In conversation with Ellert Haitjema


Ellert Haitjema is a Dutch conceptional artist working mainly with sculpture and photography, exploring the potential of ordinary objects and how anything could take on different
meanings if we are willing to stay open. We often assume we know what
things are, but what if they could be something else?

by Carolina Castilho


For those who don’t know you: who are you and how did you get started as an artist?

I think the very source of my interest in being an artist came when I was fourteen and I was watching a television program, and there was an animation film made by students from the Rietveld Academie. At the time there was no Internet and I didn’t know any artists around me, but in that moment I found out that something like an art school existed, I had a name, and from then on I knew that’s where I wanted to go. After that I did what was necessary at school in order to go to art school and I never had a doubt about it, I was very determined. In the meantime I got more and more information and it confirmed that first impression that I had from watching the film, that that was the place where I wanted to go, it was my goal. Since I come from a builders’ background, I thought maybe I would go into architecture. But at Rietveld you have a foundation year in which you can try all different disciplines and I found sculpture so appealing that I ended up going in that direction. After that I had the possibility to go to the Rijksakademie and it was a great opportunity, where I also began to use photography as a sketchbook and as a way of keeping memories, and that became more and more important to me, alongside sculpture. I think even my photography has a sculpture reading, it is often about piling up, balancing, etc. During that time I also made a book, and that practice keeps coming back every 5, 6, 7 years. The seeds were planted fairly early and everything progressed very organically, I think. 

I love very much what I don’t know

A lot of my classmates had parents or family members who were artists and had a lot of previous knowledge about art —and that’s great—but I’m also glad that I was almost like a blank slate when I went. I would go into the library and find all these books about modern and contemporary sculpture. I was almost like a child, looking at everything with fresh eyes. In some ways, I’m still like that. And I think staying open is something you have to practice every day, and it gives you such an incredible look on things. To look at something not for what it is, but for what it could be. Kids have that and it’s amazing to look at things with them and ask them what they see. We are taught so early to see things practically. But it is so incredible to look at things and not take them for granted, to look at them like you’re seeing them for the first time. I really like the philosophy of the Tao, and there is this expression that says ‘I think, therefore I am confused’. Sometimes by thinking too much or trying to make sense of everything, we’re really just standing in our own way.

Taking things out of context helps a lot in stimulating this process. Something ordinary suddenly becomes fascinating.

When you go into a museum, once you’re inside you get into this mindset of ‘anything could be art’, but for some reason when you leave you no longer have that openness. It would be so nice if you could look around all the time and just think ‘what could it be?’.  ‘I know what it is, but what could it be?’.

In my work I often comment and play with these assumptions we have. I made a piece where you had a tube and a lightbulb connected by a wire. If you only look at the bottom half you clearly see a lightbulb hanging on its wire. But if you only look at the upper half you see a tube with something coming out of it. You have two assumptions, and what you’re looking at really is neither of those. Of course these assumptions are useful in real life, otherwise you could not do anything. But on the creative side it is so important to play with these things, to question them, to make us aware. With my photographs I also enjoy printing them on fabric or on different materials and seeing how that changes the image.

Is there a piece or a project within your own work that is particularly significant to you?

I did a project with a colleague for the EYE Museum, where we projected from the museum on a passing cruise ship. It was an enormous surface. We worked on a project about migration for many years and we found some archives about Dutch people who migrated to South America, Canada, Australia, etc., to make a better living. And many people are now coming here (to The Netherlands) for that same reason, but now we say ‘No, we don’t want it’. But only a hundred years ago we were in that same position. And nobody wants to know that, nobody wants to see it. So we thought we would make something that could get people aware and interested in this issue, and we found these two photographs from passenger ships sailing off with migrants looking for a better future, one taken after the other. And we had these two photographs projected onto the passing ship, and we zoomed in one and zoomed out the other. So there was some movement of the zooming in and out, but also since we were not projecting on a flat screen there were so many interesting things happening with depth and color. It was like you were looking at a film, but instead of looking at moving images on a static surface you were looking at static pictures projected on a moving surface. In one year we were able to do this twice, because we had to wait for a boat the right size to pass through after sunset, since we needed the dark in order to project.

Could you share something about future projects that you’re working on? What has been inspiring you recently?

Many of the things I’ve been working on right now and sharing on Instagram are part of a book I’m working on, which is very graphically oriented. For example, I’ll have two photographs and combine them into one image, really exploring their graphic potential. I took a picture of a bucket with a towel on the window of a roof, and it’s such an ordinary thing but you can really create an interesting image with it. It’s not that easy to tell what it is. I also have this image which is a cutout of a car, and it only shows the frame of the door but you don’t see the door itself. You can see the inside of the car and the view from the other door which is also open. It is a series called ‘Filtered View’, and you’re really seeing the view through the filter of what is inside the car. What is inside the car informs how you view what is outside.

Many things come back in my work. One of them is connection, real connections in all kinds of things.

I’m not necessarily looking for an image of connection, but for the connection itself. Sometimes it is about combining different pieces from different realms and seeing what happens when you put them together. For a few years I had a table full of photographs and I would move them around, and there were a couple of photographs that were together for more than a year. And only after that time I could realize why I had put them together, I could actually see the link. I had had the feeling all that time, but only then could I communicate it. In my photographs I also like to isolate pictures, to take them out of context or place them in a different background. Once you take it out of their context, you see the difference context makes when it comes to meaning. It creates space for imagination, which I would say is generally what I try to do with my work.

Get in touch
with Ellert

Instagram: @ellerthaitjema88

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