Judit Bodor: Interview with Paul Panhuysen
On the occasion of presenting Het Apollohuis at Artpool P60 (20.06. 2003)
J.B.: I’d like to start with the beginning. How did you get involved in art?
P.P.: I think that I had decided to be an artist very early, when I was about fifteen. I think at a very early age I decided that I have to cut life into two parts: one part the things I’d like to do, things that were important for me. On the other side I had problems with survival. Most people then were studying and developing themselves to get a good job to get money etc. and I thought it is not possible to do both, develop yourself and have a job that allows you to make a living. That is I think in general where things started. But I never had a kind of fixed idea that I would have to be an artist in a specific discipline.
J.B.: You mean you did not want to be a painter or sculptor etc.?
P.P.: Yes. I did paint, I always painted but I also wrote. After the high school – for one year – I studied law. And then I realized that if I would finished my study in law then everybody would expect me to become a lawyer or a judge. And then I thought I won't study it, I can't. So after one year I told my parents that I’d like to go to art school. And there too were the same problems. I went to the art school which was an important school, considered to be an important school. It was in the city where I was living. My parents, my family were roman catholic and it was also a roman catholic art school. People were trained there also in monumental art and the monumental art was there to have good artists to decorate churches and things like that. In the period when I was at the art school, the cardinal of the Dutch Church Province decided that the Church needed to have places where people could come together. But art could be very expensive so that he thought is not what we need any more. We need places just to get together to meet. The old professors who were there, who had taught students to make stained glass things or mosaics or paintings for churches, or a university professor who taught iconography ...all those disappeared. We had gotten a new professor. He gave kind of commissions to the students. He told us for instance there would be a new airport and the main hall where people depart and arrive has to be decorated. So the glass was no longer stained glass but applied glass or a mix of concrete and glass. The whole idea changed. I thought this is not what I would like to be. But in a way it was interesting. It meant the end of the religious art which had been, in the years before the war, quite strong since the middle of the 19th century. The period when my father grew up there were very religious people, but that was not my first. Since I was twelve I decided not to go to church any more, I thought that if.. .or when I am responsible for my life I AM responsible for my life and you can't combine that with what other people are telling you is good what is bad. So it became more and more clear for me that I just like to do art. Art is mainly the responsibility you have for what is good and what is bad. That is what Socrates was about and what the old Greek ideas were about art. So I decided that should be my starting point.
J.B.: But you did not leave the art school.
P.P.: No, I did not leave the school, that is true, because there is not only content but you need a kind of technical skills. And there is also the whole tradition and the whole development of technics, so you can learn. In a way that also meant that there are more media that you could study. So that was not my problem... Later on after I had finished art school I once applied to study afterwards at the Bauhaus. That was the period when Max Bill was the director of the Bauhaus and I wrote them that I would like to go there and study there for years. Then I got a letter back and they told me, you are welcome to but you have to forget everything you have learned. And I thought this was stupid. I have learned many things so far and I’d like to learn more. Of course when you learn more also some things will change. But I don't like to have professors who think that they know what I have to do. I don’t know, I can't tell any artist what he has to do. Also when I was the director of an art school, I told my students: “just start the work and I will come and see what you are doing and we will talk about what you are doing or what you would like to do.” And that is the only way. Of course sometimes you meet students who think: “it is much easier when my professor tells me what to do and how to do it.' But that is what I never did, it is another attitude.”
So later on, after art school I found out that I have always made music since I was 13 or 14 when I went to music school.
J.B.: What kind of music, classical?
P.P.: Teaching was classical, because I went to the municipal music school, and in the municipal music school the way they started is that you had to learn solfège. It is the French way...you had to do that for one year and you had to sing the notes, and they dictate, the teacher was playing notes and you had to write down what he played. That is really the classical way, then the second year you start to play on instruments. I told my parents that I would like to play, to learn to play on piano. And my parents said: okay, but you don't need it now we will buy it next year. The next year came, but they did not buy the piano. I don't know, they did not have the money or the place to place the piano, they never bought it. So after two or three years of singing notes and doing dictations and learning solfège I met a man who had a mandolin orchestra. His own instrument was the violin and he studied in Liege. He was a good violinist but he never became the famous violinist he had liked to be. But for me it was quite interesting. I got private lessons from him, and then I had to play in the orchestra.
