FIU Stamp Transparant

Waldo Bien


  Art in the future tense.   Interdisciplinary Research.   Social Sculpture.

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Patrick Healy by Marc Damri


Waldo Bien by Patrick Healy


Chapter 1

In the preparation for the study of the Death Room Interior I would like to begin with one of the earliest surviving works of Waldo Bien from the nineteen-seventies. The work is entitled Static Pedestal [ 1978-001 ]. Commenting some twenty years later on its position in his œuvre, Bien described the piece as being an access to a process. He suggested that it had been necessary to eliminate the problem of movement and to create a field of observation. The issue raised for him was one of initiating a process by finding a place of rest which allowed maximum vibration, where the dialectical would be at a standstill.

   In what could be taken as a relatively ruthless self-criticism Bien characterised his work in terms of an intimate belonging to his own cultural pre-suppositions. He made a claim towards the ideas of object and place which he regarded as a specific weight, and the determination of a traditional conception of sculpture.1

   The networks of relational and other meanings need to be recuperated in studying his work. Very often the context of involvement which led to their appearance is ambiguous and ephemeral. Bien has, as part of his engagement, pursued a constant revising narrative as to what was relevant to the various initiations, gestural and social, that provoked many of his actions – and indeed, the decision of structuring the world as relational requires a continuing transformative action; the works themselves raise questions about the very process of their making or realisation.

   Without surviving documents or sketches, the existence of the Static Pedestal [ 1978-001 ], sometimes referred to as the Static Sockle, remains crucial to the understanding of the early period from 1972–77. What can be inferred from the negative evidence is something of Bien’s working method at this date. The movement of his body is the sketch, the height of

his body the system of measure. Indeed a surviving passport description gives his height as 189 c.m. – the same as that of the Static Pedestal as completed.

   It could be argued for Bien, at this stage of his development, that every problem of construction is caught up in a tension between the rational idea of construction and the need for expressive urgency. His own body is the sketch towards measure for the human scale, whether the tension between construction and expression is a matter of real opposition, or, a dialectical process, he is unable to decide.

   Bien insists on the spontaneity of his own movement as a form of protest against the idealising authority of construction. But the body too has structure that is not dependent on expression. If construction was the model, or, preparation, for an ideal world, involving an imposition of unity to achieve validity, then it was clear that spontaneity was easily destroyed. Where a random gesture could not be made then the logic of construction is a projection towards a form of rational control that eliminates the human subject. It is the Polders dilemma.

   Part of his cultural baggage was the myth of the Polders, a recurrent theme of constructed landscape that also functioned as a bind socially. The work of reclaiming land and building of dykes and ditches had created ties; inviting an equalitarian or consensus based project – later epitomised as the ‘democratic’ exigencies of Dutch society.

   It can be seen in one of the earliest surviving works of Bien from 1972, with the title This is the continuing story of the Dutch IJsselmeer and her embryos! [ 1972-007 ] There are six discrete framed canvas pieces, under separate glass panels, and a large box surrounding frame. The technique is cutting and overlay, a monochrome green with organisation of individual elements determined by shapes that are a condition of Bien’s subjective topology.

   Bien’s working method was an attempt to break the presumption of the constructivist paradigm; that all relations are self-conscious. The insistence on bodily movement as a form of measure also involved the subjective body measure in a symbolic translation of the body

as sculpture, opposing an abstract dictate of geometry. A modal relation of the first importance is the one to the skeleton. The projection of the mobile body is what transforms physical objects into sculpture.

   The body could also be considered in terms of a kind of self-semblance of structure. It is an assembly, with its own capacity for containment and a form of architecture. In this view of tension and gravity the body has ‘tensegrity’ a kind of conatus, where in the compression against, or, towards gravity, the bones, muscles and tendons, even ligaments become load-bearing, and the stabilising takes place, in Donald Ingher’s terms, through ‘tensegrity’.2

   In the late 1990’s Bien creates a series of works which take up the problem of the skin as surface, and the painterly action as a break-through into depth which he describes as vivisection. There is a constant stressing of the surface to the point where it can be literally responsible for depth, and the penetration for the artist is also a protest against the grid and containment of flatness and organisation. In cultural terms this is a form of revolt against the hegemony of Mondriaan as an emblematic national artist.

   He further – as the crucial early work shows – rejects the hierarchy of materials. Here the basic materials are simple and require little modification. He insists that the structure could be built by someone with even basic skills in woodworking or carpentry. The materials have a relation to the everyday, they are not special, and indeed their simplicity is their main recommendation for attention. This it shares with the almost contemporary practise of Carl Andre in his Element series of 1971, which Andre referred to as a pedestal for the rest of the world. 3 Within Bien’s re-appraisal of construction and its inherent dangers went a further consideration of the intervention, which denoted a belief in constitution, where the translation of the body, and not its resultant object, takes priority. This making of Bien’s is a kind of performative self extinction, and goes with his insistence on the mortality of his objects, their being saturated with a relation to time as limit.

   In negotiating the problem of the sockel the ambivalence of the body in its own standing was also explored. It was only in the concrete process of making that the abstract idea could be given in the form of an overcoming of the need for excessive material self-representation. This meant devices such as the plinth, or the support of forms depending on aesthetic distance from the world of everyday objects, had to be abandoned in favour of a more suggestive and subtle process of linking correspondences, which depended on the body itself as an object within the observation process. The inner tension was finally not something which could be shown as a representation for the object, and of which the object could then be construed as an adequate showing, rather, it had to be indicated as something felt, such as a sensed potential, which continued to vibrate as possibility, or, expressive inflections.

   In the finished work, the illusion of the dynamic balance of the strings, descending through the centre, is the field of maximum potential vibration and suspense. The sculpture has the retention of the vertical, the symbolic upright, of a classical idiom as a form of suspension, that is supplementary to the arrest of the dialectic, of the inscribed making and the object which exists. Thus, the illusion of balance is the inner truth of the body, the sculpture dissolves the tensions of construction against expression by making of the ‘pedestal’ a form of innerness, taking the traditional expectation of the pedestal as the support from below, and minimising the relations of vertical and horizontal axis, through the implication that the vertical is suspended from above.

