Book texts

Josephine van Bennekom: The Office 1998

RUUD VAN EMPEL/THE OFFICE

Sometimes reality catches up with fantasy. It’s a strange feeling. It happened to me not long ago, ­after discovering in the archives a remarkable ­photograph from 1939. For an instant I thought that it was an authentic Ruud van Empel, until I realized that he was still to be born! The photograph shows a man in a proper outfit, standing behind a huge grinding machine. There is sawdust right in front of his feet and a circular saw is leaning up against the wall. One can see right next to the man a pile of hand and rifle grenades and a Hollandia calendar is hanging on the wall. He is quietly looking in the ­camera’s objective. The photograph belongs to the Historical Military department of the Royal Infantry in The Hague’s archives. That explains the grenades. But the man’s tie seems misplaced and what about the presence of the little smoker’s table and the ­three flourished vases? All of a sudden I understood. This man was being celebrated. It was a commemoration photograph. But it was such an absurd situation that I couldn’t believe it!

Ruud van Empel’s work is not unknown to the Dutch public, even though today, many will not ­recognize it at first. For many years he worked with the actors Arjan Ederveen and Tosca Niterink, with whom he collaborated on the Flessentrekrevue, on the film Theo en Thea en de ontmaskering van het tenenkaasimperium and on the VPRO television programme Kreatief met kurk. These productions are surprising in the expression of a truly personal style. The tragical existance of a second rate actor, for example, performed by Ederveen, was emphasized on stage by flashy costumes, sets and accessories that were all together somewhat elegant. Not a single detail was out of place. Each object ­improved the desired atmosphere and that was Ruud van Empel’s merit, who’s recent collages show the same methodical manner Ruud van Empel’s works betray a wide, many-sided backround. He first completed his education as a graphic designer at the Fine Arts Academy of Sint-Joost in Breda (NL), earning the Sint-Joost award for his final exam.From 1981 to 1985 he worked for several design studio’s like Studio Dumbar in The Hague and Hard Werken in Rotterdam. He designs book jackets for the editor Bert Bakker then works for six months under the direction of Ikko Tanaka in Tokyo, where he created sculptures for Seibu Department store.
He also designed stamps and posters.

From 1981 to 1985 he worked for several design studio’s like Studio Dumbar in The Hague and Hard Werken in Rotterdam. He designs book jackets for the editor Bert Bakker then works for six months under the direction of Ikko Tanaka in Tokyo, where he created sculptures for Seibu Department store.
He also designed stamps and posters.

From 1986 to 1988 he became a pioneer in a completely other field, that of video. His productions were shown in national and international video
festivals and VPRO television also showed great ­interest. Thus was he involved in the art video programme Tape TV. In the following years he worked, as stressed above, in close collaboration with Arjan Ederveen, Tosca Niterink and the theatre-director Pieter Kramer. He was also co-founder of the De Parade itinerant theatre festival. The artistic ­efforts of van Empel are then crowned with the awarding of the Charlotte Köhler prize.

He decided to give a new direction to his career, as he was granted a scholarship from the Dutch Fine Arts, Design and Architecture Fund (Fonds voor Beeldende Kunsten, Vormgeving en Bouwkunst). Ruud van Empel wished to give up applied arts to the benefit of more freedom in his work. The result of this change is to be seen in 1996, in the series of photographs in which van Empel uses computer and manipulation techniques for the first time.

Even though Ruud van Empel did not abandon entirely working in the field of applied arts, his free work is more and more predominant. The computer became an essential working tool. In the series of men and women sitting behind their desk, all are created by digital techniques. Scientists are surrounded by indefinable little instruments that seem so intricate; the project of an unknown machine hangs on the wall and a smoking chimney appears through the window. In another picture, the museum curator is encircled by works by Rodin and Degas and the beautician is placed in an environment where face and body are significantly ­present. But one would soon be tired of these ­photographs if they reflected reality. In fact they do not. If it can be observed that the contents are ‘right’, one must also admit that none of the details really are. Ruud van Empel first lays his ideas in a sketch. Then he works in an eclectic way, using every possible detail from his archives of picture-stories and art magazines. Sometimes, when he can’t find exactly what he’s looking for, he creates his own accessories. He scans every object he finds, even typical heads or details of shadows on walls; then he cuts and repasts them with the mouse to create new images on the computer’s screen. Everything must seem to match. Van Empel likes his objects to obey him; each detail is then disposed in an apparently

perfect order. Each picture is a precise image of the people closed in their own world. Each one has its personal atmosphere, as a result of Ruud van Empel’s search to define his characters’ personality until every detail fits in with astonishing accuracy. Doing so, he displays a great faculty to embody the characters of his pictures and to imagine his environ­ment from there. Thus, fantasy and actor’s talent are essential.

In these works that seem radiant of neutrality, Ruud van Empel combines his knowledge of styling and computers with his apparent need of quietness. It’s a form of intemporality visualized through the stiff poses, the clothing and the hair style of the past, from the 1920’s to the 1960’s. But the scenes could also be contemporary. It is not a coincidence that Van Empel is attracted to the formality of the american, who must dress in offices in a non-offensive way. His characters also adapt to their surrounding and vice versa.The director accomplished his work. Let the work speak for itself.

Josephine van Bennekom