An Afternoon by the Sea

I didn’t find much time to holiday last year. Somehow, I forgot to plan any time off. In a diary like mine, a week away in August sticks out like a sore thumb. This is not particularly unusual, mind, not of me, not of London, not of the ‘current economic climate’. In fact, it had been quite some time since I had bothered with holidays at all — I always found the beach a bit too sandy, tourist attractions too touristy, and the countryside just too far away. Why rest, we’re having fun anyway, right?

I was therefore rather surprised to find myself in Oostende on the Belgian coast, sunglasses firmly on my nose, writing postcards, scoffing seafood platters and glasses of Sauvignon Blanc, taking leisurely boat cruises, and not minding the thousands of others partaking in the same simple pleasures only feet away. Days, nights, mornings and evenings, it felt like a childhood treat, a school summer holiday which never needed to end.

I recall this because I had a similar feeling the first time I encountered the work of Heide Hinrichs in Manifesta 8. Her installation, sited in a former tobacco factory in Rovereto in Italy, consisted of a series of models of greater structures — a planetary system of footballs hanging on ribbons and rope, and a whole language in an alphabet of objects rendered in papier-mâché. Inside Hinrichs’ installation The Unexpected Obedience of Your Thoughts, I was part of an environment in state of perfect equilibrium, where every element was in balance with my own presence.

Heide Hinrichs, presence of perception, 2013

You may think me sentimental, so please let me explain. There were, in truth, no evenings in Oostende, and no sand. My ‘holiday’ consisted of nine hours in total, including two train journeys. The boat rides were indeed plural, but only when I aborted a hearty walk fearing that I would miss the last Eurostar of the day. The seafood platter was not all that much either — I walked for a good hour, avoiding all the ‘tourist’ restaurants, only to find that there were no other restaurants at all. On the way back, I squashed into a broken-down train with hundreds of seaside day-trippers to return to London by 9pm.

It then seems even more sentimental to get hung up on an idea of a holiday, and one expressed with such economy. But what brings that day to mind again — when I look at the work of Heide Hinrichs — is its encapsulation of an array of states and memories, ones I have not often, if ever taken the opportunity to act out.

With modest simplicity, Hinrichs creates arrangements in which objects act not only as simulations of other ideas, but have the potential to become them: one is another. More, the work dispenses with objecthood altogether, freeing itself from the need for properties and relations to the external world that would define it in other circumstances. What remains of the objects are marks of the artist’s fingers in papier-mâché, pencil traces, threads sewn into fabrics, and holes cut into surfaces — executed from without.

In Rovereto and in exhibitions since, Hinrichs has created indoor landscapes using all-too familiar materials — cardboard, string, recycled rubber, fabrics. Her low-toned and restricted palette encourages an informal, open and natural reaction; the artist eases her work into the surroundings as though by chance. In Rovereto, with time, I began to notice the ambiguities contained in her arrangements, and it was no longer clear whether, for example, The forgotten heart, a work consisting of cardboard boxes and papier-mâché, was a ‘work’ or merely cardboard.

Sometimes Hinrichs deliberately toys with the idea of the ready-made, placing footballs, pearls and eggs amongst her hand-shaped pieces. In seeing these together, I wondered if a football only then and there became a metaphor for a planet and a universe, or if I had always know about their — now seemingly obvious — equivalence.

With her stripped-back mise en scene, Hinrichs’ installations appear as familiar stories, reshaped and stretched into new forms — only the originals are impossible to place. It was like this in Oostende, too: my nostalgic synthesis of the day was not the result of the weather or the seascape, nor even of a particular experience in my own memory. Oostende could have contained anything, and anything but Oostende. The day became a perfect simulation of a set of conditions I could only have known from secondary sources.

It is easy to get carried away here; a scene can appear so vividly drawn that one can overstep the barriers between outsider and constituent. Hinrichs is aware of this — with typically understated humour, the artist places small statuettes, actors-observers, in the periphery of her installations. The works themselves engage in an active exchange, too: in Librarian’s Eye, for example, an isolated video animation surveys the space, encouraging other works to perform their roles. It’s a peculiar moment, to recognise so clearly one’s own feeling as belonging to an altogether different story, and in which either version of events could well be true. In my own seaside afternoon, I thought I was playing out some French film classic, perhaps the Louvre scene from À bout de soufflé.

To run so carefree under the noses of museum guards is a matter of some confidence. Without drawing attention to the self-control in Hinrichs’ works, the artist creates environments that are both protective and liberating. In the recent presence of perception, and a companion series of drawings which show house-like structures encased by the fingers of two hands, the artist holds a void, a space in which a story can unfold. But despite their immateriality, Hinrichs’ structures need only be held together with minimal force, as though they are determined to remain self-reliant, and confident that their fragility is only a matter of our perception.

Perhaps it is not then mere coincidence that I spent my afternoon by the sea in the company of Heide Hinrichs.