   Bien had tried to literally take on the formal problem, which made of the pedestal something extraneous to the maximising aesthetic distance of the artwork, extrinsic and irrelevant. His approach is very different to Andre or Caro who, as one scholar has trenchantly observed, practised a synecdochic economy, and were content to exchange part for the whole.4

   Bien tries to retain within the transformative somatology, the spontaneous making as a logic of the sculptural. It is not necessary for the work to exist in a kind of ascetic withdrawal towards the viewer, a process which had fascinated Caro who wondered if thereby one risked the establishing of an a-object or object for sculpture without the normally mediated cues and commitment to the specialisation of commodity fetishism, or, indeed, the Kantian ideology of aesthetic distance. A minimalist strategy, as with Bien, results in a scepticism. The somatically posited a-object is a doubting intervention in which the question of the belonging in the world, the network of relations predominate.

   The real question of the pedestal for Bien is where the sculpture belongs in the world. In one sense the problem in the early billiard table work [ 1972-008 ] is similar, although more specific to the question of the frame, and raises a similar problem of the breaking apart the notions of frame, pedestal or architectural support. Bien distanced himself from the question of whether sculpture could prove itself art in real space without the aid of framing devices, a question of interest to the work of Caro and Andre at around the same time, rather, Bien wishes to have the work as a site of his own transformative energy, an inter-action for the viewer where an inquisitive space and questioning reserves are opened, where the inner bodily presence is the engaging dynamic for exhibition and reception. This somatic theory is as fundamental as the obvious gestures of revolt against the traditional restraints.

   The question of the method was to become in the context of Bien’s own self-appraisal the continuing impact of the work of the pedestal and the initial propositions associated with its making. One can trace a complex series of responses through the following 25 years. However it is necessary to return to the period before the work to track out the “anecdotes of language” which for Bien began this process, which he views as ongoing.

   The billiard table work [ 1972-008 ] which precedes the dynamic and static sockle works was made in the polders. Beuys who had proposed the walk to Bien was also to criticise the work on its showing at the Kunstmuseum Düsseldorf. By a process of linking Bien had made the suggestion that the experience of walking the polders reminded him of the billiard table from his childhood. The flatness of the landscape as a memory object fascinated him. He painted, in response, colored stripes moving in and out of the surface to suggest movement, or precarious possession; the colors as much concerned with the psychological jostling between memory and forgetfulness, as with any literal reportage of the monochromes of the polders. The problem of the ground seemed to him more than a problem of complex perceiving, as he interpreted his own stance as the unseen within the seeing.

   Initially with the billiard table he covered it with zinc, sides and legs, the playing surface he covered with tar. Responding to this work Beuys looked underneath and remarked that it had been dealt with by way of surface and not as sculpture. Beuys made specific suggestions as to changes which could be made, and said that he thought it should have been covered underneath, as sculpture did not have a ‘backside’. For Beuys the work was not grounded and was too optically contrived. On the IJsselmeer [ 1972-007 ] he offered the opposite criticism, and thought that it should be stripped down, a reduction was needed, a gesture which would tear it away from the painterly.

   The figure in the box construction with balancing wire [ 1972-010 ] Beuys found lacking in improvisation, although the element of the dynamic strings was to be re-deployed in the Static Pedestal work, as Bien wanted to establish suspension and a dynamic in tandem, and Beuys’ observations were effectively ignored. Bien’s research with Platonic figures was a partial engagement with the theosophical background of Mondriaan, and a reading of Mondriaan’s ascetic reduction as a form of hermetic total control.5  Bien wanted to think of the black framing lines as tattooing on the skeleton which is the 3 dimensions of the canvas, including the back and the stretcher. The Platonic figures with the neo-lithic sculpture was a search for the skeleton of space.

   Bien’s reistance to the hermetic closure was intensified in response to post-card invitation from Konrad Fischer for a Jan Dibbets exhibition in 1974, the invitation being a Dibbets work with the legend NO OPENING on a tight graph paper, the kind of closure in the grid that had been aimed at by Mondriaan, Bien responded by an agressive act of placement sous-rature [ 1974-003 ].6

   Schönenborn and Rutkowsky were a counterweight influence to Beuys in Bien’s artistic formation. Schönenborn’s Studien Grundlegende Formen, Bewegungen und Farben, illustrates well the independent strands within the Academy. Schönenborn’s research in the choreography of ornament, or Rutkowsky’s philosophical and hermeneutical approach, were very much a minority interest at the Academy. Rutkowsky’s main preoccupation was with the innerness of the body space. His project at this time might be described as an attempt to create an internal sculptural anatomy, trying to move the determination of form away from the silhouette and outline of the sculpture into the concealed innerness, where haptic intuition acts even in response as a creative reservoir.

   Beuys’ objections led to a discussion not between Beuys and Bien but between fellow class 20 student, Rutkowsky.7 It went to the heart of the problem of the relation for Bien to Beuys’ teaching, and also to the decision to activate the optical as a somatic and gestural necessity.

Rutkowsky detected in Beuys’ criticism the traces of an old classicist presumption, namely that the coherence of the object depended on talk about the conditions of the object, a form of epistemic discourse. He thought that Beuys was still committed to a view of the object as a result of synthesis.

In one sense, Rutkowsky, was identifying the Beuysian legacy of preserving the Duchampian gesture, namely the preserving of the identity of the object in the formal unity of the subject, i.e. the artists’ will. In the traditional sculpture the problem had been one of representation as res, now it seemed that the voluntary was decisive.

Beuys had already over-determined the functional and pragmatic in-itself of the work, and wished to reduce it to a cipher, treating the dispositional character, and the functional reference, as a primary quality. This inevitably meant that part of his pedagogic strategy was to implicate an incoherence in relation to the naming subject to which the work had a kind of spiritual adjacency. Thus, the importance of the linguistic referent in the works of Beuys.

