When I encountered the work of Dutch artist and film maker, Puck Verkade, a few weeks ago, it was the kind of experience that trailed behind me for a few days afterwards as I tried to untangle it all. There were parts that made me laugh, that struck me, that made me uncomfortable and I had an overwhelming feeling that it was laughing at me trying to make sense of it. So, I stopped, and decided to speak to the artist behind it.
Just past Haggerston station, beside a string of house boats and copious blooms lies Verkade’s studio, a place where a sort of controlled absurdity abounds. The first thing I encountered at our meeting were the giant blow up manicured fingers featured in her most recent film, ‘BAIT’. The sight shook me a little, so grotesquely large and limp. Verkade was warm and direct. As we spoke she let me make strides alongside her own, and I tried to keep track as her thoughts moved fluidly in a constant self-reflexive loop. Fluid, is a key word for Verkade. Nothing is stable, not the work, not the intention, not the impact.
Verkade found art rather cinematically, after her original plan to become a professional ballerina didn’t work out. She felt an affinity to art. ‘It kind of grabbed me. There was no script, not a choreography I should follow, which I was so used to, and it was kind freeing that I had to come up with all of the outlines, all of the basic rules myself,’ she noted. She found film in her third year at the Royal Academy of Art (The Hague), after experiencing a personal loss and picked up a video camera in an attempt to control the world around her. She explained, ‘Pointing it at something and trying to, I guess, hold it? I saw the video camera as a mobile stage – and I was used to the stage of course.’
During her MA at Goldsmiths, things changed, and the personal no longer became exciting to her. Now, her interest in controlled disruption and the blurred line between reality and fantasy is fascinating. She wants absurdity, but not necessarily randomness; her references and direction are articulate and specific, but she’s not holding any hands.
Let the oysters speak
Verkade’s work defies expectation, every shot is surprising; in one fluid movement you’re confronted with reproductive issues, Boy George being interrogated about his gender in early interviews, and unfathomable images of chameleons hatching and zooming across the screen. I wondered, what came first, the chicken or the egg? The chameleon or boy George? Oh, she wasn’t going to tell me that.
She explained, ‘Often it’s the case in my editing that seemingly disparate topics collide or overlap which breaks open space for new interpretation. I work a lot with archetypes and stereotypes, most of them are gendered, sexualised or racialised images that function as ‘artefacts’ constructed by a patriarchal narrative. Appropriating and deconstructing these archetypes gives me a play-space to take down oppressive pillars of meaning.’
The images conjure ideas about access and self-hood, about the commodification of the woman and the celebrity, but these ideas are frantic and in no way seamless. Your mind instinctively seeks the literal translation for all this cross-referencing. But she never relinquishes the power of disruption, and once the dust settles, the absurdity and humour let the audience in, granting permission to laugh.
She’s in control, not over the audience, but over dominant narratives and paradigms. Anyone who watches can decide what to make of it all. ‘Laughter entangles you, makes you complicit in a way. Tension build up and release is one of the many things I deal with when editing. I’m interested in neurology and how the brain thinks in patterns, it shows how the brain is conditioned through biology as well as culture. Humour and absurdity give space to disrupt these patterns.’
In her most recent work, ‘BAIT’, Verkade uses oysters as the literal mouthpieces for women. Levity is levelling - this isn’t esoterica this is laughing at the assumptions we all make, from oyster to genitals to aphrodisiac, well screw it, let’s make the oyster speak for itself.
Curation, sensation and denial
As I recorded our conversation, it felt odd that she’d let me document her, knowing that this time I’d be the director of the story, but on reflection, I’m not convinced who was leading the conversation. Verkade’s work has the sensation of a moving collage, with a juxtaposition of images akin to Martha Rosler; double entendre weaving in and out of recognisable narratives. Her work in exhibition is situated within installations; ‘Breeder’ was set up amongst an architectural structure, in an authoritative manner that guided people through the experience of the film, which ran on loop. ‘BAIT’ was located within a metal frame in a cross between a bed and a cage. She described how people would hang off it or sit in it, interacting with the structure. The work has a deliberate physical experience that accompanies it in an exhibition, bringing us one step further into her vortex of multiple considerations.
I mentioned the word curation to her and she stopped in her tracks, unsure of the word. She replaced it with architecture, noting the importance of the structure working from multiple perspectives. As we spoke about her process, she attempted to explain her synaesthesia, ‘There are certain things I decide, not rationally but…’ she laughed. ‘Based on sensation?’ I asked. She replied, ‘I guess. It’s very sensation based. I hate it when people say, ‘Oh it’s very instinctive,’ because I think that’s actually something very different. There’s a difference between instinct and sensation, right?’ She lets the word marinate, ‘Sensation based, yes.’
She’s very particular about language, never settling on an insufficient word, and I get that feeling again, that she is curating the narrative. She later explained, ‘I’m so specific with words even when it’s not my own language, especially identity stuff. I just get really anxious.’
