MAX/MEI is an artist duo hailing from Amsterdam. The two – Marte Mei van Haaster and Max Daalhuizen – met at the prestigious Gerrit Rietveld Academie, with Marte in the textiles department while Max was in the ‘Design Lab’. Becoming friends, and later a couple, the pair realised that although a lot of their works at the time were very different aesthetically (Marte’s was often particularly feminine and very tactile, Max’s stocky and industrial), they had a lot of the same motivations behind them – each were exploring big themes such as time and memory, and the human impact upon nature and the world around us.
After a year of letting conversations unfold organically, they decided to formalise things. Taking a risk on a new adventure they embarked upon their final year as a unit, and became the first duo from different disciplines ever to graduate from the Rietveld. Here, they discuss a meeting of minds, the importance of chance, and creating the right circumstances for artworks to take on a life of their own.
WHAT WAS THE FIRST WORK YOU MADE TOGETHER?
MM After we started working as a duo, we went in search of a studio space we could really make our own together, outside of school. In school, all of the work spaces were so divided between discipline that we had a hard time figuring out our place there, and it got tiresome having to always split the time and work in either one of our respective departments. The space we subsequently found was in a derelict care home that was being rented out to artists on the cheap as part of a council anti-squatting programme. At the same time, we were realising that a lot of each of our works were about site-specific concepts, and manifested as physical interventions into landscapes and locations, and so it made sense that the first work we make should be within this space, inspired by what we found there.
SET THE SCENE FOR US. WHAT WERE YOUR FIRST IMPRESSIONS OF THIS PLACE, HOW DID IT FEEL, AND HOW DID THAT INITIAL EXPERIENCE SHAPE THE WORK YOU THEN MADE?
MM The space we rented inside this building was a kind of hospital room, covered with tiles from floor to ceiling – super clinical and completely empty except for a single window and a water tap. In thinking about what the room had that we could respond to, we decided to take a piece of the view from the window when standing in the middle of the room and looking out, and bring it inside. The window looked out onto the garden, so we dug out an entire piece of garden and built a tank inside of the room in which we replanted the whole thing, tree for tree, and flower for flower. We installed a watering system on the ceiling and we tiled the whole outside of the tank in the same tiles as the space so that it would look almost as if like it was meant to be there, as if it always had been there. For us it had this connection to a sense of healing, in response to the place and its history and its clinical feel. There was this theme of trying to create something out of nothing, and a very human control over nature we wanted to probe. It was February when we planted that tank, and Spring occurred much sooner inside our room than outside. After two weeks, all the flowers started opening up and the trees started blossoming while outside – the view from the window – it was still grey. It was a temporary installation that only lasted three months and we invited people to come and see it throughout that time. We documented it in time lapse form, on what looked like security cameras and called it Conservatory Observatory.
IT’S INTERESTING BECAUSE EVEN WITH THIS VERY FIRST EXAMPLE OF YOUR COLLABORATION THERE’S THIS IDEA OF INSIDE AND OUTSIDE COLLIDING, WHICH SEEMS TO BE AN ONGOING THREAD IN YOUR WORK. OFTEN IN STATEMENTS OR WHEN TALKING ABOUT YOUR WORK, YOU’LL MENTION YOUR INTEREST IN NATURE AND THE NATURAL WORLD, AND HOW YOURSELVES, MATERIALS AND SITUATIONS CAN COMMENT ON IT OR ALTER IT IN SOME WAY. WHY IS THAT SUCH AN IMPORTANT THEME?
MM This is very much something we’ve tried to unravel along the way. We read and research a lot into the way we’ve evolved as a species, and we talk and think about how recently we’ve started living with phones and screens and skyscrapers in the timeline of human history. It feels like unnatural circumstances we’ve ended up in, like something is off, and we share this deep underlying interest in this other way of living we could have had, that we’re largely disconnected to in society now. We try to give ideas about these things a kind of shape by making art, in the hope that it will touch or inspire people who perhaps haven’t made these connections to the way we live now. Maybe we could have evolved into a different kind of species who lived more in unity with the world around them, instead of trying to manipulate everything, making mistakes and then attempting to quick-fix them. Maybe. Our interest in the natural world has probably stemmed from that. Of course initially, as with anything we do, it came from an intuitive interest – as in, it’s just one of those subjects we naturally felt the urge to explore and make work about. But the ‘why’ specifically is interesting, and it’s something we’re trying to discover.
THAT SAYS A LOT ABOUT YOUR PROCESS TOO, DOESN’T IT? BECAUSE SOME ARTISTS WOULD THINK OF A SPECIFIC CONCERN AND THEN THEY WOULD WORK OUT HOW TO VISUALISE IT FROM THERE. YOURS IS MORE ABOUT FEELING YOUR WAY AROUND MATERIALS AND SPACES AND THEN GOING BACK AND THINKING: WHY ARE WE DOING THIS?
