Art & Design

Artist Levi van Veluw on Faces, Family and ‘Origin of the Beginning’

Art & Design

Artist Levi van Veluw on Faces, Family and ‘Origin of the Beginning’


Dutch contemporary artist Levi van Veluw’s signature can be found in his textured self-portraitures, videos, and instillations. In the artist’s “Ballpoints” series, van Veluw covered his face in a progression of intricate ink prints—checkered, puzzle, dots. In “Landscapes”, he took to gravel, fake trees and grass to recreate landscapes on his face—functioning electric train included. Since graduating Artez Art School in Arnhem, Netherland, van Veluw’s captivating progression of material, pattern, and color has gained him international recognition with a Photographer of the Year Award at the IPA International Photo Awards in 2007, as well as exhibitions around the world. Chatting with BULLETT, van Veluw talked of his progression into group installation with “Origin of the Beginning”, stepping away from his one man work ethic, and his fixation with the facial form.

Where did your incessant fascination with the self-portrait come from? Were you always interested in the depiction of the self or did your art initially begin elsewhere?
Initially I didn’t have the intention to make self-portraits. I was interested in the shape of the head, the value we assign to it, its associations, and the possibility of transforming these elements.  The first portraits were a practical choice. And, as the oeuvre evolved, the portraits became less personal and more objective, as hair and other personal elements were removed. During the process, I did become more interested in self-portraiture: “Origin of the Beginning” is a more personal series, compared to the other series.

Since you work in a variety of mediums, would you say that the human form is your primary canvas of choice? Do you consider it a canvas or is it something else to you?
At this moment, the human form’s presence in my work is still important; however, I’m finding new ways of making self-portraits without using the human form. “Origin of the Beginning” is a very personal piece in which I reflect on my childhood. It questions where several obsessions and fascinations came from, how my personality first formed. It motivates me to have total control on the final image. Every choice has a meaning, in this way, from the material to the shapes, etc.

On one hand, you refer to your renderings as your head, but you also call it a “universal face” that allows the viewer to “project himself onto the work.” Do you think that your practice undermines or redefines the traditional view of a self-portrait in some ways?
Yes. I’m not making self-portraits to tell stories about myself. I am mainly fascinated by organizing chaos. That’s why you see a lot of patterns and structures.  By using my own past, I ground the work in a reality, though it looks surreal. Take my piece “family”: it looks like a surreal setting infused with lots of fantasy, but actually, it’s real. My real family is sitting there, covered in real wooden blocks. The result is a performance.  The only thing that’s not real is the perfect setting of the family all together. The awkward silence and dark color suggest uncomfortable underlying tensions and emotions—something lots of people will recognize themselves. You know it’s a real family sitting there, but as everything is covered with wooden blocks, you can’t recognize them or see their personalities. In that way, the family portrayed is universal.

In “Origin of the Beginning,” your work has a clear narrative scheme, since it is based on a time of your life, specifically between the ages of eight and fourteen. What inspired you to focus on such a definite time period in your life and what is the relationship between those years and the title of the piece?
It all goes back to questions that I’ve asked myself.  How was I formed? Why am I interested in making portraits with patterns and structures? What motivates me to use repetition? Why do I want to control everything?

And the final questions: where did this behavior originate—what was the Origin of the Beginning? As I didn’t grow up in a perfect family, and there was not much structure at home, I developed this urge to control the things around me, and became obsessed with organized structures and patterns, since they look perfect. I think that’s how and when it all began.

How would you describe those years in your life? Were you already interested in art at that time? And did recreating and working with these years in your latest piece make you see them differently?
No, I didn’t know anything about art at that time, although I did like to draw and create things. Working with these years does make things clearer, but I really don’t see it as therapy or anything like that. It’s just interesting to analyze why I make art the way I do.

You taught photography at the Willem de Kooning Academy. Did your experiences during these childhood years move you in some ways to teach and foster others?
No, I did it for just 6 months. But it took to much time, so I’m now focusing solely on my work.

Although from a distance the rooms your created can appear uniform and almost mechanically made, upon closer inspection there are tons of small imperfections that illuminate the human hand behind the formation; this is something you embrace. In the first room, the edges of the desk are burnt indicating your obsession with fire. Are there any other personal touches within the art that may not be seen otherwise?
I have chosen to work with wood, as it is an organic material that has a history. Making it symmetrical is a human action. It’s part of the idea that controlling your surroundings makes everything into a human creation.  The blocks are glued on the wall one by one without any measuring tools. By doing it this way, you see the human struggle to organize his surroundings, just like organizing you agenda. But no matter how hard you try, it will never be perfect.

When I was young, I burned my table. I think a logical consequence of wanting to control everything is an interest in destruction.

I’m also very interested in the third room, made from small balls that start out equally spaced but, as they get closer to the bed, begin to warp and appear to dance or sizzle dynamically. This, in contrast to the rest of the pieces, seems very lively.  Why did you choose to infuse this particular scene with such vitality?
The room with the balls feels really claustrophobic. It’s all about losing control. At the age of 8, I had a recurring nightmare about balls rolling in patterns and I had to control them, but as I failed, they bounced into each other. It resulted in total chaos and panic.

You carefully placed each square of wood by hand, how long did it take to make one scene? What is particularly difficult and/or rewarding about these types of installations as opposed to digital art and vice versa?
It took about 3 months to complete each installation. It’s, of course, more physical work. And by working with real materials you get a kind of imperfection that you will never see with digital art. Besides that, digital art will always stay digital, and in its best format (i.e.: the virtual), it will never truly be real.

In “Origin of the Beginning,” you move from representing a single body to a family grouping of five. Do you see this change as something that could affect your work as your career continues?
No, not particularly. I see this as the final piece of the Origin of the Beginning series, as it all started with a family.

Would you consider this family-portrait representative of your relationship with your family? What do you hope the viewer will take away from the sexless and expressionless group?
It is based on my family situation at home, 21 years ago, so don’t take it too literally.  I think a lot of people will recognize the feeling of this uncomfortable silence between their relatives. It will prompt us to question the way we look at things like perfection and our obsession with control.

Do you hope to have a family of your own someday? Would you hope to portray them in a similar or different fashion than here?
Yes, I do, but I hope it will be in a happier atmosphere.

Do you see yourself always staying in Holland?
At the moment, I want to stay in Holland.

Are there any mediums or subjects that you have yet to explore that you would like to?
I am going to make a series of drawings, and after that, an installation that people can enter inside of.

Your work has been showcased in the United States, Poland, Australia, and Israel to name a few. Are there places you’ve yet to exhibit at that you would like to?
The places are not the most important, but, of course, there any many great museums and other places where I would like to exhibit my work.