Verkade also says no – a lot. Denial is a big part of her work for me. In an earlier email I asked if she was comfortable discussing her own gender identity/sexuality since I felt that queer and gendered issues were intrinsic to her work. She noted, ‘In relation to my work I don’t speak out about my own gender identity or sexuality. I don’t want the work to be coloured or instructed by specifics of own identity really, it’s not a diary.’
And I caught myself, falling dumb to the same assumptions she’s trying to dismantle. Just as in ‘Breeder (Episode 3)’, when the egg donor doctor tells her that people will wonder why she didn’t want to share her religious beliefs on her forms, and suggests she attend counselling because, ‘There must be some reason why you don’t want to.’ As though the only explanation for her refusal is that she must be unstable or mentally unwell. But this is the point, catching yourself in the act of invasion. Her work tries to make the audience aware of the false assumptions we make, in this case the assumption that I was privy to her personal life, because she’s a femme person, because she’s an artist, and therefore it was all for the taking, right? Absolutely not.
Politics and accessibility
I get the sense that for Verkade, what’s personal, what’s political and what she wants for her art are often at odds with one another or at least she feels they can’t exist on the same platform. She wants the work to be multifaceted and not just speak to one perspective or narrative, and perhaps, by categorising it, assumptions are made irrespective of the actual content of the work. In a rare moment she spoke about something that gave me insight into her personal views, ‘All matters of reproduction (sexual, social, visual) are political to me. I want to be an intersectional feminist, but this is not a fixed position, it is always learning and moving through situations and expectations.’
These days, the phrase ‘intersectional feminism’ is thrown about in self-declarations of next level woke-ness, but it’s just not something you can claim for yourself. It’s something that requires constant re-examination; a persistent de-centring of whiteness and a surrender to the possibility of being wrong.
She continued, ‘I don’t want to ride the wave of the current buzz around gender, sexuality and feminism in my work – I want to make the work and the work has to do the job of generously showing conflicting perspectives to the audience.’ I agree with the sentiment that her work shouldn’t have to come with a caveat, and that it doesn’t have to be categorised as feminist to do feminist work.
‘People who see their artistic practice as activism would disagree with me, they would see me as a coward. Because I’m not actually fighting for something. But I don’t see my artistic practice for that, I can do that in my personal life much better. I think activism and art are a different platform, they sometimes overlap but they can’t channel issues in the same way.’
I’m not sure her work is fighting for nothing however. I believe art can be and has been successful activism and even if this art is not ‘activism’ as such, it’s challenging accepted narratives, most of which have been propagated by the patriarchy. It’s making us question our own assumptions and prejudices, and so it’s contributing to deconstructing oppressive structures. I can understand the desire to tune that out, that it can be distracting and can limit the work if the activism overrides the artistic integrity, but in this case, her work succeeds in both areas. A femme person creating art that subverts and dismantles hegemonic narratives in science, pop-culture and history, is subversive, and is political. And all the more powerful that it’s not personal, making herself creator and decidedly not subject is a statement. The work has implications beyond the artist’s intentions and that’s where its power lies.
In ‘Breeder (Episode 3)’, the final episode of the three-part series exploring sexual, social and visual reproduction, there is a scene that displays a moment of particular lucidity. The theme of the chicken and the egg is used throughout the film and in a scene where a WOC is eating fried chicken in what was meant to be a cannibalistic reclaiming of the narrative of women’s reproductive issues, Verkade stops the scene and realises what she’s filming – a person of colour eating fried chicken. She points this out to the actress who seems to have no idea either and they stop the scene, but she keeps the moment in the film.
‘That whole scene definitely exposes power dynamics; with the camera, with me being white, her being from mixed heritage. And then creating a stereotype that I didn’t notice, because of my privilege. It’s a very heavy scene that makes you question everything. As you said, being an intersectional feminist is a moving position. You can’t just claim it, it’s work, actual work, and that makes it worthwhile.’
In ‘Breeder’, power relations are deconstructed again and again, as the space of the feminine body is entangled with a myriad of alternative considerations, the viewer is welcomed to find their own meaning in the absurdity. Through humour and exposing power dynamics, the hierarchy of artist and viewer is dissolved.
What we see is coloured by what we know, all the associations and assumptions that are learned before the sight. Widely accepted truths or hegemonic narratives influence the putting together of what’s in front of us. Verkade’s work moves to destabilise the fact that these narratives are natural, seamless or true. Her work exposes the fallacies of collective assumption. She’s an artist who makes you un-think, and in a time of swarming false information, of saturation of images and extreme access, that’s a very necessary thing. This process requires continuous excavation into unconscious and conscious biases, into our complicity: the fluid process of both examination of the self and of everything we take for granted. In this vortex of considerations, reality gets fuzzy, but, Verkade says, it’s better to keep it all a bit ‘confabulated’.