Time is the primary motive in the practice of Belgian conceptual artist Kris Martin. Convinced that material can carry thoughts, Martin uses well-known or everyday objects in a defamiliarizing way. For instance, in Mandi VIII (2006), he gives us a Laocoön in which the source of pain has been removed, leaving the three figures to struggle with an invisible, and perhaps imaginary, enemy. With these “little gestures,” he tries to infect the brain of his audience. He considers himself an observer and attempts to show us things in ways that we have never seen before and to change our attitudes toward objects. Open for many interpretations, Martin’s work generates an emptiness, a space to reflect on the complexity of life. Martin lives and works in Ghent, Belgium.
Karlyn De Jongh: In your work, you make references to time and encourage viewers to reflect on its meaning. Why is time so important to you?
Kris Martin: Time is important because it is so difficult to deal with. For this reason, it is an important theme throughout my work. Rather than a subject, time is a motive: something ongoing that returns each time I create a work. There are several definitions of time. So far, the most interesting one that I have come across is St. Augustine’s: “If you ask me what time is I do not know, but if you do not ask me I know exactly what it is.” In visual arts, time is problematic. It is a dimension that is hard to represent; time becomes frozen. Everything is time and time is everything, but you cannot grasp what it is. Time is fluid; it constantly escapes. To give a visual piece a notion of time is a big challenge, and that is why I am doing it.
KDJ: You live in the beautiful, historical city of Ghent. Does the fact that you are surrounded by history affect your work?
KM: Absolutely. Living in an old city has a great influence: when I go out the door, I am in history. Although I cannot say how, the notion of time and the constant contact with time must affect my work to a great extent. It is just a coincidence that I was born and raised here. Were I raised in Los Angeles, I am sure that my notion of time would be different. Environment determines a large part of what I am doing. I am generally very attracted to matter. Material has the fantastic ability to carry thoughts and feelings, as well as time. It survives us. Matter itself has no meaning, but you can give it meaning. Sometimes I make work with found objects. Recently, for instance, I found a cannonball that was shot during the Napoleonic war, here in Flanders. We do not know which cannon fired it, just that it was fired. Years later, at a flea market, I was holding it in my hand. The cannonball is here and now; I could not make it any better.
I need a good reason to intervene in an object, to change something. It is about choices, generally. Putting this object in another context is not about displacement—we have seen that. Simply in my hands, it became art. Not that I am a wizard, but I did have the thought that the cannonball is here and now. It is a silly idea, but it infects your brain. And that is exactly what I am trying to do—infect the brain. You see something in a way that you never saw it before; afterward, you cannot help seeing it in another way.
Chinese porcelain and glue, 225 cm. high.
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