Rutkowsky was more concerned with a network of relational and other meanings. What was decisive was the structuring of the world as relation. This is clearly a continuing action. Bien too insisted that he wished the work not to be embodied, or arrested in the sense of ‘completion’ or a register of some kind of absolutist will, rather he impressed on Rutkowsky, and less successfully on Beuys, that the most important element of the work was its potential, the sluice through the frame, which for Bien meant that the energy of the gesture would support the continuing of even the memory as a presence which did not become stratified and objectified. In that sense both Bien and Rutkowsky did not view their work together as a making of ‘things’ but rather the creation of references within the structure of the world, understood as presence.

   The breaking of the frame of the billiard table surround can be read as a highly charged gesture. Bien intended to reverse the very literal fact of the landscape. Where the polders existed as shoring up against the sea, Bien wanted to liquidify the stable and containing element in the rupture and sluice he made, and it may be argued that the dynamo of energy which this extrusion creates was for Bien emblematic of his struggle to reach for an expressionist solution, in what must once again be viewed as a constant pre-corso namely the sundering of rational self maintenance and a violation of the very ordered response of early pictorial representation, the self enclosing of boundaries.

   Donal Kuspitt has glossed in his work on Karel Appel this tension between order and mysterious elective affinities which haunt Dutch artists.8 It is the Mondriaan/van Gogh dichotomy, the choice between ordered, contained rational planning, and of lyrical subjective wildness, the latter often existing as the grotesque, the former as the projection of utopia as nightmare. Bien does not wish to stay in the ordered world of the polders, or to mediate the demands of fusion and separation by some kind of diplomatic consensus, the boundary is overcome through the invention of a threshold that is a constant state of raw modification.
   Construction and destruction, Bien abandoned the problem of material resistance. His studies in Düsseldorf resulted in a strange levelling, where he had to realise that the work of art could not be made as a consequence of endless discussion, rather he reflected that the elective affinities were more mysterious and engaging than the rational discourse which had invited students to politicise the aesthetic and aestheticise the political; the famous Friday discussions in Class 20 resulted in his need to find an observation point, to become, as we shall see in discussing the
Regal Star [1983-001] project, himself as pedestal.

   Very little of the work of the preceding 6 years from his time in Düsseldorf survives. Severe self-criticism meant that many things made were destroyed. The billiard table work takes the construction-destruction pair as intimately linked, the long balance of such a position resulted in a curious kind of performative distinction and extinction, which continues to the present.

   “Access to process was provided by the pedestal work, it became necessary to eliminate the idea of movement, between normative and transgressive, I needed a field of observation, at least for the analytical part. I had the experience of the train running by when I was standing on the platform. But I couldn’t get in. So I gave it the title of Salt on a Bird’s Tail. Then I tried to get into a position of observation. I had been rooted even in the study of phenomenology. Schönenborn had taught anatomy. My skeleton was sculpture. Things were innovated every day. Then there was the problem of the public sphere. The sluice I made works as a gate, and is an energy field which allows me to gain access. There is an invisible moment, where the process, and the questioning of the process is the process, and then I have the most energy.”

   For Bien the entire mobile and dynamic process forms the deepest element in his biography, and a sense of endlessness within activity. His favourite metaphor used to describe his own position is that of standing and watching a train go by. Something hurtling and inaccessible which re-constitutes the dynamic of awareness through movement. It is a profoundly cinematic trope.

   A more conventional view of his biography is elicited from comments of Rutkowsky, Anatol and others who studied in Düsseldorf during the early 70’s. For Bien his arrival there was a series of chance accidents and the invitation from Beuys a kind of street wise fantasy. Penniless traveller approached by stranger, and a chance encounter changes the course of a life.





D.R.I. 1985-006 - 001
Death Room Interior Sizes not specified; Interior carved in coal (H5), iron, wood, pigment on canvas Waldo Bien Archive



Static Pedestal (Schrank mit Wirbelsäule)  103 x 40 x 207 cm; Pitch pine, glass, metal strings Waldo Bien Archive



Continuing Story of the IJsselmeer and her Embryos 108 x 72,2 cm; Collage of natural fibres; Painted Waldo Bien Archive



Portrait of Thomas Hecken 48,5 x 63,5 cm; Acrylic on board Waldo Bien Archive



Billiard Table With Sluice Size as usual; Wood covered with zinc plate; Tar surface Destroyed



Continuing Story of the IJsselmeer and her Embryos 108 x 72,2 cm; Collage of natural fibres; Painted Waldo Bien Archive (Detail)



Study for pedestal Copperplate and wire, transformed (see 1997-047)



Alle Farbe ist im Kopf 11,3 x 17,7 cm; Gouache and pencil on paper Waldo Bien Archive



Raum 20 Arbeiten 1972 a02



Billiard Table With Sluice Size as usual; Wood covered with zinc plate; Tar surface Destroyed (Detail)














Chapter 2


   The end period of the 1970’s was later regarded by Bien as a prelude. The discussion in the Academy continued, and for the various student friends of Bien, a kind of ongoing research was taking place. A good example of the conceptual problems being addressed by Bien during the period is found in his discussion on the relation of primary and secondary colors. He claims that he hadn’t come any further than painting with primary colors, and was unable to work with the secondary colors, except as a research problem. He describes the late seventies as the pursuit of pure colors and how they work, for example in the rainbow. [_1975-001_] 1

   At the Academy the students had gone directly to work and checked each other. Goethe and Itten theories were not considered as important as direct observation. Study also meant looking at individual use of color, so for example works by Klee and Nolde would be analysed individually, in terms of chromatic theory, and the problem of effect. What was emphasised was the need to develop a direct personal experience of color.
   The issue of the Academy and teaching there remains for Bien clouded. Many students when they became public artists had literally edited out their relation to Beuys, either through direct opposition or rapid critical distancing. Bien claims he did not want to mention his participation in the Beuys class, until he had found his own pedestal. He therefore never mentioned any exhibition before 1984, and indeed only as late as 1997 has he discussed anywhere what he refers to as the ‘pre-history’ of his work.2

   Indeed Bien’s recollection of the Academy is fragmentary and at times contradictory. As is often the case parallel activities and friendships formed proved in many ways more decisive an enduring as influences on his work. The most important of these was his relation to Rudolf Steiner, and his meetings with Ott Landau.3 Landau gave lectures in the bookshop and gallery which Bien had opened in Düsseldorf and cofounded a Steiner Kindergarten. Bien made toys (some of which survive) and furniture, and founded a socialist co-operative.