MM Absolutely, and it’s funny because in school at least one of us (Marte) was marked as one of the more ‘conceptual’ thinkers who would really pre-think out all works. But that was on a smaller scale, and inspiration for each of us would come from smaller instances or things. Now, we have kind of zoomed out and had the time to think far more broadly, on a larger scale. We got specifically interested in the moment you can label something as natural or unnatural and then specifically in finding the little chasm between those two moments. That’s probably the core question our work asks: when does something turn from natural to unnatural? And how can we manipulate that?
THE NOTION OF THE ‘ACCIDENT’ AND WHETHER YOU CAN ‘ENGINEER’ IT TO HAPPEN OR NOT IS A KEY PART OF YOUR SHARED INVESTIGATION. DOES THIS MEAN THAT CHANCE IS AN IMPORTANT ELEMENT IN YOUR PROCESS?
MM Chance was one of those subjects we passed through in order to get to where we are right now, and its still very relevant. If we were to list a few rules in our work, one of them would be that chance has to be involved, every time we make a work. Whether its an installation indoors or outdoors, takes one day or five months, we always need to inject a certain amount of chance into the work, both during the making and while its being exhibited too. We always want an element of chance there while its on view, to add another dimension to it. So for instance, in our project Assemble Expectations, we started working with a bacteria group making kombucha. During the brewing process, one of the jars exploded in Marte’s house and it turned out to be a really enthralling mistake – this little explosion felt like a work in itself. At the same time, we had been asked to make a work for a space in Antwerp that was not enterable – it was like a vitrine or shop window that was closed off to the public but was made of glass so it could be looked into. Because of those specifications, we figured it would be exciting to make a work that was evolving the whole time it was being exhibited. We hand built all these ceramic flasks in organic, dripping, almost fungus-like shapes, filled them with the same bacteria and then recreated an environment necessary for them to explode. We sealed all the flasks, let the fermentation begin and slowly, over the 2 months the exhibition was on show, they began exploding. We re-did it again some time later in Amsterdam with the flasks that stayed intact to give them a chance to explode too. The whole space started white, with white linen cloth and sheets lining the space, and the flasks were also white from the outside. The insides, however, were glazed yellow so the material, once the flasks exploded, would be marked and stained in the process, and it’s very acidic so it would rust and leave patterns on the linen. It was beautiful to see how one explosion could trigger all sorts of other things and processes to happen.
I LIKE THAT YOU SAID ‘TO GIVE THEM A CHANCE TO EXPLODE’ THERE’. IT FEELS LIKE YOU’RE ALWAYS EXPLORING THE LINE BETWEEN YOUR ROLE AS MAKERS AND THE WORKS ROLE AS ITS OWN LIVING ENTITY…
MM Yes, absolutely. There’s us as makers and then there’s this stage that we’ve created – this platform with all these little elements in it that we then just step back and let go of and open it it up people to come in to it or time to pass through it. We never touch our work once it’s on view. If it falls over, then that’s what happened.
AFTER ASSEMBLE EXPECTATIONS, YOU HAD A SUBSEQUENT PROJECT CALLED RE-ASSEMBLE EXPECTATIONS, WHICH FELT, SOMEWHAT LIKE IT’S LIVE CULTURE SUBJECT MATTER, TO HAVE GROWN AND MULTIPLIED DIRECTLY OUT OF THE FORMER PROJECT.
MM The intention had always been to use Assemble Expectations again. We already had a second exhibition scheduled and so we suggested the idea for Re-Assemble to the curator and he went for it . It was really nice to keep on threading with the same work, and to see how we could emphasise this idea of the intended and controlled moment of explosion even further. Re-assemble became a kind of stilling, or a crystallising, of that moment. It became playful for us because normally, if you present a piece of art on a pedestal, the artwork is hand made and the pedestal is kind of fabricated around it, so we decided to turn it around for this work. The pieces that were held by the wooden pillars were pieces of the exploded flasks, that had actually just exploded by themselves. We hadn’t broken them, and therefore they were shapes we didn’t decide upon. The pillars, however, we hand carved, spending hours and hours of time on building something to support those accidentally broken pieces of ceramic.
DO YOU OFTEN HAVE A THREAD OF WORKS SPAWNING FROM EACH OTHER? DO YOU SEE ALL OF THEM AS ONGOING AND INTERLINKING?
MM Definitely. We’ve actually just recently uninstalled a piece of work called Interdependent – Tree that we were exhibiting in Amsterdam’s Artis Zoo that we can’t wait to use again. It was a piece of polyester textile, suspended in trees, and over time it completely discoloured because all these birds had shat on it, which had then washed off by rain and left these really beautiful stains on it. We were stunned by how beautiful it was, and unintentional too, because we could never have planned that for instance. We would love to reinstall that in an indoor space, taking all of that context of having a work outside, and the subsequent effects those conditions had on it, and you bring it indoors. Any person seeing it in a white cube space would immediately associate it with the outside and that’s really nice. Probably one of the most valuable co-creators you have is time and nature so why not let them help you along the way to make really beautiful works.
