Liesje Smolders

Sculpture meets theatre with Liesje Smolders

Text: Sya van ‘t Vlie M.A.

Liesje Smolders (1952) is fascinated by skin. Interesting is that her fascination for skin results in her being oriented at the 'offskin' of both her sculptures and sculpture as a discipline. By the offskin of a sculpture I mean the immediate surroundings of a sculpture, including the viewer; by the offskin of the discipline sculpture I mean the boundary area of sculpture, the area where crossovers between sculpture and other art disciplines originate.

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Theatre specific and autonomous sculptures
Liesje started as a scene and costume designer. Inspired by theatre she felt the urge to make autonomous sculptures. Therefore she decided to train as a sculptor at the Gerrit Rietveld Academy in Amsterdam. Besides wooden sculptures she makes installations en site specific projects. She is still involved in theatre. Furthermore she often acts in performances, in which her own sculptures function as stage props. As a result some of her sculptures are balancing on the border of theatre specific and autonomous sculptures.
This balancing on the border of sculpture and theatre became fully fledged in 1987 when Liesje designed the scenes for the play ‘Turandot’ in the open air theatre in the ‘Amsterdamse Bos’. This project proved to her that precisely from an autonomous point of view it is possible for drama and sculpture to go together just fine. She designed five sculptural stage props in which the actors could stand. Each prop expressed the main charateristic of the personage played by its actor. Therefore she called these props the actors’ ‘first costume’. During the day, when the play was not on, they stood on the stage like autonomous sculptures, interesting for the usual visitors (non-theatre audience) walking by.
Ten years later she did the opposite with Melopee (1996).Melopee is an autonomous sculpture which is suitable for use in a performance. It consistis of two reclining sculptures with a boatlike outside, whose inner forms are the hollowed out figures of a human being, one male, the other female. They are a further elaboration on the first costumes. Lying in them the touch between human being and art work is optimum. The chesnut trunk out of which they were made was split by Liesje herself and cut out to measure – of herself and her beloved – to rock to and fro to the rythm of Paul van Ostaijen's poem ‘Melopee’.

Skin of autonomous work
As a rule Liesje’s autonomous wooden sculptures are figurative. They are multilayered as to their meaning, offering ample room for associations. Often they are about communication (the desire for and the incapability of), the transition to a new phase and the craving for security. The latter is to be concluded from their finish: the wood of these sculptures should feel like skin. This resulted in touch becoming a main theme. The wooden breasts which invite the viewer to stroke them, and Portrait, the wooden foot, which the viewer wants to try on, are examples of touchable sculptures where this feeling like skin is coupled to their theme. Similar to these is the wall installation of baby grows (rompertjes) and latex breasts with the telling title Just below my skin I’m screaming. ‘Skin is a theme full of opposites. Skin is the largest and most vulnerable of our senses. Skin offers protection, but skin is also a screen, a mask. Skin contact is both caressing and hitting. Skin is sensuous and erotically charged. Wood should feel like skin.’
This holds especially true for Liesje's 'boys', a series of penises which she showed for the first time at the exhibition ‘subskin – offskin’ with Gallery Wit in Wageningen in 2006 because of the 'hypocrite entanglements' regarding Hanshan Roebers’ national monument. The commotion caused by this abstract copper 'erection' deserved an answer. 'Don't you really know what a phallus looks like? The vital masculine, full of life and desire, firm and proud, but also nearly swallowed and vulnerable.' The series refers to the most intimate skin contact possible. After having dedicated herself to the female for a long time, Liesje compares her new project to a voyage of discovery. 'The step to go looking in wood for who you are, essence, memories and desire. The soul of masculine drive. The mirror for myself.'
Liesje also makes paraffin works, since paraffin is and looks most like skin. Her travelling installation Via Maria (1995-96) consisted of seven paraffin Marias, who, the more they burned in, transformed from madonna's (in the chapel of St. Mary in Hoorn) at first into passengers (at the Antwerp station) and finally into public women (along the Old Delft canal).

