Eye of the Storm
Apocalypse Now? Artist Ronnie van Hout is ready when you are.
By Phillip Matthews
Ronnie van Hout arranges a hobbyist's plastic models to conjure
up a cryptic scenario of` UFO invasion, military evacuation, hastily
erected checkpoints and poisoned water. "- Rex Butler, in the catalogue
for PreMillennial, an exhibition by Van Hout and Mike Stevenson.
The night before this interview, Ronnie van Hout dreamt of an alien
encounter. The alien, in human form, had a book full of higher knowledge
to pass on to humanity. "I remember thinking, 'Great, I won't have
to pay my student fees. All that stuff will be suddenly irrelevant.'
But he was a pretty useless alien. He wasn't very competent. He
seemed more interested in partying." Wouldn't that be the worst
thing: if the aliens turned out not to be superbeings?
"That's one of the contradictions about it. If they were that good,
that advanced, then surely they would have accomplished their mission
by now, I think we could do genetic engineering a lot quicker than
they're supposedly doing it.
"For the PreMillennial catalogue we downloaded some stuff
off the Internet, It's fascinating. Apparently, there's 40 different
species of aliens on Earth. They had pictures of them all and what
I they did and how they fitted into our society. Which ones worked
for the government. Some were nastier than others. They had interviews
with "Someone must just be making that stuff up. For what purpose,
"You say everything I know is wrong/ So do me a favour and play
along" MC 900 Ft Jesus, "If Only Had a Brain"
PreMillennial. Subtitled "Signs of Soon Coming Storm". Opening
at the: Dunedin Public Art Gallery next month. It has two years
to work its work up the country. The catalogue is decked out like
a Watchtower tract, secret news of the apocalypse for those
in the know. A conspirator's handbook, wrapped fop the: Rapture
in smooth leather, the tile embossed. Inside: "A true artist helps
the world by revealing mystic truths. This publication is dedicated
to all who seek the truth.
In these times, we are used to -he idea that the truth is secret,
A paradigm of distrust, believing the opposite of what we are told,
Whether it's the Bain murders or the Roswell incident, we see cover-ups,
layers of conspiracy, coded lies, We haw lost the plot. Stupidity
is rampant. Ronnie van Hout is the right artist for right now, "A
rabid browser, his work feeds off the prevailing zeitgeist ... abject
art, loser art, X-Files art," critic and curator Robert Leonard
The grand "I AM" has been scattered by scores of niggling voices:
"Am I?" Van Hout would like to suggest that maybe your whole life
is a cover-up. He has a prankster's eye on the storm. He knows it's
not the end of the world.
"If you want to know all about Andy Warhol, just look at the surface
of my paintings and films and me, and there am. There's nothing
behind it.'' - Andy Warhol
You want to create a persona, something so consistent that people
will be fooled, so fake that it must be real. Every choice you make
reveals the person you want to be. Life is a process of becoming,
Van Hout is fascinated by how people overhaul themselves, reinvent
themselves, leave old selves behind. "Who you were previously doesn't
An artist has to do this, because being an artist is about more
than making art. It's about image.
"When I was at high school, I got really obsessed with that Warhol
scene. It really affected my way of looking at things, How you react
to things. You react coolly to things. You are unaffected by everything."
As Leonard has noted, van Hout has taken on identities of artists
and discarded them. He has appropriated them: Warhol, Polke, McCahon,
An impersonator, a covers band, a body-snatcher (they also say he
does a great Elvis). "He seems to have no signature style, but the
very absence of one," Rex Butler writes.
In Now Showing, an exhibition curated by Robin Neate, 10
New Zealand artists produced works inspired by movies. Van Hout
chose The Nutty Professor, a comedy about the usurpation
of personality and ego meltdown. In the catalogue, he wrote: "It's
a beautifully short story of identity problems, so close to my art.
A retelling of the Jekyll and Hyde story, it comments on the comedy
duo that Terry Lewis shared with Dean Martin. Lewis made this film
shortly after they split and the Buddy Love character is obviously
based on the personality of Dean Martin."
"Nothing is funnier than unhappiness." - Samuel Beckett
Van Hout is also a top comedian. His favourite piece of writing
is Beckett's Waiting for Godot, which, when reflected from
high culture across to low, becomes Beavis and Butthead or
Dumb and Dumber. In his diptych "I'm with stupid, stupid's
with me" (1993), two separate panels illustrate the popular T-shirt
slogans. A comedy duo of one.
Comedy duos - Martin and Lewis, Vladimir and Estragon, Beavis and
Butthead, the two Ronnies. He paints the oneliners, stretching them
thin and making them permanent, making them banal. When jokes stop
being funny, the effect is sadness. All dues must come to an end.
"I go more for sadness," van Hout says.
"There's a quote I made up at high school. `What differentiates
man from animals? Stand-up comedians.
Humour is about self-consciousness. Making fun of yourself implies
an intelligence. Which is integral to art production as well: Humans
are makers of things. "
"Perhaps all they have told me has reference to a single existence,
the confusion of identities being merely apparent and due to my
inaptitude to assume any." - Samuel Beckett, The Unnameable
The same concerns: the self and its relation to the world. Where
you start and where you stop. The same sense of humour.
In The Unnameable, Beckett wrote, "Where I am, I don't know,
I'll never know, in the silence you don't know..."
In his 1996 installation, I'm OK, van Hout constructed plasticine
letters that read, "Help Me, I'm in the Land of the Giants."
