Antwerp-based artist Lieven Segers (1975) talks to us about his oeuvre in the context of his upcoming curatorial endeavor, Pom’ Po Pon Po Pon Pon Pom Pon at Middelheim Museum and his exhibition The Joke Is On Me at Base Alpha. His numerous works – with exhibitions, either as curator or artist, lectures, and workshops – tread a fine line between the tragic and the comic, bearing a somber sense of humour.
Can we first start by talking about your work and how it connects with your work at Middleheim and your oeuvre?
In my art practice there are things happening that are on the same level of importance: making my own work, curating, and teaching in Hasselt and in Genk’s C Mine. I was invited to curate a show at Middelheim when Menno Meewis, the old director, and Sara Weyns, the current director, asked me, as a young artist at the time, to give a lecture about something that was not about my work. So I thought about doing it on how humor is involved with art, because art at times can feel very serious… also, the works that I like in art history or contemporary art are mostly connected to some kind of humor, the darker side of humor. Then I was asked if I wanted to have a show around it. I had organized shows before, but it was nice to have a bigger space and a budget to invite other artists I liked. The show was called A Meeting Between the Tragic and the Funny, it had an element of humor, but it also had the contra point to this; humor was something you would see on the first level, but after a while you would see the darker part, or what the world is really about, this darker, difficult place, what you do between birth and death, which humor helps talk about, and visualize. That was in 2008-2009. Later, Sarah and I met again, and suggested we do another show, so last summer she asked me to have it this year. We did not entirely know what to do, but I did know I wanted to work together with Sarah. So we made the selection and decided to put all the works in one line, like a parade, like a fanfare, as if they were walking out of the museum. I like that you have really old works next to newer and really colorful ones, each neighbor really influences one another.
How does curating this exhibition, and in general, relate to your work?
It somehow feeds each other, I am not sure how, but it does. Art has to make people look at the world, or this thing between birth and death, in a different way, with another perspective – as an artist you can make people look at art in a different way. For example, these sculptures are usually not meant to be shown that way. And for the exhibition at Base Alpha I had also put the works in a line, on a thirty meter wall I made in the gallery.
You mentioned you were completing a PhD?
I have been working on a PhD since 2008, up until the last show I had. It was a coincidence, I met somebody from the academy, who saw that I had given lectures, that I had the exhibition, and in general that my work involves humor, and he asked asked if I wanted to make it official and do research on it. I don’t believe in doing a PhD in the opportunistic way. Art happens when you make it in your atelier, and in your atelier there is no money involved or no ambition of selling it, or getting it somewhere, it is a fight with yourself, or with the world, and when it goes outside then it can go in the art market. For me art is not about writing or just telling, but about showing, which means that the PhD I was doing would also to be about showing. I curated more than 15 exhibitions, I was in more that 50 exhibitions as an artist, I had more than 10 or 15 master classes and workshops about it, I had lectures about it, I was always discussing it with people in bars, and that whole amount of activity, which did not always go in the same direction, I did for 8 years… and then it stopped last week, for which I made a final exhibition, which is now at Base Alpha. I made a 30 meter wall in the gallery, and I had the opportunity to show twelve new works on one side and the in the back side were the images of where the work came from. Twelve is from the twelve different roles I had as an artist during these 8 years, as an artists researching. It’s good a number, Jesus had 12 apostles, and in the middle ages there were a lot of important things with the number 12.
How did you know, and when, that this is what you wanted to do?
How do you know what you want to do? Well, I graduated in photography in 2000, and after a while I had photography exhibitions, then I started to make drawings… why? I don’t know… there is a pen and paper, and then you just draw. But still, I have the feeling these drawings are like photography; a moment I capture of things that are important to me, or that I read or hear somewhere in a song, in a conversation or in a movie, all in a way ‘stolen’ from reality, like in photography. It is not that I just stay in my atelier, it all comes from the outside. I also live in my atelier, so I am always there. I have to go through there to go to my kitchen, and that is also a metaphor for how everything works. In my case, being an artist and thinking of doing something does not have a time limit … that is always the painter’s horror, knowing when you have to stop.
Why this constant focus on humor in your art ?
Humor is not about laughter, but more serious than it appears, it’s about people looking at the human condition, or like mankind looking at mankind and making jokes about it… and I think art is also doing that, it is a really interesting tool for trying to understand what we are doing and why we are doing it.
Is humour in art something you consciously thought more about after starting PhD, or was it always present in your approach to life?
The question could be if in front the jury, yes, there is a difference. In this case, there is a difference because there is a higher concentration of what your theme is (humor in this case), and that you are always connected to it, and with people asking you to give lectures on it … would it not be like that without the PhD? I don’t know, I did not do it without the PhD. What is a PhD? This thing you do where you have this meta situation, where you know and communicate what you are doing. But I think good artists always do that. They are more or less aware of their movements, they are not always strictly analyzing while working on something, they let it become something, and after a while it will find its place … and then it can be analyzed, and know what it was and how it happened.
For your last exhibition, how did the title ‘The joke is on me” come about?
The joke is always on you, no? It was also because of the whole PhD, and just living and doing things, there is always some humor. I also was playing a bit with the idea of whether I was going graduate, because I had to be in front of jury, and just thinking of what they would say, that it was not a PhD – that would have been very nice for me, if they said no. I would be in every newspaper as the first person that did not get their PhD in art. But they thought it was very good, so it did not work out. In the end if I did not get the PhD my career was not going to change, my life would not change. I don’t really need a diploma.
This very fine line between humour and tragedy, how do you reconcile it in your work?
The best way is to have a helicopter view of what you are doing, or what other people are doing, or in which community you are living in and what your life is about … all in your own way.
Were there certain people in your life that pushed you to do what you do now?
When I was in school I was terrible with authority. I went to different schools, and was thrown out of four of them… then there was my uncle, a brother of my mother who was a good artist, and he saw my drawings. It was because of him. He told my mother to put me in some sort of artistic situation, and that helped me. It is why I am doing now what I am doing.All images courtesy of Lieven Segers POM’ PO PON PO PON PON POM PON Middelheim Museum Runs until the 27th March, 2016