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Published in Blueprint, May 2002, p80-84.

Step into the world of Dutch artist Joep van Lieshout and the merger of art and life is in full flow, as the public and the authorities in Rotterdam found visiting AVL-Ville last autumn, his largest art work to date. A fully-functioning alternative community, a cross between an art environment, AVL-Ville included an farm with composting and water purification systems, and an sanctuary. Calling itself a 'free state' supported by its own flag, constitution and bank notes, AVL-Ville was a riveting experience.

38 year-old van Lieshout, whose work is exhibited at Camden Arts Centre (26 April-16 June 2002) creates installations, furniture and objects that suggest alternative ways of thinking, working and playing. Backed by the commercial production activities of his Atelier (AVL), with state funds for projects like AVL-Ville, after 10 or so years, his team continues to build practical, 'easy-clean' fixtures and fittings for commercial clients, alongside those that feature in his art projects: furniture, toilet fittings, trailers, bathrooms, kitchens, extensions and entire interiors are produced by the score, some as collaborations for architectural practices such as OMA, such as the lamps for its Educatorium in Utrecht, and the bars and toilets for the Congrexpo in Lille.

You could call AVL's work deeply hybrid, trying to make new art codes out of a hybrid reality. Not only does he make utilitarian furniture that doesn't aim to be aesthetic, but he uses the crude language of cheap furniture and anonymous, mass-produced items in his art. The boundaries between object and architecture are also broken. There is, for instance, Clip On, a pre-fabricated room that extends space outside a building's facade, cells in which you take a breather from the outside world, and even weapons.

Weapons, because autonomy and self-government are very important concepts for van Lieshout. The AVL-Ville compound was laid out on two open air sites next to Rotterdam harbour. Funded by the Rotterdam European Cultural Capital and the City Council, it aimed for self-sufficiency, continuing day to day AVL studio work, as well as making alcohol and medicine in refurbished shipping containers. The AVL team was based on site in mobile homes, and an organic farm provided food for them and the public in the Hall of Delights, a public restaurant where chefs performed and parties disturbed the dawn. Compost toilets, and an energy plant with sanitation and water purification systems could also be inspected, and classes taken in creative therapy and tricks of the art trade. It was impossible to be bored.

Set up without planning permission or a drinks licence, AVL-Ville was clearly an operational challenge to the Dutch state's definition of civic community. On one level reminiscent of a travellers' encampment, it was the antithesis of a makeshift nomadism, due to the near institutional nature of its facilities, which included a full-functioning hospital and an academy of life skills. AVL-Transport, in another back-to-nature touch, provided lifts by horse and cart, wagon or tractor between downtown Rotterdam and the compound.

"AVL-Ville was received very badly by the authorities at the outset", explains van Lieshout. "Every inspector you can imagine came along to check it out, and the authorities closed down the café for a time". But AVL-Ville's refreshing blend of eco-culture and alternative living won out over the autumn months it was open. It "...changed people's ideas about us. It was very popular and cost a lot of state money". Eventually the authorities came round ("...they felt guilty..."), and offered AVL 10 hectares of open land in Rotterdam to set up a new AVL-Ville. "We are waiting to see what will happen", says van Lieshout, "we have our conditions (for a blank building permit)".

AVL-Ville as an art work has strong geo-political implications. Like any public or private brand it's composed of a family of services, and yet its aim is to create an autonomous creative community free from the need to depend on state monopolies for water and so on. "I believe in realistic things", says van Lieshout. "If you are too utopian, you place yourself outside society where things can't be realised". Yet everything's designed for mobility: even the farm's '100% fold-away'. He doesn't want AVL-Ville to put down roots or foundations, and talks of setting up satellites around the world.

One AVL-Ville satellite that featured abroad appeared in Venice as part of last year's Biennale, a typical AVL blend of 'stowaway' innocence and street-smart knowing. Inside a bright turquoise container on a massive army-style raft moored in a dock, cooking facilities and a huge bed could be found alongside an equipped abortion clinic. Seen in this secluded spot by a minority of Biennale visitors, the whole craft has since moved to a site off the coast of Ireland.

"There's always something in the AVL mix that pulls it away from being worthy towards something more transgressive", says Heather Galbraith, curator at Camden Arts Centre, who invited AVL to exhibit. "In this constant creation of new systems, there's always an undertone of radicalism. It's optimistic, and political without preaching: art proposing simple yet radical possibilities for change". For critic Bart Lootsma, a long-time fan of Van Lieshout, how AVL's work functions "...can be characterised as a constant ambivalence between adapting to a system and perverting it".

On show at Camden will be Hotel de Luxe, a fully functioning pod-hotel with six capsule spaces fitted with entertainment systems, and AVL-Ville's compost toilet and water purification system. Critic Jennifer Allen calls them 'outlaw' toilets that challenge enforced state aesthetics. There's also Sportopolis, a fitness and recreational centre built out of scaffolding. Transferred to London from the Sao Paulo Bienale this spring, Sportopolis is no ordinary gym. Indeed it seems to have more than ample space for lying down. "I wanted to make an extreme sculpture", says van Lieshout, with characteristic bravado, "where everyone can pursue their obsessions to the point of ecstacy, exhaustion or even death".

