The limitless world of artist Bert Jacobs

Our residency project for emerging Belgian artists, Dusangneuf Osangsett, recently welcomed Turnhout-born, Brussels-based artist Bert Jacobs for its fourth cycle of residences. In this candid interview, the artist – despite being trained in fine arts and print-making from Ghent’s KASK – discusses refusing to limit himself to any one idea or medium as well as his plans for the three-month stay.

At its core, what is your work about? What is its starting point and statement?

Ideas come when you least expect them: while driving your car, on your bike or waiting at a bus stop. I always make sure to note them down, and then depending on the idea and context, I might be able to find the right moment to use that idea later. So most of the times starting points are old ideas, or an improvisation on something that’s happening in the environment. For example, last summer Bekegem’s art organisation Plan B asked me to create a small intervention in the village’s public space. It’s in the heart of the countryside, which reminded me of an abandoned garden I bumped into during my travels in Spain. I wanted to recreate this garden, to create a space where nature can just grow and people can come and watch it, and contribute to it – so this lead to me building a greenhouse, with a lot of windows I collected.

Space is something that I often think about in my work; whether physical or the more mental. It has nothing to do with functionality or surrealism, but more with one’s experiences or memories, and its revival or visualisation. I’ll come across certain things, and my first instinct is to try and capture it, to register the phenomenal sight fully. We constantly take – or at least, I do – so much for granted. So I like to put a focus on one thing, which will then allow me to understand it better somehow. In turn, the intention isn’t necessarily to make the audience visualise or feel, but rather force them to look; to notice, pay attention, and appreciate them more. Perhaps that makes my work rather situationist.

Can you talk to us about your approach in general? What characterises your work?

It’s hard for me to pinpoint my approach – I started off with print-making, but now my work lies mainly in installations and sculptures. But no style of arts is off-limits – I like to approach my work with an “alles is goed/everything is good” attitude. If I’m going to attempt something I’ve never tried before, I’ll reach out to people who I know have the knowledge; either to ask for help, or to collaborate. I enjoy building stuff, and I’d like to think that’s reflected in my work as well, these aspects of bricolage or patchwork. I see creativity as finding solutions for some problems. I really enjoy the working process, because I find it’s sometimes more – or at least just as – important as the results itself. It’s the simple practice of questioning every step you take, and in turn questioning yourself.

When it comes to presenting my work, I tend to incorporate the audience as part of the performance as well. I see it as being a sort of dinner part host: gathering people around a table and having a conversation; instead of directing them and giving out instructions. I find interaction and engagement to be really important in my work.

I like to approach my work with an “alles is goed/everything is good” attitude.

What are the challenges you face as an artist working in Belgium today?

I’ve luckily never really experienced any cons to working in Belgium, only pros. In Berlin for example, the benefits are of course its wide networks and the sheer amount of people coming from everywhere – but it’s also difficult to find a fixed studio. So on a practical level, Belgium’s pretty great. Also, even though it’s a very small country, there’s still so much weirdness to discover: across a very small distance, you can find completely different lifestyles and environments.

Talk to us about the people around you, your local scene. To what extent does it inspire and influence you?

Towards the end of my Masters at KASK, Stijn Vanderpoorten – flatmate and fellow print-making student – and I started organising events at our shared house, and using it as an exhibition room. This eventually lead to the curiousity cabinet, which would transform the scenery for every event: exhibitions, concerts, parties, poetry festivals. We started inviting and hosting a lot of either local bands, or those travelling through Ghent; especially once we started working together with Kraak. This was a period where the local scenes were creating opportunities and platforms for my work, but where I could also give back and contribute. I’d rather get my ideas from my surroundings and learn from the people around me, than say well-respected but distant legendary artists. Gabriella for instance makes collages, and her brother Ernesto “Bear Bones Lay Low” Gonzalez, of Tav Exotic makes amazingly crazy music. Or the Different Fountains duo. These are all super creative people, who influence and encourage me in my work the most.

What does success look like to you?

Being productive, doing lots of work – and finding joy in it. Growing together in the network that you’re in, and then having more means for more space, to make more stuff for more people – these are some aspirations.

What role should contemporary art occupy in the community, to you?

There’s so many layers to art: first it brings people together, like sports or music. Then it’s also a form of story-telling; and it’s a field that touches all different layers of society, and plays and questions it. There’s art in everything, and everybody has a connection to it somehow, somewhere. So I feel that art has a crucial, non-functional role in society – it questions your own reality, both as an artist and as a viewer. And if you look around at what’s happening in the contemporary art scene, it’s super diverse and yet somehow all accepted. There’s a lot of freedom here: “if there are rules, you have to overthrow them.” Making art is the weirdest game in society.

Making art is the weirdest game in society.

Which artists do you follow, look at for inspiration? Either from the past or the present.

I really like Christoph Schlingensief, the German artist with the surrealist projects: an opera somewhere in an African desert, and the whole village which was founded around it; or his crazy ‘90s MTV shows in the Berlin U-Bahn. His work is very much on the edge of film, theatre and realities, but in a punky, very grotesque way – he loves Faust, Jesus, and lots of paint. Joseph Beuys is another artist who I strongly admire. Otherwise a writer that I often draw from is Baltasar Gracián, the 17th Century Spanish writer. His dense book The Art of Wordly Wisdom contains Gracián’s advice on how to organise your life in relation to others, or how to get the best out of any situation. Even though it’s three to four hundred years old, it’s still very up to date – the concerns that they both have, I still see that in today’s world.

What lead you to apply to Dusangneuf Osangsett? And what do you have planned so far?

A friend suggested that I check Dusangneuf out, and I was instantly won over by the “urban farmhouse-in-the-city” aspect of the residency. For now, I’m working on a video, and will be making sculptures for a summer exhibition. Admittedly a lot of the expectations I started with have kind of dissolved since then, so for now I’m trying to get a feel for this new environment, and see how I can use this space to the fullest.