N° 38 Digital Treble Discoveries-Unplugged

Rob Birza

27 June - 16 August 1998

The presentation by Rob Birza in Bureau Amsterdam is part of the international group exhibition From the Corner of the Eye, which takes place this summer in both the Stedelijk Museum and Bureau Amsterdam, concurrently with the Gay Games Amsterdam, 1998. (1) Rob Birza has shown his work in a "gay" context once before. Five years ago he presented a series of watercolours at the Stedelijk Museum as part of the annual Commitment exhibition organized to mark World AIDS Day. Birza's work, like that of the other artists in 'From the Corner of the Eye', does not allow itself to be characterized by a specific "homosexual" style, iconography or aesthetic. For artists in the 1990s, their sexual identity - in this case, homosexual identity - is not something which exhaustively defines their artist production.

For many artists, sexual orientation is just one of the many significant aspects in their work, but is an aspect which is often ignored in exhibitions and art criticism. From the Corner of the Eye offers an image of contemporary visual arts, seen from a "queer" perspective. In this exhibition, it is hoped that the homosexual gaze will sometimes emphatically present and at other times will disappear into the background.

The public at large knows Rob Birza (Geldrop, 1962) chiefly as the maker of egg tempera paintings executed with great panache. He also regularly adds the most diverse materials and objects to his canvases: pieces of carpet or rubber, hubcaps, plastic bucket seats and lamps. An early example of this is found in Mickey of the Blind (Sea of Lights) (1989-90); the right hand part of the painting is formed by a block of six fluorescent tubes radiating a blinding light. On the left side Mickey Mouse holds a blind person's white cane, appearing from behind a gaily coloured curtain. The impression made by the scene is comic, but for Birza the image had serious import, referring to the blindness that can occur in the last stages of AIDS. "It is the all-embracing, disastrous presence of destruction." (2)

Light, and the possibility or impossibility of seeing, is a motif which has begun to run like a thread through Birza's oeuvre. Three years ago, in India, he made a series of paintings which used the solar eclipse as their theme. He also incorporates blinking neon tubes or designer lamps from the 1960s in his installations. Sometimes light is given a metaphysical dimension; on other occasions Birza refers to the banal lighting effects in a disco. Although painting is always the point of departure for Birza, over the last few years he has begun to present himself less and less as a painter pur sang, and more and more as a director of three- dimensional presentations. These "paintings which have escaped from the wall" have increasingly taken on the nature of "environments" which stretch out over the floor, walls and ceiling. It is therefore not surprising that Birza has also become active in theatre. Last year, together with choreographer Karin Post and stylist Ruud van der Peyl, Birza created the theatre piece "All Cinderellas ready for take off," for which he designed both the sets and the lighting.

With his installation in the Bureau Amsterdam, entitled Digital Treble Discoveries-Unplugged, Birza has created a similar total experience, with video and computer images, hallucinatory light effects and music. Similarly to his painting, Birza has recently been applying himself to "impossible" themes such as floral still lifes and "horror" - motifs which have so often fallen prey to cliches and banalities, it seems impossible to look at them afresh - and so too the homosexual aesthetic also bears within itself a certain absurdity. Yet Birza sets for himself again and again the task of undermining existing expectations, and insists on a freedom for himself in which nothing is dismissed beforehand. Perhaps one could say of the "queer" aspect of his work what Birza once said of his work in general: "It has to do with the desire for a place where it is possible to let go of the values that have been imposed by conditioning." (3)

Digital Treble Discoveries-Unplugged is a very personal work which balances on the borderline of what is extremely private and what is public, between the sensitive and the sentimental, the sincere and the artificial, the exalted and the banal. At first sight he seems to be playing a game with the cliches of "gay art" and sending up the idea of homosexual iconography. But there is a whole other realm to be found under the level of irony and ambiguity, one of intensity, alienation and intimacy.

Leontine Coelewij

translated by Donald Mader

1. Participating artists in From the Corner of the Eye are: Tariq Alvi, Rob Birza, Lukas Duwenhögger, Nicole Eisenman, Arnoud Holleman, Jochen Klein, Matts Leiderstam, John Lindell, Catherine Opie, Ugo Rondinone, Collier Schorr, Wolfgang Tillmans, Albert van Westing en Cerith Wyn Evans.

2. “Ik heb niets te verbergen,” interview with Rob Birza by Cornald Maas, De Volkskrant, May 10, 1996, p. 20.

3. “Mooi bestaat niet meer,” interview with Rob Birza by Cathérine van Houts, Het Parool, June 27, 1992, p. 37.