Interview with RAW by drs Ralph Keuning, museum director Fundatie Zwolle, exhibition Size Does Matter.
Ralph Keuning: You were in China not so long ago, and I understand that was a special experience?
Ronald A. Westerhuis: It was a job for a government organisation. They’d been following me for a long time. A new building had been erected, designed by the French architect Jean-Marie Charpentier, and it needed a sculpture.
RK: That was in Peking?
RAW: No, Shanghai. I say that I go to China, but usually I’m in Shanghai.
RK: It was for the national government?
RAW: A semi-government organisation, yes.
RK: They approached you? They wanted one of your sculptures?
RAW: Yes. They already knew they wanted something by me. It wasn’t a competition, but a direct commission: “We want a sculpture by Westerhuis.” So you go and visit them. I met the man three or four times beforehand, went out to dinner once…
RK: And I suppose that you were dealing with the director of this institution?
RAW: He’s the owner.
RK: What does this institution do?
RAW: It’s a factory. They’re property developers and they also do the interiors of apartments. The property development falls under the part the government is involved with, and they do the interiors. The one supports the other.
RK: And the means of production, in good Communist tradition, are owned by the state… That’s interesting. The French architect, Charpentier, did he have anything do with their choice?
RAW: He’s since passed away. He designed the very ambitious opera house on People’s Square, Shanghai’s number-one hotspot. It’s a bit like Tiananmen Square in Beijing. He had to make a design for this company, too. And, very strangely, the location is right in the middle of an industrial zone. Suddenly you come across this fantastic architecture, just for the prestige. No-one really has any say in that: the architect decides. That goes for the artist, too. They don’t tell me what to put there.
RK: You’ve been active there for many years now…
RAW: Since 2005.
RK: And you built up a reputation there, step by step. Or did you hit the jackpot straight away, when you first arrived?
RAW: When I went there for the first time, I’d produced a design for the Olympic Flame. It was presented in Athens in 2004. The Chinese saw it and they thought, “Who’s this blond guy from Zwolle? How come he’s thinking about our Olympic Games in 2008?” They considered this so unusual that they invited me to come to Shanghai, together with the statue, 7 metres high. That was the model which had been in the Holland Heineken House [the Olympic “clubhouse” for Dutch athletes, officials, fans and media] in Athens. In those days, 90 per cent of passengers on the plane were Europeans seeking their fortune in China. That was how I pitched up there, too. There were twenty camera crews and journalists interested in me, and there was a special exhibition organised just for me. I thought, “I’ve ended up in heaven – I’m going to be massively appreciated here.” But the following day the next plane arrived, containing another Ronald Westerhuis to be fêted. So fame is relative…
RK: Back to the flame for a moment: how did you come to produce that design?
RAW: I had a commission from [horticultural expo] Floriade, jointly with garden architect Raymond Landwehr Johann. And that attracted such an incredible number of international visitors that I felt like, “If I want to put myself on the world map…” – because I still had that kind of ambition back then…
RK: He says with a grin…
RAW: “…Where should I do that?” I don’t come from the art world, so I didn’t think of museums. But I soon came up with the Olympic Games. I love the idea that lies behind them. It doesn’t matter which passport you have and it doesn’t matter where you come from, none of it matters. It’s about your performance. So I thought, “If I can do something for the Olympic Games, then I’ll be seen.” And what do you have to make for the Olympic Games? The Olympic Flame!
RK: You weren’t surprised that they asked you to get on a plane and fly over?
RK: It was the best-case scenario, but was it one of your scenarios?
RAW: No, actually. I initiate a lot of projects, but I’m not someone to go after one like this. But I was honoured to have been invited by Erica Terpstra [then President of the Dutch Olympic Committee] for the Holland Heineken House, so in fact I’d already succeeded in my plan.
RK: So it began with that flame. How big is the new sculpture in Shanghai?
RAW: Just over 3.5 metres high.
RK: You once told me, “I can’t walk down the street in Shanghai.” You’re a celebrity there?
