Looking at a photo you see a space constructed from white-grey sheets. The sheets have been cut up in a pattern of irregular shapes piled up into columns. The columns frame three frames, behind which a torn-apart space extends. It is a frayed construction, looking familiar yet strange. Far away and close by are fighting for priority, obliterating your sense of scale. It is a building, and yet it isn’t, for in this image nothing is what it once was. In her photo works, Marjan Teeuwen thus creates grand, monumental compositions that are highly detailed and delicate at the same time. They are ominously beautiful.

I wonder how people who have never been in Marjan Teeuwen’s installations will look at her photos. Can they translate them to the actual space, which was altered by the artist with endless patience and in which you can walk around with your eyes scanning the room in an orgy of inclined planes. For that is what happens to you in her installations: it is like moving in unknown territory in the dark. The lifted or sunken floor plates, tilting walls and gaping ceilings create an overwhelming feeling of disorientation. The room falls, twists, breaks, bends, tilts, cracks, swells and caves in. The artist takes you on a sliding scale of space perception.

When Marjan Teeuwen is going to destroy a house, she first peels it off to a bare carcass. In her hand she holds a raw pencil sketch of what it could become, but in her head she is three steps ahead. All components are taken apart, sorted and stored. Next, the building is adjusted, remodelled and turned upside down construction-wise, changing it gradually into an abstract composition. Step by step, this composition is filled up with stacks of previously found materials. Teeuwen unravels the architecture as it was once intended, organizing the remains in a new, intuitive rhythm. In each new installation she tries to find a balance between chaos and order. Details are rearranged endlessly. Everything is carried out in the self-evident palette of the construction world: white, grey, brown and black, with an occasional colour accent. Usually, the final step consists of a few well-chosen, monumental interventions, such as cutting loose and dropping floors, or tilting walls. Only then it is finished.

The installations look like spatial-geometric abstractions. But through their cracks life itself is also visible: the remains of a house, a series of porch apartments, a gallery flat, a snack bar or a Russian communal dwelling. Inevitably, to the artist the dissection of the building coincides with the reading of its history; traces become visible during the work process of people who lived there and incidents that have occurred. In every abandoned building such moving or worrying idiosyncrasies can be found. While these traces do not affect the realization of the installations directly, Teeuwen does take account of them. This way, touching and destroying the house acquires a certain intimacy, in spite of the hard work. Some of that melancholy seeps through in poetic details of the installations, such as the remains of a pencil drawing on the wall, or the traces of wear of a stair handrail.

As in a handwritten text, where the paper is gradually filled with an irregular order of letters, words and lines, Marjan Teeuwen fills the room with her rhythmic stackings of broken plasterboards, waste wood, chipboards and other demolition waste. With her unmistakable signature spatial handwriting, her installations can be read as cuneiform hewn in architecture. Looking at this irregular order can be compared to looking at a relief by Jan Schoonhoven. The unruly order in Teeuwen’s and Schoonhoven’s work activates the visual cortex in our brain, because it does not live up to its suggestion of order. That is what makes it so fascinating to look at.

In the end, Marjan Teeuwen’s spatial installations meet the fate of the sledgehammer. After that, only the photo works remain, functioning as autonomous works of art. These photos are powerful and vigorous, meant to be without a doubt. This is because during construction, Teeuwen already visualizes how the three-dimensional space will be recorded in photographic, two-dimensional images at a later stage. This indicates a considerable amount of visual intelligence. The photos are characterized by an apparently neutral weighing of visual elements, such as unity in foreground and background, an even treatment of light and a restrained use of colour. This produces austere images, stripped of all decoration, in which all attention is focused on the composition. These compositions are constructive in character and geometrically abstract in expression. But while Teeuwen used to take the photos frontally, nowadays she chooses all kinds of camera angles, with lateral views, diagonals and unexpected angles dominating. In earlier photo series all forms and materials were given the same depth of field, so each detail was given equal attention. Today, Teeuwen permits herself more liberties, for example by playing with light and shadow.

