Figuration is the order of the day. Artists like Juan Munoz, Anthony Gormley, Johan Tahon or Henk Visch articulate their investigation of existence in powerful sculptures. Hans van der Ham, however, is a dual talent, who exchanged a career in music for one in the visual arts. For the ‘Golem', presented at Tent, Rotterdam , he collaborated with composers Peter-Jan Wagemans and Peter van Bergen to produce a remarkable synthesis of sound and image.
A prone figure, its hands passively at its sides, its head slightly tilted, occupies the centre of the space. It is less than life sized, but its hands and feet – those parts of the body that incarnate action – are of a larger scale. The word ‘creation' springs to mind when seeing this figure, composed of sections of clay. As if the maker formed the figure with a cursory hand. With no apparent plan. He could just as easily have fashioned something else – a plant or animal. The figure awaits the breath that will invest it with life. It is surrounded by marvellous organs of clay. A tangle of spiralling wires in a fleshy bed, a playful crossing of organism and mechanism. Look, and listen. When you put on the headphones, you hear a different sound for each organ, composed by Peter-Jan Wagemans. The feet, for instance, produce a deep, vibrating timbre like a giant's footfall. The libido is an electronically manipulated sound of a low trombone and the distorted voices of skirmishing women. But the head is filled with a stream of thoughts and voices that echo hollowly throughout the space. What is not revealed by the sculpture – which is, after all, inert – is expressed by the music. The golem stirs into life. The Hebrew word for golem refers to an embryonic state, a formless state. Adam, assembled from clay, was the first golem and Jewish folklore is rich in tales of how the inanimate was sparked into life. A fertile theme for a sculptor, in fact, that inspired Van der Ham to create a figure of Pinocchio caught up in a mortal struggle to break loose from the tree trunk from which he came. Or a drawing of Pinocchio, emblazoned with a cry from the heart ‘Libera me' (free me). What we are looking at is an illusion, a puppet, and Van der Ham appeals to our imagination. Only then does Pinocchio become a real boy. Van der Ham confronts us with the sculptor's challenge – how to animate inert matter – but there is a yet deeper layer in much of his work. Many figures are hollow, empty garments, empty husks. Physical shells for a life that is elusory.
In 2001 Van der Ham made a small figure peeping through a crack in a door. An image at once simple yet potent. What lies behind the door? The nosy little man is in fact a self portrait, as is the kneeling figure examining the features of his own face cupped in his hand like a mask. Van der Ham is a searcher. ‘Do we really see what we are seeing? What lurks beneath the visible world? Who am I?' ‘As a child, I remember being riveted by an exciting episode of the TV series ‘Mission Impossible',' recounts Van der Ham. ‘While the protagonist slept, someone glued a mask to his face, which could never be removed. When he awoke, he didn't recognize himself and died of shock. It's been imprinted on my mind ever since.'
Van der Ham began his career as a musician. His musical talent was nurtured. Van der Ham took piano lessons and, at the age of seventeen, was accepted at the conservatorium . ‘Music has the power to move me to tears, something a painting has never done,' declares Van der Ham, but he gradually became dissatisfied. ‘Music is immaterial. It is defined by its transience, but I needed something more tangible.' Van der Ham began his art studies at evening school at the academy of arts, Rotterdam , where he was inspired by graphic designer Kees Spermon. ‘He gave me the self confidence to continue on the path I had chosen.'
Van der Ham draws a great deal. He produces series of ink drawings, such as the moving drawing of a figure floating in water, its eyes closed. Weightless, free of all baggage. However, in 1992, his interest was captured by sculpture. That year, with art critic Wouter Welling, he swapped a drawing for an African mask and a new world unfolded. ‘Look at the angle of the head. It's not quite straight,' he says, pointing at an ancestor sculpture in his studio. Van der Ham is particularly moved by the work produced by the Lobi, and even more by the idea that you can breathe life into wood. ‘It was a power that seemed familiar to me.'
In 1993 he made his first sculpture (‘Transfiguration'), a constructional form with wooden ribs enclosing a vulnerable shape of fabric – ‘An embracing of the soul' – but it wasn't until 1996 that he developed this further, with sculptures in plaster, followed by bronze. However, bronze has its limitations – you need people to help you and plaster is difficult to model. But, in 2002, once he had discovered clay, the flood of sculptures began. ‘It's a medium I've thoroughly mastered.' Some sculptures are fashioned from slabs of clay that look as though they've been put together quite roughly. The slabs assume the form of a man, a ball and a dog that, with head to one side, regards his owner expectantly: are we going to play? It is a humorous group of figures, stylistically close to comics or the work of Philip Guston, with a philosophical undertone. ‘There's really very little difference between a man, a dog or a ball,' says Hans van der Ham. ‘They are all illusory guises. Vibrating matter that assumes one form, then another.'
‘Chimaera’, 20 okt. –20 nov., Tent., Witte de Withstraat 50, Rotterdam, 010-4135498, www.tentplaza.nl