Lotta Blokker’s ‘layered’ sculptures of human beings

Sculptress Lotta Blokker’s work It’s a Boy has featured on the Ethics of Care website for several years now. In July 2021, Blokker received the International Arkin Award, and a few months later she was chosen Artist of the Year (2022, the Netherlands). ((1)) These double honours are the occasion for Jeannet van de Kamp to look more closely at Lotta Blokker’s work, and also to discuss why this work is of interest to her, as contributing editor to the Ethics of Care website and as a researcher.

In this article, I will first describe Lotta Blokker’s background and evolution as an artist and her perception of reality (1). Then I will discuss her exhibition The Hour of the Wolf (2), before briefly addressing how her sculptures integrate emotions, suffering and socio-political positions (3). Finally, I will describe her most recent exhibition, Sculptures. (4).

Inspired as a student at school, formed in Florence…

Lotta Blokker was born in Amsterdam in 1980. During a secondary school excursion to the Musée Rodin in Paris, she was struck by Auguste Rodin’s work. “This is it”, she thought, and from then on, she knew what she had to do. At the age of nineteen, she travelled to Italy to study sculpture at the Florence Academy of Art. She has a clear preference for classical sculpture and traditional skills, and Florence facilitated this. “The programme has a strong focus on learning the technique of sculpting. Observing, interpreting, drawing, modelling; the hand should follow the eye.”

Her talent was soon noticed, and she became a lecturer at the Academy even before completing her three-year course. She returned to Amsterdam after seven years in Florence. What artists contributed especially to her formation? In addition to Auguste Rodin, the French sculptress Camille Claudel and the German artist Käthe Kollwitz are particular sources of inspiration. But above all, the Italian Renaissance sculptor Donatello’s sculpture of Mary Magdalene (created around 1455) is an essential and recurring icon for her work.

Painters such as Marlene Dumas, Lucian Freud and Vincent van Gogh are also sources of inspiration for Blokker. Her most recent exhibition is based primarily on photos by press photographers who have captured a moment that has been etched into the memory of people across the world. She ‘translates’ many of the works of these artists in her own sculptures.

Her work contains a number of recurring themes that have, over the course of time, become more profound and, visibly so in her sculptures, rougher and rawer. These themes are fear, grief, loneliness, loss, suffering, death, injustice, cruelty and the powerlessness that people feel when they are confronted with these. And, occasionally, there is a glimmer of hope or joy.

How does Blokker perceive reality?

Lotta Blokker. She is interested in normal, realistic imperfection, because as she says, there is no life in perfection. She doesn’t stylise wrinkles, big ears, sagging breasts or fat bodies. She finds her models outside, on the streets, when she is moved by someone, by something that can’t be grasped. In her sculptures, she depicts people as they appear to her, as essentially elusive.

The physical model is absent in her recent work, which is based on photography. None of her works are copies of reality, nor are they snapshots like photos. She says, “I think you can capture life more easily in a sculpture than in reality … Because it’s a collection of many different moments and moods and atmospheres which all creep into a sculpture and can never be captured in one single moment.” Oscar Wilde once wrote, ‘Every portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist, not of the sitter’. ((2))

In my view, this leads to a tense paradox between, on the one hand, perfection in her beautiful bronze sculptures, which cry out to be touched, and, on the other, the ultimately vulnerable, injured, suffering people depicted, often turned in on themselves, who demand respect. This was my perception of The Hour of the Wolf in Museum de Fundatie (the Netherlands) in 2014. ((3))

The Hour of the Wolf

Ten life-size bronze sculptures in The Hour of the Wolf represent the ‘sleepless’. The title refers to the hour when the night gives way to the dawn, ‘when spirits and demons rage’ and the sleepless are overcome by fear. The loneliness that you feel at night when you can’t sleep is an experience Blokker has had personally.

In one such night, she went out, walked through the dark, silent streets and saw lights on here and there in some houses. She imagined what was going on there. A patient awake in bed? Some sleepless person struggling alone with their grief? What fears were haunting the heads and bodies in these homes?

She was not the only one experiencing troubled sleeplessness, and knowing this gave her some solace.

Visitors to The Hour of the Wolf encountered lifelike human figures, curled up vulnerably on the ground (Hours, 2009 and Silhouette II, 2013). The ten sculptures, as well as previous work by her, were all placed in one single hall. People often paused at the sculpture of the 96-year-old Coos, lying on a bed in the nursing home where she lives but feels unsafe, according to Blokker (Silhouette III, 2013).