   In one sense he describes his attendance at the Academy as part time. It was the Friday colloquium which acted as the main impetus for teaching, and consisted of enormous numbers of people being brought to the Academy and engaging in discussion. The Beuys Class was constantly under a kind of threat, from other members of the Academy, form traditional and even very radical political groups, and the end of year show of the class took place without reference to the market place, and the exhibition usually stressed content and not the process of production. I am paraphrasing Bien’s account here, in its elliptical and sometimes terse delivery.

Throughout the color research period, there were also other parallel developments. Some of these had been directly prompted by reading in Steiner’s works, and indeed the anthroposophical influence on Bien was to increase over the years, he first became aware of these writings in 1975.4 Bien says that the real research was to dematerialise colors. Reflected light had a different physicality; indeed, he thought that the colors take on their own being by their distance from objects. In his color research he sought for a greater sense of transparency in the sign. The work entitled Verwandelzeichen [_1980-001_] presents the result of this research.

   “There is in my work another development the whole gamut of neuro-physiological interactions, right and left brain, the interrelation between static and mechanical and dynamic, and in the context of color research I sought for something to be as clear as a traffic signal.”

   A decisive experience changed his method of proceeding, and led to his abandoning his phenomenological research, and indeed approfondissement of his pedestal work. It is best _told in his own words, “I realised that the pedestal was in me, but I needed to escape the phenomenological addiction, my share in such work was minimal and cold-blooded. When_ I looked into my own eyes and saw such a deep gap and so unknown, I realised I had to work on myself. I had to double cross- check all my memories, my complete biography, my past, everything, my ideas.

I thought I should continue shaving for thirty days. I could study the results. I wanted again to engage in the process of the problem of the process.

   On the 12th day of this process, the 12th of November 1982, I left my studio, to go to a shop and buy some nails, and was involved in a car accident, run over by a car. My leg was broken. When I regained consciousness I asked my wife Eliane Gomperts to bring my shaving equipment to the hospital. I also asked for a camera, so I could observe myself without having anybody observing me. I observed myself with the camera. I became the immobile moment.” [_Zwarte November, 1982-005 and Silenzio I, 1983-016 ]

   In a dramatic reversal Bien has himself become the pedestal. It is also the moment when his personal cipher Feldpost is created. The concept Feldpost ran the risk of military overtones, but Bien wanted to re-appropriate it for his own sense of observation on a line, which didn’t require a pseudo-objectivity. In one sense the observations serve for him as a hypothesis in the way an experiment serves a scientist. He is checking out observation and moderating his own inclusion in a theory from the results. The actual materials work for him as something that can be checked and responded to by the viewer, by anyone interested in the material as presented.

   For Bien the work escaped from the charge of subjective incorrigibility by his addition to the glass plates, with the shaving detritus and the laved soap, of other elements. Photographic images from the past and X-Ray segments of Bien’s bone fragments constituted something else from the performative action with which one must reckon. The empirical accumulation was the field of the interdisciplinary. The cipher Feldpost acted as the umbrella under which his actions could be placed. It was the discovery of a fertile method.

   At the end of the November shaving sequence the thirty glass plates with shaving detritus and photographic images were placed in two sledge-like wooden elements and registered under the quotation Zwarte November [ Schwarzer November, 1982-005_], this in reverse to the white of the hospital room he stayed in.

   The exploration of repetition was underway. The initial question was whether any progress could be gained in the repetition. There was the obvious psychological and anthropological consideration of the everyday process, shaving. It became necessary for him to explore the form of shaving equipment, of place and use. In one sense the problem of affirmation in repetition lent to the work one of its most dynamic qualities. It was how the question of disposal became integrated into the balance of the object.

   The Static Sockle work became an essential reference within the sculptural process. The concept sculptural had now expanded by virtue of the break away from the idea of determining forms of production, and instead, entering a process. The shaving table was to involve both a positive and negative pyramid. Each choice was an exclusion, or each determination had the necessity of its own negation. The inclusion of a small golden piece acted as an anchor of decision.

The table itself became problematic. Bien follows Steiner’s observation of the kind of expression children make by stomping their legs. He wanted to indicate the movement of will from legs to hands, and with the hands to create a movement which held the object as a moment of localised will, in which the standing, neither as pose or stance, united with that of the stand holding the mirror. “I was not trying to make an ethnographic intervention, rather, I was exploring through very vulnerable means, the sculptural decision of expression and the creation of a common line, that was intelligible within the process of my own willing and making.”

   The shaving table was created in order to develop activity in itself. The initial choice of shaving at the atelier in Lauriergracht led to the Regal Star-project and the invitation to Beuys to come to Amsterdam and shave Bien. It is necessary to disentangle the sequence of this process. Whilst the ‘action’ was continual, Bien was travelling during part of the year allotted for the project, and also the problem of the static and dynamic focused in the work on the pedestal and his own self-understanding, as an artist, was enriched by discoveries made with regard to photography and through his journey in Iceland. Works of this period, some of which have only ever been exhibited once, should rightly be considered in the context of the shaving work, and will help the student tease out the understanding of sculpture which Bien was developing in the early 80’s, specifically between 1982–83. Beuys, to start at the end as it were, signalled that he was unable to come to Amsterdam and instead invited Bien to Paris were Beuys was involved in an action with John Cage. The standard work on Beuys’ actions does not give any information on this shaving performance.5

   A video documentary made by Martijn van Haalen exists, and documentary evidence indicates that Beuys had assisted Bien, and recommended the whole Regal Star-project, and had added some ideas to the portable sculpture which Bien had brought to Paris.

   Bien himself suggests that the period 1982–83 was the time when insight was gained into the problem of the Static Pedestal as a point of observation through which light, passes as in a prism, and then breaks out to the exploration of many different tools. The initial tool being the Static Pedestal.

   The Regal Star ship was moored in the harbour in Amsterdam, a hulking, rusting vessel, which Bien approached by canoe, each day, and in its lower deck shaved and performed actions, related to the process. During the summer months of 1983, when he left to travel to Iceland, he brought with him a portable shaving unit. A complete diary book of the Iceland research exists, in an edition of five copies [_1983-006_], and the related work Nordland Route [_1983-008_] was shown during Bien’s first solo exhibition in the Boymans Museum of Rotterdam.

