Helmut Smits interview
The work of artist Helmut Smits is both incisive and playful in the way that it disrupts our experience of everyday things.
Interview by Julian Hutton
Published June 2014
i. The End of a Sentence as an Object, 2013
ii. Untitled, 2014
iii. As Far as I Can Reach (Aura), 2011
iv. Manmade Flora and Fauna, 2013
v. Sunrise and Sunset on mu.nl, 19 May 2013 – 28 July 2013
All images © Helmut Smits 2014
Hi Helmut, what are you up to today?
Doing my emails in the morning, going to the city to pick up some things, trying out some new ideas and photographing them, and hopefully going for a walk in the park.
Where have you lived in your life, and where are you based now?
I grew up in Roosendaal and I studied at art school in Den Bosch [both in the southern Netherlands]. After graduating, I moved to Rotterdam, where I live with my wife and our two kids.
When did you decide to focus on becoming an artist?
I never really planned anything; I just did what I wanted to at that moment.
When I was about 17, I didn't feel like going to school anymore. I dropped out and started working at a printing house where my father was the director—the idea was that I would follow in his footsteps. After working nine to five for more than four years I got fed up and went to art school. I immediately knew that that was my thing.
"I had never been to a museum or a gallery before I went to art school."
Are you from a creative background?
No, not really. I had never been to a museum or a gallery before I went to art school.
My grandfather was an architect and I think my mother has some creativity in her but she never dared to explore this.
How would describe your approach to art? What ideas are you exploring?
All my works are based on concepts. When I start thinking about a new idea I try to go back to the basis and think from that point on, looking for contradictions, leaving everything open and possible.
The use of public space plays a big role in your practice. What draws you to it?
I use the medium that best suits the idea, so it can basically be anything: a sculpture, a music piece, a performance… There is no particular reason that many works are outdoors (as far as I know).
Your work often has an element of humour to it. What role does this play for you?
Humour is not something that I put in deliberately; it's just there most of the time. It's a really good way to communicate, so I'm glad that it works that way for me.
"When I start thinking about a new idea I try to go back to the basis and think from that point on, looking for contradictions, leaving everything open and possible."
You also have a strong focus on design. At what point does art make the transition into design for you?
I normally would say that when it's something that you can use, it’s design, but lately I don't want to make that distinction anymore. I have different categories on my website but I'm thinking of changing that and placing all my works under one button.
Some of your work plays with the relationship between nature and technology/machinery. Why are you interested in this interplay, and can you tell us about some of your favourite projects related to this?
I have a real love-hate relationship with technology. It can bring a lot of good but it also brings a lot of shit. I'm not really sure if it's real progress but I guess we’ll only be able to tell a few thousand years from now.
I did this project called Sunrise and Sunset on mu.nl. Mu is an artspace that zooms in on the hybrid visual culture of now and later. For a couple of months, their website would slowly go to black in the evening at the same time that the sun went down. In the morning the website would slowly appear again at the same time that the sun came up. In this way, I wanted to bring nature back into our ever-ongoing internet.
"Their website would slowly go to black in the evening at the same time that the sun went down. In the morning the website would slowly appear again..."
What is your process when coming up with ideas for works and then choosing how to make them?
I sit down with a notebook and start thinking what I could do. Sometimes when I wake up at night and can't sleep I try to think of ideas. It's hard work. The best ideas just pop up, but I believe you have to be in a certain state of mind.
When it comes to the choices that have to be made, I discuss the ideas with a close friend and my girlfriend. There are ideas that I am certain about—they feel right, if you know what I mean—but most of the time I need a sounding board.
Your son Abe tweeted for your work My One Year Old on Twitter. How does having children affect your practice as an artist?
I have two kids: a six-year-old girl and a four-year-old son. They keep me from my work but they also inspire me. They look at the world as only children can—they can think more freely than grown-ups, if you know what I mean. They say knowledge is power but there is also something lost there.
What are you looking forward to at the moment?
The summer. We expanded our vegetable garden and I'm looking forward to planting the seeds, seeing the crops grow, harvesting the crops and eating them.