Subskin and offskin
A sculpture which illustrates how the offskin of a sculpture (object) coincides as it were with the offskin of sculpture (discipline) is Liesje's Full of the Past. In a sheltered spot in the garden sits a woman bent over a table, her forward thrown hair reaches over the table top till the ground. Her arms and hands rest on the table top, palms downward. These hands (casts of Liesje's own hands) are the portrait, they are totally passive. A closed, introverted sculpture, for which Full of the Past is an appropriate title. The woman radiates desparate resignation. The viewer can only stand by and watch powerlessly. He feels the urge to comfortingly caress her hair, knowing this will have no effect whatsoever. The woman will have to tap her subskin resources to be able to open up to the future again. This way Liesje forces the viewer into the role of a spectator who has to wait how things will end. This is exactly the response Liesje had in mind. She intends this sculpture to be the first one of a walk along sculptures on location, during which she wishes to meet the viewer/walker in a one to one situation. How she will work out this project is still open. Certain is that seven paraffin 'boys' (paraffin casts of the penis Take a seat) will be part of it. Lighted from the inside they will become 'immaterial, elusive, a dream'.
(The hair, which form the skin of Full of the Past, direct the viewer's gaze to the woman's hands, which are the real portrait. The woman's attitude underlines their passivity, but at the same time shows clearly what takes place subskin. Integrating the sculpture in a interactive offskin event which is a mixture between fine arts and theatre turns it into a sculptrue in the offskin of sculpture. The viewer/walker changes into a participant, who at the same time is co-maker and part of the art work. Each meeting will pass differently, resulting in a unique experience not only for the visitor but for Liesje as well.)
Integrating these sculptures into an interactive event which is a cross between fine arts and theatre turns them into scuptures in the offskin.

Skin deep
A try out of such a one to one encounter is Skin deep (Zonder mij uit tot huid), with which Liesje in the summer of 2006 participated in the ‘Etcetera Festival’ in Amersfoort. The meeting takes place in a cabinet in the centre of which sits a four-poster bed. Beneath a transparant mosquito net lies a sleeping woman; she radiates light. Around the bed various sculptures sit waiting to be deployed in a series of enactments. At the entrance to the cabinet Liesje is waiting for the visitor. She covers her face with a wooden breast as if it were a mask. She accompanies her visitor in a ritual which prepares him for the moment in which Liesje invites him to lie down on the bed, next to the sleeping woman. The woman is a paraffine replica of Liesje herself. With this staged performance she wishes to arouse desire and to raise questions about intimacy. By adressing one visitor at the time she changes a anonymous situation into an intimate meeting. Light, odour, sound and above all touch enhance the intimacy. Her visitor changes into a co-actor. Although Liesje is the director of this ritual, she can never be completely certain how her co-actor will react. Fascinating is that she herself turns into a spectator as soon as her visitor lies down next to her replica. Thus making each encounter as exiting for herself as for her visitor.

Encounter as art work
In his review of the exhibition ‘subskin – offskin’ in Wageningen, where Liesje presented all the above works with the exception of Skin deep, Antonie den Ridder argues that conventions accepted within theatre wriggle/writhe when applied to fine arts and that operating in the boundary area of sculpture consequently is not without risks1. Liesje, however, considers her balancing act on the boundary of sculpture and theatre as a challenge. The stage props she designed for Turandot were convincing as autonomous scuptures. Skin deep with Liesje as living sculpture at the entrance can be seen as an installation in which there is a lot to be seen and guessed by the viewer. But complete is Skin deep only as interactive performance, with the added interaction between Liesje and her guest. Liesje’s staging and direction facilitate the interaction and the experience of both. Their meeting is de real art work. In short, the meeting place requires a meeting. But besides between Liesje and her visitor, this meeting is also an encounter between the offskin of sculpture, in this case Liesje’s installation, and the offskin of the discipline sculpture, in this case theatre.