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Repurposing the Concept of Consumerism with A Twist: Dutch Visual Artist Matti Wim Havens Ongoing Series “The Returnables”

Repurposing the Concept of Consumerism with A Twist: Dutch Visual Artist Matti Wim Havens Ongoing Series “The Returnables”

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Some months ago, I discovered Dutch artist Matti Wim Havens on Instagram. Born in the Netherlands and currently living in Rotterdam, Havens has made his way to New Amsterdam (or as we currently know it, New York City) for the opening of his video project, “The Returnables.” The exhibition will be on view at the Local Project Art Space from July 16th-19th and the exhibition was made possible by a grant from the Queens Council on the Arts. When I saw that Havens was coming to New York City, I immediately reached out to him for an interview.

Many of my readers do not know, but I am a second-generation American on my mother’s side and Dutch is my mother’s first language. During the pandemic, I have become more focused on reclaiming my roots and am on the path to fluently speaking Dutch. Also a small world becoming smaller, Havens has collaborated before with Cultbyte’s very own editor-at-large, Ayana Evans.

The Returnables, which has a nice and cheeky ring to it, also has an air of mystery.  The premise is very relatable: the exhibition is a response to consumerism and the subsequent effects on the environment from heavy consumption. With the advent of Amazon and the ability to buy anything from a t-shirt to a baby pool while on the go, it’s hard to remember that not everything is returnable especially if you are buying from brick and mortar stores. The multimedia exhibition is composed of a series of videos, in which Haven tests his iPhone’s durability and Apple’s return policy through no small feats (yes, an iPhone can survive being stuck in the spokes of your bike) and three sculptures created out of everyday objects.

However, there is a catch. Part of the project is contingent upon Havens buying these items, repurposing these items into sculpture, and then ultimately returning them to the stores. At the time that I spoke to Havens, he hadn’t yet disclosed what items he would be buying or any details about the stores he’d be buying from but that element of surprise was fun. Even the press release didn’t reveal too much. After further Instagram investigation (I admit, journalistic Instagram research can sometimes ruin a good mystery), Haven’s fascination with re-use and repurposing items into something totally different (in this case, metal ladders become an elaborate windmill like sculpture) has a very René Magritte vibe to it. Is a utility ladder really a utility ladder if it serves a different purpose than what it’s usually intended for? Is a phone really a phone if it no longer works after taking a swim in the North Sea?

The language is the language of my mother and my childhood and the flat, green landscapes with canals, sheep and swans is ingrained in my mind from visits to my grandparents.

Prior to the opening of “The Returnables,” I caught up with Havens via email. My initial reaction was that the entire exhibition was tongue-in-cheek, but it turns out the exhibition has a more serious side to it. The exhibition is also an ode to Haven’s return to the Netherlands as he relocated to Rotterdam right before the pandemic (prior to his move, Havens had not lived in the Netherlands for thirty-nine years). Just like all the items in the exhibition, Havens too is returning to New York City, a city he also called home nearly ten years.

I love the concept of your new show, “The Returnables.” Local Project described the exhibition as humorous, so I don’t think I’m off base for initially thinking this was a clever, tongue-in-cheek plan for an exhibition. How did the idea behind this exhibition come to fruition? Where will you be shopping and what specifically were you looking for?

There is a tongue-in-cheek quality to the show but also serious ideas/concepts behind the project. I started with “The Returnables” as a way to make large sculptures without having to store and keep materials. As a sculptor, a big problem is where to make and store large sculptural works is a challenge, especially when space is limited. Also, the issue of unbridled and wasteful consumerism is certainly an issue that I am interested in. I also like the idea of taking advantage of these large corporation’s return policies.

Photo courtesy of the author

Over the past fifteen months, I admit I’ve been shopping way too frequently on Amazon. Pre-pandemic, I was not a big Amazon user (I know I am extremely behind the times), but one of the things I can’t get over is how basically anything is returnable. It doesn’t matter if it’s a shirt or a bed frame, as long as you are willing to lug it back to a return counter, most likely the odds of returning it successfully are in your favor. However, brick and mortar stores are a whole different animal. Were you (or are you still) concerned that some of the stores won’t take back some of their items? Does any aspect of the exhibition change for you if for some reason you can’t return something?

As you noted, returning items has rarely been a problem. Most of the people who work at these stores are not motivated to inspect the items carefully and just take everything back without asking questions. My laundry racks were definitely not pristine when I returned them, but they did not notice. My work is frequently quite experimental and failure is part of the process. There is an amount of risk involved and if something can’t be returned then that is unfortunate but not a big deal (depending on the cost of the object). Especially seeing as I am very aware of this risk before I start these projects. Working this way makes me more careful about the materials I use and consider their returnability. For example I did not use zip ties to bind pieces together because obviously they can’t be returned after using them. I try to stick with this concept as best as I can.

Video Returnable #4

I think that a lot of galleries give away too much information when it comes to promoting new exhibitions, and I noticed that the description of “The Returnables” is very short and sweet. There is a lot left to the reader’s imagination, and there’s an element of excitement and surprise (for instance, will this exhibition be on the beach?) Was that something done on purpose? 

The description of “The Returnables” is quite short because I wanted the work to speak for itself in person. The mystery and surprise of seeing the work for the first time without too much forewarning is more interesting.

The Returnables #1, Arches National Monument

I’ve been following you on Instagram for some months now, and it looks like you work with a number of different mediums. Can you share a bit more about yourself as an artist and your artistic process? 

My artistic output is extremely diverse. I get bored working in the same style or medium too long and need to explore and experiment. I keep notebooks of ideas/notes/sketches and I frequently return to them. For example, when I lived in NYC, close to Five Points, I had the idea to make mosaics pieces based on graffiti when I lived in NYC. I did not develop it further as I did not know anyone that did mosaic work in NYC. When I moved to Rotterdam, a friend and artist from the neighborhood works with mosaics so then I asked him if he could teach me mosaics to develop the project further. Also, through his connections, he knows a graffiti artist with who I developed the design with. This project is also on Instagram. Frequently circumstance, location, and opportunities may determine how my work may develop in the future and what projects I may develop. 

Video Still #4

Since you are based full-time in Rotterdam, what is the emerging artist and gallery scene like there? Have you noticed any big differences between the emerging artist and gallery scene there versus in New York?

I am still getting to know the art scene in Rotterdam, so I cannot make an accurate comparison yet. I still do not know a “normal” Netherlands. I arrived in February 2020 and the Netherlands locked down a month later. Slowly things are getting back to normal, but it may take a couple more months. Unfortunately, NL was very slow to get the vaccines rolled out. It is been a slow process to meet and get to know other artists. It is a work in progress.

Screenprint as seen in collaboration with Publieke Werken Rotterdam

Is there anything else coming down the pipeline you would like to share?

I am currently trying to find a public location for a graffiti-inspired mosaic location in Rotterdam. That has been a challenge. Also, I am going to have a solo show in Growing Space Wielewaal in September. I helped construct the space a year ago. I am still deciding what exactly to do for that show. Perhaps, some new Returnables? 

If you find yourself returning to the New Amsterdam area, I highly recommend a trip to see “The Returnables” before it closes on Monday, July 19th. This exhibition packs a lot into a small space, and the artist successfully weaves in a couple of underlying themes such as consumerism, reclaiming your cultural heritage, and reimagining the use of everyday products.

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