RAW: The people who matter know me. That feels really special. Whereas when I walk around Zwolle, I don’t know anyone and they don’t know me. The Olympic Flame didn’t make me famous in China; that was just a moment in the spotlight. But there I really did have the feeling, certainly at the time, that I was coming home. I thought, “Hey, now I’m in a society where I can just be myself, where I fit in terms of the language of design.” They were doing a lot with spheres, but in a kind of Feng Shui-like way, so that everything was just right. Plus, what I really appreciate about China is that it doesn’t matter who you are. Everyone is equal. The most important thing for the Chinese is eating, only in that they’re all equal as well. In China, you can be who you want to be. There’s no-one who passes judgement on that. For me that was a real eye-opener!
RK: Describe your background. What kind of home did you come from? What did your parents do? Did they drag you along to museums?
RAW: Noooo! I come from a shipping family. I always say “boat people”, but my relatives don’t like that much. I was born on a ship. So there was no art, culture, museums… That was a totally different world.
RK: What did you want to be as a teenager?
RK: And what job did you want to do?
RAW: School wasn’t for me at all, so I was kicked out. I left home at seventeen. Not because it was bad, but I wanted to know what was beyond the horizon. I went travelling, first through Europe. In Venice, I met a model from America. So, to cut a long story short, I went there. She was from a very rich family. And she was a few years older than me, say about 25. The family took me in tow. The three months I’d planned to be in America ended up being seven years in all. After a couple of months with the family, I went travelling again. Working as well – I don’t come from a rich family or whatever – so along the way I did odd jobs. After that I went to Asia, again working left, right and centre for two dollars an hour. Just as long as I could stay away…
RK: What did you do?
RAW: Oh, I cleaned, felled trees… In North Carolina, I spent quite a while cleaning apartments. That paid well and I lived on the beach. It was a great life. And from time to time I fell into a relationship. Then we’d live together for six months or so, until we broke up or I lost interest and went on my way. It’s the sailing blood in me. I used to become really restless if I’d been in the same place for a month. I didn’t like that at all. So I’d just set off travelling again.
RK: How did steel come into your life?
RAW: When I came back to the Netherlands, it was the middle of winter. I needed to work, but there was no work. At the job centre, you could do training courses. Apart from that, I didn’t qualify for anything. I’d been out of the country for seven years so there were no benefits, nothing at all. But through the job centre I could take a welding course. Then I’d be able to do basic welding. So that’s what I did. I went on the course. And I got on really well with the tutor, so he let me weld electrodes. We became friends and he said to me, “Lad, the future is stainless steel: you need to do TIG [tungsten inert gas] welding.” “Yes,” I said, “but the job centre won’t let me, because I’ve chosen this now.” He said, “I’ll deal with the job centre. You’ve got it in you. Just get your qualifications.” Which I did, in no time. I was at the college at seven in the morning and I was the last one to leave in the evening…
RK: Where was that college?
RAW: In Almelo. In five months’ time, I had all my welding diplomas. Then I went back to the job centre. “So, I’m done.” The man there was not amused. He said, “I’m disappointed in you. We gave you all the tools, you only had to complete one level of welding and you’ve taken five months to do it!” Then I laid out all the diplomas on the table…
One Saturday there was an advertisement in [newspaper] De Telegraaf: “Topman Oilfield Personnel – we are looking for qualified and experienced offshore personnel: welders, pipefitters…,” you name it. I thought, “If I want to do something, then offshore sounds pretty good. Oil and gas, there must be good money in that.” So I called them and was invited to an interview in Den Helder. I didn’t even have a driving licence – a friend had to take me. There I was, sitting opposite a couple of real offshore guys, and they asked, “What certificates do you have? Fine that you’ve got all your diplomas, but what about experience?” I said that I’d only ever worked in America. “So where are those certificates?”, they asked. I said, “Well, they weren’t valid here, so I’ve converted them.” The guys started to hesitate – until I threw my passport on the table and they saw that it was packed with visas and stamps. Then I was hired.
