Guido van der Werve: an ode to outsiders

The idea of not truly belonging anywhere is ­– paradoxically – a universal human emotion. Everyone is sometimes convinced they are so different to other people that they don’t fit in. This is one of the reasons that so many people feel attracted to Guido van der Werve’s work which is currently enjoying a retrospective at Eye.

By Marian Cousijn18 February 2022

Guido van der Werve made a name for himself with his melancholy art films in which he battles himself. He is a decent composer, chess player, pianist, Russian speaker and runner. And, with a Golden Calf award and a MoMA exhibition on his cv, he could justifiably refer to himself as a successful artist. Nevertheless, he prefers to characterise himself as an outsider rather than an homo universalis or Renaissance man.

In his films, in which he plays the lead, he often appears brutally lonely. A good example being Nummer negen, in which Van der Werve spends 24 hours standing at the North Pole. While the earth rotated in one direction, the artist turned in the other: exactly one full turn on his axis. That day he literally didn’t join in with the world – the ultimate rebellion against the rest of humanity.

Guido van der Werve, Nummer negen, the day I didn’t turn with the world, 2007, courtesy the artist and GRIMM Amsterdam | New York
Guido van der Werve, Nummer negen, the day I didn’t turn with the world, 2007, courtesy the artist and GRIMM Amsterdam | New York
Guido van der Werve, Nummer acht, everything is going to be alright, 2007, courtesy the artist and GRIMM Amsterdam | New York
Guido van der Werve, Nummer acht, everything is going to be alright, 2007, courtesy the artist and GRIMM Amsterdam | New York

In Nummer acht he walks alone across a frozen ice sheet followed by an icebreaker, vulnerable yet determined.

In his oeuvre he also crops up in a tiny hermit’s cabin in a desolate landscape, swimming alone in a dark river, in a quiet field with a home-made rocket or running in endless circles around his remote home in a Finnish forest.

Guido van der Werve, Nummer dertien - Effugio c, you’re always only half a day away, 2011, courtesy the artist and  GRIMM Amsterdam | New York
Guido van der Werve, Nummer dertien - Effugio c, you’re always only half a day away, 2011, courtesy the artist and GRIMM Amsterdam | New York
Guido van der Werve, Nummer twaalf, variations on a theme; the king’s gambit accepted, the number of stars in the sky, and why a piano can’t be tuned, or waiting for an earthquake, 2009
Guido van der Werve, Nummer twaalf, variations on a theme; the king’s gambit accepted, the number of stars in the sky, and why a piano can’t be tuned, or waiting for an earthquake, 2009

Van der Werve says his latest work, Nummer achttien is about showing that outsiders matter. The film, which the artist calls autofiction, brings recent events and childhood memories to life. As a child Van der Werve was always told he was different than other children. He stuttered, had freckles, long hair and was obsessed with Chopin and Alexander the Great. He was told the world was tailored for normal people, and he wasn’t one of them.

In interviews Van der Werve sometimes characterises himself as a nerd, but even that designation is inaccurate. The nerd of popular culture is an egghead on the autistic spectrum. Whereas the typical nerd is socially awkward and prefers books to the gym, Van der Werve loves sports and enjoys performing for audiences. Incidentally, nerds haven’t been outsiders for quite a while now. In fact, they rule the world as the CEOs of tech companies. And you can always find someone with the same outlandish deviancies and interests as your own online.

How not being normal can save your life

Whatever the case, that sense of being different gave the young Van der Werve a considerable inferiority complex. He started overcompensating and developed his skills as a chess player, endurance athlete and composer. He kept pushing hiss boundaries, sometimes excessively: by running ultramarathons, studying to become a chess grand master, climbing mountains or composing music for an orchestra. All at the same time.

A life like this could be viewed as eccentric. Yet, in all its oddity, it aligns perfectly with our expectations of a creative genius. For centuries now, artists have (however accurate might be) viewed as extravagant characters, inhabiting a space somewhat outside society. Being different is a common theme in cinema, literature, visual art and music. Often, the underdog even becomes the hero.

As an artist, Van der Werve is far from an outsider: he successfully completed art school, was accepted into prestigious residency programmes and was awarded prizes and other forms of recognition from the art world. So even the categories of nerd or outsider don’t suit Van der Werve. Does this make him the ultimate outsider? Whatever the case, it saved his life. In 2016 he was involved in a serious road accident – the doctors didn’t give him much of a chance. However, thanks to his competitive nature, iron willed perseverance and the exceptionally good condition of his body and mind – as a result of excessive chess, studying and sports – he managed to recover against all expectations. This would never have happened if he had been more like a normal human.

The film Nummer achttien is partly about his physical rehabilitation and shows how being different, however much of a struggle this is, can also lead to good things. This basically applies to Van der Werve’s entire oeuvre: the most painful moments are the precisely most beautiful. The films therefore provide recognition and comfort. After all, there is an outsider in all of us: sometimes hidden away deep inside, sometimes lurking just beneath the surface. What would happen if we were to embrace this side of us a little more?

Guido van der Werve – Tastbare futiliteit

The first retrospective exhibition of work by Guido van der Werve. In his universe, romanticism, nature and the sublime are never far away. In Eye from 12 February to 19 May 2022.

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campaign image Guido van der Werve – Palpable Futility
poster Guido van der Werve – Palpable Futility

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