J.B.: So you had started to play on violin?
P.P.: No, I had the instruments they had. He had a mandolin orchestra, he had mandolins and some guitars. It was a stage orchestra....we had to perform quite often. That was quite a good training to have and at a certain point you knew the whole classical repertoire. And I could do my play, learn how to play my mandolin at home, and then do that in the orchestra. But that was not so fantastic and not so interesting. I also became very much aware of the military structure of the orchestra which has a General and has musicians who don't play for pleasure. They are professional soldiers or a kind of that. I developed also a very critical attitude towards the music. My musical development continued much more when I went to study to the City of Utrecht. There was market every Saturday and on that market was a man who was selling records that were brought to him by critics...They got all the records for free... and they went to that man and they sold him the records. So that man had all kinds of records... I went there every Saturday and within a couple of months the man said, “its easy to sell them and you told me you can play and that is what you would like to do so now I will go and have a coffee.” I was selling the records and in the meantime when there was nobody passing by, I played all the records to hear them for myself. That gave an enormous amount of information. I learned a lot about ethnic music...Then I bought all the records, I was really spending all my money and I got them very cheap from that man. That is where my collection started.
Another important teacher I have had when I was at the high school. I had many bad professors, but I had a fantastic professor for Dutch language and literature. The fantastic thing about that man was what he was telling about. He was very enthusiastic about the actual literature. I read important books that Helène (Panhuysen), who is ten years younger did not do. And she was studying in a college. ...What you get then is that you have to judge, you have to find out yourself, as he did, what is worth-while and what is not worth-while. That is completely different dealing with art. And he also was involved in music. He had a big collection of ethnic music, of blues, of French chanson and of jazz. He invited the students sometimes at night to his home when he was playing his favorite music. He even had some tickets to the local orchestra where the director was especially involved in the French music of the 20s and the 30s, one time he took this student, the other time that student to the concert. What he was teaching about were new exhibitions, new books, so all the things that normally were not the content of teaching...We had all the time to be involved in a way in literature and art.
So I had these two teachers who were important.
J.B.: It was after that when you went to the Van Abbemuseum (Eindhoven)?
P.P.: That was later. In the meantime I always had this idea that I would have to do a kind of job...
J.B.: ...to be able to do what you want.
P.P.: Yes and to make a living. So after finishing art school I went back to Utrecht, because I also l wanted to continue studying. When I was at art school and later on – for a couple of years – I studied Sociology of Art at Utrecht University. That was a kind of problematic study because there were no professors involved in sociology of art as such, so there was only the library. The most interesting sociologists who had been involved in art had been living in the second half of the 19th century. Then in the 40s of the last century there were those people that were not so much involved in particular art but they tried to build kind of structures that could also be used in the sociological sense. All art would fit in a kind of system. But before, around 1870, you had people in Russia like Plekhanov who was, I think, the most important sociologist in art. He was developing the idea that also related to socialism that the workers would have to take over from the bourgeois middleclass the position and produce the next period of human culture. They need to develop their own culture and not to take over what was already there, what was bourgeois art. He even went so far that he said “if you don't do that we will get all those ’isms’.” For me it was very strange, in 1870 he could tell what would happen in art. All those things that happened 50 years afterwards.
The idea that art is something that belongs to the people and that is the expression of the people, and that artists have to find what is important, that was something that has always been very strong in me. And that comes from that study and not from an art school.
