The cold art of Peter Hulsmans


In Paul Valéry’s masterpiece An Evening with Mr Teste, there is a scene in which the narrator and the eponymous protagonist attend a theatre performance. The performance itself is not described in the text at all; instead the narrator recounts Mr Teste’s description of how the spectators receive the play and of what may, possibly, be going on in their minds. There is a displacement at work here that became prevalent during postmodern times, long after Valéry wrote Mr Teste: a shift of attention from the work of art itself to its surroundings and, specifically, to its recipients. Not surprisingly, a similar thing happens in the work of one of the greatest of postmodern writers. In the first chapter of Don De Lillo’s Point Omega, the narrator is in a gallery space in which Douglas Gordon’s 24 Hour Psycho is being screened. Though the video work itself, consisting of a slowed version of Hitchcock’s film, does not go undescribed as in the case in Valéry’s Teste, even more descriptive attention is given to the visitors of the gallery space watching the screen.


Now, one may wonder what all of this has to do with Peter Hulsmans’ works of art. At one point in Point Omega, it is said that the film (Douglas’ 24 Hour Psycho) makes the protagonist ‘feel like someone watching a film’. A very similar thing happens when looking at Peter Hulsmans’ works: one becomes very much aware of one’s own spectatorship. One instantly feels like like a recipient. Not surprisingly, when talking to the artist about his work, this spectatorship and what is expected from it are always at the centre of the discourse. Hulsmans is not an ivory tower artist, but rather an artist who very much anticipates, explicitly, viewers’ reactions to what he presents them with. This becomes very obvious in a mirror work like the artist’s multiple Point (2011) that brutally confronts its spectator with his/her own stupified gaze when he/she opens the boîte, finding a miniature construction inside, recessed within a mirroring surface.


Hulsmans’ works are – to use a commonplace – hermetic, difficult to understand (if understanding them is even possible). The reason for this lies in the fact that they are, in many respects and to a large extent, restrained. Now, I use the word ‘restrained’; however, I could have also said ‘evasive’, ‘scarce’ or ‘frail’. Works of art, or œuvres, always set off a string of mental sparks, resulting in adjectives that, in a Lacanian glissant manner, move away from the work itself. There is something in these adjectives, though, which is also common to Hulsmans’ works. It is a meaning-trait that we could call lessness. Hulsmans’ works hold back; they always seem to lack something, albeit willingly and deliberately. They lack something, not only semantically, but also materially. Often, the works lack physical weight. Many of them are made of (relatively) light materials, such as paper, cardboard, wood veneer or candlewax. Moreover, the works are often portable (like Point) and easily moveable, to such an extent that it seems like the slightest breeze could lift them up, set them into flight and send them far away. The cardboard quatropus on wheels in Figurated Moods (2005) is a good example. It may stand still, yet it exudes mobility.


In their lessness, Hulsmans’ works do not yield to cultural or artistic consumerism. On the contrary, many of them seem to mock the expectations of observers, not so much of what a work of art should look like – which has, of course, long been a central preoccupation of the art world – but rather of what it should ‘feel’ like. A good example are the many paper works in Hulsmans’ oeuvre, for example the ominously titled I arrived yesterday, Shy and Multi-plier. All of these constructions are reminiscent of furniture or furniture parts. As an observer of these works, you cannot but feel unheimlich in their presence, because they have a certain visual familiarity about them and look like things déjà-vu. Yet, at the same time, they whisper a tale about their otherness engendered by the lack of substance that is contary to the solidity expected of their shapes. The latter is also true in the case of Hulsmans’ architectural intervention In-View (2009), where an extant architectural detail (the entrance of Antwerp’s Atelier Solar Shop) is copied in cardboard.


The use of light, delicate materials endows Hulsmans’ works with a sense of ephemerality, of disturbing short-livedness. The works thus seem to betoken their own possible absence, which, to their spectators, may come across as sort of a challenge. The possibility of destroying Hulsmans’ frail, materially restrained works is palpable. You know, for example, that the ultra-thin and delicate candlewax tablets of Figurated Moods will break as a result of too much pressure, or melt if exposed to trivial (?) sunlight. It feels almost perverse that the tablets are shown in combination with a stout wooden chair, were it not that the chair is on its side, toppled. In Signs (2004), there is a ludicrous allusion to the possibility of destruction every spectator feels confronted with in the frail paper construction which includes a round candlewax tablet with a small light over it. This installation is combined with another Sign composed of an almost crucifix-like cardboard object holding a t-shirt in place against a wall, which creates a mental conflict resulting from the discrepancy between the cardboard’s lightness and the assumed weight necessary to keep the t-shirt in place. Like many works in Hulsmans’ œuvre, this Sign seems to anticipate its own diminishment in every way.


This material restriction underlines the mental effect Hulsmans’ works have on their observers. On one hand, their frailty seems to invite spectators to touch them, to feel them, to lift them; on the other hand, the lack of lasting substance also foretells the works’ eventual absence. One cannot look at one of these works without becoming extremely aware of oneself as a spectator who finds himself, or herself, in front of something that he/she can never grasp without annihilating it, both literally and metaphorically. For, if you were to try to put your finger on what it could mean, you would reduce the work’s semantic complexity – and thus spoil it. You have to hold back, stay on the periphery, wavering between being attracted to the works and feeling the threat of their incipient nullification. This inbetweennness causes a feeling of insecurity and restlessness, and this interaction between the physical work and its spectator is of central importance to Hulsmans’ art.


As I have previously said, Hulsmans’ work does not yield. It is merciless; rather than simply leave you in limbo, it deliberately puts you in a state of tantalising yearning-for. You want to touch the delicate structures and the wafer-thin candlewax tablets. You want to put your finger on what they might mean, on what they might try to express – but you realise that by doing so, you would inevitably destroy them. This brings me to the last and, perhaps, most effective adjective that I could use for Peter Hulsmans art: ‘cold’, that I borrow from German poet Gottfried Benn. According to Benn, it is a poet’s objective to keep his/her material, i.e. language, cold. Hulsmans’ works are cold as well and they demand of their spectators a proper modus operandi that I have tried to employ in this text. You cannot rub your mind against Hulsmans’ work and make it glow with meaningfulness, because then you would crush it, make it melt, or even burn it up. It actually forces its spectators into a contemplative balancing act that can be upset at any second. It forces you to be a ‘cool’, yet very self-conscious, observer.


Noël Reumkens (

(With thanks to Le Vin Chin, Basel, for editing)