The Endless House. Mark Menders

by Maria Barnas

“It’s quite simple — come out of the station and cross the concrete bridge,” Mark Manders had told me. It’s a winter’s day and I’m on my way to his studio. Now I’m outside the small station building in Ronse, and I can see two bridges on the left and one on the right. What I see on the right is a striking work of art, made of piled-up rough square blocks. This bridge seems to have been made without any kind of plan, as though the builders puzzled out block by block how to span the water. I hazard a guess that this bridge — which is dark brown — isn’t made of concrete. But from this distance I can’t possibly tell. Hoping for the best, I head for the two bridges on the left. Since I’m not sure I’m going the right way, I pretend to myself that I’m also heading in the other direction. I split up into three people and cross three bridges at once. Two of us will never reach Mander’s studio. Each bridge leads to a different life.

There’s a future in which I walk all the way to China and bring back silk pyjamas for everyone at home. There’s a future in which I explore the grey-brown interior of Belgium and decide to settle in a village. And there’s a future in which I meet Mark Manders.

Mark Manders shows me an astonishing number of corridors, rooms, cellars, interlinked spaces, sheds, attics and outbuildings. Some have been renovated, others are still being rebuilt. Many look as if no-one has touched them for years.

The building where Manders lives and works used to be a weaving factory. It looks like an old industrial castle. In the garden is a vinery, with a luxuriant jungle of plants. Wild shoots protrude through holes in the glass. It’s like a head with too many ideas in it.

I live in Amsterdam. Ever since the cramped stronghold was erected on the marshes around the year 1000, it has suffered from a housing shortage.

Amsterdammers have resigned themselves to living in damp basements or low-ceilinged attics. They stack up the washing machine and the dryer on top of the piano, and put their children to bed side by side in bunks. Staircases are as narrow as possible, and built almost vertically, to save the floor space.

When I opened the front door of the building I used to live in, I ran head first into a wall of stairs. As I walked up to my flat my knees touched the next few steps.

The flat consisted of a single 18-square-metre room. This was where I slept, ate and invited people over for dinner. It was a kind of permanent sliding puzzle in which I had to keep shifting pieces of furniture in order to move around.

The shower head hung right next to the toilet. While sitting on the toilet I could stretch out my arm and touch a pan on the cooker. Although I never actually tried it, I could have cooked a meal while having a shower in the toilet.

I’m describing the housing shortage in Amsterdam not just to get it out of my system, but also to help explain the connotations of a recurring dream. I keep having this dream that I’ve been allocated a whole house — just like that. When I go and look at it, I discover more and more rooms. A narrow corridor turns out to lead to a forgotten rear part of the house, with a courtyard at the back of it, surrounded by unused stables. Each wall may conceal yet another room. The dream fills me with pure, silent, total happiness — happiness that calms my entire being. When I awake from the dream I can see all kinds of new opportunities.

Mark Manders leads me through the endless house. Wherever I look there are ideas, thoughts, proliferating fantasies. On the walls are sketches exploring all kinds of different issues, with photographs, photocopies, drawings and texts. Shed after shed is filled with scattered objects. There are completed and unfinished installations, metres tall and metres wide.

“It’s a bit empty right now,” says Manders.

It’s hard to credit, but most of his work has been shipped off to exhibitions.

A clay woman is lying in an awkward pose against a chair back. The clay’s still wet. She must only just have been made. As I approach, Manders taps her belly, producing a hollow sound. The figure turns out to have been cast in bronze.

“Everything has to look as if it’s just been made,” Manders explains. “I want to create one great super-moment.”

Everything does look as it’s just been made. You could also say the work looks timeless — as if you’re travelling backwards or forwards in time, to a moment when the woman with the outstretched leg has just been modelled.

I come across the woman in various places. She’s like a word that the artist keeps using. Sometimes she’s well chosen, and used with precision, like a word you come across in a poem. Sometimes she’s the start of a line that has yet to be finished.

