Semiotics of a Needle

Dutch artist Berend Strik has triumphed in establishing an artistic expression for the chemical property of thixotropy. By intruding on the silence of photography with dark Indian velvet, transparent Japanese organza and multicoloured threads, the artist changes the state of the form. His stitched photography marries art with science resulting in an expansive possibility of thought. The fluidity of reality glides between materiality and immateriality. 

On the greyscale background, strings of colourful threads jump around the lacquered surface of the photograph. Berend Strik’s Decipher the Artist’s Mind…(Studio BJA) (2016) is the mysterious result of the Dutch artist’s visit to Bas Jan Ader’s atelier in the United States. The stitched photograph is enticing and inviting. Not unlike the effect of Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights, the oddities and organised chaos in Strik’s composition, along with his curiously palpable technique, arrest the viewer’s attention. The act of stitching marks this work of art permanently and continuously. The three-dimensionality of the textiles painfully underlines the flatness of the photograph. What is Strik trying to do here? What do these threaded disturbances amount to? What are the ramifications of punching holes and manipulating the integrity of the photographic medium on the spectator’s experience or the art form in itself?

Decipher the Artist’s Mind is an on-going series initiated in 2012 in order for Strik to rekindle his interest in the art world. To counter the estrangement sprouted from the domination of capitalist ideals, the artist visited his like-minded predecessors and peers in their creative space. The subjects of his photographs are never the artists themselves but walls, floorboards, a painter’s jacket, etc.  More often than not, the setting becomes unrecognisable since it is of little importance to Strik, just as the amorphous smudge of light in Decipher the Artist’s Mind…(Studio BJA) (2016). The photographic signal and its messages stay in the “then and there”, the instant of actuality is empty in past tense.

From this disposition of photography, Strik’s preoccupation turns towards reactivating the moment of the “here and now” in his multidisciplinary method. Creating since the 1980s, the artist has honed his stitching approach into a transformative expression. Invariably philosophical, there is much to be decrypted from this instinctual act of pushing a needle through another matter. The effect of Strik’s technique on photography is almost Einsteinian. E = mc2: material is converted into energy. It is this additional kinesis that the artist has captured in his work, which unequivocally accords, in Kubler’s words, “the shape of time”.

If paintings are corridors from the moment it represents to that when the viewer sees it, then Strik’s textile photography is the on-switch that reboots the historical timeline when the picture was taken and continues its narrative from the moment the viewer is standing in front of the artwork. No longer a constant, the message becomes transmissible and highly fluid. The instantaneous connection happens so quickly that time is stretched. What is so effective about his idiosyncratic style is that it taps into human being’s innate imitative resonance behaviour. The downward force generated by the pulling of the threads is the language of possibility or what Strik calls “reverie” (more accurately the Dutch word mijmeren). The spectator is welcome to muse over the stitched photographs while our biology completes the puzzle. The artist’s work relies heavily upon the automated response system embedded in mirror neurons, synapses that are argued to be the neural basis to a greater channel of human emotional discourse such as empathy. Such is the reason that seizing the viewer’s gaze is all the more important for Strik. The artist’s oeuvre essentially participates in the philosophical riddle of “can something exist without being perceived”. 

Life and Weather, 2022, mixed media, 90 cm by 81 cm. 2022

What is so effective about his idiosyncratic style is that it taps into human being’s innate imitative resonance behaviour.

It all seems Darwinian on paper. The evolution of his stitched photography demonstrates the balance of human intuition and artistic invention. No gesture in this piercing intervention is an accident. Remembering his earlier works, which involved found photography like those from a family album, advertisement or erotic materials, a strong sense of strangulation restricts any possibility for imaginative expansion. This is perhaps resonated in Strik’s choice of ready-made images, which he used as a sort of canvas to a painting. Yet, the artist’s recent oeuvre utilising photographs taken during his travels communicates with further dexterity the hidden photographic spaces in the creative continuum. The photographs in Strik’s works are not canvases, nor are the perforations the brushstrokes. His masterful expression should not be seen as an amalgamation of the two media but rather the rewriting for a new form.

Tracing back to the various categories of the history of humanity, the authoritative source has always been documentation. There is a thread leading the “here and now” to the “then and there”. To quote the text on John Baldessari’s Painting for Kubler (1967-68): “This painting owes its existence to prior paintings.” Strik manifests such ideas quite literally, as do the patches of deep, dark fabric woven seamlessly into the dripping patterns by the hands of Jackson Pollock, or emphasising depth and the void in the cracks and peeling wall at Vito Acconci’s studio. The danger of this literality is evaded by Strik’s integral function as an artist, as an individual in the universality of the humankind.  The laborious practice of stitching in Strik’s textile photography generates an artistic symbol from a useful invention. By virtue of repetition, he amplifies the association of meaning to form. No man is an island. Strik mends the contemporary chasm in the fabric of art history. There is pure harmony and at the same time, eruption of emotions in adding foreign materials onto the incongruous images. 

The spectator is welcome to muse over the stitched photographs while our biology completes the puzzle.

Vondelpark, 2022, miwed media, 220 cm by 160 cm.