The year long confrontation with the automatism of a daily practise and the search for an inner mythology was added to in the trips, where Bien with his portable set, made discoveries relating to the optical ‘objectivity’ of photography. In Iceland he was walking and collecting objects. Specifically, cod liver oil, whale oil and whale bone. Bien made a tape of winds playing on fish hanging out to dry [_1984-013_]. Many of the individual elements would make their way into the complete Regal Star-project where the concentration of experience was to focus on elements of the line, ritual, and the problem of the self-setting in the world.

   The process of collecting and shaving in the mirror led to two discoveries which are incorporated into the Regal Star-project. Bien describes how he chose to use the camera in Iceland as a tool, and when he made a photograph of the landscape, holding the shaving mirror in his hand, it was possible to see two things; the landscape in front of the camera, and also on the mirror, the camera and the photographer. He believed that this dismantled the objectivity of the photographic object. By adding oil on to photographic images sandwiched between glass plates, whale oil for example, meaning was raised for him into a magico-ritualistsic invocation. It was like the encapsulation of a formula, the slow facticity of the oil against the perceived stasis of the object. The problem of the kinetic seemed, then, to open the nihilistic conclusion that the value of even the rituals of space where he worked were contained in the elision of objective expectation; and submitting to the opening of value in his deeply subjective choice led him to form of expression that connected with an underlying haptic memory of the body as felt space, self-activating and constantly mobile. This innerness was a self-correction which is the dynamic of the process within the work itself, without reference to the conceptual thinking with which it may be associated.

   Looking at the photographic documentation which survives one sees the introduction of a large circular surround for the theatre of Bien’s activity. This was a response to the problem of placement. How was it possible to place such a relatively human scaled object in such a large place? The solution for Bien was a kind of pictorial exigency. He determined to create an eye space. Where he had tried to express the ‘thinking hand’ in the small golden plaque which functions as a fulcrum point, it was a desire to move away, in the placement, from a static setting as an optical illusion. The circle was to be a self-moving phenomenon, not an effort to avoid the notion of an homogenous picture rather, it was for Bien the site of the re-organising of his past, biography as sculpture.

   The shaving by Beuys also opened up again the question of the public/private sphere. Although the contemporary documentation remains unpublished, the year-long activity resulted in a notice by the geomorphologist Michiel Damen in ‘Jonas’ magazin, and newspaper coverage in Holland. Later Bien discovered that the owner from Greece had the ship sent to Taiwan to be broken up, and the edition of five copies which Bien had made of the Regal Star-project were bound in the steel taken from the ship after its dismantling. [_1984-009_]

Within Beuys scholarship the performance – the action – has been lost sight of. Uwe M. Schneede, in his Die Aktionen under the description of Die letzte Aktion, leaves out the last thirty minutes, in which Beuys approaches Bien and shaves him. The footage today, when viewed, looks like a complex initiation or rite of passage where the older and younger men exhibit trust and surrender to each other. Damen’s article reproduced some images from the video, and the grey, blurred quality evokes a kind of distant ritual from an obscure myth.

   Bien returned to the ship to continue. The entry each day was complex. It was necessary to use a winch to open the hatch, and that led Bien to a further action within the process, namely covering the mirror with a piece of lead, which had to be opened and closed to gain access to the reflection in the mirror. The rolled covering was like a half-open sardine can. The inclusion of the lead covering also prompted other actions. Rather than annotate the minute-by-minute movements in the hull, Bien left notes on the lead with a nail, as the lead was malleable. The graffito was not on any pre-chosen text, simply markings and sometimes random words that came to mind during the shaving

Earlier in the year when banging on the floor with a stick rust had fallen on the ground. At the end of the year-long action Bien collected the rust and placed it in a box which he then immured. This was the physical witness of the ship in the sculpture a dying hull, which was doomed to be dismantled. With rapid foreclosure there was a final enhancing of the four Kisten. They functioned at the level of anecdote, like packing trunks, which reminded him of travel as a sailor on the H.A.L. (Holland-America-Line) and the need for rapid transition between stable places of belonging and the responsibility of travel as a public life. They pass into each other physically and retain the inner dynamic of a pillar. The stick is meant to suggest the transference of will from legs into hands, following the Steiner observation, mentioned earlier, and to the bottom of the stick he added a toy snake with a rope, which was placed as an aide memoire, after all the work had involved a sneaky process of how to support the horizontal. A very plastic conception lay behind, as it were, the sculptural presentation. In Bien’s self-understanding the elements of sea-scape, of the warm/cold of Iceland, the movement of the circle, had a relation to a spiral movement in the shared shaving experience, and the result of the Regal Star work was that, willy nilly he was now a public artist, facing what in retrospect looks like a kind of unsympathetic labeling, which would emerge during his first one-man show, some 6 months later.




Kräftekreisen (Ich Kreis) 105/190 cm; Painted wood Waldo Bien Archive





Verwandelzeichen 190 x 90 cm; Painted wood Collection Stedelijk Museum; Amsterdam



1983 - 016
Silenzio I 422 x 20 x 13 (h) cm; Iron sledge with photographs behind sand blasted glass  Waldo Bien Archive



Zwarte November  Size not specified; Photographic slides, shaving debris between glass plates, pear wood, in crate Waldo Bien Archive



Static Pedestal (Schrank mit Wirbelsäule)  103 x 40 x 207 cm; Pitch pine, glass, metal strings Waldo Bien Archive



Regal Star Sizes not specified; Installation with shaving table, equipment, 365 glass plates with shaving debris, crates etc. Waldo Bien Archive



regal star03
Ship Regal Star



Iceland Shaving Project 1983b03



Icelandic Journal (edition 5); Photos Nordland Route, volcanic ash, mirror, in zinc container; Nr. 2 Waldo Bien Archive



Nord Atlantic Tales Edition 20; (only 12 made); 18,5 x 20 x 2,5 cm; Zinc box with photo, recording of dried codfish sound and codfish; Two remain  Waldo Bien Archive



Jonas Beuys Bien



Regal Star Journal Edition 5; 49 x 76 cm; Photo’s bound in Regal Star steel Waldo Bien Archive



D 1970 - H.A.L. 018(364)


Chapter 3


In the first solo show in Rotterdam many of the themes and variations, which had begun to develop during the trip to Iceland, were exhibited. Works called Psoriasis Trap [_1983-002_] and Preparing the Land for (Re)-settlement [_1984-010_]. In the latter Bien evokes the dynamic energies hidden between the magnetic poles.