The austere, geometrically abstract structures of lines and planes in Marjan Teeuwen’s photographic compositions are reminiscent of early modernists such as Piet Mondrian and Theo van Doesburg. But unlike the ephemeral, pure work of the Stijl artists, in Teeuwen’s work the frayed edges of real life always remain visible. This makes the images more real, more earthly and tangible. To me, they are reminiscent of the liberal, organic geometry in the work of that self-willed friend of Theo van Doesburg: Kurt Schwitters.


Destroyed House Leiden


Leiden 2015. For thirty-six years the building on Lammermarkt was used as a sex shop. The windows of the old dairy shop in the front had been boarded up and covered with the colourful announcements of what awaited the men inside. Upstairs, the owner kept over three hundred carrier pigeons in provisionally constructed dovecotes. He recorded their achievements with pencils on the dirty white walls. Now the building was abandoned. It was part of a row of four houses that were to be demolished to make way for the new wing of Museum De Lakenhal.

Before the violence of the sledgehammer started, Marjan Teeuwen realized an installation there: Destroyed House Leiden. For months on end, the sound of hammer blows was heard. Falling bricks, dust blowing up, heaps of rubble and grit. Aided by a technical assistant, a constructor and a couple of art school students she built on her installation: demolishing, organizing, stacking. Demolishing, organizing, stacking. Suspenseful moments, tower wagons shoving steel beams thorough the window as if they were matchsticks, dropping floors, storms, setbacks and victories. Clutter becoming order. Life becoming art. Mundane becoming sublime.

One day it is finished. From outside not much is visible. For a couple of months, a caravan of thousands of people, visits the installation in groups of ten. Anyone passing through the door enters a meters-high corridor that immediately alerted the senses. The smell of dust is intoxicating. When the door closes, all exterior urban sounds are reduced to a vague noise. Here and there, some filtered light still seeps through the cracks. Over a path that has been cleared, the audience reaches the centre of the installation. There, the triptych reveals itself; the three main components of the spatial installation can be viewed circling from the centre of the space. It is a theatrical spectacle with two monumental, high sculptures at its flanks and a ruin sculpture on the stage in the middle that seems to float in space. From a raised platform on the west side the entire installation can be overseen in one glance.

The ruin sculpture in the middle is the most recognizable and anecdotal part of the installation. Vestiges of inhabitation are visible, including part of a staircase that now floats freely in space. Behind an open door a lightbulb is on. Here and there are sparse stacks of construction waste part of the interplay of horizontals and verticals that make up the overall picture. Suspended in space hangs the sunken floor of what used to be the first floor. As in a chaotic landscape, construction fragments are displayed on the wooden planks: strips of decorated stucco ceilings next to centuries-old bricks green with mildew, fragments of seventeenth-century floor beams, the yellowed remains of a newspaper from 1983 and the pocked, black soot deposits from a chimney. The floating sculpture has human dimensions, but also evokes a strong sense of loss and loneliness. In this ruinous memory of what one was an interior, beauty and decline fight for priority.

The second part of the installation is a monumental, abstract sculpture. Nine-meter-high columns constructed from stackings of broken plasterboards and wooden planks constitute its outlines. From the attic the floors and ceilings of two floors fall down in double crosses. In the background the original façade has been filled in with geometrical stackings of construction fragments extending to the ridges of the roof. These ridges have been clad with ribs of black carpet tiles, lending them a very special relief. The whole resembles a sacred space; a cathedral. But whereas in a cathedral light usually pours in freely, this room is more like its opposite: dark and heavy.

The third part, against the rear façade of the building, is called the blob by Marjan Teeuwen herself. This part of the installation is the counterpart of the monumental cathedral sculpture in every sense. Two falling floors generously open the space to a crystal-shaped recess which looks like a cave of broken glass. The recess is constructed from translucent plastic sheets and is growing out of the building, as it were. It thus occupies the space that used to be the roof terrace adjacent to the museum garden in a natural way. Unlike the rest of the installation which looks melancholic, this strange illusion is light-hearted. The organic, poetic nature of the recess, combined with the geometrical crustal shapes from which it is made, again remind me of the work of Kurt Schwitters.


