Van Bakel belongs in the second category (Beuys once influenced him greatly)-the group of rebels, visionaries and idealists, those for whom ideas are as reality.
But when you see his sculptures for the first time, this is not immediately apparent. On the contrary, the enthusiasm with which polytechs react to his "Day- and Night-Machine', for example, is quite understandable. Van Bakel's constructions look far more like objects from the world of facts, than from the world of ideas. Take "The Seismograph'. A construction more than three metres high is built from rods, steel wire, triangular and circular iron plates-and those who have never seen a seismograph, are completely taken in. Certainly, the object is larger than unconsciously imagined, but its taut simplicity, the technical materials used and the tension between the separate elements, apparently indicate a kind of logic based on pure functionalism, the registration of the earth's trilling.
This plausibility is typical for the constructions made by Van Bakel and distinguishes them strongly from those of, for example, Panamarenko or Tinguely. We know, of course, in every case, that we are being deluded in a special way: the work is in an art museum, therefore it is not what it seems. But the insistent wink (material unsuited to the function, movements that can't be made, wheels that rattle) by which the last two artists play out that delusion in order to create room for poetry -that wink is missing from Van Bakel's work. Its playful, poetic elements seem to have arisen coincidentally out of functional aspects. Just as coincidentally as the beauty of the piece. But is that really so? Is it functionalism that in this case adds poetry and beauty to the significance of an object, in the same way that the precision of a clock's cogwheels produce feelings of aesthetic ecstasy in some? Or did Van Bakel as engineer quite consciously consider that the visual appearance of his constructions would give rise to questions about their function and meaning? Of course, for those who have absolutely no link with the logic of constructions and machinery, the visual will tell: the connections between shapes, materials and formats have just that lightheartedness that belongs with a foolproof feeling for aesthetics. The technician will be focused on the effectiveness and precision of the works. But from whichever point of view you consider Van Bakel's machines- form or effectiveness -in either case you will be confronted with a logic that, although it brushes the surface of this world, nevertheless has basic principles that are utterly unique.
The shape of 'A New Possibility of Papin's Joy' seems to possess the practical clarity of design which machines and domestic objects should have. Four square metal pipes attached to each other with thin rods that are fastened crosswise, surround a mechanism that can be extended. This runs on a steam cylinder. It reminds me most -ignoring for the moment the cylinder and a couple of wheels- of the extending part of a tripod. The four long legs of the 'tripod' are slightly bent apart and support a roughly-finished granite slab. There is a small mound of soil on the slab.
Such complexity for so little. The thought arises spontaneously that this solemn presentation of a spadeful of earth is a ritual act, an offering. But whence the need for a title for such a powerful visual image, and then such a lengthy one?
Imagine it were called 'Untitled'. Then the ceremonial nature of the work would be seen as an abstraction, a formalism -as ceremony for its own sake. 'A New Possibility.. .' points in the opposite direction, not towards the general, but the particular, the personal history. Thanks to the title (and an explanation from the artist) we can now see the work as a twin tribute: to Papin, inventor of the steam cylinder, and to Van Bakel's father, who was killed while stripping down an armour-plated cupola. The earth that is used comes from the spot where he died.
The generalities of technological development reduced to the personal proportions from which they once emerged- the inventor and his joy. A personal story placed in the context of technology and mourning - the father and the deadly cupola. Here I find the essence of Van Bakel's oeuvre. In everything he made there reverberates his struggle against generalities - whether these result from technology, politics and economics, or from science, philosophy and social relationships.
To generalise means to exclude or even deny the exceptions. And what Van Bakel wanted was to celebrate the very things that differ, what is most intimate. That, I believe, was the reason why he wanted to reconsider all knowledge and if need be even re-invent the wheel.
"The wheel is about the most important thing people have so far made," wrote Van Bakel in 1983 , in the notes accompanying his design sketch for The Wheel, a sculpture that finally achieved its form in 1989, five years after Van Bakel's sudden death. *1 "lt seems a good idea," he also noted, "to make a sort of Homage to the Wheel, large and uncomplicated, as we approach the end of the age of mechanism. That thereafter makesa very small movement."
That last was important, partly because of the Van Bakelian irony, the mighty doing something very small, but primarily because for him movement indicates the engine of everything: energy. The energy that is in matter, but no less the energy of the spirit. Indeed, I wonder if for him there was an essential difference. He saw in everything an impulse which, if it were not driving towards evolution then it certainly was towards revelation. "I believe," he once said in an interview, "that the world of objects, that every object that surrounds us, is in fact a manifestation along the way towards how that object shall finally appear, just as a tree grows until it makes chlorophyll... The tree gives us a definition of how sun energy can be converted into matter, into something dynamic."
Technology as a product of mankind is in his view part of the general impulse and is for that reason part of nature, "a part of the sun." From which we can conclude that mankind is that too. What distinguishes us, however, from all other things, could be described as an assignment: "People are the medium with which to define the sun."