And so it was that I ended up on one of those huge oil platforms, knowing absolutely nothing and unable to do anything, but really willing to learn. I had the good luck that it was a British platform. The supervisor, the most senior man, said to me, “Wow, you speak Dutch and English. I’m looking for a material controller.” That’s the person who gathers together all the materials when something has to be built and thus ensures that the work isn’t interrupted. Because I fell into that job, which was actually fairly simple – you work from a list of what has to be brought in, and you bring it from A to B – I wasn’t found out. I spent a couple of years out there, and instead of sorting out the materials and then going back and sitting in my little office, I worked outside day and night. The boys there thought I was great. Because (a) they considered me bloody fanatical, and (b) I would also fetch grinding wheels and help in other ways. In that way, I learnt the trade. And I also came into contact with enormous stainless-steel structures. I’ve been on 300-metre platforms. I became super-fascinated by that material, stainless steel. And certainly in those kinds of forms.
RK: Was that when you first thought about becoming an artist?
RAW: No; at sea you work for a number of weeks and then you have a number of weeks off. The first weekend of your time off, you just want to go to the pub with your friends, but they all have to work. So what do you do? I thought, “I’ll buy some welding apparatus and stainless steel and muck about with them.” And so it was. I had a studio here in Zwolle – although I didn’t call it that, of course, it was a workshop – in the old technical school, which had become a squat. It was full of artists and squatters. Naturally I was very out of place there. I drove a big car, had money coming out of my ears and those lads had all completed art school, but didn’t have two pennies to rub together. I started making things. Until an art committee from Dalfsen visited in 2000. Once a year, they showed work by young artists in a synagogue. By coincidence, I was busy in my workshop just at that moment. The committee was going from studio to studio and so they came to me. They looked and said, “Wow, you make great work.” Then came the question: “Can’t we organise an exhibition for you?” The first thing I said was, “How much does it pay?” That turned out to be 500 guilders. I thought, “Yeah, why not?” So I called up friends and family: “Hey, you know that thing in your back garden? I need it back because I’m going to do an exhibition.” Everyone laughed about it. The show was in the summer. I saw all my work in that space, friends came along, had a drink, it was fun. Eventually, the exhibition came to an end – it was a Saturday – and I walked in and saw the sunlight shining onto the sculptures through a stained-glass window and I thought, “This is what I should be doing!” On the Monday I called my boss. By then I’d gone from curly-haired lad to supervisor, with 150 people working under me. I called him and said: “Paul, I’m not coming in anymore.” He was not amused. I had to go into the office. The first thing he said was, “How much more money do you want?” I said, “How much more? You’re already paying me more than I can spend, it’s not about that.” So he said, “Where are you going to be working?” I said, “You’ve always treated me well, why should I go and work somewhere else?” Then I said, “I’m going to be an artist.” He slammed his huge hand on the table and said, “That’s all well and good, but you’ll die of hunger. You know what? I’ll give you three months’ paid leave and you can go and do your thing in that studio of yours. I don’t want to lose you; maybe you just need a holiday. We’ll talk again.” I said, “That’s fine, but you’ve lost that money.” After a week, they called again to ask if I could go to the Gulf of Mexico, but I said, “No, not for three months…” After that I went back and then came the question: “What are you going to do?” I said, “Money’s never been my motivation to work and I’ve told you already: I am going to be an artist.” He said, “Then we’ll do something else. You drive over to Zwolle now and register yourself as self-employed for onshore and offshore work and for art, whatever you want, but if I need you, I’ll hire you, and if you need me, you can always call me.” I did do that for a couple of years, but then I decided to stop. I had to follow my heart…
RK: How old were you then?
RAW: That was in 2000, eighteen years ago… I was 29.
RK: So you started “playing” with welding equipment and stainless steel in that old technical school and you didn’t think about art? You were in an environment full of artists, but you were only there because you needed a place to work. Or were you there because you wanted to be an artist, too?
