DELACAVE Association For Art

Frederik van Houten is a physicist who assists Stuart Alexander Schibli with the mathematical aspects of his performances. He invited Schibli to sit for an interview.


«Painting. Open Space. Architecture» – The Art of the Short Story

Frederik van Houten
Your performances take place outdoors, why?

Stuart Alexander Schibli
That’s no secret. It’s because of the spatial tension that open spaces provide. But my performances also take place indoors – in constructed spaces. It all depends on the context I’m looking for.

Your first performance took place in 1995 in Trin (Graubünden, Switzerland), so more than two decades ago, and was followed by more performances at home and abroad. What interests you about open space?

As I said, the tension. This tension is present indoors, too – it’s just a different kind. Chance and unpredictability play a key role in open spaces. The weather and light conditions are constantly changing, which can create phenomena related to the appearance of the work and its surroundings. Indoor performances, on the other hand, can be fully controlled, an interior space is chosen if it provides the right context. A flop in this setting is almost impossible. The demands of working in open space are such that falsehood is doomed to failure, and that’s great. You must compete with grand dimensions, such as cathedral-like spatial depths and ceiling heights, and prevail against them. You have to deal with a kind of power that can only be mastered in a high-wire balancing act.

When you say «flop» – has a performance of yours ever flopped? And, if so, how do you deal with that?

By «flop» I mean that the short story I want to tell doesn’t work. Up to now, they have all worked. But there was an occasion in France where an installation – an architectural structure – had to be dismantled for political reasons.


It sounds like that particular story worked too well [laughs].

You work slowly, with groups of works developing over years or decades. What role does time play?

It’s mostly multi-part short stories in mutable form that are being told – stories that, depending on the composition of their parts, also change what they have to say. The practical realisation of these stories takes time, not the idea behind them. The location for these performances must also correspond with the story to be told. Once a fitting location is found, then come the studies, lighting conditions, spatial and site axes – all that can happen quickly. But it can also take years, including time for mistakes. In the process, the work of art to be connected with the location can also change, and this might invalidate the location, or the opposite. Creating individual short stories is one thing, connecting location and story is another.

I read that, as a painter, you «create architectures of real existences independent of their external form». That sounds complex. How do you bring the different disciplines together?

It’s not the intellect that’s at work here. The same principle applies as before: the high-wire balancing act. But the term «irrational painting» aside, it’s not about rationality or irrationality. It’s another domain.

You’re not part of any scene. Your projects are large-scale and take place in various countries. This is rare.

Maybe. I’m not Croesus, for sure, but I have my convictions. I live very modestly to support the projects. With Delacave, I also have the support of an institution that guarantees my independence. But an explanation is certainly also to be found in the events of my life. Surprisingly, it was often conflicts that led to unexpected acquaintanceships that, over the years, turned into solid friendships – it was fate or luck or whatever you want to call it.

That sounds humane.

Humane … I don’t know. I’m a live-and-let-live kind of person, and so run the gamut from charming to repellent … but it’s no use trying to escape who you are. I’ll remain a miserable hypocrite. Still, my friends are very loyal (laughs).

Thanks for the interview.

It was my pleasure.


Frederik van Houten is a member of the scientific advisory board of the DELACAVE Association For Art.
Special thanks to Fabienne Andrea Keller and Todd Brown.