But if we are a medium, what are we mediating between? Van Bakel did not go so far as to express a religious attitude ('I cannot look behind the sun'). One side, that of the primitive energy, is therefore not filled in. And so - as far as our sense of direction is concerned- it is left entirely up to us. We shall have to determine our own principles and directives. The other side is the one where these definitions apply, the visible manifestation of the primitive energy: the world. It is what it is: inaccessible, impenetrable, a whole that is not a whole because we cannot discover the coherence - if any. Here, too, we are utterly on our own.
But Van Bakel did not give up in this hopeless situation. To challenge the impregnable wall before our eyes he proposes the dynamism, the intimacy and the openness of his inner world. That is his faith, his compass. From there he begins his research into reality as it manifests itself to us, and builds his own alternative, his re-design of the world.
In doing this, drawing is essential for him. Thousands of drawings and sketches, often accompanied by a text, witness to his feverish drive, ceasing neither day nor night, to capture the movements of his mind and to make them visible. Everything is vital in this process, in principle at least, for there is something more that drives him on: the urge to find coherence. If the world does not provide it itself, then he will deliver it, even if it means turning the whole of history upside-down - including art history.
A good illustration is provided by two sketches accompanying the work 'Correction for Marcel Duchamp'. The first one shows Duchamp's bicycle-wheel-on-a-stool; in the second we see the bicycle wheel attached to the extension of a long horizontal strip that is fixed halfway along to a vertical rod. The wheel on this balance hangs top-heavy (unlike the final work, though that is not relevant here) rather as if it had glumly sunk its chin upon its breast. How this came to be is described on the right in eleven words, written singly under each other, like eleven stations, a slight pause after the ninth:
Rarely has the loss of personal integrity under pressure from (historical) generalisations been outlined so briefly and succinctly.
Van Bakel's re-design of the world through a search for coherence directed by changes of spirit, is closely connected with something else: his idea that every shape, irrespective of whether it is a piece of art or a piece of furniture, is the product of a condensation of thought. Or, as he himself wrote: 'Everything around us contains fragments of physics, mathematics, psychology (madness) within it.' However, in his eyes the most important thing was to determine whether that condensed thought was personal or 'an academic or other type of generally defined manner of thinking (or feeling).*2 In this last case it lacks what is most important, an essence. And that lack marks the contemporary scientific thinking that shapes the world without any "real and meaningful coherence." In the 1970s Van Bakel wanted to show how it really ought to be, with his furniture designs using multiplex.
In the forefront was his idea that the furniture of industrial thought "forces upon us a whole scheme of action that is not in line with being fully human." (What that meant was very clear to him: to do more than simply respond to an imposed pattern of action!!!)*3 His alternative was to make simple wooden furniture, often painted bright red, yellow and blue, striking for its inviting appearance. The children's furniture in particular and the 'Hymen chairs' are remarkable examples of Van Bakel's ability to follow the road backwards towards that which arouses our playfulness, creativity and self-respect. The road backwards: Van Bakel's search for coherence begins with the question about the source from which something has arisen. Every facet of life is analyzed according to a process that requires a strong sense of history, a great awareness of one's own movements of spirit, and a highly refined empathy. He called it "organic interpretation".
How great his faith was in the conclusions he drew from this, appears in the above-mentioned piece, called 'The Seismograph'. It is born entirely from the power of his imagination. He had never actually seen even a picture of the instrument. Nor did it bother him whether or not his construction worked like a real seismograph. What counted was how convincing it was. And that could only happen if he had adjusted his thinking backwards in terms of human history ('the blood and sweat that give birth to something') to balance his personal motives for making a work. Van Bakel's personal motives are based, like his thinking into the past, on questions-only now these are, as it were, pointed in the other direction. Looking backwards he asks, "What ever was?" "Where from?" while looking forwards he wants to know "What will be?" "Where to?" Just as in the first case no history of any kind seemed to offer an adequate or complete reply, so in the second no ideologies or other types of mental model seemed sufficient. Were a truth to exist, it could only lie enclosed in his own speculative thinking. And in what emerged from his thinking in a condensed form-his art.
Yet there was one single word to which he anchored himself -a word that since the last and most naive utopia, the Realm of Flower Power and the Love-in generation, has become utterly archaic. ltis the word 'harmony'. For Van Bakel harmony meant a free, playful and meaningful relationship between people and the objects among which they have to live. And his whole search, his lifelong quest, was directed towards discovering that harmony. He wanted to bequeath the energy and courage needed to maintain such a search. He wanted to do this through his sculptures - which are not sculptures, but creation re-thought, the future re-opened. Their shape contains the ultimate No to a crazy world, and the ultimate Yes to the power of the individual. There can be no greater consolation.
1. Placed at the Municipal Energy Station, Tilburg.
2. 'The connection between mathematics and the origin of spatial shapes as an abstract occupation,' 1970.