RAW: I found it inspiring to see what they did.
RK: So that germ in your head, that “maybe I could be an artist”, that was already there to an extent?
RAW: Yes, but I find the word “artist” such a loaded term…
RK: I know. But it’s very interesting to look at when exactly the moment was that you made a piece that was removed from a practical context and so became a work of art. Did that moment happen there, in that old technical school?
RAW: Yes, that was the beginning.
RK: And the moment of your exhibition at the synagogue in Dalfsen? Suddenly, you saw all of your work brought together. What was the magic?
RAW: I think it was same as when I went travelling. I wanted to see, just for once, what I could make. I wanted to look beyond the horizon. I didn’t have the idea that “I want to be an artist” or “I’m going to earn my living doing this”. I wanted to make something, something that came out of nothing and something I was interested in myself. What would happen if I went further with this?
RK: What did you make in the old technical school?
RAW: In the beginning I made practical utensils, because they’re fairly easy. But I moved on pretty quickly. At first I began with tubular forms, with kind of Tajiri-like lines.
RK: Were you aware of that?
RAW: No, I knew nothing about art.
RK: It was only afterwards that you learnt about [Shinkichi George] Tajiri?
RAW: Yes, because people said as such. I still remember buying my first two art books, kinds of portfolios they were, by André Volten. Somebody had told me about him. Actually, he began in a shipyard, too. He started by welding H-beams, only to discover that you could buy them off the shelf. That was how I was working, too. When I saw his work, I felt an affinity. Only with his work I thought something like, “I reckon this could be explored in much greater depth.”
RK: In what sense? In what direction?
RAW: I felt it wasn’t complete, not thought-through enough. It hadn’t evolved enough.
RK: And then? You started making tubes?
RAW: No, I couldn’t go any further with that because I didn’t have the right machines. I only had welding gear. So I looked into working with a large factory where they could do everything. I went to them with some photos and said, “I want to make art and I need space and machines.” The owner was like, “What the fuck?” He’d never made art before, but he did have an affinity with it. He said, “I can free up 200 square metres for you, come and make your art. And if you sell any of it, we’ll share the take fifty-fifty.” It didn’t matter so much to him. I soon realised that if I wanted to go any further, I needed the right techniques. That’s very important. Mucking about in a studio is fun, and good for developing ideas, but it doesn’t get you very far. I hadn’t yet had the idea that I should be making large pieces, but I did want to refine what I was doing. I wanted to see how that high gloss worked reflectively.
RK: It was in those terms that you looked at the work of André Volten. It’s uniform, it’s all matt. There’s displacement in the image, yes, but what if you were to polish the left-hand-side but not the right? You looked at it very much from the perspective of the properties of the material?
RAW: When you buy stainless steel, the possibilities are limited. The material is round, square or flat. That’s it. Or you have to cast it. You have to think from that perspective: it’s not bronze, with which you can make organic forms. I discovered that I had no interest in the figurative, but that this material lent itself well to my ideas. And I think that stainless steel suits my personality very well.
RK: Could you say more about that?
RAW: Look, stainless steel is difficult to work. It’s hard, it’s robust, it’s cold and impassive. But on the other hand, it’s also great to work. It’s sensitive – everyone who sees my work wants to touch it – and it’s vulnerable to scratching. Just run your fingers over the polished, high-gloss surface and you make a scratch. I think that’s very much like me. From the outside, people think I’m hard – “that guy does it all, no problem” – but once they get to know me better, they find that I’m not like that at all, that I’m actually really vulnerable.
RK: That welding came about by chance. You came back from your world trip and you found a tutor who took you by the arm and showed you all the secrets and tricks of the trade. And you came to identify with that material. How does that feel now?
RAW: I still have it. People sometimes ask me, “Don’t you want to do something else for once?” But I never tire of stainless steel. I’m now busy adding other materials, and I’ve started casting stainless steel, but it has never yet occurred to me that I’m done as far as exploring the material is concerned.
