Table ( figure 113 ), 2022 (Ruth van Beek, Van Zoetendaal Publishers)
The Oldest Thing

I’ve always liked Ruth van Beek’s work. It’s tempting to say it’s collage — and in some thin and pragmatic way it is — but I’m also iffy about the term. Doing so throws her work too close to the handful of artists who inevitably spring up as soon as the word “collage” is mentioned: Hannah Höch, Kurt Schwitters, Barbara Kruger, Martha Rosler, and more recently Justine Kurland, Carmen Winant and Sara Cwynar. Or it kicks up the motifs that endlessly orbit collage: bodies, randomness, torn newspapers, chaos, liberation, more bodies. I think this is how all canons work, even if it is a little (if not very) reductive. Either way, collage colours van Beek’s work in a way that feels wrong. It’s not chaotic. It isn’t political; it’s not about reclaiming or provoking or taking apart to put back together. And neither does it try and provoke like steel and flint or act as a knife, even if cutting is still involved. Instead, it’s tender and curious, intimate, uncomplicated and deeply personal; nearly always beginning in an archive that’s far away from the public eye. It is also, I think, about covering and concealing to make familiar things less so and then into something else and possibly more. It may seem like a small difference from collage, but it feels an important prelude to her latest book, The Oldest Thing.

The Oldest Thing, published by Van Zoetendaal Publishers, is not only her latest but, I would argue, her most giving book. It’s not that it offers something radically new — it continues a similar format from past books of weaving together works and found pictures from one of van Beek’s many archives — but it is over five hundred pages, nearly all of which are double spreads. For an artist whose work is pared back enough to fit neatly under minimalism’s motto that less is more, it feels almost antithetical. But it’s this polarity that makes it giving; I like the soft tension between van Beek’s work and the heft of The Oldest Thing. As to the reason for such magnificent proportions, I find an interview in which van Beek says that the language of images becomes visible when different images are brought together, whilst on their own, each work only speaks of themselves. Generally, this is true for all photographs, but it feels especially so for van Beek’s abstract work, and I think it is, perhaps, the reason for its more than five hundred pages. If The Oldest Thing was made to be slight, it would risk only being a collection of beautiful but ultimately incoherent abstractions. Put another way, it would be like looking at the handful of letters that make up a word versus the word itself: the first abstract, the second coherent. In that form, The Oldest Thing would add little to how we understand van Beek; a transcription of what we see elsewhere over a translation into something new.

Perhaps the best example of this turn from letters (abstract) to words (understandable) is the oval motif that runs throughout The Oldest Thing, from the front cover to a picture of a birthday cake with green candles towards the very end. On the cover, the oval is abstract and gestural; one form partly covered by another that on its own doesn’t seem like much. But quickly van Beek shows us more ovals, only this time they are ovals in real pictures that van Beek has found in the three binders of recipes her mother left behind before her death. There are crimped cupcake cases, a pile of flour, pastries, paper plates, ceramic plates, lace place mats and an egg on the brink of being tipped into a pan of water. In fact, the first fifty pages of The Oldest Thing are nearly all ovals, spliced with several of van Beek’s works that seem to mimic some of the lines and forms found in the pictures. This optical waltz between work and archive is not only satisfying to look at but revealing in how it turns letters into words and words into something that verges on a language.

At risk of stating the obvious, van Beek has also opened a small door into her archive — the start of everything — which is unseen when her work is framed and hung on a wall. Here I think of van Beek as a rebellious magician who has let us in on how the trick works, if only for a second. But unlike this analogy, the magic of seeing van Beek’s next creation is not blunted by her showing the beginnings of another. In reality, the archive is always only half the recipe; the other half is van Beek’s dance with it that turns static things into something animated and full of possibility. What this means for The Oldest Thing is that each work thankfully holds onto its frustrating yet beautiful air, even though at times they are opposite what feels like their possible but unprovable seed (if you have the book, p.134-135 is a good example of this). With work and archive in one hand, by the end of The Oldest Thing I feel much closer to van Beek, but never as if I know everything. It’s this constant not knowing, and the joy that comes from it, that is another way in which The Oldest Thing is giving. Again, this isn’t new. Other books of van Beek’s work in a similar vein. But it’s The Oldest Thing’s length, its repetition of the same loping oscillation along with such a painless layout free of contrived effects, that sets it apart.

Van Beek’s ovals ebb over the rest of the book, but I think this is a good thing. It’s those first fifty pages that set the premise for the rest of the book, whether a later picture is a pair of scissors or two bell peppers sat across from each other. As to where the archive comes from, it’s hard to say if it matters. It’s undoubtedly personal to van Beek and arguably her most personal work, but how her mother’s (and now her) archive is presented — atomised and isolated — means it’s hard to relate to in this way, even if it feels familiar because the photographs are domestic and the domestic is familiar. That I can’t relate to The Oldest Thing in the way that van Beek can I’m not sure matters either.

One final thought. There are seven poems in The Oldest Thing, all written by van Beek’s long-time friend Basje Boer and spread throughout the book. I like them as poems, although I would have a hard time explaining why. Perhaps it is because they feel private yet unguarded, much like van Beek’s work. But as a second layer in The Oldest Thing, I think they get lost. In such a vast book, this is easy. Others may disagree and find them a welcome break to an otherwise unbroken journey.

Reading what I’ve written, I realise that I’ve said a lot about not a lot. At its most basic, all I have said that The Oldest Thing is a big book and that in being that it is hugely rewarding because it allows us to understand the underlying language of van Beek’s work. I have said a few other things, but maybe it is as simple as that. Need there be more?