The Heart of Sisyphus
Diary of Time without Destination
The Ten Thousand Things
When Zeus seduced a beautiful girl again against her will, the successful king of Corinth, Sisyphus, told the girl’s father who the villain was who had abducted her. The king had to pay heavily for that. Immediately the mighty Zeus ordered Thanatos to put the king to death. After having arrived in the underworld, Sisyphus cunningly managed to escape, only to happily continue his bawdy lifestyle in the world above. But again, Thanatos struck, only harder this time. Sisyphus was thrust to his death and condemned to the very worst. He was going to have to push a massive boulder up a mountain, until all eternity, because, just as he had reached the top, using all his strength, the boulder would slip away from him, and roll back down again, after which his terrible ordeal would have to start all over again.
When it comes to morale, Greek mythology is rather ambiguous. But if you lift Sisyphus out of this story’s context, you can clearly see the outline of the human condition. Every newborn is condemned to the lifelong search for the meaning of its own existence, within the reach of death. Condemned to climbing, and never reaching the summit, because there are no answers. The boulder is the symbol of our own eternal guessing of who we are, what we must do, and why we must do it. And strangely enough, almost finding out, and then, completely exhausted, we give ourselves up to the Grim Reaper, who we will then embrace as a merciful alternative for the torture of our condition humaine. When the French philosopher Albert Camus retells the myth in 1940, when he pictures how Sisyphus was condemned like this to be such a human being, like all human beings, it leaves only one fitting characteristic for our lives: it is completely absurd.
Jos den Brok read Camus’ book when he was a boy of about seventeen years old. He was going to experience the two options that the writer offers to escape the consequences of this truth: suicide, and the spiritual, without reverting to Camus’ text again. Life drags him to it and through it. He held on to his desire to break out, to take a courageous step, and leave behind all things familiar. And then, suddenly, an opportunity arises which Camus does not mention, but which presents itself as if out of nowhere. Art.
Who doesn’t have the desire to retrieve that first fantastic encounter with a work of art? That first amazing experience when colours and shapes made your body sizzle from head to toe? With Jos it happened with Willem de Kooning’s Rosy Fingered Dawn which he painted on Long Island. The artist depicts the break of dawn. That moment when the sun already weaves colours through the atmosphere, announces itself with its tenderest of tints, arrives, but is just not quite there yet. Your heart fills with you don’t know what. Your throat fills, your eyes. Ecstatically, you’re standing in the unnameable.
And so, the path of art ended up on his way. Jos never encountered art when he grew up. There was no foundation or preparation whatsoever. But now he saw more and more artworks, and he didn’t need any explanation at all. An intuitive understanding surfaced. He was already intertwined with it before he even realized that art existed. A performance by the artist Servie Jansen struck him. A grid of white sticks was on the floor. The sticks were picked up, raised, mixed up, and thrown about. Something had to be built. There was a starting point, an unlimited explosion of energy followed, and then, slowly, exhaustion. Eventually the performer collapses with a bundle of sticks, and then, nothing. Jos recognized the desire to create order, which, in his case too, always resulted in chaos. He felt the event in his bone marrow.
He could have been there, when Joseph Beuys, in 1965, spoke to a dead hare about art, his head covered with goldleaf and honey. It was as if he felt the knowledge that was being exchanged within this action between artist and audience in his senses, without actually being there. One can relate to the spirit of the old, beyond the dead matter, and disclose the source of creation all over again. He knew it.
Jos den Brok joined the Zeitgeist, where artists examined and touched everything with their bodies, where they communicated with their hearts and limbs, and tested themselves, deep into every fibre and ability.
He was, and is, light. A branch that bends and springs back. He had to seek, doubt, become angry, and hold back. Restless. Sometimes wild from pain and desperation. Then again cleansed and serene like a child.