Then the life and the culture in the Netherlands changed when the generation of the baby boomers was starting to grow up and to study. People who tried to change the conditions of life. I was not a baby boomer because I was born before that. But I had been quite prominent for that generation of people because that was in the early sixties, that was when I got out of art school. So after I decided that it would be better to have a job in which I could use what I had learned. So when they needed a director of an art school in the North in Leeuwarden, I applied and I became at that time the youngest director of an art school in the Netherlands. My students had to work very hard but I also tried to have really good professors. I told the board that we need good professors. In the beginning the Chairman of the Board was a social democrat professor, he was a very good man. I told the Board that I would like to have for every student at least one professor that would be a really good professor. It was very difficult there because this school was where students did not attend for the full day. When I came it was three nights in a week and during the daytime the students were supposed to have a job which would give them experience as an artist. Of course such jobs don't really exist and also this was the only art school of the whole bottom of Frieseland in the North. Although the students were a really hard working people, they needed a lot of energy to be able to continue. But I started with making the study four nights in a week and very soon afterwards I stressed general education because that was a real province, and there was not so much experience that had to do with art. I've told my Board that I’d like to organize a ‘studium general’ and I invited people who were involved in music, for instance one of the CoBrA painters, Eugène Brands. He taught them about ethnic music, because he had a whole collection of that music. That is also one of the things most people did not know but that was a subject that was a real interest for the whole CoBrA. Those people were involved in ethnic music quite a lot and also ethnic art and African art. It makes sense when you see the works, that must have been a kind of inspiration. That was also the period of Dutch documentaries. So I had a young group of film makers , they were telling about their work. That time was also very active in theatre and many writers did interesting things that time...So those were the “Wednesday nights.” I told the students that everybody had to be there, there was no chance to skip those things. And they loved it, it was the opening up of the cultural window in that area.
In the meantime I was working on having those professors. It was very hard to find professors for one night in a week and at such a far off place. Then the chairman of the board was changed.
This man, this social democrat, was followed by a kind of Calvinist. That man did not like at all what I was doing there, opening up this province. He was a real conservative. I was really upset but I also had this relation with my students, we are working together to make the best for a good art education. So I left, but then I felt of course my responsibility for the students. With the best of the students and with the best of the professors I had, we decided to make a kind of group of collaborating artists. And that was the Band of the Blue Hand (De Bende van de Blauwe Hand). We organized exhibitions in Friesland and outside Friesland, elsewhere in the country and it became quite well known also because of its background. We had about ten people who were regular members. We worked very often in projects together, we used also the opportunities of having exhibitions to develop teaching and to develop new work and several things that changed by then. Because almost nobody had a studio any more we had no place to develop it. We had contact with a gallery which was named the Gallery of the Blue Hand. That is how the name came. We developed things that were very close to Fluxus events... I think that Fluxus must have happened also that way...people who could not afford to have a studio, and lived in a city. Also the definite difference between visual art, music, literature in Fluxus also disappeared because of the practical situation. You could have something happening on the street as well as in a distinct place or in a gallery. Then I left. I was invited to become a curator in the Museum in The Hague. So part of the students joined and looked to find a place to live and we continued as a group in The Hague. Later on, that was only three months later, I decided to leave The Hague because I wanted to go to the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven. But I always told them that I would continue the to work as an artist but I worked at Van Abbe for three years.
J.B.: What kind of exhibitions did you organized at the Van Abbemuseum?