AND SO AT SOME POINT, THE TWO OF YOU MOVED FROM AMSTERDAM TO NEW YORK. WHAT WERE YOUR FIRST IMPRESSIONS OF THAT PLACE AND HOW DID THAT BEGIN TO FEED INTO YOUR WORK?
MM That’s probably the most important thing you could ask, as that became what all our work in New York was about. We have always made site-specific works for exhibitions, looking at the exhibition space itself, and its properties each time, but this time it was a whole city that began inspiring and influencing us, and we were immediately fascinated by the things that we saw. So it wasn’t as local as it used to be, it was no longer about the specific properties or qualities of a space, but more about the cultural interest of the whole city and how it affected us as makers.
SOME OF YOUR MORE RECENT WORK, ROOTHLESS, WHICH COMPRISES SHARDS OF SHATTERED CONCRETE SCATTERED ACROSS A GALLERY FLOOR, WAS MADE IN NYC. WHAT EXPERIENCE DID THAT DERIVE FROM?
MM We lived in a neighbourhood where all the trees were just absurdly growing in a way that they were breaking open the concrete of the sidewalk. This was something that would never happen in Amsterdam happen because it is way too organised for that – it would be cleaned up and repaired within a day – but something about New York felt so fleeting to us, like its just made to exist in for a short time. So that was something that to us, as foreigners, was very interesting. Plus, we also felt very emotionally ‘unrooted’ to live there, so we wanted to give shape to that feeling. So there was ‘rootless’, but there was also ‘ruthless’, because pouring more and more concrete over the tree the whole time felt like such a ruthless thing to do, instead of making more space for the roots to grow…
IN TERMS OF YOUR INDIVIDUAL HISTORIES AND SKILL SETS, WITH MARTE HAVING WORKED AS A SET DESIGNER AND MAX PURSUING AN MA IN LANDSCAPE ARCHITECTURE, IT FEELS AS THOUGH YOU HAVE A SHARED INTERESTED IN SPACE – IN PARTICULAR, MAKING OR TRANSFORMING ENVIRONMENTS. DO YOU THINK THAT’S LED TO YOUR RECURRING INTEREST IN SITE-SPECIFIC WORK?
MM Yes. Recently, for an MA application (that we have now side-lined for the time-being), we had to sum up why we make what we make, and what we came up with really refers to that specific aspect of our work – that a lot of our concepts come from the complexity of a space or a landscape by itself. The world is constantly moving and changing and forever being influenced by people and the environment and all these different factors. So the complexity of a space as it is in the real world is also what we like to make and experiment with for ourselves, with an influence from time and the materials we choose and all sorts of other factors.
YOU WORK WITH ALL SORTS OF DIFFERENT MATERIALS – FROM CONCRETE TO PHOTOGRAPHY AND CERAMICS TO TEXTILES. IT MAY BE AN UNANSWERABLE QUESTION, BUT DO YOU FEEL YOU HAVE A ‘MEDIUM’, OR IS ANY AND ALL MATERIAL AN OPTION FOR YOU?
MM We feel like we have a form, certainly, and that form would be installations or landscapes – something bigger than ourselves, something that one can enter, or something that one can physically relate to (this is where we differ from sculpture: sculpture is more likely one piece that you relate to with the scale of your body, but the landscape is something you can enter into and feel like it surrounds you). So we have a form, and if we use photography, its still always to document a fragment of a landscape or an environment. It always comes back to the notion of landscape.(this is where we differ from sculpture: sculpture is more likely one piece that you relate to with the scale of your body, but the landscape is something you can enter into and feel like it surrounds you). So we have a form, and if we use photography, its still always to document a fragment of a landscape or an environment. It always comes back to the notion of landscape.
SEEING AS SO MUCH OF YOUR WORK IS PROCESS-BASED, AND IMPERMANENT, WHAT DO YOU VALUE AS ‘THE WORK OF ART’ IN THE END? IS IT THE PROCESS OR THE END RESULT? THE SUBSEQUENT DOCUMENTATION? THE MAKING, THE CONVERSATIONS, THE SOCIAL EXCHANGE?
MM That is the most difficult question of all, and it’s one we haven’t quite figured out yet. This is exactly why we wanted to do the MA together – the one we spoke about applying to earlier. They wanted us to ask ourselves one question and this was it. The artist Sol Lewitt made a little piece of paper that explains what his work is and you can reproduce it yourself, and that’s such a great little hack, isn’t it? A way to translate an entire formula into something. For us, the experience of time and the experience of entering a landscape are both so important that we might have to stop documenting altogether, and have our work just as interventions that you can only visit for a time and then they’re gone. At some point we have to work that out and it’ll come, in time. That’s our biggest challenge for the coming year.