Excerpt from interview by Marie Shurkus, October 6, 2009
Marie Shurkus My research revealed three different stories about how you first came to the States. So let’s start there.
Ger van Elk Mine is the classic story of an immigrant. My father flew back and forth between Holland and America. In the late fifties, he was living in Cheshire, Connecticut, but he was planning on moving to Los Angeles, where he was an illustrator for Hanna-Barbera cartoons. So on one of his trips back to Holland he confronted me, saying something like: “What the heck are you doing in Holland; it’s such a provincial place. It’s not good for you. You should be out in the world. You should come see me in Los Angeles.” So I decided to go to America.
MS Was that in 1959?
GVE Yes, I immigrated to the United States, and got a job in a pastry shop with my father’s friend Louie Cavalier. I earned $90 a week punching holes in Connecticut donuts, and it was great! I learned to speak English, got to know American culture. And then, after eight or nine months, I took the train from New York to my father’s place in Los Angeles.
MS Once in Los Angeles, you enrolled in Immaculate Heart College. Why there?
GVE Because I have always been difficult. [Laughs.] At that time, any self-respecting contemporary artist went to Chouinard Art Institute. But I thought, how can anyone possibly learn to make contemporary art? I found that ridiculous, plus I was intrigued by this nun place. It was unheard of to have nuns dressed in habits teaching contemporary art! I thought this is really one misunderstanding after the other, and decided that it would be more interesting for me to go see the nuns than to go to Chouinard.
MS Did you get a degree?
GVE No, before coming to America I went to art school in Amsterdam at the Kunstnijverheidsschool, which is where I became very good friends with Bas Jan Ader, though we lost touch right after school. You see, Bas traveled south, through Spain and onto Morocco, where he signed on with an English crew sailing west, across the Atlantic, through the Panama Canal, and on to San Diego. At that point I was already living on Sunset Boulevard, and one day I got a phone call: it was Bas looking for a place to stay. The sailboat had sunk, and the U.S. Marines had fished him and the crew out of the water. He had lost everything, his passport, everything lost at sea again, or for the first time. Anyway, I convinced him to join us at this funny place with the nuns. Mary Sue, whom he later married, was also taking classes at Immaculate Heart. We ended up living together for about a year, but then it was my turn to be a sailor. It’s not that I wanted to be a real sailor, but I thought I’ve got to go through that experience. So I signed on to an oil tanker for about nine months. When the tanker stopped in Rotterdam, I got off and spent more time making art in the Netherlands.
MS Is that when you organized the International Institute for the Re-education of Artists?
GVE I organized that group with Jan Dibbets and Reinier Lucassen in 1967. Back then international art schools were becoming a very popular phenomenon; it was like McDonald’s, something that was spreading everywhere. So we thought we could make it even more ridiculous by starting an international school for the re-education of artists in Conceptualism. We advertised classes on how to become an artist, tips on how to be a successful collector, or how to run your own gallery.
MS Did anyone try to enroll?
GVE Some people took it seriously, but most knew it was a joke. A few people got really annoyed. They didn’t like us making fun of people who were trying to start galleries, but we were against that kind of amateurism. I was very contrary back then.
MS What do you mean?
GVE Oh, I was constantly questioning myself and whatever was going on in the art world. For example, in the early sixties, it was forbidden to like Salvador Dalí. The general feeling was that Dalí couldn’t paint! I saw that he couldn’t paint in the manner that people think of as good painting. But I didn’t care, because I liked his concepts. Of course, I understand the phenomena of artists making pieces about painting, like Ad Reinhardt or Robert Ryman. In fact, I really appreciate their work. But I have always made work that functions as a witness to thoughts, a witness to things happening in the world and my relationship with society.
MS Does this notion of witnessing have anything to do with the projection pieces that you started making in 1969? For example, in the Self-Portrait behind a Wooden Fence piece, there is an actual wooden fence hanging on the gallery wall, but you also project a film of the same fence on top of it but slightly off register. As the film unfolds, we see your head emerge slowly from behind the fence, but of course you are only behind the fence in the film, not the actual fence hanging on the gallery wall. It’s hard to tell what we are really witnessing here. What were you trying to convey with this doubling of the image and the actual referent?
GVE It’s about comparison, making comparisons. It’s sort of like stating a proposition and saying, if this is the truth, then the other statement cannot be true. But maybe the other is the truth and the first one is not accurate. I’ve asked questions like that my whole life. When you look at my work, especially these early works, it always has a sort of schizophrenic element about struggling to make decisions. The projections also provide a strategy for adding information because the film pieces were always projected onto something concrete. So, if you have a film, you add something to reality: a story. You open the present up to another possibility.