Bo Bjerggaard

Marcel van Eeden

18 Jan - 23 Mar 2013

© Marcel van Eeden
Untitled, 2013
Negro pencil, coloured pencil, watercolour and gouache on laid paper
56 cm x 76 cm
The Room
18 January - 23 March 2013

Noir is French for black, but in most cases one thinks not so much of the colour but rather of a particular film genre: the film noir. This is the designation for a long series of grim, fateful, melodramatic films, especially from the United States of the 1940s and 50s. However, the term signifies more than something once seen in darkened cinemas, as it resounds with any story that starts promising but takes a fatal turn.

That is why the noir has a special place in Dutchman Marcel van Eeden's image universe. There is hardly an artist who has been more inspired by the crime genre as we know it from the typical hard-boiled detective novels, comics and B films. Likewise, few have been able to put their own stories across more forcefully, so that they create their own sovereign artistic truth.

The noir takes its scenography from the big city, the asphalt jungle that holds so much, but only shows its true face when the day ends, along with everything light and clear. Then comes that time when dark deeds are perhaps the only unifying factor connecting people. It is here in the city - in small, lonely hotel rooms, on rain-soaked streets, in the glow of car headlights or a flashing neon sign - that the night's chilly denizens tally their accounts; if dividends are to be paid, the currency is sex, destruction, death or a cocktail of all three.

The noir genre is that dark yet open narrative known above all for everything that is unsaid: much lies in hints and details, and a great deal remains enigmatic and unexplained. "The Room" - the title and subject of Marcel van Eeden's latest exhibition - is no exception. It is more than a series of works; it is a special space or room with a series of framed black and white drawings hanging on the walls. The drawings are arranged in serial sequences that are staggered in relation to one another, as if the manner of display were meant to show us that there are probable connections among the pictures and that they are all related. Like the drawings in the artist's other productions, these are the result of one work flow. They also resemble one another graphically in their basis in the greyscale, as chiaroscuro studies with an occasional splash of shocking red.

However, the drawings do not follow one another logically in the manner of the squares in a classic comic strip. No common thread binds them so clearly together as to leave no room for our wonder, guesswork and need to participate in the fabulation. Like all works of art, they are only completed in our imagination. Nonetheless, Marcel van Eeden is responsible for our point of departure. He made the drawings, starting with paper in a 19 x 14 cm (7.5 x 5.5 in.) format, later enlarging and varying the format. Still, the procedure remained the same: he starts by drawing in the upper left corner of the paper and when he reaches the lower right the work is finished. For the past 20 years he has made at least one drawing every day, always with the same technique and often with the same goal. Description of his technique can make it sound almost mechanical, but that is not the same as being uninvolved. Indeed, the process requires his involvement and, not least, ours.

The content has also shifted over time. Van Eeden's first drawings concentrated on individual scenes and were intended to stand alone, whereas now he connects the drawings to each other as pieces of the same dark narrative. There is no model for the story, in the way that there is always a screenplay for a film, for example. Van Eeden has no finished manuscript in his desk drawer to navigate from. There is no narrative checklist for the drawings' contents and common chronology. However, there is a text written by the artist. With its abrupt shifts of scene and mood and definite undertone of something unsettling and ominous, the little text resembles something retrieved from a period crime novel.

"The hotel was soon under siege. More armed men stormed the building, entering through open windows in the lobby. Snipers took up positions on the roof. The hotel guests were herded into the restaurant.

Sollmann was still in his room. The telephone rang from time to time and men came in to take orders or discuss the situation. Room 62 was adequate but not large. In any case, Sollmann wasn't intending to stay here for long. The plan had been worked out meticulously: after his escape from the prison in Zurich a few hours earlier, all Sollmann had to do was organise a safe passage to the airport, where a hijacked plane was due to arrive at any moment to take him to Congotanga in Africa. Carl Rittner would be expecting him.

While the operation in the hotel was being carried out with almost military precision, Sollmann examined the picture above the desk. It was a reproduction of a 17th-century painting, possibly a Ruysdael, but there wasn't a name on it. It depicted a wooded landscape with a river or a small lake. Sollmann recalled having seen the work before, in Berlin, perhaps, or Vienna.

For a moment he forgot where he was and what was happening all around him, and imagined himself in 17th-century Holland. A man was standing at the water's edge. He was wearing a hood, but if you looked closely you could see that his face was deformed. Sollmann had never noticed that before. As soon as this whole thing was over, he thought, he'd write an article about it.

