Dutch artist Sybren Renema’s solo presentation at Artissima revolves around the themes of classical music and mortality. The centrepoint of the booth is formed by a large series of works on paper, depicting the lyrics of the ‘Stabat Mater’, drawn on top of X-ray images. This will be augmented by works in neon and sculpture.
The ‘Stabat Mater’ is a poem from the 13th century, which has been attributed to Jacopo di Todi, a Franciscan monk. It describes the suffering of the Virgin Mary at the sight of Christ at the cross and has often been used as the setting of classical masses. Most prominently, it has been used by Pergolesi, Haydn, Verdi and Poulenc. The title of the poem comes from its first line, ‘stabat mater dolorosa’. At Artissima, all 60 lines will be shown, grouped in couplets of 3. This will result in 20 small triptychs, together covering the large wall of the booth.
By whitewashing the original X-ray images, taken from a book of paediatric instruction, Renema has created a series of grayscale backgrounds of varying abstraction. Sometimes, bones and organs are clearly discernible, whilst at other times, the paper has become monochrome. Corrections in paint have been left visible, creating a sense of material struggle that allows for depth in the drawings. Form and content align, as the poem on maternal sorrow is held up by images of infant disease. However, the use of medical images and stencil letters contrasts sharply with the warmth and emotion of the text, propelling it into a modernist direction that is remote from the Medieval emotionality of the original.
Renema’s ‘Stabat Mater’ is one in a series of ongoing investigations into the nature of classical music. For the ‘Milk of Paradise’, his gallery debut at Dürst Britt & Mayhew, Renema investigated the age old tropes behind some of Schubert’s pieces, such as ‘Tod und das Mädchen’ and the ‘Wanderer-Fantasie’. Currently, he is working on a series based on Schumann’s ‘Waldszenen’. In this context, the ‘Stabat Mater’ is an extension of this investigation, showing how a 13th century poem can keep recurring in the Western canon of classical music. To Renema, the continued relevance and reinvigoration of a text such as the ‘Stabat Mater’ proves the similarities between art historical periods, which are often overlooked in narratives that solely look at the avant-garde. Mutations of the subject, such as Schubert’s ‘Tod und das Mädchen’ or Mahler’s ‘Kindertotenlieder’, show that the subject of infant death has always been a source of creativity and that there is a universality to the theme.
Accompanying the 60 works on paper will be several other pieces that touch on similar themes. A suspended neon piece, titled ‘Tod und das Mädchen’, covers another trope of classical music and art: that of ‘Death and the Maiden’. Popular since at least the Northern Renaissance, this subject, which has recurred in the work of Dürer, Schubert, Schiele and Munch, depicts sexual activity or an embrace between Death and a young woman. By rendering it in cold white neon, Renema has removed any emotionality from the subject, instead focusing on the words themselves, which are suspended as in permanent collapse. As is the case with his ‘Stabat Mater’, this textual approach allows for an interpretation that moves away from emotionality and instead reflects on the presence of the cultural trope that it depicts.
A third piece in the presentation is Renema’s ‘Study for the death mask of an average Romantic’, which is the compression of 32 Romantic death masks into one. By creating an average face, the artist has removed any form of individuality from the death masks. This is at odds with the nature of Romantic genius, which rests strongly on the concept of radical individuality. Instead, the audience is left with a fully computer-generated portrait of a very average white male, highlighting the one-sidedness of Romantic concepts of genius. Together with ‘Tod und das Mädchen’ and the ‘Stabat Mater’, it touches on the immortality of mortality as a subject in art.
Sybren Renema (1988) is active as an artist, writer and musician. After receiving his BFA from the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague, he became the youngest MFA student to ever enrol at the Glasgow School of Art. Renema is interested in the obscure corners of all forms of human discourse, with a particular liking for art, history, geographical exploration and the natural sciences. These different interests are often combined in the same work, highlighting an interest in unconventional forms of knowledge-production as well as a sense of the absurd and the grotesque.
Recent solo exhibitions include ‘The Harvest of Leisure’ at Cydonia, Dallas, ‘The Milk of Paradise’ at Dürst Britt & Mayhew, ‘Pleasures of a Grave Desire’ at CCA Glasgow and ‘Objective Onomatopoeia’ at the Glasgow Project Room. Upcoming shows include ‘Le Retour des Ténèbres’ at the Musée Rath in Geneva. Work by Renema is held in private and public collections, including the AMC Collection in Amsterdam and the Fries Museum in Leeuwarden.