   The title of the work Psoriasis Trap [ 1983-002_] derived from his hearing repeatedly during travel in Iceland that the landscape was excellent for people with skin diseases. The wall piece shown, with an additional floor arrangement is described as a frontal view of a landscape in 360 degrees. The work contains fifteen photographs, which were taken with the aid of a mirror. For Bien the landscape and the skin of the body are by analogy equivalent; he wants to indicate that the surface is a real territory. But the concept of territory also includes for him the notion of surface such as you have with the canvas for the painter. He insists on the movement of the surface as its own reality. Part of the materials he collected are also included, lava stones, cod liver oil, sulphur, silex, silicium, pieces of rubber which he picked up walking the land. He views these as found objects but placed in the way a painter would place colors, and in their relationship to the ‘surface’ no longer found objects. There is one specific abstraction of the photo of a house building, as a red and white measuring stick standing in the landscape. He links the dynamic of the work to a movement that connects to a concept, which has been developed by Rutkowsky, involvement in global rotation.1

   The problem of the surface had preoccupied him during the visits to the polders and he had investigated Mondriaan’s manipulations on the basis of color field work, which he responded to most fully in an essay published in November 1977. The photographs read from right to left. Dates are marked on the photographs, and the sculptural process gives one the directional cue. The usage of clamps is intended to slow down the dynamic process, and acts as a form of punctuation. The space below the stress line is running at 33 deg. and is an ‘ancient horizon’, underneath which is a deposit, or landscape. The arc is concluded with a quotation from Paul Celan; ”Wir trinken nur, weil uns die Spiegel bewirten“, and the movement which is symmetrical is intended as a mirror. Mirrors are commonly included by Bien in works before this period, in approximately 20 different pieces [_1981-002 and -003_], but in this instance it is used to eliminate the symmetry of the mirror by mirroring a third of a circle on both ends. For Bien the distinction is well expressed in Jean Gebser’s work, Die Fundamente der aperspektivischen Welt.2 With the breakdown of symmetry, Bien suggests you enter the field of projective geometry and leave the perspectival world. There is also a direct confrontation with the late characterization of knowledge as perspective occurrence in Nietzsche: “Now man has slowly developed, and knowledge is still developing: thus the world picture becomes more and more true and complete. Of course that picture is only a reflection, always becoming clearer. The mirror itself is, however, not completely foreign and inappropriate to the essence of things, but likewise slowly emerges as the essence of things.”3

   Bien not only challenges the problem of perspectival occurrence and symmetry, but also wishes to eliminate in favor of the spiral, the circular and the enclosed hermeneutic situation. Thus the displacement of horizon, the play with the circle segments, the refusal of any regressive, self-enclosure, by the spiraling element and the complete valorization of surface. The tectonic mobility relates to the notion of global rotation in Rutkowsky, where one understands pace Rutkowsky that all polarities and movements are situated within the gesturing body in its motility and ductility.

   A similar sequence of photographs are included in the work Nordlandroute [_1983-008_] referred to in Chapter 2.4 The one-man show also included a video of the Regal Star-project, which was shown behind screen enclosing the projection like the curtaining of an isolation ward, an element elaborated in the Death Room Interior and the show had no accompanying catalogue, and the one review it received set in train a consistent over-emphasis. Peter Heynen wrote the review, which appeared in the Volkskrant June 1984, whilst the show was still up. Heynen had studied briefly at the Düsseldorf Academy, and was convinced in his hostility towards Bien because of what he emphasized as his relation to Beuys.

   For Heynen the show is somewhere between a barren tundra and an old-fashioned rarity cabinet, “qua vormgeving blijft Bien duidelijk in de schaduw van zijn leraar Joseph Beuys” (tr. in terms of shaping Bien remains dangerously in the shadow of his teacher Joseph Beuys). He adds that there is a forced Beuys look and that at best he is a good student of Beuys. Over the following four years Heynen was to contribute another five articles on the work of Bien. One can trace a shift in attitude in the articles. But, in terms of the reception of Bien in Holland the close linking with Beuys was to remain a consistent emphasis. It was an exaggeration which was gross in its often wounding attempt to describe Bien as a Beuys’ epigone, on the other hand, Bien would insist on the value of what he had learned from the broader conception of social sculpture advanced by Beuys, and in one instance, when making an assessment of his work from the late 70’s and early eighties, stated that; “I discovered that to be able to explore the method of anthropological research, you had to look at Beuys, not study Beuys, but to think Beuys. You had to put the glasses on and gain entry to the field of interdisciplinary research. Before you can give up the discipline, you have to study the discipline, otherwise interdisciplinary also becomes mono-culture!”

   From the time of his arrival in Amsterdam in August 1980, the one strong artistic friendship which he developed was with Jacobus Kloppenburg. For Bien, Kloppenburg was to have a far greater impact on his working methods and life than the years in Düsseldorf, and along with Rutkowsky, helped shape his thinking and attitude as much as any formal experience in an academy, apart from the writings of Rudolf Steiner, Bien’s main intellectual formation was through the process of work itself.5


His first major exhibition in Amsterdam was to take place in the Fodor Museum. The Fodor exhibition was a résumé of the experience of the preceding 7 years. He exhibited the Static Pedestal [_1978-001_] and a work entitled Tripod with Fish-heads [ 1995-042_], which had been first constructed in Iceland. As noted earlier he had made a tape-work of the sound of thousands of codfish hanging out to dry and banging in the wind, called provisionally North Atlantic Tales [_1984-013_]. Its importance in his œuvre is that it was the means by which he understood territory, and it was also related to his very first recording work, the Intensive Care Concerto [_1984-012_] which had been a response to his time in hospital, and later contained allusions to the organ builders who had a workshop at 123 Lauriergracht, the sounds of testing they made for the organ pipes being similar to that of the intensive care units. In one further work he also added an acoustic dimension, that of the Death Room Interior.