The telephone rang again. Apparently things were going to take longer than expected. There were problems at the airport and the bus with tinted windows had been delayed. It occurred to Sollmann that the authorities might be trying to stall the operation.

It was time to make a move."

Marcel van Eeden uses reality as his raw material, but never depicts it directly. His pictures are a sort of objets trouvés he has come across, often without entirely understanding why. They might be old newspapers, discarded schoolbooks, yellowed photographs, historical postcards, etc. Only one thing unites the images he uses as models: they are all older than he is. That means that all of the photos van Eeden looked at while working on his drawings were taken before 22 November 1965, the day he was born in The Hague, where he also received his art education. He is now a 47-year-old, curious, well-read and insightful man who works in a highly disciplined way without for a minute sacrificing the freedom found in being able to draw and tell a story whose course and ending not even he knows when he begins.

All the source photos that van Eeden includes in his project are recycled as illustrations for a story that is just fiction and nothing else. The same goes for the texts accompanying the drawings as graphic structures. They, too, become elements in a pattern whose entirety we cannot always perceive, yet we know the characters that move through Marcel Van Eeden's epic universe, and they become a sort of anchor for us. That is, we feel that we know them because we know their names: K.M. Wiegand, Celia Copplestone, Oswald Sollmann and Matheus Boryna. But when it comes to the noir, people are never quite what we think they are. Nothing is certain. Even the nicest people can have something to hide. This applies to Karl McKay Wiegand, who until his death in 1942 led a quiet life as an employee of an American university. That is, until van Eeden chanced across his name in a book and decided to give the botanical researcher a new, more exciting identity, in his first released series of drawings in 2006, under the title "K. M. Wiegand  Life and Work". Thus in his fictional afterlife Wiegand came to scale mountains, box for the world title, marry a film star and lead a large-scale military operation. Wiegand also managed to write books, paint abstract paintings and act in a couple of films until the day he was severely wounded in a terrorist attack.

An equally unlikely destiny also befell another of the recurring figures, archaeologist Oswald Sollmann, who is also much more, including contract killer, spy and author. We also know that this archaeologist travels a lot to conduct certain business. We know, for instance, that he is going to go to Congotanga in the Congo. And why exactly Congotanga? Because that name figures in Congo Crossing, a 1956 noir-inspired adventure film with Virginia Mayo, George Nader and Peter Lorre in the cast. Since Congotanga has no extradition treaties, it has become a Mecca for gangsters and other dubious personages. True to the generic archetypes, Virginia Mayo plays a femme fatale who has fled to Africa because of a murder she has possibly not committed. In this context, one cannot even be sure of crimes.

When one does not know much about a person, one can better invent something about his or her life; it confers freedom. Sollman, too, is allowed to remain a mystery. From the latest series of works and the little story connected to it, we have learned that he has possibly taken hostages in the hotel where he lives. And from the computer game van Eeden has recently made in partnership with Dutch developer Jorrit van Vriess, we learn that at some point he was also poisoned and is losing the use of his senses.

The result of van Eeden's efforts is never a story that we - or he - can know with certainty. He often draws inspiration from his own travels, but the narrative time is always long before his own time, and he only knows the remote time through materials he has come across by chance, just as when a detective gathers and assembles evidence and on that basis forms his own impression of a piece of reality. There is a lot to grab at for an artist to portray the world as it might have looked before his own arrival in it. Thus van Eeden executes his drawings, one after another, until they constitute a carefully made reconstruction of one among many possible stories.

As a viewer, the feeling is similar to standing in front of a cinema, looking at the still photos on exhibit. Without yet having seen the film, we do not know how these stills are narratively connected to one another, but that does not prevent us from using them to construct our own film action. So it is with Marcel van Eeden's pictures: they do not allow confirmation or verification. They are like detached fragments of a past that can only be vaguely connected with the present, like cracks in a story that can never be more than a sum of fragments.

Marcel van Eeden once dubbed his project "Lexicon of my death", thereby setting up a kind of equivalence between the time before he himself entered the world and the time that will only begin once he has left it. The two epochs will thus have a common aspect: the artist's absence. The world hidden behind the drawings ended in 1965, but it is also only after that decisive year that it began to be reborn in strokes - Marcel van Eeden's strokes - as an artist's retelling of a world that perhaps has never existed as anything other than an artistic possibility.

Peter Michael Hornung, art critic, Politiken

Tags: Marcel van Eeden