The woman Manders has made is, and isn’t, a person. She isn’t a character — she doesn’t have the personal features. She’s smaller than average — her height recalls ancient mummies, in which you can recognise something of yourself. There’s a certain familiarity, but also an unbridgeable gap between times and cultures.

I’ve come to a place where ideas and thoughts are as concrete and tangible as objects. A typewriter is a typewriter, but it’s also the idea of a typewriter, and the word for it. A neatly lined-up row of teabags is a collection of teabags, but also a phrase, a line from a book that may be written. The book needs no other presence in the world that the suggestion of it. It exists as potential.

The way in which Manders stacks up and combines meanings strikes a chord with the poet in me. A typewriter in a sculpture functions both as the actual thing, with which you can produce texts, and as the core of meanings that the object generates. This core is like a spinning top that flings associations (letters, the sound of typing, making typing errors, starting again) into space and your head. 

What makes the poet envious is that you can touch the work, I could pull up a chair, wind a sheet of paper into the typewriter and get going. 

Since the work is spatial, it’s much more directly part of the world you live in than a poem. A poem has only a flimsy body — as flimsy as the thin page it’s printed on.

Of course the poem has a presence through suggestion, association and everything it conjures up in the reader’s head. But so does Manders’ work. 

In his work Table/Corner/Typewriter (1998) there is a cut-out corner of a room on the tabletop. Within the corner of the room, on the tabletop, is a typewriter. It’s as if the typewriter is in a model of a theatre. This is a stage on which you can write, a situation I know well from when I start working in the morning. I sit down and assume the role of the writer who’s expected to produce a performance — the action of writing. I play a role, I write a word. But really I’m the one that should be thinking up the roles, for the people I’m writing about. 

The corner of Mander’s table is a place where poems can emerge. And it’s more than that — it’s a gateway to the emergence of poems, letters, novels. It’s a thinking space, but above all it’s thought space (not thought-up space, but space as it occurs in thoughts).

As seen by the writer in this space, the walls of the room are built of bricks. Seen from a broader perspective the walls turn out to be too thin for this. The bricks are painted on wood. This is scenery, a life-size scale model, a stage on which you can write a book. The room the writer is sitting in has shrunk to a corner of a room resting on his tabletop. It refers to concentration, the way in which you lose awareness of the space around you, when you become lost in your work. But it’s also more general — the projection of an environment. That makes the corner not just a reduction, but also an enlargement. 

I come across the typewriter again in Writing Machine (2004), a pitch-black installation that at first looks like a silhouette in a white museum room, but in fact proves to have a complex and spatial structure: interlinked spaces of various sizes. This linkage suggests that here, as in digestive tract, something is being consumed, but also produced. A concertina structure can be seen halfway along. The chimney protruding at the top could be the end of the tract, but also the start of it. There could be smoke coming out of it, but this pipe could also be the place where ideas are sucked in. You have to walk around the sculpture to discover that there’s a small white typewriter on the ground. There’s also a tabletop. There is ample space here for both action of writing and writing as a thought process. 

With Manders, a work can be both an illustration of itself and the actual object. Even as he makes it he already seems aware that it will be reproduced. This is more than just the idea that the work may appear on postcards and in catalogues. There’s also the reproduction that occurs when someone sees it. As I look at this work I make my own illustration of it. 

This factor is clearly present when the artist reduces his own work to 88% of its size, as in Table with paper walls (reduced to 88%) (2002). Stacks on papers on the edge of the desk extend into stacks next to the desk which form a corner — a wall. This sequence occurs to me first, because my desk constantly disappears under growing stacks of paper which I push to the edge to make room when I start writing. After a while the stacks form an intimidating wall. There is no sequence whatsoever in this work. The walls can just as well have caused the stacks. There’s no sequence in a visual work. The object is solidified in space and time. But Manders’ work isn’t simply object like. It does suggest a sequence of action and events, like a still of a film, which implicitly includes the previous and subsequent history.

