Johan Van Mullem is one of the staples of the Unit London artist roster. Over the last few years Van Mullem's solo shows De Anima (2016/17) and Reverence (2019) have gained much well-deserved attention, and his work continues to be among the most popular with our audience. Here, we continue our How Are U initiative - speaking to creatives in quarantine, finding out their thoughts and gauging their opinions - by checking in with the Belgian artist. Scroll down to view some of Johan's available works.
How are you?
This is usually one of the most frequently asked questions, but nowadays it sounds a bit (or a lot), different. It’s not just a polite formula anymore, where the answer was generally as polite and even shorter than the question itself. Today, “how are you?” is an interrogation about your life, how you ‘are doing’ is questioning your living. From the most superficial position, it became the most serious question that can be asked, everyone all over the world is concerned. Currently, that single question pertains to two of life’s great questions: “where do we come from?” and “where are we going?”
“How are you?” is no longer a two seconds portion of time, it has become a fundamental question about past, present and future and there is a huge probability things won’t be the same anymore. Maybe we won’t live as we did before, maybe there will be a new urgency, this is a big chance to place importance on the present and act consciously. But in answer to your question “How are you?” I want to say: I’m well, because I have the feeling that this long enough pause in our lives will bring the Human being closer to a respectful behaviour toward himself and to others. To the very close circle of members of the family, or friends, or to the unknown ones. I’m well because, thanks to this global invisible enemy, notions of power, security, adversity and strength will no more be considered as the foundations for controlled life. I’m well because despite the current tragic image of reality, life and death are lightened and can therefore deeply renew our vision of the sense of life. No matter who you are, what you are doing, where you are living, everyone is equal in front of those two essential components of life. I’m well because everyone today will need to be creative - In their behaviour, thinking, and responsibilities. I’m well because of a new relationship towards nature and animal life. I’m well because those numerous reasons can redefine a new way of living.
How has isolation affected your practice?
The strange thing is that in my individual life nothing has changed: I am working at home, in a quiet place, in my studio, isolated towards the outside world. Social life has never been important for me so I don’t miss all kind of relations, except my eighty-seven year old mother who is living on her own and where I can’t stay for hours anymore. But I can feel the world outside is moving differently. The sky and the light are different, the whistling of the birds and other sounds are different. There is another global rhythm, but I have no feeling of isolating. I would rather say that it comforts me in my way of living as it becomes an obligation for everyone, rather than an individual choice.
The notion of time has totally and fundamentally changed. There is no more schedule, no urgency, delay or stress directly linked to the notion of time. To the question “what’s going to happen tomorrow?” nobody can answer. Now we know you cannot catch up and not predict the future. Therefore it brings a total new vision to my work but also to the way of doing it, and the sense of doing it. I suppose The Art world will be changed and the eye of the spectator also. For the moment, I have a garden and I am working in it like a new gardener discovering so many new things that were in front of my eyes and my nose that I didn’t realise before. I have the feeling that nature is silently preparing a new canvas or piece of paper but where the colours will never be the same again, that’s exciting.
One piece of advice you have for younger, less established artists at this time.
Create things you feel rather than follow or copy the successful or established artists. The current reality shows how fast everything can change, especially artificial values. To be an artist is to be a visionary - which is a mixture of your own point of view with the ingredients of reality. I believe it’s better to be ahead (and not understood) than to be too late.