RK: When I saw the scale model of Stepping Stones, I knew it must be by you. But if I’d been told it was sixty or seventy years old and by a Chinese artist, I would have believed that as well…
RAW: It’s funny you should say that. There were people who said, “You have to go to art school. If you want go further in what you’re doing, you have to train.” So I applied to an art school. I took some photos with me and had interviews with three tutors. I was only really keen to see the sculpture tutor – what did I care about painting? Anyway, she was the last one I got to speak to. A girl of about 25, younger than I was. I said, “I’m looking for the sculpture tutor.” “Yes,” she said, “that’s me. I’ve done the training and so now I’m a tutor.” That conversation went absolutely nowhere. In fact, I was done with the whole idea. But there was another sculpture tutor, an older man, about fifty. He came in and I showed him the photos. At that time, I’d just produced some works for Floriade 2002. He saw the photos and asked, “You made this?” I said, “Yes.” He said, “Listen, if you’d told me this was made by a man of eighty, I’d have believed you…” So I thought, “Enough said.” The funny thing is that two weeks later I received a letter telling me I’d been accepted. I never did anything about it, though. I never enrolled.
RK: Yes… And that’s OK?
RAW: It was certainly OK. Once you see how many artists end up slogging away for nothing, but can tell you everything about art movements.
RK: You’re probably never going to let go of that steel of yours, are you?
RAW: I don’t think so. Well, I don’t know, Ralph. It could be that I’ll be completely done with it next year.
RK: You do show me other things from time to time. But I’ve noticed that when you take a real step forward with steel, you’re always overjoyed. More so than when you’ve made a flat piece. Do you want people to look at your sculptures in a certain way? Do you have a message?
RAW: Size does matter! I think that over these eighteen years I’ve seen the light, in the sense that “this is what I want: to make really big work.”
RK: You want to make big work so that we… Well, what is that big work actually meant to do to me?
RAW: The work doesn’t have to do anything to you. I find it interesting to make it, but if I translate it to a place or what it’s supposed to do to someone, then I think that a large work acts as a good economic motor for its surroundings. Look at the Eiffel Tower, for example, the Statue of Liberty or Cloud Gate by Anish Kapoor. It gives a location an identity. As long as it’s done well, it fills the area with positive energy. I think that’s what my work does, too. I always look very closely at the place. It’s not about a building that could take a 50-metre-high statue. In China, when I say, “What I see before me is a sculpture of about 10 metres,” then the Chinese say to me, “It could be 20 metres, you know.” But big isn’t always better.
RK: So it’s very satisfying that the sculpture you’ve put up in Shanghai is 3.5 metres high?
RAW: Definitely, but there are enormous budgets. So if I were to say, “There has to be a 30-metre sculpture here”, then it would happen. But then I wouldn’t be taking myself seriously.
RK: But why did that sculpture have to be that size?
RAW: There are really beautiful avenues there, which come together in front of that beautiful building. Art and architecture should have perfect symbiosis. That was how I arrived at that size. The Chinese don’t worry about that. They just ask, “How much do I have to pay and when will we have it?” I give them an idea of what I want to make, but not with a scale model like in the Netherlands.
RK: And then it’s standing there, people are walking around it. Do they understand it?
RAW: Yes, they understand it 100 per cent.
RK: That’s really interesting. We worked intensively with [music festival] Lowlands when it came to the sculpture RAWSOME. That was a very exciting project. It was the second sculpture to be installed at Lowlands. When you make a sculpture that first has to function on a festival site where 50,000 people are listening to loud music and then in a tranquil sculpture garden that attracts just 50,000 people in a whole year, most of them looking primarily for calm and contemplation: then the sculpture has to satisfy quite different requirements. How do you look back on that particular collaboration?
