First, a given: a fountain is a lovely thing to look at. Generally accompanied by a space befitting, or designating, some cultivated sense of ’fountain-ness’, a fountain is the locus of a space of luxury, or at least a space of leisure and reflection. It is perhaps another given that the water spewed from a fountain is always sculptural, however ephemeral its forms. Yet whether the water’s flow is continuous, sporadic, or highly calculated, its forms are always choreographed by more than the intentions of its architect.
Leon Vranken has created two 'fountains': Study of a vertical line (2013) and Flowing line (2014). As the titles suggest, they are not fountains, but pulsating vertical lines. The former was installed in open air, in the sprawling Middelheim park in Antwerp. A large steel scaffolding was erected in a 6- by 6-meter column to give viewers an appropriate vantage to follow the title’s directive. 11.5 meters above the earth, a jut of water appears to terminate as gravity overrides the power of the pump otherwise driving it all. Gravity, a key material for Vranken, becomes visible through its affect on the water's form. This relation, between visible tangible material and other less material material, is important to understanding the complex ontology of Vranken's practice.
The scaffolding frames the water and restricts access to it, while also providing a level of access otherwise impossible. By repositioning the viewer, this less anthropocentric overview also shifts scale through the acquired vantage, so that one is not towered over by the line, and the line is more of a point. This point, however, does not really terminate. Though it retains its height for the most part, it remains in constant flux because time factors into the work. The water is continuously replenished and Vranken's line redraws itself by the millisecond. The latter was installed in Z33, in Hasselt. This site-specific work consisted, primarily, of water emanating continuously from a large hole cut in the museum’s otherwise empty ground floor, and extending up, into, and through a smaller hole in the floor above. At Z33, the building functioned like the scaffolding in Antwerp; the water’s apex was visible only from the second floor, where it crashed onto a sort of carpet-laden trough. In this controlled setting, the fountain’s forms were again attenuated by gravity and time. The building itself, though heavily modified, provides the armature, whereas the scaffolding in Antwerp provided a purpose-built precipice.
Gravity, time, context, and kinesis combine in both, but both iterations involve other unseen materials: technical ingenuity and engineering, energy and expenditures, planning, and so on. In that way, both lines, both gestures, also implicitly invoke all the correspondence and coordination that museums are constructed to hide behind a well-kempt park, or behind white walls.
Infinity is a floorless room without walls or ceiling.
— Anonymous (John D. Barrow)
A railing is a generous support. Its very presence — most often outfitted in stairwells or other inclinations — suggests an awareness of the possibility that such a contraption is warranted, and thus implies a certain measure of care. Railings are also found in ballet or dance studios, to provide support for practitioners as they learn movements proficiently enough to eventually be performed in the railing’s absence.
Vranken’s Roundabout (2014) suggests similar uses. An ovoid form, carved in solid oak, and appearing as a continuous looping bannister, is supported by six steel legs. At a bannister's height, the railing offers support. Roundabout recalls Michelangelo Pistoletto’s Structure for Talking While Standing (Minus Objects) (1965-66), a freestanding steel form, constructed in a V-shape, and at a height for a human to lean against, with a lower bar ostensibly for a foot — a literal conversation piece. Pistoletto’s series of Minus Objects stemmed from the artist’s assertion that a work is only completed through interaction. While Vranken’s Roundabout is not conditioned as such, it offers the same potential for unknown interactions that are not solely retinal, despite the readily apparent quality of its craftsmanship.
Vranken’s Every end has a beginning (2013) extends further from Roundabout, towards a much larger scale pre-defined by both the architecture of the space for which it was created and by the parameters of the context. By following those prompts, Vranken's looping site-specific installation also extends towards the largest of all scales — infinity (at least in suggestion).
The work was fabricated for an exhibition at De Garage in Mechelen, and realized as a 210-meter bannister, carved in solid oak, which snakes throughout the entire space. It forms a continuous line, from the entrance to the entrance to the entrance.
La Monte Young's conceptual directive, 'draw a line and follow it' relates here, and Vranken's line is as continuous, however contiguous. Yet it is important to note that it is not just a conceptual directive patented textually or outsourced to fabricators, but again, something meticulously crafted by the artist.
Much resides in the details. An evenly-spaced array of steel arms extend 20 centimeters from the wall to the bannister to support this support. Strong, stable, it could be certified for a supportive function, but is not a bannister but a vehicle. Taking that ride, the 'bannister-ness' subsides, and it offers an abstract unit of measurement, for time and for space.
The aforementioned exhibition at Z33 also included an extensive modification to the space itself. Aside from Flowing line, Vranken emptied the ground floor of the museum. Yet more than emptying it, he reinstated its original architecture by removing everything extraneously added to the original design. This stripping back of history does not erase that history, but instead, adds yet another layer of history to the space. This effacement constitutes a productively negative form, and a rejuvenated vantage on the space.