Kurt Schwitters


Hannover 1923. During one of the visits of artist Käte Steinitz to her good friend Kurt Schwitters, something unusual struck her in his studio:

One day something appeared in the studio which looked like a cross between a cylinder or wooden barrel and a table-high stump with the bark run wild. It had evolved from a chaotic heap of various materials: wood, cardboard, scraps of iron, broken furniture, and picture frames. Soon, however, the object lost all relationship to anything made by man or nature.1

It was the Cathedral of Erotic Misery, a freestanding sculpture which, in hindsight, would turn out to be the beginning of the Merzbau. In the course of the following years, this monumental installation would take up eight rooms Schwitters’ artist house in Hanover. Using wood, plaster and all kinds of found materials, the artist built a labyrinthine succession of spaces: cave-like structures in an abstract, organic-geometrical formal language, laced with references to personal mythologies and experiences. When Schwitters fled to Norway in 1937, his life’s work was still very much a work in progress. However, he would never see his Merzbau in Hanover again, for the house was destroyed by an air strike in 1943. Fortunately, images of the installation do survive on photos and in written memories of Schwitters’ artist friends. Today, Kurt Schwitters’ Merzbau is a world-famous example of early installation art.

Like Kurt Schwitters, artist Marjan Teeuwen is a self-willed loner who cannot be categorized in a movement or group. Both put aside the traditional artist’s materials and techniques, instead juggling with found materials. From these ‘fragments of reality’ they build spatial installations and images, in a vivid, organic-geometrical formal language. By changing materials from reality and incorporating them in art, they balance in the border area between reality and abstraction. Like his friend Theo van Doesburg, Schwitters did not want art to be separate from life itself but would merge with it. Anyone visiting Marjan Teeuwen’s installations will see that she succeeded in bridging the distance between art and reality. Because she manages to combine the awe-inspiring of art with the recognizability of the everyday, her art is accessible to a large group of people. From locals to art connoisseurs, everyone can give it their own emotional association. This is also evident from the reactions to Destroyed House Leiden.

Schwitters underwent his greatest development in the era between the wars, when artists and intellectuals were highly interested in the modernization of life. He lived through and withstood the great movements of his time and related to them in his work, but he also remained faithful to the mundane and unsightly. His contemporary, the artist Naum Gabo, wrote about him: ‘It needs a poet like Schwitters to show us that unobserved elements of beauty are strewn and spread all around us, and we can find them everywhere in the portentous as well as in the insignificant.’2 Transforming these objects through art into something that is sublime, is something great artists can do. Marjan Teeuwen is one of them. Utterly self-willed she follows her own path, with an eye for the mundane and apparently insignificant, and at the same time with a strong engagement with everyday reality, for ‘you are living in this time and that pervades you, as a human being and consequently as an artist as well.’3 After working on buildings in the Netherlands, Russia and South Africa, for her next spatial installation Teeuwen will travel to Gaza, part of the Palestinian territories. There, she will build a new work of art from the debris of a house destroyed by rocket impacts. Again, it will be a moving interplay of order and disorder in which art and reality meet. But unlike before, she will work here with a house that has already been destroyed and is given new meaning by reconstructing it as a spatial installation.

Marjan Teeuwen works with resistance. With her, destruction and creation are always mutually linked. No guts, no glory.


1 Käte Steinitz, in Catalogue Raisonné 1905–1922, Vol. I (Hanover: Hatje Cantz, 2001), p. 90, no. 769, Untitled Merzcolumn in Studio, 1923.

2 Roger Cardinal and Gwendolen Webster, Kurt Schwitters: A Journey Through Art (Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz, 2011), quote on cover of title page.

3 Marjan Teeuwen in conversation with the author, 23 January 2016.

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