RAW: It was super! You’re partly responsible for the fact that I made a sphere 4 metres in diameter. I really wanted art that would resonate with the public. It couldn’t be bigger than 4 metres because then it wouldn’t have fitted through the door here. The work immediately gained a platform. First at the festival, then in the museum garden at Het Nijenhuis [castle]. What I love about such commissions is that you spar with each other. Where are we heading? How do we install it?
RK: I was also very struck by how openly you communicated, complicated as the project was. I still remember us talking about pent-up energy and how you could make things really big on such a festival site. It was a choice: compete with the chimneys there, which I believe are 40 metres high, or opt for a very compressed thing that would sit there and exude pent-up energy. The result was RAWSOME, a magical work, and now a very important piece in the sculpture garden at Kasteel Het Nijenhuis. You were given a lot of freedom as an artist, as you were in Shanghai.
What I would like to talk about now, Ronald, is your commission for the MH17 monument. How did you do that? Why did you do that?
RAW: At the moment the disaster happened, I was in the studio in Shanghai. That morning my project manager said, “Something terrible’s happened – an aircraft has been shot down.” As the day progressed and I received more information, I thought, “I have to do something with this.” Not so much in the sense of a monument, but for myself. When I flew back from Shanghai to the Netherlands, before boarding the plane I thought, “It could happen to me, too.” In fact, to this day, it’s something I still have in the back of my mind when I fly, and I fly a lot. I suddenly felt really, really vulnerable. I hadn’t delved into the stories of the victims or the bereaved, but I wanted to make a place for the disaster for myself. There would have to be a sculpture.
RK: At that time, there was no talk yet of a national monument, but this was an event that you were confronted with so frequently – because you’re constantly in and out of planes, and have perhaps flown that route yourself – that you wanted to translate it into a work?
RAW: Yes, I wanted to give it a place for myself. I can imagine that an American would feel the same about 9/11. As an artist, you want to express that. A couple of weeks later, I was sitting with Peter Potman, the [Dutch] Consul-General in Shanghai, and the conversation came around to MH17. I said, quite casually, actually, “I’d like to do something with that.” A year and a half later I bumped into Peter Potman again and he said, “I have something for you. This is the email address of Thomas Schansman. A committee has been set up for the National Monument for the victims of flight MH17. Perhaps you should send this chap an email.” So I did, the very same day. “Dear Mr Schansman, my name is Ronald Westerhuis and I’ve heard about the National Monument. I would very much like to submit a proposal.” He wrote back: “I’ve looked at your website, it looks great, I’ll put it to the committee and you’ll hear from us.” A couple of weeks later he wrote again to say that I could indeed submit a proposal for the National Monument. In my head, I knew roughly what I wanted to make. The design had to go to the committee within two months and then it came to me. I thought, “National Monument… 60 per cent of the Dutch population has been affected by the disaster, directly or indirectly. That ranges from losing a son to a football teammate or a neighbour. My sculptures are about positive energy.” Until three weeks before the deadline, I think, when I said to my lads during Friday-afternoon drinks, “You know what it is with that MH17 thing… I’m not doing it. There’s nothing positive about it. I can’t do anything with it and nothing I come up with and sketch seems right.” I was thinking very much from the perspective of the material: stainless steel, polished to a high gloss. That same weekend I was walking on the patch of land behind my workplace and saw a rusty sheet of metal lying there. At that moment, I realised that I shouldn’t be thinking in terms of the material, I had to think, “What is a monument?” It didn’t matter what material I used. I first had to find out what a monument was, then see what material would suit it. So I researched three monuments. First, the [Dutch National] Monument on Dam Square in Amsterdam, which to me represents national unity and ceremonial. The second was the Holocaust Monument in Berlin, by Peter Eisenman. Even if you know nothing about the Holocaust, the abstraction of that memorial evokes a certain feeling. Two people can’t walk there side by side, you walk downwards and then upwards again. That’s what a monument should do, it should do something with your feelings. Number three was the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington DC, with the names of victims of the Vietnam War. As you walk past them, those names evoke recognition. From that moment, I started thinking differently. I thought, “Those elements have to be included.” I devised a sort of stage on which people could gather and hold ceremonies. And I thought up that rear wall… The abstraction, the scale, 16 metres by 4 metres: it represents the transfer of sorrow. And the sculpture in front with the names carved in it, that’s the element of recognition. My idea was captured in a short film, I had a scale model made and I sent them both in. Mine was one of fifty submissions. A month later, I received an invitation. I was in the final five and I had to give my presentation at a hotel in Hoevelaken. I was very pleased with what I’d achieved, but I wasn’t happy presenting it to bereaved relatives. Then I realised, “The only thing I have do is… What I am or do isn’t important at all. The only thing that counts is that this, in my opinion, is what a monument should be.” The first artist to make their presentation…
RK: You could hear each other’s stories?
