Hans van Meeuwen. Spookrijder

The Construct of Childhood
Comments on Hans van Meeuwen’s installation Spookrijder in the Alte Rotation

 ”All learned professors and doctors are agreed that children do not comprehend the cause of their desires; but that the grown-up should wander about this earth like children, without knowing whence they come, or whither they go, influenced as little by fixed motives, but guided like them by biscuits, sugar-plums, and the rod–this is what nobody is willing to acknowledge; and yet I think it is palpable.

Goethe, The Sorrows of Young Werther

The notion of childhood is one of the most deceptive constructs that the memory holds in store in the life of a human being. If one considers the implications that childhood arouses in individuals and society nowadays, it does not appear surprising that within the scope of the development of social and intellectual history the notion itself did not emerge until the 2nd millennium. As Philippe Ariès remarked in 1960 in his famous treatise L'enfant et la vie familiale sous l'ancien régime, an awareness for the specific reality of this phase in a person’s life had not yet developed in 10th and 11th-century Europe. ”We assume that theirs was an imagination that knew no childhood.”[1] In its literary, philosophical and aesthetic lines of tradition, our current conception of childhood still makes reference to figures of thought stemming from the Enlightenment and above all the Romanesque period, from which the ritualistic glorification of the child that is so openly expressed today–especially in the advertising media–is derived in the end.[2]  Here it functions principally as a state of innocence, unity and authenticity. In a romantic sense, the idea of childhood has not served primarily to describe a specific phase of human development, but rather as a collective projection surface, for instance as the utopia of an unspoiled society. ”Childhood is the only undistorted nature that we still find in cultivated humanity,” wrote Friedrich Schiller. Despite numerous efforts by various scientific disciplines, in particular psychology and education, to classify the real points of reference in the development phases of a child, the collective desire for a primordial childlike state continues to undermine our idea of childhood. 

The view from the nursery

How did one think, feel as a child? Even one’s own memory runs the risk of getting caught in the biographical jungle of mechanisms of repression and distortion. Reflections on one’s childhood experiences are not seldom eclipsed by the negative or positive affects they have had on one’s later life. That which is beyond social glorification and individual value and can actually be understood as the reality of childhood is the focus of Han van Meeuwen’s work. Van Meeuwen, a sculptor who was born in Rotterdam but now lives in Cologne, skillfully uses the setting of art to examine the ambiguity and the multidimensionality of a child’s existence for the perceptual world of the adult. In the process, his figurative works function as thought and perception traps that primarily exhibit that same characteristic harmlessness that permeates today’s advertising media landscape. Crow’s and duck’s feet, astronaut suits, horse’s heads, storks and tents also form the familiar nursery arsenal, which at first evokes thoughts of a blissful ideal world. Using complex strategies of alienation, above all monumentalization and fragmentation, van Meeuwen’s light-footed polyester sculptures gain an irritating autonomy that undermines the effect of their charm and at the same time allows a dark side to become transparent. They contain the formulation of an existential doubt that is evidence of the struggle to distinguish the child’s ego from the environment. Oversized baby teeth lie here and there on the ground; pets mutate into monsters, pills into bombs. In this way threat, fear and aimlessness form the cornerstones of the traumatic displacement of reality. As Hans van Meeuwen puts it: In the ambivalence of its expression, which always contains the fascination with what is frightful, the fragile experience a child has of his or her world is held within a solid framework of tradition. This construct has been taken up by a variety of writers and artists in the 20th century. An entry Paul Klee made in his diary of an experience he had at four is exemplary for this: ”Evil ghosts I had drawn suddenly took on real shape. I sought protection with my mother and complained to her that the little devils were looking through the window.”[3]

Ghost driver

Spookrijder.[4] Hans van Meeuwen gives a concise Dutch title to his most recent installation in the Alte Rotation in Bonn. It is a term that invites varied associations that can, however–as least as far as the translation into German is concerned–put us on the wrong track. He is making reference neither to a Goethean lord king nor to a ghostly apparition on horseback, which in the new gothic style symbolizes an apocalyptic horror. Rather Spookrijder is the Dutch term for ghost driver, i.e. someone driving on the wrong side of the road. Although the translation may be simple, the associative references to meaning contained in the title are nevertheless significant. They become immediately perceptible with their entrance into the Alte Rotation.

