it is never just objective, fortunately. That is what makes it so interesting and joyful to play with. A humbling experience, I think. Digital algorithms, which are our daily reality, seem a threat to the imagination, at least, they demystify our sense of it. And what is imagination, really? If we are so easily influenced by algorithms and the internet, if we are pre-shaped and have become a product ourselves, what does it stand for, then? Has imagination itself become a myth?
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What role do family and childhood play in your art? What is hidden behind those torn apart teddy bears and creepy family portraits?
In my work, family and childhood stand for the personal and domestic experience. These private experiences intersect with influences from the public and collective domain. The outside world is in our home as we are being exposed to a lot of pre-selected information from different media. Basically, we are not so much exposed but aggressively penetrated by it. My early family portraits and teddy bears are depictions of trust and emotional phantasies, and they seem to be infected by the uncanny.
In one of my first series, called The Teddy Bear Conventions, the limbs of people are exchanged with the limbs of giant teddy bears by a child-like person. The people and teddy bears become hybrids of both human and foam-stuffed animal. In these horror-like narratives, reality and fantasy merge together. The real and imagined are not differentiated anymore, and contradictory sensations and fragments of different stories float around simultaneously.
Let’s talk about contradictions and human figures in your works. Human body and opposites are universal muses for artists, but everyone has their own explanation and feelings. What about yours?
I suppose the conflict between projection and reality is quite universal. Only in between opposites there’s space for thinking. This is where my interest lies. That's where there are possibilities. A painted or drawn figure and other kinds of representations are ghostly visualizations and constructions of something abstract. The imagined can bring our consciousness in flux, so we don't wash up at the shores of opposites. The human body – its postures, gestures, and expressions – provokes many projections. For instance, it provokes our human tendency to want to ‘see’ things that reflect and confirm what we already (think to) know.
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We mentioned human figures, but I would like to concentrate on hands. What do those huge hands signify? Do they have a symbolic or maybe a personal meaning?
I’d prefer to describe the hands as ‘out of scale’. As I exaggerated them in scale, they draw our attention. Hands take care of us, they feed us, they clean us, they hold us. But yet they can be used to do the opposite. Symbolically, they have those two possibilities in them. But it's not only hands which are out of scale. They relate to the entire figure and composition, which is depicted larger than life. There is this slippery subjectivity when I make my works, which determines the rate of ‘out-of-scaleness’ of the figures. Yet I would say it is always precisely as it should be.
I saw some of your characters talking on the phone. Who are they talking to and what about?
What I like about a depiction of someone talking on the phone is that it suggests a conversation. Besides a narrative, it implies a dialogue of voices and sound we don’t know about. I like to suggest a sense of sound through an inherent static and silent medium like drawing and painting. For instance, The Scream by Edvard Munch is this effective as a painting because of the silent expression of an emotional sound.
While looking at your black ink and pencil pieces, I saw angst. What’s your biggest fear? What are you trying to share with the viewers?
I understand the interpretation of existential themes in my work, but these themes are difficult to grasp. Sometimes, they linger and are hard to work with. The existential stands crudely against ‘the indifference of the cosmos’. But it can be exaggerated and brought out of proportion to a degree of absurdity and humour. I hope that absurdity comes across in my work, too.
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I am a great lover of Dutch art (Bruegel, Vermeer, etc.) I think it is very special. Could you talk about Dutch artists who have greatly influenced you? In what way?
At a certain time, I was very interested in classical painting, specifically in the portrait, claire-obscure and light. Rembrandt had an outstanding way. It is impressive how he was able to create the ephemeral quality of light. And this light created a spatial depth for the figures. The figures seem to emerge from an ethereal place. Light as a means of expression of its own. That’s what influenced me the most, I think, how the depiction of matter and non-matter can merge.
I think two of your paintings stand out: The Fraud and The Future is Old. As a spectator, I am interested in what is going on in those pieces. I had a feeling that you were not painting them but taking a picture.
Both of these works are reminiscent of classic scenes. I suppose you could experience them as if I took a picture as they seem to be a moment in time, like a film still. The Future is Old relates quite obviously to the classic myth of the abduction of Europe, which has been painted many times before, by Titian and Rembrandt among many others. But just like The Fraud, I consider it an allegory on the family, which is set in a pastoral surrounding. Usually, in the classic genre of the pastoral scene, shepherds were depicted keeping livestock, like cows or sheep. In this work, the allegorical and the pastoral merge into an absurd scene. A bull is being kept as well as a huge fish.
What are you working on now?
Currently, I'm starting the preparations for my upcoming solo show at galerie dudokdegroot in Amsterdam. The opening will be in November. The exact date is yet to be announced.
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