It is striking that every time he erased the traces of his artistry. He disposed of everything in the desire to get rid of it all. But the urge to create kept coming back. He stops, freezes, convinced that everything he does is complete nonsense; and yet, he has no choice but to move, to paint, to draw, to construct, to write. While doing so, he is struggling with the essence of his being. Who is he as a man? As an artist? As a creature? A whole series of personalities has gathered within his head. And then there’s Het Kunstmassief. A group of ten creative minds who each represent a certain part of his existence. There is Oswald Morave who interprets destruction. Micky van Boeyen, with her feminine aspects. Thomas Zilver, whose work is mainly abstract and lyrical, with figurative elements. Marc Antheil and his colourful paintings in acrylic paint and gouache, and Christian Amorson, who construes three-dimensional work using photos and glass. Jos is also the eleventh person, who manages the group as a gallery keeper, keeps track of the bank accounts, and transports the works of art to exhibitions. The various individual artists are becoming more and more real. Their work is being made and is in demand. They themselves are in demand. Their business expands and becomes confusing. He puts an end to it.
Many of these types of projects signify his artistry. And every time it starts all over again. There is a basic idea which he starts working on in an associative manner. Then there are hunches, coincidences, failures, aesthetics. It can be anything with which the process is being pulled along. It runs, until there is unrest, annoyance, and anger. His work becomes ballast, it stifles him. The line is going to be broken again, and the result is destroyed in a liberating gesture. One time more radical than the next. A few pictures of performances and installations remain, but no film negatives. A few drawings and paintings. Some digital video files still exist. There is some graphic work left. Some painted work, some sheets of paper full of written words, picture postcards, and personal photos. A small collection of newspaper and magazine clippings that touched him once. A child, buried in fine gravel, one hand to its head. Portraits of women. A painting of Saint Sebastian who had been pierced with arrows. Skulls.
Sisyphus was condemned to mirror the absurd actions of mortals in his difficult, passionate, but completely futile attempts to push the boulder to the summit; in other words, to objectively understand his life as a meaningful entity. Then maybe tomorrow? Perhaps tomorrow he will succeed in finding the heart of the matter? But he cannot succeed. Not now, not ever. For whoever experiences that, life is a strange and estranging urge, an inhospitable place that throws you around and casts you off. Again and again the light goes out.
Then the idea surfaces to hit this Sisyphus in the heart. Not the pushing, but the boulder should be made subject. The rock in which everything one has ever done, believed and wanted is being condensed. The rock that made you carry on living, despite death, despite the ripping understanding of the futility of it all. Penetrating, instead of forcing it upwards. Grab a hold of the absurd, drop it, and let it shatter in a thousand pieces. To break away from time by stating that it doesn’t have to go anywhere, doesn’t have to be, or mean, anything. To make a Diary of Time without Destination.
Order is in Jos’ blood. It is a necessity in the battle against his inner turmoil. Only this time he will let go of everything. This time he is allowed to mess around like a child. Digging, pounding, and tearing. But he is also allowed to make things pretty: having treetops rustle high above him, or having a colour radiate in all its beauty and clarity. Anything goes. Even something that is ‘nothing’ can just stay ‘nothing’. He limits himself to arranging fragments of finished material from all the years he has been working, extremely playfully, loosely, and by using his senses. Jos may find solace in a new work that has it all. To be there as an artist, beyond all logic.
But there is almost no way he can avoid structure. He must combine things, make one thing out of two, jump from two diptychs to three; three pieces that always seem to build an entirety. To him, this approach touches on The Ten Thousand Things of the Tao:
The Tao generated the one.
The one generated two.
Two generated three.
Three generated the ten thousand things.
So how many things are there supposed to be in the end? Suddenly, there is the secret of the number four. Not in its ancient symbolism, but only in what this number means to Jos himself. Four and eight, figures that form the absolute top for him. The Italian artist Carlo has the same thing. Four, and nothing but four. Four holes, four ships, four rifles, everything always in fours. There doesn’t have to be a reason other than that four feels good to him. Jos too prefers the number four, from when he was a young boy. When there was candy to be won by guessing a number, Jos guessed: “four”.
The number four, it’s a cube, a house, a framework. It gives him a foundation. Then this grouping moves on to colours. He picks four. Black. Red. Green. Blue. For four different series of works. The subjects come together in these colours. They are death, sex, the heart, and transformation. They form different groups of imaginations, each with its own character and sensitivity. The group that relates to death is being characterized by words like wither, crush, burn, and sink, but also by silence and cold. Words like passion, music, and blood belong to the red part. Blue is the light and the clarity and is about to break through and emerge in a different substance. With green, the heart, it’s all about self-examination, depression, and trauma. But still, the content is mixed. The suffering, for instance, belongs in every one of the series, and death is also there when it’s about sex. The green part is being characterized by longing and dreams, by pain, and the connection with childhood. When all the forces, that the series push upwards, are being pointed out, they are becoming evident in each of the groups. In the end, the series of works find a place in four books, put together in a block-shaped, red cassette. Not something to browse through quickly, because of the tight and compact shape in which they have been put, but more so because of the intensity of the consecutive images. Tardiness is essential.
