On Failure

Art is a game whose rules will never be totally clear or fixed. First, because the context of every work or exhibition is different and the new rules therefore affect every attempt to make or show something. Second, because a lot of external and unplanned phenomena constantly influence the work. Phenomena that in my case are often linked to failure in all its possible guises.

I’ve shown work in about 150 exhibitions over a period of fifteen years. I really like making exhibitions, although in nearly every one of them something has gone wrong. Sometimes I just did something stupid and broke a work. On many other occasions, the problems were more complex. And, trust me, in one out of ten times it wasn’t even my fault. It was the fault of ‘the Other’: of Nature, of Fate … At some point, I decided to incorporate these elements into new works, lectures or texts. I made them part of the game so as to neutralize the negativity that often accompanied them.

I must confess I prefer failure and mistakes to sheer success. Failure is an important element of the game. It creates better stories, even though it isn’t always nice to be associated with. Seeing your name misspelled on a printed invitation for the seventh time isn’t that bad. But watching some misinformed audience literally use your work as a trampoline really tests your resilience. My work has even been blown away, stolen, moved, spat upon, signed by others, destroyed, and, worst of all, ignored.

Especially for this catalogue, I would like to offer a small anthology of fifteen years of art misery. Misery in the direct sense but also as collateral damage. Because it is such a big part of every artist’s practice and because it seems to be an even bigger part of mine.

During my very first exhibition, my work became one of the last victims of the pre-ADHD-medicine era. An overactive child, foam dripping from his mouth, destroyed my freestanding sculpture ‘Leg Lamp’ (two realistic-looking legs dressed in jeans and extending from an extra-large homemade lampshade). With a well-executed sliding tackle, he ravaged the sculpture, breaking the legs in half. Parents nowhere to be seen. No apologies – and no more free cola for the boy.

In my second exhibition, I showed the kinetic sculpture ‘Bird House Propeller’. A birdhouse with a rotating propeller in front of the hole where birds normally enter. The motor of the propeller broke the day after the opening and I couldn’t get it to work anymore.

My fourth exhibition was a photo competition. I won first prize: a digital camera. That was quite special in these days. However, I never got the prize because it turned out that, for some mysterious reason, I wasn’t registered properly for the competition. Number two got the camera. I’ve never won anything since.

A year later I staged the exhibition ‘They were waving their flags wildly’ together with two friends. It was an installation consisting of a tribune, a moveable film set and a video. The night before the opening, thousands of fat black flies appeared through cracks in the wooden floor. The next day we bought all the insecticide we could find to try to kill them. We succeeded in killing the whole lot, but also in creating a suffocating atmosphere in the gallery space. During the opening, nobody stayed inside for longer than ten minutes. Later, we found out that the subject of the previous exhibition had been the sea. A fine theme of course, but in that context the artist had nailed a huge dead fish to the wall which had then dripped fish juice for over a month. We thought we smelt fish while we were building the exhibition but never realized it might be for real. In retrospect, of course, we should have left the flies where they were. Imagine a show with thousands of shiny black flies everywhere … a great idea, if you ask me.

In 2004, only three people showed up for my exhibition called ‘World Tour’: the curator, my girlfriend and a funny homeless guy who seemed to be lost and who called me ‘Bert’ a couple of times. I had very lonely openings on three more occasions: once because almost nobody could reach the venue due to heavy snowfall, once because of a national train strike and the related traffic disaster, and once because an exhibition turned out to be so bad I didn’t dare send any invitations.

From another work, displayed in an exhibition in Amsterdam, five golden watches protruding from spray-painted lumps of golden clay were stolen. He or she must have been very disappointed to find out the gold was fake. I prefer to think the thief was just a fan of my work.

For an outdoor art manifestation held near the Dutch dunes, I built a work called ‘Observatorium’. It was an enclosed octagon, with 4.5-metre-high wooden walls, built around a hawthorn tree. The only way you could see the tree from above was to climb one of the four ladders leaning against the structure. After one week, a very rare mini-typhoon hit the region, folding my work around the tree like an enormous calzone. A local newspaper wrote about it the next day. ‘Observatorium smashed by wind’ read the headline. It was accompanied by a very depressing photo of me standing next to my work. ‘Artist Frank Koolen trying to fix his work.’ To lighten the tone, they published quotes of visitors who had seen my work before the accident. ‘I wasn’t very impressed by the work anyway,’ said one local artist. ‘It’s just a trick. Sometimes a trick is nice, but in this case it’s silly.’ Another visitor said, ‘Hey, there’s a tree behind this wall. This isn’t a very good artwork.’ And two others were quoted as saying, ‘We don’t think this is special. We’ve been living in Switzerland above the treeline for five years now, and we see trees every day from above.’ The only positive response came from an 11-year-old girl called Eva. ‘Climbing is fun!’ she said. I think so too. Thanks, Eva.

Nature turned against me on several other occasions too. Three out of four flagpoles standing outside broke during a very windy opening, suddenly crashing into a shocked but – as it turned out – uninjured audience. Very heavy rainfall led to an outside audio tour I had worked on for two months being cancelled. A wooden raft made of eight-metre-long logs that I showed in one of the best galleries in Amsterdam started producing small airborne beetles a week after the opening. ‘Woodworm’ was the expert’s verdict, and instead of showing the work for a month, I had to dismantle it immediately. No more work on display, end of exhibition, exit possibilities of working with this gallery again. Title of the work? ‘A Smile of Fortune.’

My absolute top exhibition in terms of trouble was ‘The Tropical Years’. It was a solo exhibition in an art space in Amsterdam called W139. It comprised quite an elaborate and labyrinthine construction of many different works that proved to be the perfect platform for external, and often playful, interventions. A ten-cent coin, which was part of a work, got stolen eleven times. A 1.5-litre bottle of Bacardi, also part of a work, got stolen twice. Two young art students used the roof of my car installation ‘Greenhouse Fiesta’ as a trampoline during the after-party following the opening. Graffiti-lovers wrote tags on various surfaces, a sculpture was signed ‘M. Rutt’ (nice associations with Duchamp’s R. Mutt, of course), and somebody else made a small painting on one wall using something like mud. DVDs were removed from DVD players several times and replaced with other, rather strange but uninteresting videos. A used condom was found in one of the rooms. A fountain-like sculpture started leaking because somebody stumbled over it. All of this was great, but the cherry on the cake was the discovery that one of my paintings was hanging upside down. When I removed it from the wall, a thick piece of chorizo sausage fell off the back. Further research showed there was a piece of chorizo behind every one of my paintings. Expensive, hand-cut Iberian chorizo. Did somebody bring a huge chunk of sausage and a sharp knife to cut it with at the gallery? Did somebody cut it at home with the intention of hiding the pieces behind my paintings later that day? Was it meant offensively or as a strange token of appreciation?

I never found out who did it or why. But what did happen is that I decided to use sausages from then on as a new ingredient. Almost always when I give a lecture, I bring a couple of expensive sausages, a butcher’s knife and a cutting board. I ask a girl in the audience to cut them up during the lecture without explaining why. At the end, I tell my sausage story and we offer everybody in the audience a piece of sausage. We celebrate art and all its accidental failures and fortunes. We honour the game through improvisation in order to emphasize our resilience towards all those things we can’t prevent. We embrace the unexpected rules as a new reality and a logical part of the game.

So, I would like to offer a piece of sausage to you too, dear reader. Premium-quality Spanish chorizo. Because you shouldn’t be intimidated by failure either. Because reality can be weirder than your imagination. Because it’s an invitation to play.


Frank Koolen, 2015

(Text for catalogue ‘Play Hard’)