   The synasthesia of the tripod and tapes was Bien’s reading of the anthropology of landscape, mediated by his concept of an elaborate polarity, which constituted global rotation. The sampling used by Bien was to “weave and unweave the wind” and one of the dominant motifs of the exhibition is the problem of place, or, the anthropology of location. This is his effort to elaborate an interdisciplinary response to sensation of pressure in the geomorphologic field that he understood as the pressure of the earth. The work Dampfplastik [_1983-011_], which was later broken up and sections incorporated into other works, retains also an acoustic reference to the meaning of territory.

   The hammer and anvil rests on a drum base placed on two large overlapping steel sheets. A lectern shapes structure holds a china white tile. This was a suggestion of a music stand, and the reading was one of partitur and mirror. There is a distant reference to a work which Blinky Palermo had shown Bien in 1976 of a polished metal plate which served as a mirror. After the show the Dampfplastik sculpture was separated as an independent work. The issue of the iconography could be resolved by a form of allegory, the geomorphology is clearly volcanic, and the hammer and anvil traditionally associated with Vulcan, with Daedelus a classical sculptor. The small electric heater was functioning as the ‘mid-night’ sun, and the cross-reference to a mythology of fire and earth made of the North Atlantic Samurai _[_1995-042_] a highly symbolic work. Bien refers to it as a geo-sculpture.

   The geosculpture opens up the question of the Hausfreund in the specific sense that the earth is the sensuous domain of nature, of all that we can see, touch and, as embodied beings, experience. It is also the market place of the world, within which everyday adventures and misadventures, noble deeds and feats of craft and cunning transpire. As in the essay of Hebbel on the Hausfreund, the earth bestows the space in which historical being is founded and works itself out, where an ‘at home’ is felt. But the intrusion of the technological, and the symbolic inversion refuse a permissible Bodenständigkeit and what is once a form of poetic relation to dwelling, is now a search within the reason ‘why’ (Grund) for action.

   Many elements of the original work in the Fodor Museum exhibition are preserved in the North Atlantic Samurai [ 1995-042_], now in the Collectie Zeeuws Museum in Middelburg, which also contains additions. A wall piece was added made of slate plates with notes on glacier activity. He also made an additional series of drawings as footnotes to the room at the time of the acquisition by the Museum [_1995-043_].

   Although the chronology is a little jumbled, Heynen wrote another article on Bien, which takes a less negative view than the one previously cited. It recapitulates more of Bien’s biography, and in the conclusion makes of him a Kasper Hauser figure. Heynen had interviewed Bien in the interval between the two articles, and with that, Bien’s complex relationship to his public, begins, a Dutch Artist persistently thought of as German.



Psoriasis Trap 280 x 460 cm; Photos in iron frame, wood, tape and collected natural materials  Collection Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam



Prepairing the Land for (Re)-Settlement  315 x 486 cm; Photos in metal frames, leather, wood, plexiglass  Collection Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam



Boymans van Beuningen  Eind Morenen 1984g02



Das Tor am Hinterkopf ist offen 300 cm long; Wood, copper, leather Waldo Bien Archive



Nordlandroute (Aschensector Nord) 23 Photos (Island) in metal frames, sand     blasted glass sheets; Each 79 x 67 cm Waldo Bien Archive



Jacobus Kloppenburg, by Philip Mechanicus
Jacobus Kloppenburg, by Philip Mechanicus



North Atlantic Samurai
North Atlantic Samurai



Footnotes to North Atlantic Samurai (11 drawings in frame); Size: A3; Adema brown on paper, cherry wood Waldo Bien Archive



1995-043 Detail
Footnotes to North Atlantic Samurai (11 drawings in frame); Size: A3; Adema brown on paper, cherry wood Waldo Bien Archive (Detail)


Chapter 4


The background of the work entitled Múmö Sˇkúla [ 1985-004 ] has all the elements of a novel of adventure. There is a strange picaro, in which the travels to Iceland become counterpointed with the trip to Tierra del Fuego

   The movement is a symbolic one of polarities within the global rotation. The ethnographic element is also of interest. Múmö Sˇ kúla comes from the language of the Yamana, with the meaning ‘what you say to a person for what one has done to you in order to shame’. This translation is taken from the dictionary of Pastor Thomas Bridges, A Dictionary of the Speech of Tierra del Fuego, St. Gabriel bei Molding, 1933. Yaman has been described as ‘la lengua mas austral del mundo’. Of the five dialects recognised by linguists the terms here are taken from dialecto central. By the time of Bien’s arrival there were almost no native monoglot speakers left; Goldbert de Goodbar according to Alain Fabre in his Las lenguas Indigenas SudAmericanos en la Actualidad, (vol. 2), reports, “pensaba que para 1973 epoca de sus investigaciones, podrian quedar unos 10 locutores del Yamana en Chile en Argentina.“

   The trip to Tierra del Fuego resulted in an exhibition at the Van Reekum Museum, with an accompanying catalogue, in an edition of 420 copies, with an introduction by Frits Bless, the current museum director. Bless reports in his essay the antecedent biographical background of Bien’s ‘encounter’ with Tierra del Fuego. A suitcase which had been left with the Bien family was opened sometime in the 50’s. The original owner had left it there for safe-keeping. His name was Bernard Brandeis, and it is understood he had been taken by Dutch Nazi collaborators and transported to the concentration camp at Oszwieciem, Auschwitz. A book in the suitcase on a voyage to Tierra del Fuego, with woodcuts, is put in the attic, as it was not considered suitable for the children in the family to see. There it was read by Bien and the book was later thrown out in a dustbin by his mother.