When it is darkened, the former rotary printing works suggest a space that adheres to its own laws. Upon entering the building, visitors are presented with a surreal tableau they can dive into. A miniature wooden ship, whose bow is adorned with a figurehead that is obviously the hero described in the title of the exhibit, floats at floor level in the center of the gallery. Van Meeuwen produces theSpookrijder as a hollow sculptural form whose body–in the Magrittian style–has got lost. What remains is a size XXL sailor’s suit whose uniformity reflects a child’s discontent with culture. As a garment that is handed down from confirmation or first communion, it first of all represents the religious rituals of adolescence while at the same time expressing the imminent act of militarization.[5] In its religious evocations in particular, van Meeuwen’s Spookrijder can also no doubt be viewed as a self-ironical commentary on the myth of the Flying Dutchman, which in its shortened form calls up a striking symbol of wandering sin. All that remains in the Spookrijder of the often quoted saga of the Dutch captain Barend Fokke, transfigured by Richard Wagner into a romantic opera according to the spirit of a synthesis of the arts, is the dull roar of the ocean. Any Germanic pathos appears to have disappeared. Instead, when we look into the basement of the former rotary printing works we are actually shown an imaginary ocean floor. However, van Meeuwen’s ocean has dried up; the dream image itself has mutated into a Freudian symbol of stagnation. 

Devil’s darning needles

Headless and hypnotized, the Spookrijder looks at the threatening object like the rabbit at the snake. An oversized canvas in cold shades of blue, on which the voluminous head of a dragonfly looks back, is stretched across the wall opposite. Here as well, following surrealistic depictions the direct confrontation with animal nature intensifies and at the same time is treated ironically by using the strategy of reversal, in this case a reversal of head dimensions. This predatory insect, who because of its long thin body is referred to in the vernacular as ”devil’s darning needles”,[6] symbolizes a further trauma associated with ego loss, a topos whose treatment spans Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis up to David Cronenberg’s remake of the classic horror film The Fly. In the end, in the adult world this convention has no purpose other than self-protection. Hans van Meeuwen’s installation Spookrijder reexposes this horror by producing it with a lightness that is doubly unbearable.

© Christoph Schaden, 2001


published in: Hans van Meeuwen. Spookrijder, Bonn 2001, p. 9-11.


[1]Philippe Ariès, Geschichte der Kindheit (Munich, Vienna, 1975), 93.

[2]Meike Sophia Baader, Die romantische Idee des Kindes und der Kindheit. Auf der Suche nach der verlorenen Unschuld (Berlin, 1996).

[3]Cited in Tilman Osterwold, Paul Klee–Ein Kind träumt sich (Stuttgart, 1979), p. 47.

[4]Sus van Elzen, Spookrijders (Amsterdam, Antwerp, 1997) o.p.: ”Ghost drivers are road users who drive on the wrong side of the road and wonder why the opposing drivers are so aggressive. They are men and women who jeopardize both their own lives and the lives of others due to their carelessness and their disregard for everyday facts.”

[5]"The newly designed [sailor’s] uniform was quickly accepted by the sons of the middle classes, who following the expulsion of the Jesuits had become more numerous and frequently prepared themselves to pursue military careers. ... This is now the ”little sailor” originated who has lasted from the end of the 18th century to this day. Ariès, p. 560.

[6]May R. Berenbaum, Blutsauger, Staatsgründer, Seidenfabrikanten. Die zwiespältige Beziehung von Mensch und Insekt, (Heidelberg, Berlin, Oxford, 1997), p. 496 f. It is significant in this respect that the factor of entomophobia, i.e. the fear of insects, develops between the ages of two and seven [Translator’s note: In Anglo-Saxon myth it is said that if you go to sleep by a stream on a summer’s day, dragonflies will use their long thin bodies to sew your eyelids shut.]

Hans van Meeuwen


text published in:
Hans van Meeuwen - Spookrijder
Bonn 2001, p. 9-13

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