There is a little boy somewhere in the hall, who presses his hands against an imaginary window, with a serious, introverted gaze (Muted, 2012). A man with a furrowed face sits bent over, with his head in his hands (Silhouette I, 2011). This sculpture is an echo of Rodin’s The Thinker. A reviewer of Blokker’s work called such underlying sculptures ‘shadow images’.

A man and a woman embrace and console each other – or is this just an illusion? (Secret, 2012) Commenting on this sculpture, Blokker said, “In fact there is a lot of loneliness in it.” The sculptures are not what they seem at first glance, but they are layered and often impenetrable. This is certainly the case for It’s A Boy (2014); two sculptures of a son and a mother who stand in an uneasy relationship to each other. How close can and should this caring mother be to her adult ‘child’?

I will now discuss four sculptures, made previously by Blokker, that deal with dark suffering and grief.

Pieta I and II, See me and Pas de deux ((1))

Pieta I (2006) portrays a man, naked, his arms and hands folded as if he is carrying, cradling a baby, with his head inclined towards it; but his arms are empty. Pieta II (2006) shows a woman, naked, with a shroud draped over her arms, while she looks at it sorrowfully. This is grief, as Donatello depicted it centuries ago in his sculpture of Mary Magdalene.

Pieta II (2006)

Both Pietas focus on the void, on loss, on intensely sorrowful treasuring of what is lost. The same is visible in Pas de deux (2008), a sculpture of a dancing elderly Coos, wearing a thin, graceful gown. She dances with her eyes closed, in her inner world of memories, her arms wrapped around her lover who is no longer there. Blokker has called Coos ‘the most beautiful woman I have ever met’.

See me (2007) portrays a man with the suffering Christ on the cross as its ‘shadow image’. He stands with his eyes closed, his arms spread out wide as if nailed to a cross, and he is wearing only a loin cloth to cover his thin body.

Pieta See me (2007)

Visitors to the exhibition, through association and identification, draw connections between their lives and what the sculptures ‘tell’ them. I think the intense expressiveness of Blokker’s sculptures can be summarised in the phrase ‘this concerns us’.

Experiences, emotions in hypermodernity

What connections do I draw between Blokker’s work as an artist and my own doctoral research in the ethics of care? My research is on citizenship and suffering in dynamic hypermodernity. I look for instance at what happens with the realities of human suffering in contemporary societal discourses. To summarise my project in one sentence: in line with feminist care ethicists, I focus on unwelcome, disrupting and often obscured human suffering. ((4))

Care ethicists formulate scholarly criticisms of the dominance of a type of scientific approach from which subjective life and societal concerns have been elided. In reference to this, the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein said, “We feel that even when all possible scientific questions have been answered, the problems of life remain completely untouched.” ((5))

Care ethicists endeavour not to sever the link between academic reflection and the burning issues of society.

At the societal level, they also highlight the importance of the creative arts, because artists are capable of representing the powerless, the wordless, the unspeakable.

One important characteristic of hypermodernity is that life, which is ‘unengineerable’, subjective and a thing experienced, is increasingly subjected to modern engineerability, management and control. The aim is to create individual, positive experiences.

The sociologist of culture Gerhard Schulze was the first to analyse this cultural-economic trend in 1992, in his Die Erlebnisgesellschaft. ((6)) His colleague Andreas Reckwitz continued the analysis on the basis of genealogical research, in his book Die Erfindung der Kreativität. ((7))

One of my findings is that the producers and marketeers of the experience economy have learned certain skills for the producing and marketing of desired experiences from the arts. I will not elaborate on this here, but say only that I believe Blokker has avoided a number of ‘experience-economic’ pitfalls.

Let me mention four.

1. She depicts the everyday, often difficult lives and suffering of ordinary people as realities that concern everyone, supra-individually, as social and political issues.

2. As far as I can judge, she has managed to steer clear of a specific, cultural-economic take on experience. Thus she refuses to entertain the marketable view of experience which defines aesthetics as beautiful, perfect, intense and positive feeling.

3. She avoids the trap of contemporary, inward-looking neoromantic sentimentalism. Her sensitivity is oriented outward, towards others, and she searches for ‘where the soul is at’, to use the words of the care ethicist Frans Vosman. Also, she is sensitive to what the other is going through.

4. She refuses to go along with the generally accepted idea that people are lucid beings. Against a culture of belief in transparency and essences, she insists on the polysemic character of experiences and on the opaqueness of human beings.

At this point, let me make a critical comment on the marketing of her work, which does sometimes tend towards the kind of sentimentalism that is in vogue in the current culture. Thus, these texts speak of Blokker’s ‘huge emotion’, or say ‘she has grasped the soul’ in her sculptures. I do not know whether Blokker realises and resists this reframing of her work.