Except for those well-versed enough in the history of Z33, few may have noticed the change in so direct an architectural context. It is more likely that those who entered only unconsciously noticed that the space was, for lack of a better term, appropriately well-attired, however invisibly naked. This renovation functions similarly to Every end has a beginning (if seemingly its inverse). Both draw attention to the contours of a space, the parameters of a context, and create more of a situation than an object, despite the heavy amount of labor that both involved. Each suggests an unquantifiable quantity.
Vranken’s fountains and railings suggest and operate on opposing axes: x and y, up and down, vertical and horizontal. Yet he veers in other, more parallactic, directions. There is an element of transmutation in Constructive carving (2009), where wood from the floor of the South London Gallery was judiciously excised, then fabricated into a shelf and a chair, which were placed elsewhere. The resulting geometric negative shapes remained as shapely holes in the floor, while the plane of the floor was extended into other forms of support. While familiar, the chair, the shelf, and the other forms are abstract in their relation to the floor, as well as to the tree the wood came from. It implies a cartoon-like physics, where the floor-ness of a chair shares that floor-ness with a shelf. A floor is, after all, a giant shelf. And this conflation forces similes between all iterations of matter. Gordon Matta-Clark’s Office Baroque, or Michael Heizer’s Double Negative, come to mind through Vranken’s use of cutting and negative forms, but also Francis Alÿs’ When Faith Moves Mountains, though on a far less grandiose scale. Yet the problems inherent to teleportation are perhaps more useful to comprehending Vranken's weird ontological issues.
Teleportation requires dematerialization, but to dematerialize matter in one space requires that matter being rematerialized in another. The risk of unwanted abstractions is high; a foot might end up in the place of a hand on the other side, or an eye in place of a finger. Any mangled scenario imaginable might amount to a cubist reconstitution that would seem horrifically disfigured in relation to its former self. At the same time, where does the reconstructive matter come from? Even if no warped disfiguration occurs, is the person or thing, reconstituted from different matter, still the same person or thing, however faithful its semblance?
In Vranken's Constructive carving, the floor is still the floor even once it becomes a chair, just as both are still trees, and a tree is, of course, a unit of matter formed through a long process and composed of as long a list of materials. The inextricable positive and negative forms echo the scientific fact that matter cannot be destroyed, only transferred or displaced, but they also invoke so many paradoxical thought experiments — from Carl Andre’s assertion that ‘a thing is a hole in a thing it is not’ to the famous ‘Schrödinger’s Cat’ (a cat in a box, simultaneously dead and alive).
I went to the museum where they had all the heads and arms from the statues that are in all the other museums.
— Steven Wright
Vectors get more fractured in objects like Oak rumble (2007), Diagonal pane (2014), and Diagonal cross (2014). In each, the glass appears as if it were itself being viewed through fractured glass — Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending A Staircase, or at least something somewhat cubist. How a fly sees the world, maybe.
In the former, for example, Vranken replicated a showcase, then cut the wood and the glass and reassembled it so that it is structurally sound, but optically skewed. This work, like Diagonal pane — another display cabinet, containing a diagonally-oriented glass plate — recalls the use of such a means of containment, but also, by decor at least, its era. So, the 19th century, give or take, and thus the museological drive towards illumination and classification, the promise of a divisible and thus decipherable world.
There are further divisions, too. These do not trail a given space, or create one, but instead bridge two. Vranken’s The traveling riddle (2009) and Entering the exhibition space (2009) each entails an element of passage from one room to another. The latter, created at Bozar in Brussels on occasion of the Belgian Art Prize, appeared at first to comprise three shelves, hung on the wall in a staggered configuration, and adorned with various varnished and painted wooden objects. Upon approaching these shelves, however, a door would open, providing passage to another room. The traveling riddle, on the other hand, required viewers to push a door, thereby unknowingly pushing the work out of the way, in order to gain access to view it. What is then visible is a sort of compressed version of the works, displayed not on the walls, or plinths, or even the floor, but on a steel conveyor — an arsenal or inventory, more than a display. To return again to Pistoletto’s idea, Vranken’s work requires physical interaction for its activation.
Like the fountain spanning two floors at Z33, both The traveling riddle and Entering the exhibition space collapse the site, context, object, and reception into one form, which is not entirely visible.
If one were able to imagine and overlay all of the works by Vranken mentioned so far, one ends up in a cluster of extrusions, vectors, and forces: water extending up and pushed down at once in spasmodic vertical lines; circuitous railings outlining and mitigating; support structures elevated to the status of that which they usually support; skewed views attained through the reconstitution of fractured materials; two, three, four or more iterations of the same materials, sited and situated in ways that confuse the boundaries between those forms. And, from within this mesh, Vranken’s practice assures an infinitely flexible and reconfigurable world — one that is perfectly indiscernible, unstable, and frenetic.