He recently went through an embroidery phase (getting in touch with
his Dutch heritage. "I like the hobby thing. I like that kind of
obsessiveness." In his great "Satan can read my mind" (1993), a
666 is embroidered in white onto white canvas.
"When I started doing embroidery, it was the idea - I don't know
if this is true or not - that in religious communities they gave
young unmarried women embroidery to do. Because the devil makes
work for idle hands. So you do embroidery to stop yourself thinking
about other things. But the more you don't think about it, the more
it comes out. You can't help yourself."
"The only modern precedent for such ritual f--ing of 'classic''
rock corpses is of course Butthole Surfers circa Locust Abortion
Technician. Ronnie van Hout may not be a prizewinning accountant
from Texas, but Gibe Harness has yet to make a line like 'surfs
up/let's get girls' sound like a reason to call the police ..."-
Matthew Highland reviews Into the Void, Rip It Up,
Into the Void formed in Christchurch 10 years ago. Van Hout is on
vocals. It is a part-time band of artists - on lead guitar is Black
Sabbath-inspired artist Jason Greg. On their self-titled album,
Cliff Richard's "Devil Woman" was transmuted into whispering, creepy,
A sample van Hout lyric: "Drink to me 'cos I'm in the eye of a storm
..." The idea was partly to parody and partly to honour doom-chord
70s rock, with van Hout appropriating Baccanalian-rock-wild-man
poses: Iggy Pop, Jim Morrison, Lux Interior. The Cramps, with their
hyper hormonal B-movie badness are a favourite band; Slayer, with
their corny stalk-and-slash evil, are his favourite heavy metal
band. "I like heavy metal. I like it for its outsider status. I
find it incredibly funny. It's so stupid. It's the most pretentious
music there is. I like that. "I like the idea of it. The size of
it. The themes. So over the top. Especially that Nordic stuff It's
all about Vikings and ancient gods.
"Black Sabbath are pretty good, They're one of the funniest bands.
You ever see that documentary about them? The Sabbath Years.
"Good, evil or indifferent, the artist can only deliver the messages
that higher powers command." - Robin Neate
"Fascism is the whole key to his work, because it is precisely about
being weak, about giving oneself over to charismatic images, about
losing and finding oneself in whatever one finds compelling." -
It has been said before that heavy metal has a fascist edge: the
chants, the mass gestures, the arcane, cultish symbolism, losing
oneself in something huge (Queen sieg-heiling through their "Radio
Ga Ga" video...).
Higher powers. Alien superbeings. Heroic guitar soloists. Fascists
with the will to remake the world. This century's most famous model-maker
was Albert Speer; architect to the Nazis. Hitler would regularly
visit the cleansed utopia that was soon to come, built to scale
in Speer's studio. A new world (of) order.
Of course, van Hout is not a fascist - "I'm a left-wing guy"; hell,
he embroiders - but perhaps he understands that, in the confusion
of identities, confusion of truths, it always seen as easier to
give up responsibility, become the mass. A mass whipped into shape
by dreams of clean-slate purity, by grandiose plans, hoping to animate
myth into reality.
"I like the idea of the dead coming to life," says van Hout, an
aficionado of zombie movies. Making the inanimate animate, creating
life, making peoples. Much of his recent work has been photographs
of models he has built. When he began, he got a book on how to do
"It went on about this idea of fooling people. The aim of taking
photographs of miniatures was that you could show them to someone
who would believe that they were the real thing. I thought that
was pretty bizarre."
In the catalogue to his photographed-model show Mephitis,
van Hout wove in a story of a person receiving, and being turned
an by, an obscene phone call. Leonard wrote, "The point seems to
be the pleasure derived from occupying the subordinate position."
He has responded to longings for higher powers and coded meanings,
for dominance and submission, but conspicuously absent has been
anything dealing with the most popular of those myths, Christianity.
"I was brought up Catholic, but I find it very corny. The images
are used too much or seen too much. They're not as contemporarily
"I think McCahon used it up. That was his territory. It's not that
I reject what he does. It's just that you've got to move on. You've
got to represent your own generation.
"And there's also this idea that the Bible represents meaningfulness.
It's a hangover from old art."
One piece in I'm OK is an embroidered stag's head above a
story of an encounter with aliens. A true story. Or, the person
involvedthought it happened to them. The embroidered message ends: "She realised it was not about to stop and decided the aliens wanted
to talk to her again."
"I was collecting alien abduction stories that happened on my birthday,"
van Hout says.
Van Hout has Jungian theories on aliens: ideas of projection, that
which is repressed - the abject - objectifying itself. "But I don't
believe in alien abduction."
Perhaps belief implies meaning and, as van Hout said in an interview
with Neate in Midwest in 1994, "I want to get more and more
away from meaning if I can."
He exhibits a lot in Australia. They seem to get him more there.
"New Zealand art practice is not very theoretically based. In Australia,
that's very important. They read my work in that way a lot more.
"I was at art school when postmodernism started to come out. I was
excited by it. It was in line with how I thought. It was like punk
rock, the same kind of idea. They're quite connected - in Australia,
particularly. It was seen as a fad here. They couldn't wait for
it to go away. And they still resist it.
"They think that you're making bad art. Or that it's wanky."
How will they write about Ronnie van Hout in 100 years? "I don't
think they will. My feeling is that a lot of this period is transitional.
I don't think any of my work will last that long."
It looks inconsistent and derivative in fragments. The absence of
a signature. It makes sense as a big picture.
"It's not really about one show, or one work. The shows are connected.
If you put them all together, there's a theme carrying on."
Reprinted from the Listener, December 20 1997