P.P.: I was not a curator. My task at the Van Abbe was to do the PR and organize education. At the same time there was also developing in the Social Democratic party, in the group of the younger members. They had two names, one was for the political wing and one for the more cultural wing. The latter had a big kind of symposium, meeting, and they asked me to prepare what then I called “situatii” (situations). That is how I named them – which were events, happenings, installations. It was bringing all those new art forms together. The meeting was organized in Maastricht. Maastricht is the city where I come from and which always has been and at least at that time was still a very catholic city. I organized this meeting in a former church they rented. There were already many times organized shows of cars or other shows, .so it was completely commercialized. When they asked me to present event in this church I thought there are no statues of saints any more and things like that so I tried to find statues to make the church look again for this meeting as like a church. I was collaborating with many artists and artist groups, and we also had a national socialist radio where we had a friend who told me he would make a black mass in the church. The ‘black mass’ was that he and some friends would be dressed in black and they would have an acolyte (but that was the girlfriend of one of them). They would have a black, a huge black book which was a catholic encyclopedia. This friend was – that was the reason why I liked him very much – always playing the violin and he was the first who had pick up on his violin and amplifier and he was doing that all day....But I had friends in Maastricht who were also helping with the organization. One of them was so stupid and thought this is a good story and told it to a local journalist. This local journalist wrote an article that there would be this meeting of the socialists and they would have a black mass in the church and then the municipal board decided they could not have it. So they had to find another place. Instead of the church they found an old fortress. But I had already prepared all my material, those saints, and I thought, “what can I do with the saints in that military situation?” I decided to place them in a way that they would look like soldiers. But the people of the place had – maybe about three years before – a huge meeting of the Witnesses of Jehovah. It was a kind of world meeting. So the municipal board did not like that either to have such a hedonist thing happening there again. And the place also organized each Sunday nights when people came there and could dance outside on the hill side. The municipal board told them that was not allowed any more to dance or they would lose all the money. And when we came with this idea the woman who worked there became almost hysterical and said: “Oh not again. We will be in trouble.” That made the whole atmosphere very strange. I had to reduce things, so there was no black mass at all. But still there was this scandal in the papers, who really like to make a mess of everything. I did not have anything to do with it...but there had been a cemetery somewhere and at that time a group of people destroyed the graves, and the papers connected those things together. It was incredible, an incredible mess. In Eindhoven then people started to write letters in the paper that this man (me) is the devil who was educating the children etc. So that was the end of my museum work. There was another event related to this, a museum festival I organized. There were music groups in every room and there were thousands of people. So many people that the police and the firemen came and people were waiting outside the museum, as many people as there were inside. They only could go in when some people had left. But they did not leave so far. And that was a Saturday night. All the bars of Eindhoven had their own music groups, it was very normal at that time, and they did not have any people because all the people went to the museum. Then the municipal board afterwards said that 'we won't allow the museum any more to organize such festivals.' The strange thing is that now the museum, once a year has a big festival and it is normal, but at that time it never happened before.
J.B.: Did you leave the museum after that?
P.P.: Yes, after that I had left the museum. In the meantime I had no more the Gang of the Blue Hand. I had a much bigger organization.
J.B.: The Maciunas Ensemble?
P.P.: No, that was not the Maciunas, but the Maciunas was also there. The Maciunas I started in 1968 after I had worked with several groups and tried to make the groups do what I thought they should do but they did not work well. Then I decided to make my own group, that was the Maciunas in 1968. But we had a group that was a travelling a group. We were performing, did things, and went to several places. That was named The Free Community of the Global City of Peace and Pleasure – it is very clear where the name comes from – and that went until 1971-72. And in 1971 I was in another organization related to it. That was the Office of InformArt. It was a kind of art CIA.
J.B.: Art CIA?
P.P.: It had that shape. People dressed in black T-shirts with the letters ‘INFORMART’ . They looked like the security people or something like that. With that group we went to the Paris Biennial. We had a huge tent there and we were living in the exhibition which was in the Park de Vincent and we were presenting our work there but also we were recorded, which also had to do with the situation that came to existence after the cultural revolution in Paris. So the police were watching all the time. When some youngsters did something in the streets there was immediately a blue van of the police and they took the people with them. De Gaulle was the main censor – he could tell if a paper was good or not. There was no information. We, with our tent in that exhibition, we had many, many people who had come there to take a cup of coffee and exchange ideas, so that worked quite well. That was one of the things we did in those years. But then later on the world became more silent. The museums had been played the an important role in the 1960s. But in the 1970s the whole policy had changed. That was a kind of a gap period. In the 70s I had to think how I continue, what I’d like to do. I was very happy in the 60s, sometimes we were performing for an audience of 25000 people, and then those meetings that could happen... But after it was over, the museums had to orient themselves and would not get their money if they would not have more people.