What appeals to me is her realism; there is irremediable suffering and there is human-inflicted suffering. She realises that physical suffering and the precarious social positions that people occupy are imbricated. How does she depict this in her most recent exhibition?

Sculptures

Lotta Blokker is fascinated by press photos that show exemplary depictions of injustice, sorrow, historical cruelty and human suffering. Photos that are so powerful that they touch many people across the world and spur them into action. Blokker is inspired by these photos, and this has led to the creation of six sculptures. Together, they make up the exhibition Sculptures. ((8))

The first three are bronzes and the others are wax sculptures. The wax sculptures’ rough, raw and ashen surface portrays unspeakable suffering and the layered dimensions of grief. ‘This concerns all’ – they remind us of it and appeal to us never to let this happen again.

In 2021, Blokker gives figurative portraits of refugees, victims of war and terrorism. I will now describe these six pieces.

The iconic photograph of Phan Thi Kim Phuc, the nine-year-old Vietnamese girl and her napalm-burned body, put a face to the horrors of the Vietnam War, of all wars. This photo inspired Blokker to make the bronze Girl (2017).

Refugee (2018) is a reprise of See me, with the crucified Christ as its shadow image. Blokker translates See me to the horrible topical reality of refugees.

In 2019, Blokker made the wax sculpture Falling Man. This piece was animated by the photo of a man jumping out of the burning World Trade Center in New York on 9/11.

Drowned (2021)

The drowned Syrian toddler Aylan Kurdi was washed up on a Turkish beach in 2015, and photos of this child of boat refugees shocked the world.

Blokker’s wax sculpture Drowned (2021) is a reflection on these images. A small coffin contains a dead child, who appears covered in sand, rubbish and water.

Blokker honoured the photographer and war reporter Kevin Carter with her eponymous sculpture Kevin Carter (2016). Carter (1960-1994) photographed an emaciated living child in Sudan as a vulture hovers close by. He received the Pulitzer Prize for this photo in May 1994. The image of the child and its stark contrast with the prize continued to haunt him, and he took his own life a few months later.

In Loss (2020), Blokker articulates her own Pietà as shadow image, with Donatello’s Mary Magdalene as its inspiration. A woman sits on a pedestal with her eyes closed, collapsed, her bowed head covered in a mourning veil; it is a picture of loss.

I believe Blokker implicitly liberates her audience from the dominant and detrimental tendency to enclose suffering within the individual, the interior and the emotions.

Photos: ©Lotta Blokker. All photos in this article were reproduced with her consent.

Notes
1. Quotations in the text are taken from various sources that were consulted, especially the documentary and two books about Lotta Blokker (see below). Blokker’s sculptures to which I refer, can be seen in previews in the two exhibition catalogues and on her website.
2. Documentary (in Dutch only). The film maker Frans Weisz made the documentary ‘Lotta Blokker – het Wolfsuur’ on the making of this project. The documentary premiered at the Netherlands Film Festival in 2015, and the Oscar Wilde quotation appears at the beginning of the film.
3. Book (in Dutch, English, German): Lotta Blokker (2014) The hour of the wolf. Zwolle: Waanders Uitgevers. (preview of sculptures)
4. See my article on the website An unwelcome disenchanted care ethics (02-05-2021)
5. Ludwig Wittgenstein, 1922. In: Tractatus Logoco-Philosophicus.
6. Schulze, G. (1992). Die Erlebnisgesellschaft:Kultursoziologie der Gegenwart. Franfurt/Mainz: Kampus Verlag GmbH. In English (1995): “The Experience Society: The Sociology of Contemporary Civilization”.
7. Reckwitz, A. (2013). Die Erfindung der Kreativität: Zum Prozess gesellschaftlicher Esthetisierung. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Taschenbuch. In English (2017): “The Invention of Creativity: Modern Society and the Culture of the New”.
8. Book (in Dutch, English): Lotta Blokker (2021) Beelden. Sculptures. Zwolle: Waanders Uitgevers. (preview of sculptures)

About the author: Jeannet van de Kamp

Jeannet van de Kamp

Jeannet van de Kamp (1957) has master’s degrees in both Theology and Ethics of Care and is currently a PhD-candidate at the VU-University of Amsterdam. In her thesis she examines, from a care-ethical perspective, how citizen-patients are seen in the context of the upcoming experience economy. More specifically, she examines how ‘patient-experience-central’ market models deal with the concepts of vulnerability and suffering. She works as a freelance pastor.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.