Q+A: Jan de Cock

Belgian artist Jan De Cock, 31, is, by anyone’s definition, a maverick. His works transform the spatial organization of museums with techniques borrowed from architecture, sculpture, photography, and film. For his first U.S. show, which opens at New York’s Museum of Modern Art on January 23, De Cock is assembling a floor-to-ceiling display of photos and sculptures that will allude to the new Taniguchi building (and its predecessor), the permanent collection, and the history of modernism in America.

Your art is famous for commenting on its institutional settings. What will this show say about the Museum of Modern Art?

For this exhibition, I was given license to photograph in MoMA’s different departments, theater, conservation labs, corridors, and offices. These photos bring to the fore what’s behind the scenes. Examples culled from the museum’s holdings [such as Eadweard Muybridge’s sequential motion studies] are also part of the project. Not only can you see them in my photos, but visitors to the exhibition, which will be installed in a third-floor gallery, will catch glimpses through doorways of a concurrent show on the theme of serials in the museum’s permanent collection. Those works will be as much a part of my installation as they would be if they were hung next to my own.

Will you call attention to the porous nature of your exhibition’s boundaries?

I never urge my vision on the viewer. Instead, I lead their perception subtly, by mapping out a route. This way, the visitor is guided through not only my works, but also the museum’s architecture. When I hang a photo at the top of a wall, touching the ceiling, the viewer will look at the ceiling, whereas otherwise he’d never notice it.

All of your projects are called Denkmal, which translates from German into “memorial” or “monument,” but in Dutch, your native language, means “thought mold.” Why do you give the same title to installations that reflect such distinct contexts?
The show’s full title is “Denkmal 11, Museum of Modern Art, 11 West 53 Street, New York, 2008,” so in its way it is quite specific. The word denkmal incorporates my idea of what art should be: creating a mold to think. However, it is not an ideology. The viewer should be able to follow his own perception and find his own meaning. Although my installations may look different to you, the same language always returns.

You document your installations as still photos, which are displayed in light boxes like sculpture as well as sequentially like film. How do you understand the borders and bridges between all these media?
Photography is not just a tool for documenting my installations, which are torn down after they’re exhibited. It has long played a very important role in my work and is of equal value to anything else I produce. In fact, I look at art as through a lens. In a way, the medium is irrelevant; it’s subordinate to the idea.

Do you physically participate in building your constructions?
I work with several assistants. Some are architects, but there are also conservators, photographers, carpenters, and art historians. I build all my installations myself.
Your recent monograph, Denkmal ISBN 9080842427, is a book-making tour de force: It has French-fold pages with full-color photos on the inner folds, and even pictures printed inside the slipcase. What do you, as the project’s art director, set out to achieve in book form that can’t be accomplished in other media?
My oeuvre develops in space and time, and although it takes on different forms, it is one consistent whole. I consider this work not merely a book but an exhibition on paper, a gesamtkunstwerk in which different media are presented but a single artistic language prevails. In the role of art director, as you call it, I have control over the sequence the reader will follow as he turns the pages, creating movement as a film director would.

Given that you were born in 1976, you strike me as an enfant terrible. Or at least an enfant. Is there any drawback to having such early success in one’s career?
Actually, I think I was born an adult. I don’t believe that the age of an artist matters. The artwork just has to be good. Success is relative and subordinate.

What’s your next project?
Spending some time with my friends.

Julie Lasky is editor-in-chief of I.D.

Portrait by Raphael Hefti

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