‘Sit quietly. Eyes closed. Take a deep breath. Exhale calmly. Then go through each body part in your mind.’ Does this sound familiar to you? This is how most meditation or mindfulness exercises start with a so-called ‘body scan’. Artist Eva Spierenburg (35) also ventured into it. In the fall of 2020, she was stuck, overwrought. She only went to her studio. “To get through the day, to try.” But nothing came.
That was new to her. Spierenburg has stood out for years with her beautiful personal installations, sculptures and paintings. After graduating from the Utrecht School of the Arts, she stayed at the Rijksakademie in Amsterdam. There she painted the walls of her studio pink and made abstract sculptures reminiscent of body shapes. Her carnal studio seemed at once a cave and a womb.
She also did not sit still after the Rijksakademie: in 2019 she had a solo exhibition at the Centraal Museum Utrecht, a year later at art space Cinnnamon in Rotterdam. She had already been nominated four times for the Royal Prize for Free Painting: in 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015. She also won prizes, such as a KF Hein Stipendium in 2018. She used the money to make a research trip to China.
But in 2020 she was stuck. Her whole body ached. She knew why. Her father’s death had touched her deeply and also confused her, she did not have a good relationship with him. She was overcome by the stress and pain of an insecure childhood. ‘I was constantly in a kind of stiffening, a survival mode, that is very difficult to go away.’ She had headaches every day, but also pain in her neck, shoulders and stomach.
So she knew how it happened, but she didn’t know how to proceed. That is why she wanted to do mindfulness exercises. But even a 3-minute guided meditation failed: “All I felt was pain and agitation.” After a few fruitless attempts, she reached for pen and paper. Maybe if she signed on to it, she could keep her focus on the meditation?
She wrote the date on the left, next to it were small schematic drawings, with the text below: ‘Jaw, face, whole, chest, chest + back.’ Without those words, it would be hard to guess what those pen jitters mean. Above the word “face” is something that could be a wobbly capital i, or a very narrow hourglass. Above ‘chest+back’ winds a stripe with a short blunt shape next to it.
By drawing it, Spierenburg forced herself to pay attention, as difficult as she found it: “I just wanted it gone.” She did it again a few days later, and then again. She was surprised by what she drew. “The pain became a thing outside my body, with a shape that can be interesting.” The drawings soon became more elaborate. More text was also added: ‘heavy face’ she wrote, or ‘tingling feet’. But also, with a drawing that is reminiscent of cervical vertebrae: ‘My mortality can make music if my finger strokes it.’
It is not Spierenburg’s habit to sketch. She doesn’t even have a sketchbook. Her sculptures of polystyrene foam covered with painted cheesecloth are created by doing. Maybe that’s why they look so organic. More like they were found than made. She also did not expect that this drawing diary would lead her to new works of art. She was glad that something came out of her hands, even if it was in diary form. ‘During the making, I never thought: I’m going to show this. That’s exactly why I skipped some self-censorship.’
Self-censorship? I did not expect that word from Spierenburg. In the past maybe. In the first years after graduating, she made paintings in which she wrapped her dreams and experiences in mythological stories. When she applied for the prestigious Rijksakademie, she informed the selection committee that she no longer wanted to hide behind big stories and wanted to be more vulnerable. In the first month that she worked at the Rijksakademie, her mother died. Her art then naturally focused on that: ‘That vulnerability came very quickly.’
‘I thought the dying process was a fundamental experience. That life sinks and the body becomes only a cold shell.’ At the time, for example, she made something that resembled congealed blood from epoxy resin. Now she says: ‘It’s really not that I was making art then crying. While I’m working, I can distance myself from the subject, deal with it playfully.’
Eva Spierenburg for her new installation Tracing the Body inspiration from Seahenge, an oak prehistoric monument found on the east coast of England and dating back some 4,000 years. The visitor can touch the sculptures, lie on them and then listen to a text by Spierenburg with headphones on. “My sternum remembers old things. And constantly stirs in the sediment. Pricks soft parts, builds a cage to survive.’
After the death of her father, that distance apparently did not exist. She can point out in her diary when the drawings became lighter, the pain less intense. ‘For example, I became aware of my tongue, I felt that it was different every day. I came to think of that tongue as a being with a life of its own, living in a cave.’ And gradually she began to create sculptures and paintings from her drawing diary. She continued to draw, she no longer needs to listen to that meditation.
It remains complicated, she believes, to make art that is so personal. She always wonders: when will this become relevant for someone else? Still, she decided to show her personal drawing diary. First one-on-one, in her studio. And finally last year in the Kunstenlab exhibition space in Deventer on a piece of fabric 14 meters long. Those blown-up drawings look spectacular together. It is as if Spierenburg has written a whole new alphabet.
Apparently this new language affects others as well. Last week it was announced that Spierenburg has been nominated again (ie for the fifth time) this year for the Royal Prize for Free Painting, which will be awarded on September 21. A three-dimensional painting by Spierenburg that she based on a diary drawing of her ‘thigh cramp’ will be on display in the Royal Palace on Dam Square. “Lower leg flowing, thigh frozen – no connection,” she wrote in her drawing journal.
This weekend Spierenburg will show a new installation in Utrecht as part of the CareFull art manifestation. In Tracing the Body to recognize his shapes from her drawings. She wants to ask visitors to draw themselves about how they experience their bodies. Together with three other artists, she will create new works of art based on those drawings, which will be exhibited in October. That’s a new experiment she’s looking forward to: ‘I reach out to others: Look, this is how it works for me, maybe it works for you too?’
THREE TIMES EVA SPIERENBURG
Tracing the Body, Chapter 1, ProjectSpace Local, Utrecht, September 10 and 11
Tracing the Body, Chapter 2, with Emmie Liebregts, Natalia Ossef and Jeltje Schuurmans, AG, Room for new art and media, Utrecht, 14/10 to 5/11
Royal Prize for Free Painting, Royal Palace on Dam Square, Amsterdam 23/09 to 23/10, award ceremony 21 September.