De Vries’ installation for Dutch Telecom, made six years later, may be likened to the Maas sculpture. It, too, is composed of an elongated sequence of forms, only this time they are vertical instead of horizontal. Again, the placement is highly unusual. What the client – predictably – originally had in mind was a traditionally placed sculpture in front of the building, which would have limited the public area. De Vries opted for the rear of the building, directly adjacent to the tracks of The Hague’s railway station, from which it would be seen every day by thousands of people waiting for, or sitting in, trains. The available space was however only 50 centimetres deep at the point chosen by de Vries, while the huge façade required a fairly large-scale intervention. The problem Auke de Vries set himself, then, was how to create a sculptural effect in such a long and above all flat-surfaced area. His solution is surprising, and the fact that the 40 metres of his sculpture’s horizontal development can be ‘read’ from a moving train adds an enriching aspect to what from a traditional point of view is an extremely unfavourable placement. De Vries’ deliberate choice of the more difficult option certainly paid off. Unusual challenges generate the unusual solutions to which his sculptures owe their frequently unique character.
THE NAi SCULPTURE
To illustrate the complicated interaction between an on-site mental process and an artist’s personal, sculptural handwriting (in more general terms and hence applicable to all site-specific work: between what an artist finds on the spot and what he brings to it), I shall discuss Auke de Vries’ sculpture in front of the Netherlands Architectural Institute (NAi) in more detail.
Again, when de Vries accepted the commission there was no way he could experience the spatial situation of the projected work, because the Institute had not yet been built. In spite of this he frequently inspected the building site, pacing it out in every direction, testing different potential viewpoints. In short, he wanted to get the physical feel of the space. Sensory perception is always his point of departure, as it is in all find art – unlike architecture, which works with abstract plans and standard measurements. The things he saw on his forays to the site - cranes and other machinery, the building’s tall supporting structure, scattered construction material – inevitably found their way into his probing investigation and into the solution he was seeking. But even de Vries cannot do without a certain degree of abstraction or imagination. After all, he had to render the actual situation in order to envisage its final appearance.
In between these on-site inspections, de Vries’ probings continued in the studio in the form of practical trials – drawings and constructions. I asked him to reconstruct the ordered sequence of NAi sculpture models to help me understand how he had approached the problem At a first glance the result was disappointing. No systematic process is apparent in the sequence. Artistic probings preclude systematism. What is involved is not a continuous approach but a thematic attunement, and suddenly the solution is there. Details like the steel wire resembling hair standing up on end (models 1, 2, 3, 5, 9, 12, 17) or the bent zigzag wire which in the final product links two crosses (models 9, 17) crop up earlier. Models 15 and 16 are very similar. Models 15 and 16 are very similar. (Models 13, 15, 16 are not reproduced). It seems after all as if the artist is homing in on a possible solution: a kind of bridge-form with elements sticking up into the air. In the decisive step towards the definitive solution, de Vries resorts to elements from earlier models: the tousled hair and zigzag wire; the yellow shape reminiscent of an electric light bulb was already hinted at in model 5, in grey. By now the bridge-form is almost straight and has acquired a wide, ascending, diagonal support which recalls model 1. It is thus doubly oriented along two diagonals (in fact the diagonal is already a principal form in model 2).
Auke de Vries explained to me that he had been intrigued by the contrast between the towering central building, covered by a pergola-like steel structure, and the elongated, relatively flat archive building (it does not overtop the surrounding buildings). And indeed, if the sequence of models were run past you like a film, the forms would move between vertical and horizontal without approaching either – as if they were the axes of two imaginary poles of tension. Shuttling swiftly to and fro, they approach the forms of an upward (see the bridge-form mentioned before) or downward curve or a diagonal.