Feathering his nest
How does he get out? How does he get in? I think they should cover the rotunda in bird's nests; it's much prettier. So went the comments from onlookers of Benjamin Verdonck's most famous installation, "The Great Swallow", in Birmingham, England. Verdonck constructed a gigantic bird's nest on the side of an office building known locally as "the rotunda". Then he lived in it for several days, sometimes perched on top of it wearing an Indian headdress, sometimes throwing out bits of twine, sometimes scattering large, colourful feathers to the wind.
There's never a dull moment in Antwerp with a year-long project by the incomparable Benjamin Verdonck
A giant egg sat perched on the sidewalk far below him, and loud bird sounds ensured passersby glanced up in his direction. Mouths dropped. Verdonck had already made a splash with this piece, which is still a YouTube favourite, in Brussels in 2004. Although he had long made an impression with art critics and the public alike in Belgium for his avant-garde theatre and surreal installations, it was the swallow's nest that shot him to international stardom. To delighted audiences below, Verdonck played the part of nature trying to communicate with the modern world. After several days, a chalk outline on the ground below dramatically illustrated the bird's metaphorical fall from the nest. The piece was both psychologically intriguing and visually astonishing.
But it wasn't the first time Verdonck lived in a public space. In 2000, he built a treehouse atop a pole in Brussels' Bara square and lived in it for a week, too. Nearby was a huge billboard depicting a tropical paradise. Much closer to people in the street, he chatted with them about his view from above and what exactly he was doing up there.
"I try to communicate a project clearly, so that there is no question of ˜why," Verdonck says. "The nest, for instance, is a very basic story. When you see a big glass and steel building with a swallow's nest on the side, people get it. It's about the friction, something natural that isn't supposed to be there, which I put there like a child's dream. Putting a treehouse where no one is allowed to; people said 'oh yes, when I was a boy, I wanted to do this and this, too'."
In 2002, Verdonck again made headlines across the country when he locked himself in a cage with a pig and talked to it about the American war in Iraq. What at first glance looks like pretty esoteric performance art is to Verdonck, again, an action easily understood by the public. "During the Iraq crisis, there was a lot of thinking and talking around it - not about for or against, but more like a question of why," he says. "When you try to make an art work about it, it becomes very difficult. It's hard to say this is right and this is wrong." So rather than make a "statement", Verdonck confessed his confusion about the subject to the animal. "I think people can recognise themselves in that situation with the pig - going to another space and questioning. It's understandable to others with the same questions."
Now Verdonck has begun the presentation of Kalendar, a project that will last throughout 2009. He began on 3 January in Antwerp - the first day of the sales in Belgium's shopping capital. For "Shopping=Fun" he paraded through the crowded streets with dozens of shopping bags in hand. Far from appearing to have fun, his gaze was straight ahead, his face a picture of stress. He's a man with a mission - fulfilling an obligation more than having a good time.
Verdonck will continue with 100 actions until the end of the year, many of them public and all based in Antwerp, where he lives. "I'm playing in the city for one year," he says, reaching back to those boyhood dreams. "I'm interested in the interaction with the city and with its people. I want to encourage them to also play in their city, to think about what they can do. It's a way of sharing, which is what I want to do with art."
Many of the big public actions are planned in advance but others will happen organically depending on the outcome of previous actions or spontaneous events. On 6 January, for instance, the day of the three kings, Verdonck dressed up with two others and sang traditional songs on the street. They earned €50 for their efforts. This was planned well in advance, but what Verdonck did with the money - his next action - came out of real-world conflict.
On his website you can see it: A €50 note cut in half - one half was sent to the Israeli ambassador in Brussels, the other half to the representative of the Palestinian territories in Brussels. Notes were attached to each: "Please use this together with the recipient of the other half for a useful action that meets with the approval of you both."
"It's one big theatre exercise in public space," explains Verdonck. He likes the word "exercise" to describe creative endeavours "because artists are trying to define something that lies beyond the borders of what we know. It's beyond language, both emotional and pictorial. It's always an exercise because we don't know what is beyond; artists are trying to formulate the thing you cannot formulate."
Although most of his recent work has been onstage, Verdonck loves the unexpected responses he gets with public art. "These people on the street did not come to watch art," he says, "so they have no preconceived ideas. It's a totally different way of looking at art."
But it's Verdonck's theatre work of last year that just got him nominated for a Flanders Culture Prize, winners of which will be announced next month. It's not his first nomination, but it would be his first win. "I'mm not really interested in winning," he admits. "I'm really happy for the recognition, but the idea of winning - of being "the best" - is just stupid in art because you cannot measure it like that."
That question of measuring - of value - is clearly on the artist's mind. One of his actions in Kalendar has been to place giant sculptures of an apple and an egg atop both the Fine Arts Museum and a GB supermarket in Antwerp. In these tough economic times, how do we measure the value of things, he asks on his website. "And how much value, I wonder, in what I'm going to try this year?"