As you digest the contents, you form an intimate space, together with the books. A space where an avalanche of experiences engulfs you. Sometimes the intensity of it all takes your breath away, but there are also pages where your chest fills with an endless space. No, this work is not a statement. Nothing is being said or announced. You’re communicating with one man’s life experience on display. One unique human being. A remarkable human being, who says: “I am everything, because I am everything and everyone. Is there a difference between me and that rock? Between me and that tree? Between me and that passer-by, that hobo, that woman? There is nothing that I am not as well.” And when he is saying that, that’s when you think back of that collective of artists in Het Kunstmassief, all of whom he was himself. You can hear one of the four alter egos of Fernando Pessoa speak:
I am nothing.
Never have been anything.
Yet inside of me I have all the dreams of the world.
The Heart of Sisyphus forms the concentrate of the oeuvre of Jos den Brok since 1979. This is where the essence lies. Let’s start with the black book ‘Grondloos’ (‘Groundless’), marked by fear and fire. Then we go to Red, which unites every emotion thinkable, and is a pure impression of ecstasy and sorrow.
Next is green, which bears the title November. In this book you will always see reflections, hidden deeply within the images. We are allowed to look at the photos of the child that he was. He embraces it, just like the child that he is, and the girl that he carries around in his heart for the entirety of his life. The fight is over. He quotes Peter Gabriel.
I caught sight of my reflection
I caught it in the window
I saw the darkness in my heart
I saw the signs of my undoing
They had been there from the start.
Then follows the blue book, that carries the title I come to rise in the sun, and everything flows together. The dancing shadow figures, the ladders that are being taken down, broken, and climbed. The wheel that turns. The suffering face behind the shrouds of colours. They remained but transform.
There are written parts in all four books. Words that are written on paper, with pen and ink. Or in paint, written with a finger.
You can tell that they are not meant to be read. Julia Cameron said that writing unlocks the way to one’s creativity, and that’s how he uses it. The writing in these books will always remain an expression of emotion, without name.
The body, its presence, is very powerful in them. Crawling, searching in spaces, erasing itself, or exposed to the brightest light. They are distillates of the performances in which self-examination was at the centre. Then there’s the child, being nurtured. Breasts, Madonnas, the mother who cherishes the child, lays down the dead child, over and over again. There is an angel in the blue book who carries the child to heaven. There are many childishly drawn figures of which the hands end in hearts. Jos is holding up a sign with the word ‘liefde’ (‘love’). A very old face, almost deceased, is shown over two pages, marked by expectation and redemption. There are rings, and tumbling, spherical smudges everywhere. Skeletons. Remains of X-rays. Dead people. And every time there is paint. Spotty, dripping, or solidified in pasty piles. There is no judgement, no conclusion. It is just like how it was with Paula Modersohn (1876-1907), who, with her self-portrait, could say nothing more than Dies ist (‘This is’).
It took four years to complete this work. It was torture and bliss at the same time. It supplied the experience that creating, in the most intense manner, is the only protection against absurdity and emptiness. It may not be an answer, but it is a way.
The Heart of Sisyphus marks an end point. Everything that was left of forty years of artistry was included in this one comprehensive object. Through rows of crossed-out years, put together in blocks, and merged into the images, or running off the pages, things are being included that don’t physically exist anymore. They form a unity with those expressive fragments of the journey, the remains of continuously climbing and crashing down, forged together into that one thing that has to speak. These series are absolutely pure. Now there is room for the new knowing.
Occasionally, it happens to me again. The thrill that Jos felt with Rosy Fingered Dawn. It happened to me here, because this is a book which you can have resonate in your own intimacy. A moment of mercy for me. A moment of bliss. Ecstasy is the most beautiful thing an artist can give to others.
Ans van Berkum
Art historian, curator, publicist