RAW: We were all sat in the room. The first person had come up with a sort of steel butterfly with two children on it. The children stood for innocence. Number two was a bronze cast and had seven children catching a falling woman. The children stood for innocence. Then it was my turn. I said, “My name is Ronald Westerhuis and I would like tell you what I think is important in a monument.” I showed three slides of the three monuments and one slide of the sea of flowers at Schiphol Airport [immediately after the disaster], which was in fact also a monument. Then I played the film. I had ten to fifteen minutes to make the presentation, and after that there were fifteen minutes for questions. I wasn’t asked a single question, though. Then there was a break. An older woman came up to me with her daughter and said, “Mr Westerhuis, you’ve designed a beautiful monument and I’m very happy that this is the one.” I said, “Pardon? What do you mean?” “Well,” she said, “children aren’t innocent at all. My Maarten was always really badly bullied at school, and he told me that one day his name would be written on a wall. And now,” she continued, “you’ve designed that wall. But I’m saying nothing more about it. I wish you every success.” Then the woman left. She didn’t even wait for numbers four and five. I didn’t really take it in at the time. Anyway, number four was a man, an architect who had lost four members of his own family. He had a really good design and story. After that came number five. We were driving back to Zwolle and my assistant said, “Congratulations on the commission. Or don’t you believe that Maarten?” I said, “Huh, I don’t know what you mean.” “Well,” she said, “it’s very simple. That woman lost her son in that plane. And that son has come to his mother in a dream or some other way and said to her, ‘Don’t cry, my name will be engraved.’ She said it: ‘The job is yours’.” I burn incense every morning, and I’ve burnt it a few times now for Maarten. In fact, that was my first personal meeting with a family that had actually been bereaved. Before that, I’d spoken to none of the relatives except Thomas Schansman, who’d lost his son. It made a huge impact on me.
As it happened, on the Thursday morning of the press conference and announcement I had to install a sculpture at the district water board in Zwolle. Work goes on, so I went there to set up the sculpture. At a quarter to ten I was called by the chair of the MH17 committee. He began reeling off a whole story: “Mr Westerhuis, we’re pleased with all the artists, for having taken the time…” So I thought, “Just say it!” It seemed like it took him five or ten minutes, but finally he said, “…so we’re very happy that they have chosen your design, and unanimously.”
From then on, it was one long rollercoaster ride to produce the monument. There was a deadline to present something to the relatives. I felt very strongly that I had to open up my studio, that people had to be able to gain a feeling for what I was doing. There was a basic sketch, but I found it important to spar with a “client”. When I asked who on the committee could do that, I was told it was going to be Reg den Hartog – the architect whose design had been rejected. I thought, “This is going to be a tough one.” The man was bound to be embittered; of course he would be, he’d lost members of his family. What right did I have to make the monument, instead of him? He contacted me and we made an appointment at the studio. I was extremely nervous. At a certain point, we were in the office and walked over to the model. Then he said to me, “Mr Westerhuis, let’s make one thing crystal clear: I had the best design, but that no longer matters. The relatives have chosen your design. So let’s never mention mine again. Together, we’re going to make a fantastic monument.” From that emerged a really constructive relationship. I had that big wall, of course, representing sorrow, in response to which Reg said, “All well and good that sorrow, but there also has to be a future.” That’s where the hole in the wall came from. Jointly with the client, because that’s how I saw him, we completed the monument down to the finest details. And gained a fine friendship in the process.