   ‘In the late autumn of 1984 Bien leaves for Chile and Argentina: from there he is invited to participate in an archeological expedition to the Cape Horn Archipelago. By that time the inhabitants of Tierra del Fuego have indeed become extinct.’ and ‘...during his three month stay in Tierra del Fuego, Waldo Bien creates a series of drawings that can be read like a travel account: sceneries (sometimes a rudimentary indication, sometimes in detail) but also animals and their skeletons, campfires, trash-heaps and the remainders of campfires – the last signs of life of the extinct nomadic people.’ and ‘The purpose of the journey was not to collect, to observe or to document the externals of that culture, but an attempt to deepen and to fulfil anthropologically, the own culture (sic) through experience.’ Bless also provides the information that in ‘1984, a few months before Bien’s arrival, the last native of Tierra del Fuego dies in a Port Williams mission.’

   Thanks to the existence of a diary, and other documentary sources, it is possible to construct a more accurate account of this journey of Bien’s. The trip was directly taken in response to his early work on Iceland. Clearly the concept of travel is linked to Bien’s early biography. His work on the Holland Amerika Lijn, where he worked as a commis-steward and later as a set decorator, for almost three years had taken him on voyages with frequent visits to the Americas. But, the most important element of the trip was to explore a territory which was relatively unknown.

   Part of the journey was taken with Richard Kahn, an American poet, and during their first expedition from Ushaia, with a group of archaeologists they were set ashore and the greatest part of their equipment was lost in a shipwreck of the landing vessel. The details of the castaways life can be found in postcards which Bien had filled daily and sent to a teacher from his primary school days, whose talk of far away places had fired Bien’s interest in travel. “I found artefacts during the whole trip along the Beagle canal, both on Chilean and Argentinian sides. Since many years the territories had been ‘zona militar’, and was very desolate. In Bahia Valentin we were the first to go on land (ship-wrecked) and there were artefacts all over the surface . . . I collected some material I found on the surface.” Hernan Vidal (the Chilean archeologist with whom Bien and Khan had ‘hitched’ a lift) and others returned after a week, and started to discover what was in the midden. “I kept writing to my teacher Jan Fijten whom I had not communicated with in decades. I found the material, whalebones, ribs from seals, arrow points, harpoon points. I had the material in my luggage and I wanted to take them home to use in an art-work.”

   As Bien was developing a polaroid shot of what he had collected Vidal came in and saw, what he took to be, improperly acquired artefacts, including ready-mades and constructions which Bien had worked on from the bric à brac he had been collecting in the rubbish midden. What emerged was a serious discussion about the decisive questions of ownership and whether human involvement constituted the artefact, and what was, or was not, rubbish. _The issue in dispute was what determined an object in a specified cultural way, and what excluded. Bien’s answer took the form of drawing with neolithic carbon on pieces of paper and presenting this to the expedition leader. The sketches were immediate responses within the midden, done with the carbon left on the surface. Bien’s aim was the re-generation of morphology, what he called a different friendship to the earth, and a different way of reading the organisation of knowledge.

   Further important consequences flowed from Bien’s tracking in Tierra del Fuego; firstly, it introduced carbon into his work, secondly, it moved forward his conception of photography, and, it re-questioned his sense of boundary and belonging; and what may have been its most decisive influence, the moving away from the problem of the surface which had occupied him since the walk in the polders. It is here that the crucial shift towards his work, The Death Room Interior, takes preparation, and in some sense it may be argued that the work around this journey represents an important turning point in his œuvre.

Returning to the Múmö Sˇ kúla, one may say that it is a musical instrument constructed with a specific function to ‘vocalise’ the landscape of Tierra del Fuego. The tone analysis has been determined by Bien in response to the flora, fauna and ‘tierra’ of the place. The flutes, into which air is driven, were made of some wood gathered there, and from the organ pipe wood in Amsterdam. There is a note in Bien’s hand which says that “only the tongues of the flutes were made of Nothofagus Beteloïde for which he indicates Flora, and whale bone (Fauna) and basalt from the Isla Navarino”. Frits Bless correctly gives the botanical classifications as nothofagus antarctica. The flute sizes are 5.2 x 245 x 32 m. (tierra), 2.70 x 0.215 x 0.25 m. (flora) and 0.455 x 0.03 m. (fauna).

   The very first whale-oil works are based on photographs made in Tierra del Fuego and Iceland. Indeed Bien insists that in photography he wanted to lead the process back towards movement, a kind of pre-technical activity before the capturing takes place. The photograph of the fox [ Hunter’s Paradise I, 1990-021_] has been enlarged and placed between two transparent sheets of perspex which have then been filled with whale oil. The references move back and forward, to the social economy and ties, to an emblematic animal, and with the appearance of the butcher’s knife [_1986-016_], the idea of the cutting-off which every visual process requires; its suspension of other elements of reality to achieve its real apotropaic goal, not as is often assumed in the rational account of the pictorial, ‘to give a window to the world’. The knife has the meaning of this cleaving and cutting, essential to any partial showing which attempts to engage the viewer in a form of fetishistic look, and intensify the concept of the real by its diminution. Violence or force establish the real of necessity.

   Bien describes the whale oil as ‘sublime’. The whale oil was better than the use of mineral oil because it was closer to nerves and bones. Bien had already photographed whale bones and in the development of the print intervened in order to suggest the unidirectional tracks of the wind which causes the flora to grow at a particular incline. This had been part of the geo-acoustic of Múmö Sˇ kúla. With the whale oil he wanted the intimacy of the body, the form of viscosity which fascinates. He did not wish to delimit his own interaction with either the photography or the slow mobility of the oil that both preserved and transformed the image. In a later work Bien again takes up the whale bones in an acoustic way. This sonic property of material is as formally important as any other taxonomy and the least regarded.

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Múmö Skúla   Size not specified (8 x 10 meters floor space); Sound sculpture with bellows, organ pipes, stone (basalt from Isla de Navarino), whale bone, nothofagus beteloïdus; Source: Tierra del Fuego Waldo Bien Archive









Artefacts Tierra del Fuego Bahia Valentin



Tierra Del Fuego Carbon Drawing - 024



Hunter’s Paradise I (Bahia Valentin, Tierra del Fuego) 135 x 185 cm; Photo in whale oil and plexiglass  Waldo Bien Archive (Detail)



Sharp Cut Face Size as usual; Butcher’s axe with wooden grip Waldo Bien Archive