Over the past decade, Dutch artist Guido van der Werve has created a series of 35mm films and videos that pair classical musical arrangements-often by Chopin or Mozart, and, lately, by the artist himself—with feats of endurance. Recently, Luhring Augustine assembled a two-part survey of the 34-year-old artist’s career, with works from 2003 to the present spread out over the gallery’s two locations, in Chelsea and Bushwick.
Shown in Chelsea, van der Werve’s newest and most ambitious work, Nummer veertien, home (2012), is an hour-long HD film wherein a traditional requiem composed by the artist scores footage of his 1,000-mile triathlon from Warsaw to Paris. The film’s conceit is based on a legend: Chopin supposedly carried a silver cup of dirt with him in his move from Poland to France, to remember his homeland. Now, for his journey, van der Werve sets out to bring a silver cup of dirt from Poland to Chopin’s grave in Paris’s Père Lachaise cemetery.
The film begins at the Holy Cross Church in Warsaw, where Chopin’s heart-smuggled out of France and back to Poland by his sister-is interred. Van der Werve, looking pitifully amphibious in a head-to-toe wetsuit, sits at a piano, surrounded by a symphony orchestra playing the music for his first act, titled “I found sadness.” The film goes on to feature Marathon Man-esque scenes of van der Werve swimming, running and biking-often looking like a dead ringer for the weary, thunder-thighed cyclist in The Triplets of Belleville. This narrative is complemented by the life story, told in subtitles, of Alexander the Great. Throughout the film, the artist includes madcap visual moments-errant explosions; an orchestra packed into a tiny home-drawing attention away from the spectacle of his increasing exhaustion. The final act, titled “I don’t feel the pain anymore,” shows the hobbled artist, moving with tentative strides, sweat staining his black shirt. At the cemetery, he sets down the silver cup, stands back for a moment, then reaches to straighten it ever so slightly. This syncopated gesture sets tender reality against the artist’s superhuman strength of will.
A second work in Chelsea, Nummer dertien: emotional poverty (2010-11), consists of multiple parts, including a 12-hour film, a text-and-photo display and slides documenting van der Werve’s annual “Race to Rachmaninoff,” wherein he jogs 30 miles from New York City to the composer’s grave in Valhalla, N.Y. In this work, coping strategies for melancholy—music, exercise—become poetic refrains.
In Bushwick, eight short films were on view, including Nummer negen, the day I didn’t turn with the world (2007), a time-lapse documentation of the artist standing for 24 hours at the North Pole. While he shimmies to keep warm, the clouds above him carry out their own quiet performances, skittering across the skyline. Nummer zes, Steinway grand piano, wake me up go to sleep, and all the colors of the rainbow (2006) shows van der Werve borrowing a grand piano from a dealer to play in his apartment in Amsterdam. The tension over whether or not the piano will fit inside—it is seen being lifted by crane and carefully inserted through the apartment’s front window-borders on sexual. The piano almost entirely fills the space of the room, and the artist’s rapture in playing it is clear. In the end, the instrument exits the window it entered, like a capricious lover one could never hope to keep.
Photo: Guido van der Werve: Nummer veertien, home, 2012, HD film, approx. 60 minutes; at Luhring Augustine.
Dutch artist Guido van der Werve has been slowly developing ways to combine his training in classical piano with his current interest in filmmaking. One film (2005) depicts him playing an upright piano on a floating dock in the middle of a river in Finland. In another (2006) he acquires a grand piano and squeezes it, an orchestra and a conductor into his incredibly small Amsterdam apartment, where he stages a recital before the costly instrument is repossessed.
For his second show at Monitor, van der Werve presented his most ambitious project to date: Nummer twaalf: variations on a theme: The king’s gambit accepted, the number of stars in the sky and why a piano can’t be tuned or waiting for an earthquake. An elaborate, 40-minute high-definition video that was two years in the making, it was shown as a large wall projection. Nummer twaalf combines music with chess—another of the artist’s pursuits—and an obsession with insoluble problems.
The video is divided into three “movements.” The first opens with van der Werve in a cabin, thinking aloud about the vast number of potential chess games and the time that would be required to play them all. The action then shifts to van der Werve and chess master Leonid Yudasin playing the “King’s Gambit,” a game Yudasin invented, on a chessboard-cum-piano designed by the artist, which plays a note each time a move is made. The game is scripted as a perfect match that ends in a draw. The artist had previously translated Yudasin’s chess diagram into a score for the chessboard-piano; he later added music for strings. That piece, and an actual nine-piece string orchestra, accompanies the two chess players at their game, a performance that takes place at New York’s Marshall Chess Club, where Marcel Duchamp used to play.
In the video’s second movement, van der Werve is back in the cabin, propounding a theory about how many stars there are in the sky and how long it might take to count them. The video moves on to scenes of him climbing the devastated Mount St. Helens to its smoldering peak to count the stars. In the final movement, we see the artist once again in the cabin, musing about why pianos are always off-key and discussing the intricate history of piano tuning. At one point, the camera pulls back to reveal that the cabin rests on the San Andreas Fault. By going to the volcano and the fault, the artist places himself in absurdist contradictions, courting danger while pondering problems that would take more than a lifetime to solve.
For the opening of the exhibition, which consisted of the video and framed stills whose mats are embellished with chess diagrams, van der Werve and a different chess master played the King’s Gambit again, accompanied by a live chamber orchestra. In his impressive video, which draws together passions for music, chess and filmmaking, van der Werve constructs a marvelous, poetic realm.
Photo: Guido van der Werve: Nummer twaalf, 2009, video, 40 minutes; at Monitor.