The photograph reproduced here shows a wooden stretcher frame. It is not just any object: once it was mounted with a painting by the French artist Fernand Léger. In 1977, Henk Peeters bought it in Paris during a manifestation in favour of Amnesty International. It was apparently a work by Daniel Spoerri, a so-called objet trouvé.
Peeters asked for an authorisation from the artist. Spoerri answered that the wooden stretcher frame had indeed been used for a painting by Léger. It wasn’t a work of art: it was both a reliquary and a relic. It was not the answer Peeters had hoped for.
Onze Lieve Vrouwe van Koningshoeven (Our Dear Lady of Koningshoeven) is a Cistercian abbey near Tilburg, in the southern part of the Netherlands. The Flemish expressionist Albert Servaes (1883-1966) once kept an easel and painting materials, like a palette and brushes, there and maybe these are still around. In the early nineteen fifties, the abbey’s corridors were adorned with the artist’s Stations from the Cross, dating back to 1919. Every now and then Servaes would pay a visit to the abbey to have another look at them. He would also stay for longer periods of time to paint in peace.
From my own experience I knew that the abbey was a really quiet place. At the age of about twelve I spent a whole week there. It was my father’s idea because I wasn’t a very regular churchgoer. He was convinced that a week with the monks would do me a lot of good. I didn’t really mind. As the eldest of ten children I took care of the daily shopping, did all the washing up and had to clean up my own stuff as well (”the gnomes will not do it”). A week in the abbey felt like a holiday!
One of the monks became quite fond of me and I just knew that I wasn’t cut out for monastic life. He told me that the abbey hosted several relics. In a religious context this word usually describes, to put it bluntly, body parts of saints. After they had passed away, parts of their bodies would be divided over several churches and abbeys in Europe: once there was a lively trade in such pieces. These relics are usually kept in richly decorated reliquaries, often designed in a shape that reflects the nature of its contents.
Personal items that had played a major role in the life of a saint were also worshipped. One of the best known is the (controversial) Shroud of Turin. In general, there is a lot of doubt about the authenticity of relics. In the dining hall of the abbey I remember hearing a story about the holy cross. One of the guests said that worldwide so many splinters are revered that combined together these would amount to several crosses.
Once the Trappist monk understood that I was interested in art, he wanted to give me Servaes’s palette. The abbot intervened just in time. Upon leaving the abbey, the monk managed to hand over to me a signed photographic portrait of Pope Pius X, a gift I incorporated into a Sinterklaas surprise object a couple of years later.
Still, I didn’t manage to escape Roman Catholic life and its veneration of relics completely unscathed. My art collection contains a great many relics, like pieces of a piano smashed by Ben Patterson, Annie Sprinkle’s red performance bra and Matthew Barney’s stylishly adorned dildo. I found my soulmate in the Italian publisher Francesco Conz, owner of a large ‘fetish collection’. In a big warehouse on the outskirts of Verona he had stored typewriters, clothing, furniture and even cars. (”John Cage once sat in this Volkswagen Beetle”.) Francesco Conz put it this way: Artists are the New Saints.
In 2005, I bought the ‘wooden Léger stretcher frame’ from Henk Peeters. I also got the correspondence with Spoerri. I understood that the object should not be considered as an autonomous work of art. Spoerri confirmed it in a letter. It was only a found item, a ‘Fundstück’ in German. ‘So sollte es auch bleiben’, he wrote. (It also should remain that way).