The beauty of ingenuity
Artist statement Su Tomesen i.c.w. Esmee Postma
In the videos, installations, interventions, social sculptures and photography by artist Su Tomesen (NL, 1970), public space provides her working ground. Travelling, observing and in dialogue with her surroundings, she displays a taste for the human ability to creatively take control of the urban environment. Her oeuvre reads like a visual plea for an organic world in which life develops freely, and at the same time comments on the over-regulated West. With a background as a cultural historian and television director, Su Tomesen completed her Master of Fine Arts at the Sandberg Institute in 2005. Living in Amsterdam, with Yogyakarta as her second base since 2011, the rest of the world is Tomesen’s third home. Artist-in-residencies led to various destinations such as Amman, Belgrade, Johannesburg, Naples, Medellín, Tirana and Yogyakarta, and resulted in long-term projects and repeated visits.
Travelling is essential to the development of Tomesen’s artistic practice. Elsewhere, she encounters new, strange or seemingly lost situations, and people who confront her and lead to new thoughts and new work. In the research phase, equipped with cameras and a notebook, she sets off with an inquiring mind, healthy intuition and a committed attitude. She quickly learns the basics of a foreign language, easily establishes liaisons with people and informs herself about local phenomena and pressing issues. By working patiently once filming, wondrous scenes reveal themselves in front of her camera. During the creative process, she allows the unpredictability of the street to be an active element. In recent years, Tomesen has concentrated on the inventive strategies of the micro-entrepreneurs who determine the streetscape in most parts of the world.
Tomesen feels akin to the – out of economic necessity – inventive and improvising street vendors and sole proprietors. She loves their stalls, shops and stacks, and the mentality to patch things up or reuse them rather than throw them away. As an artist and independent entrepreneur, ‘making something out of nothing’ is part of her DNA. Despite the differences in privilege, she searches for similarities and common ground with the people who cross her path. As an artist, she builds bridges out of interest – the Latin word ‘inter-esse’ literally means ‘standing between’ – in the people she meets. Her work operates on the edge of art and life, and encounters and collaborations often lead to lasting relationships.
She translated the subject of the micro-economy into a growing series of videos, installations, interventions and photographs, culminating in the four-channel video installation Street Vendors (2018-2020). Central to this work is the lively informal economy in Medellín, Tirana, Johannesburg and Yogyakarta, where street vendors, with great inventiveness and resilience, manage to survive day after day, and appropriate public space. The thriftiness and sustainability that characterise many of the trades in the films show the value of waste and the beauty of ingenuity. In her video work, Tomesen is a ‘fly on the wall’. The dialogue takes place beforehand with her film characters and afterwards with the spectators.
The installations and interventions take a different approach: they come to life in dialogue with the public. A good example is the mobile installation Toko (2014-2018). In this work, the artist assumes the role of street seller herself with an assemblage of plastic utensils, carefully arranged on a Dutch bicycle after Indonesian example. Here, no distant shores, but various Dutch cities form the stage for a myriad of conversational topics. For some, the installation evokes wonder, for others recognition. The work is simultaneously a cheerful indictment of the omnipresence of plastic and a celebration of the creative use of that which is simply available.
Tomesen’s multifaceted oeuvre creates a place for resonance with the world. For example, during the festival Into The Great Wide Open on Vlieland she presented Winkel (2016-2018): a striking resemblance to small businesses that keep springing up in Syria after bombardments. In this social sculpture, nothing was for sale. It meant that the contact between the two Syrian migrants manning the shop and the festival-goers was not limited to an economic transaction, but also involved an exchange of ideas. The Syrians made another appearance when the work was exhibited again two years later. Bringing together these ostensibly incompatible worlds is an important motive for Tomesen. By reframing elements and situations and thus lifting them out of their surroundings into a new context, the familiar takes on an estranging character and generates a moment of confusion that leaves its mark. Her videos and photographs operate on the border of visual art and documentary.
With her ‘conversation pieces’, the artist raises questions about the organisation of our living environment. She deliberately focuses on the ‘have-nots’: those who are forced to rely on their own resourcefulness to be self-reliant. She draws parallels between the far corners of the world in search of that universal power. Optimism about the adaptability of mankind in an ever-changing world is the recurrent theme of Tomesen’s work, but it also contains an appeal to take care of the preservation of this organic relationship with public space. Subtly, she presents the Western viewer with a different reality. One where time is circular and each day repeats itself like an endless loop, and where what is available is used creatively and the economy is given space to organically form itself in the rhythmic cadence of life.
Her latest research, too, is characterised by a sharp eye for the remarkable in the ordinary. Since the end of 2020, Tomesen has been working on a new large-scale, long-term project. This time, she zoomed in on the rhythmic sounds of street vendors in Yogyakarta. These sounds form the ingredients for new musical compositions, loosely based on the structure of Javanese gamelan music. This research will eventually result in a new video installation.
Since 2017, Su Tomesen’s art practice has been structurally supported by the Mondriaan Fund’s Stipendium Program for Established Artists.
Translated from Dutch into English by Daphne de Sonneville