Drawing on the function of fitness centre but with overtones of the basic anonymity a retreat for sex tourists suggests, this diy space stands apart from the sleek commercial design aesthetic common to the gym environment. It's an assortment of left-overs from a construction site: galvanised steel tubes fashioned into temporary scaffolding, bedecked with concrete barbells - deliberately "ugly materials", says van Lieshout, "versatile and strong but rather crude and tough". The space's communal and makeshift nature challenges the commercial logic that dominates the cult of the body in recreational activities.

AVL's mobile homes and caravans, some playful-looking in a sub-period style way, suggest van Lieshout is attached to the romantic, free-wheeling nature of mobile living. He mixes this with weapons (and jewellery made out of bits of weapons) and bombs - symbols of power as well as self-defence - necessary to a primitive, outlaw existence. In van Lieshout's book, freedom from governmental control is about room for experimentation away from bureaucracy, not direct anarchistic attacks on the powers that be, nor indeed political campaigning on specific issues. He's not a spur-of-the-moment guerrilla gardener type, but an artist in occupation, wherever that might be.

Along with his desire to reject the confining rules of society is a yearning for the self-administered comfort of reclusiveness. His 'cell' sculptures take many forms. Firstly, there are the so-called 'skull rooms', closed containers softly clad in polyester that you recline in, with the lid shut. Then there is the 'Orgone/Study/Book Skull', a bulbous-looking mobile study with a small window, made of layers of glass wool and clad in rough polyester, that caters as a more residential retreat. Finally there are the helmets - Orgone, Sensory Deprivation and Economy - all made in polyester and based on the invention of Wilhelm Reich, the Austrian psychoanalyst, of the Orgone Energy Accumulator, a cabinet to promote energy, which explore the impact of the machine to revive the body's sense of drive. This whole family of catalytic 'cells' are extensions of the body, and can be set alongside van Lieshout's infamous 'Bioprick', a giant phallus in polyester so light it can be lifted up above the head like an outsize dumbell. Whatever the form of the AVL object - furniture or cabin - it is in service to the body as a functioning machine or implement.

Central to van Lieshout's DIY ethics and interest in making temporary environments are works which provide space for the individual to realise their more extravagant sexual desires. There's the La Bais-ô-Drôme love caravan, the Modular Multi Woman Bed, a bed for consensual sex between up to sixteen people, and the Robotec, a shipping container fully equipped for various sexual activities, with robots on hand as the ultimate high tech, 'computerized pleasure machines'. To demonstrate that the libidinal needs to be given a freer, less manufactured place in everyday life, in true pragmatic Dutch style he's created well-designed systems for this too. This contradiction between the desire to be free to experiment, and the will to systematise everything is something that you can read very clearly in Dutch society.

"Joep's hard to define, an artist and a builder, a real maverick, certainly, and, in his interest in systems like low-tech catalogue building, incredibly pragmatic. That's one of the reasons I'm attracted to him", says architect Alex de Rijke of de Rijke Marsh Morgan, who has invited the Dutchman to collaborate as an artist on a capsule space for the auditorium of a school the practice is converting. It's a major project with many stakeholders, but "...we hope he'll be the spanner in the works. He has that streak of Dutch stubborness you could call the fierce artistic defiance to the nanny state the government subsidises. He's also anti-theory", he adds.

Ever-wedded to practical application, what unites all the objects and constructions for general life enhancement is survival on a physical and psychological level. State monopolies and practices have removed such perceptual skills from our direct control. Included in van Lieshout's contemporary survival kit are hints of the influences of latterday social experimenters like Reich, as well as the infamous prince of 'command and control', Machiavelli, due to his 'rational' philosophy of autonomy, or even the Marquis de Sade and his 24-hour surreal lifestyle. Such cultural markers, as well as all the various symbols of power - the weapons and helmets - are clearly open to hilarious burlesque interpretation (step up, Rowan Atkinson). All of them crop up regularly in the pages of Atelier van Lieshout: a Manual, the most comprehensive catalogue of their work, published in 1997 by the Boijmans van Beuningen Museum in Rotterdam. It includes a number of manuals with instructions for how to slaughter animals, preserve and prepare pork or create an object out of glass-fibre polyester, all alarmingly practical.

Whether in art or life, AVL believe in 'solvism' - all problems can be solved. Van Lieshout is never short of individualist 'art meets life' solutions, and cut through the thoroughness of the creative enterprise is a deliberate irony and ambiguity that keeps the art edgy rather than evangelical. In The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, a book chronicling a more recent project from 1998, a psychologist analyses the sexual energy influencing van Lieshout's art as well as his life, along with the team-building characteristics of all Atelier staff members. These are tongue-in-cheek narratives on 'art to live by'. In the multi-faceted world of Atelier van Lieshout, to quote the AVL-Ville motto, 'as long as it's art, just about anything's possible'.

© 2018 Lucy Bullivant

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