At a certain point, the memorial stone started to be used. Once again, I found myself in a strange situation. It became public knowledge. It was on TV shows. In just two days, I received 4,200 emails.
RK: At Lowlands, you had a great deal of room for manoeuvre. But you approached the monument in a very different way. You looked at examples, and had innumerable other monuments you could draw inspiration from. The Arc de Triomphe, for example, where an eternal flame burns for an unknown soldier. How do you look back at the process of creating the National Monument for the victims of flight MH17?
RAW: It was unsettling. By the time it was finished, I was finished, too. I thought, “I’ll never surpass this.”
RK: I can understand that… And yet then you went on to do that sculpture in Shanghai. How did you feel then?
RAW: Immediately after the MH17 monument was completed in July 2017, I let everyone go because I thought, “What now?” I was left with just Raoul, who’s been here for ten years. The lads here understood. It had had such an impact on me that I had the feeling I could never, and would never want to, work in this studio again. I had to rediscover myself. “Perhaps I’ll give it up altogether,” I said. Everyone parted company on good terms. It took four, four-and-a-half months just to answer all my emails and then it was all over for me. I spent the next three months with Raoul, going back to the basics. I didn’t want anyone knocking at the door. At a certain point, though, the energy returned. And at that moment I was asked to go to Shanghai for that new client. That was a welcome turn of events.
RK: How does your future look now?
RAW: I’d love to get married, have five sons and sail the world in a yacht. But above all, to stay healthy.
RK: And are you ever going to produce that tempera painting, or will you be making stainless-steel sculptures until the end of time?
RAW: For myself, I’m up for some really big work. Stepping Stones is a good example. It’s not been commissioned – it’s a totally free work, but on that scale. The underlying idea is that, recalling when I used to look at André Volten and stand on his shoulder, I still think, “He ended up there, I’m pressing on from here. I look now at Frank Stella, Richard Serra, Anish Kapoor, perhaps a bit at Ron Arad. Certainly at Frank Stella: he’s old, but he’s still working. He has three sculptures made a month, purely for himself. The production costs alone are a million to a million-and-a-half for each piece. I was born in ’71 and I think that I’m now finally on the right track, artistically. I’ve started to expand my team again. And to think differently about creating my work: I’d be better off outsourcing things. Plus there’s the fact that I have a lot of investors behind me, who believe in what I do.
RK: I understand that Daniel Libeskind has been important for you?
RAW: Definitely. We created four huge sculptures together for the World Expo in Milan in 2015. That was an impressive project. Daniel also referred to Frank Stella – they’re contemporaries and friends. He said, “If I could live my life over again, I would become an artist.” I asked, “Why’s that?” He said, “As an architect, I’m always making things that the client wants. But when I see you… You just make what you want to make.”
RK: You have a really beautiful philosopher’s stone downstairs. A philosopher’s stone is formed by nature, it’s an object of meditation, but it doesn’t meet the definition of a work of art – namely, that it was made by human hands. At most, it’s an “objet trouvé.” You referred to all that briefly at the beginning of this interview: Chinese philosophy, the Chinese outlook on life, the spheres you’ve made there. You started out as a welder, you took up that stainless steel and made it your own. You’ve found your way amongst the great artists of this world. You know how to move people, how to find the right forms, how to place yourself at their service, as you did with the MH17 monument. Now you’re creating Stepping Stones for Museum de Fundatie, a work with a great autonomous presence. A stepping stone in your career, no less… You’re firmly on track and you know exactly what you want. Even in all your restlessness, you have a huge sense of purpose. Where does it go from here for Ronald Westerhuis?
RAW: I think that I’ve only just begun.