P.P.: At the beginning of the 80s I worked with Johan Goedhart. The first step were line structures on paper, then we made them from wires in spaces. Then I found we could connect them with music. And I told Johan we could have a concert on them. At first he did not want it, he said “I am not a musician, I do not like to be there and to be a performer, I am used to working in my studio and I do not like to do perform. So then I asked the musicians of the Maciunas Ensemble to do it. Then I discovered that Johan and me were the people who built the whole structure, and we knew the most about what it is and what it could be. So I told him that next time he would do it. I said “ I know you are not a musician and I do not think about myself as a musician but we have to do it. There is no other way, play just as an artist.” This was the other thing that for me was not a big problem, because I do not believe in professionalism at all. I am a professional human being if I am something. And art for me is research. Of course it is nice when somebody is impressed by the work you do and shows that he is impressed. Of course it makes you feel good, but it is not why I am doing it. And that is also why I thought then I would go back to the years before of the 1970s, when the world was filled with a whole generation of people who had very similar thoughts. But most of those people later on had to choose a job, maybe started a family and forgot about the dreams they had before. I cannot understand that, because that is easy, and in the same time the world becomes less interested, the society becomes less interested. This morning (in Budapest) I went to a record shop...and they were selling records that never would have been published in the West of the period of the 1980s. And they were here published by a state company. Now they are selling the last of those records and I am sure there will not be a big firm that decides to publish publications that maybe are interesting for a hundred people. That is what I do, when I produce CDs. It happens that you have to become a publisher. So we (Het Apollohuis) became a publisher; we have our own label
and we publish records of which we know would be possible to sell 1000 copies. So we publish 1000 CDs and it takes about 5 years to sell them. And I think we are successful...
J.B.: Let's go back to the long string installations. How did you develop them?
P.P.: One of the most amazing thing that I found out – and that was already at the first installation – that the audience also did see the visual work instead of just listening for an hour, sometimes two hours. Then I thought about this intensively and thought this reception is so much better. I wanted to develop the opportunities that I gave when I made my work this way. The other thing is that after a year I started to realize that you can do this long string installation as much as you want. It is as good a medium as painting or what so ever. It makes me learn many things, even a little bit of technology.
J.B.: And also you could play with the architecture of the places.
P.P.: Yes. Architecture was also something I had worked with. I had been working for about ten years in urban planning and then I realized in urban planning it is as hard as in the record business or in the painting business to do really the things you like to do. But there was much more opportunity to present long string installations, to learn for yourself and have other people experience it...One thing was for instance, when I decided to present long string installations as artworks in an exhibition. You can't be there all the time and play on it. So I had to develop automatons... I developed a whole series of automatons.
J.B.: And what about the connections also with the sounds of nature?
P.P.: Yes, that is maybe more fundamental for me. After a while you become aware that there is not so much musical laws that make music but physical laws. As the wind blows through the leaves and produces sound that also provokes feelings in people. That is something, it is a means of expression. If we would have another nature, art would look differently. I am sure that would be the case. People who started to research with the smells, or the way materials feel, what is a very important aspect of architecture.
J.B.: The dealing with the numbers also came from urban designs?
P.P.: Yes they came from the urban experience. It is just having to do with the ordinary facilities that we have in our mind. It is that there where things start. When I do this... (he puts marks in an indefinite order on a sheet of paper).How many points are these?
J.B.: I do not know.
P.P.: I did 25 points. Now I do this (puts the points in a row). Here (shows the previous drawing) ...it is almost impossible to count, but here (shows the row of points)...it is easy. But when I do this (he puts the 25 points in 5 rows) you see immediately how many points you have. That is what people develop with counting. It is not what we see but it is how we understand and how we find ways. We have a group of sensors, one is more important than the other one. That is the thing when you make a city, and some cities are fantastic. Also they are a kind of artwork. Budapest is a good city.... But I am not a real mathematician. At a certain point I found that to develop things I had to start from nothing. How I see the formal aspects of art, that is the fundamentals, when you look at all those sketches that were made by an artist as da Vinci, who was an artist at the time when art was not yet invented as a separate thing. What for da Vinci was the value of visual art was that he only could work with science. Birds learned how to fly – that was a natural revolution. We are jealous, but what we can do and birds cannot is that we can make planes...There are things that you can develop, and you can develop theories of understanding. What I think of all this using a mind is that it can be helpful to understand...to understand the world we are living in and if we understand the world we are living in, we also change the conditions, our conditions of life...And art is a tool for life.
*Edited version. The original recording is available at Artpool Video Archive.