Walls that grow out of stacks of paper suggest a situation in which someone gets bogged down in his work or correspondence. Walls that extend into stacks of paper suggest an external constriction that necessitates a personal defence. Both connotations are implicit in this work, and in both cases the paper, or the wall, is so low that you could just see over it if you sat down at this desk.

The fact remains that I’ve made my own version of this work by describing it. I can’t help but make a reproduction, a scale model.

Sometimes Manders presents the original and the scale model side by side, but sometimes just the ‘reduction’, which then forms the original. This enhances the notion that all the objects and installations the artist produces are ultimately scale models – the originals are in his head. Every title of a work by Manders could include the words ‘reduced to 100%’.

I’m looking at a mouse that is tied to a fox with a strap. The fox is lying on its side on the ground. The animals’ features are blurred, like those of the bronze woman with the outstretched leg. They seem to have been reduced to a minimal version of themselves. Just one less curve and they would no longer be recognisable as a fox or a mouse.

Their pose looks quite natural, as if things have always been that way – until I realise I’ve never seen a mouse on a fox’s belly before.

The way I initially perceived the scene, as a natural presence, remains implicit in my ultimate wonderment. That means that the self-evident, the incomprehensible and the mysterious realities co-exist.

What is striking is that this overlapping of realities comes very close to how I myself perceive reality.

If I look over the wall of stacks on my desk I can look outside. From the stage I’ve built for myself as a writer I can see a reality. A woman passes by. She moves sluggishly, showed down by the snow that has fallen this morning. I can also see a story, as I decide that the woman is on her way to see a friend.

When it starts snowing, it snows all the times I remember flakes swirling down from the sky. I see myself on the deck of a boat, out at sea. Only the boat turns white – the sea remains dark grey. I see myself coming down a slope, on skis for the first time, certain that death is waiting for me at the bottom. I see all the times I thought a new world had begun, in the silent, untrodden snow.

It’s snowing. And it’s snowing images from my past.

Snow is falling, and written snow is falling.

Manders’ works are part of a comprehensive project that he calls ‘a self-portrait as building’. Manders has a concrete – and as time passes, expanding – ground plan in which each new work is assigned a place. His thoughts form the corridors, the sheds, the outbuildings in which each new work can be placed.

It reminds me of the way in which Cicero advises people to deal with memory. As he sees it, the mind – which can so easily develop holes – is a building that needs to be properly cared for. There has to be peace and quiet, and plenty of light in the rooms.

The multi-layered reality that was first suggested by the three bridges in Ronse extends into Manders’ working and thinking space. The spaces he works in are first and foremost concrete. There are mechanical saws, and bolts the artist has made himself. This is a place where concrete things are made. It’s also a place where thoughts are given space to emerge. Manders has kept unfinished sculptures around for years, because they generate new ideas. Above all, it’s a place where this artist takes the world and recasts it creating situations and images that can be used to asses and sharpen your own thoughts. He makes concrete, physical, almost supernatural poetry.

Just when I feel I’ve seen everything, Manders says, “Oh, by the way, there’s a cellar here too”. He opens a trapdoor to a huge subterranean area. And “There’s something else up here” is his introduction to an endless attic. It’s as if rooms are added to the building as they occur to Manders. As I leave I could swear that a cottage has sprung up right beside the gate, where I saw nothing but grass on arrival. “That may become a writer’s place once we’ve done it up,” says Manders, as if this explains the fact that a building has appeared out of thin air.

Walking through the snow to the station to catch the train home, I am no longer the person I was this morning. Somehow I can’t take myself so literally any more. My thoughts are my thoughts, but they are no more than formulations that would have a different meaning in a different context.

Am I someone else as I stop outside this exhaust-blackened shop front? And what if I lie down next to that dog, with one leg outstretched?

The world around me forces me to reflect on things and make choices. My own role is limited. Every detail of reality whispers to me, wanting to be seen.

The environment I move in is tingling.

Original English Text published by Jarla Partilager and designed and produced by Roma Publications. 2010.

All images: Mark Manders’ Studio
Photos: Mark Manders
Courtesy: Zeno X Gallery, Antwerp