Willem de Rooij’s exhibition at NO.5 consists of a single work: a sound installation consisting of recordings of sounds from camels.
De Rooij explores conventions for the presentation and production of art. These explorations have resulted in a highly composite oeuvre that makes use of a variety of media, with a background as much in what the medium or the object expresses in itself as what can be said to be communicated or expressed through the medium. In recent years de Rooij has sought to create a kind of artwork without apparent references to anything external. On the art scene today, ‘referentialism’ is a widespread strategy. The meaning-content of the work is often to be found somewhere beyond the object with which one is confronted, embedded in a complex of themes to which the work ‘refers’ or which the work ‘is about’. De Rooij wants to get rid of all such references.
De Rooij occupies an intricate intermediate position in this landscape. On the one hand he works within a work category that aims at something phenomenologically immediate and directly communicative, and on the other he works in a tradition of conceptualized and dematerialized art which communicates by way of a series of layers of contextual references and parallel sidetracks. His works seem to avoid both extremes. For de Rooij the conceptual and contextual content is instead embedded in the object itself, in its genesis, presentation form and materiality.
This strategy is evident in his many textile works from the past few years. These are often monochrome, hand-woven fabrics with predefined colours and dimensions. Without clear references to external sources, these works function neither referentially, metaphorically nor allegorically. Instead they are about the fundamental texture of the fabric; the endless repetition of threads that overlap from two different directions. De Rooij thus points instead towards more abstract concepts like opposition, change or compromise. In the exhibition “Intolerance” (Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin, 2010-11) de Rooij exhibited original 17th-century paintings with bird motifs, made by the Dutch artist Melchior d’Hondecoeter — in combination with ceremonial feathered objects from 19th-century pre-Christian Hawaii. In this exhibition de Rooij chose to show the actual original objects rather than to create a work that dealt with the theme by referring to the objects by way of representational detours.
Farafra (2012) is de Rooij’s first sound installation. At first it was presented at the group exhibition “The World is not Fair—The Great World’s Fair 2012”, in an outdoor pavilion at the closed- down airport Tempelhof in Berlin. The work consists of sound recordings from a camel farm in the desert area Farafra in the west of Egypt, near the border with Libya. The 15-minute composition based on these recordings constitutes an intimate, moving aural encounter with these normally so quiet animals. Without natural enemies the animal had no natural need to develop sounds as a defence mechanism. The camels’ sounds emerge as indefinable wailing, groaning and complaining. Detached from its origin and played back in an otherwise empty room, the sound in Farafra also seems strangely human.
In Farafra de Rooij exploits the sound recording as raw material in a semantically ambivalent work where the above-mentioned relationship between immediacy and external references is brought into play. Farafra must be viewed on the basis of the effort to ensure that the work will not be about anything outside itself. What we encounter is nothing else but the sound of the animals on the camel farm. At the same time it is not difficult to associate it with a broader theme, in the light of the artist’s enduring interest in exoticism and in cross-cultural exchanges and (mis-)interpretations caused by notions of “the exotic”.
The sound installation can also be seen in the light of the films de Rooij made in collaboration with Jeroen de Rijke in the period up to 2006. The precision of the sound-editing work bears clear resemblances to the montage technique of the film. But formally and thematically, too, one can find parallels with several of these films’ lingering close-ups of objects, interiors and landscapes—for example a mosque in Amsterdam, an oriental carpet or a sunrise over a slum outside Djakarta. In de Rijke’s and de Rooij’s films the form of presentation is also always an integral part of the work. The films are not shown in loops but at fixed times with pauses between each showing. The intervals are often as long as the duration of the film, which makes the empty gallery space the only content of the exhibition for about half the time. Farafra too is presented in this way with separate playbacks where one is urged to listen to the work from beginning to end.
Willem de Rooij (b.1969) was born in Beverwijk, The Netherlands. He lives and works in Berlin.