From 25 November – 9 January, Galerie Fons Welters in Amsterdam hosts ‘One tear at a time’ by Femmy Otten. Yes The Void publishes an interview by Charlotte Crevits.

One tear at a time” is the title of the exhibition. It’s like a spell, a life lesson on a tile that you hang at the entrance of a house. What was your inspiration?

It is literally about time, about the fragile balance between letting go and holding on to a moment, to time. The sentence is mainly about the reassurance of putting things into perspective. It will be fine, one tear at a time, it has something conjuring. With every new exhibition or new series of works I process a certain period, that could also be an interpretation. Usually, I read a lot of Emily Dickinson’s poetry (laughs), but this was the first time I actually came across a title spontaneously.

You decided to build your exhibition around one central work that was given a prominent place in the middle of the gallery space. Why that choice?

The work (Untitled 2020) forms the core of the exhibition. The small wooden sculpture in the very centre is a kind of contemporary fertility sculpture that I worked on for over seven months. In making this Venus figurine, I essentially just continue with an object, a symbol that returns in every culture throughout history. The same also applies to the Tree of Life, an image that goes back to the religious art of the Middle Ages, but is equally common in the Native American and Arab cultures. My sculpture is essentially about an incredibly underexposed, precarious theme of our time: the woman who just is. The work is at the same time strongly connected with my own life; you could simply consider all my works as self-portraits.

So your work is characterized by an autobiographical element. The preparation for the exhibition ran parallel to the pregnancy of your second daughter. In which way do you connect the personal to larger, social themes?

The experience of motherhood and giving birth itself gives me instinctually an incredible sense of connection with women throughout history and with my artistic practice as an artist. It’s a time in my life when my heart is overflowing with love, while the world is glowing with contradictions. The most euphonious response to injustice is to have faith, to put all the love you have out there. I like to put it out there because we are all out there, because the time between walking and crawling is so short. I indirectly put social taboos of our time, such as motherhood, gender, fear and sexuality on the table. No declamation, the intimacy in my art is my form of activism.

A number of new paintings are shown in the exhibition. Like your sculptural work, they are characterized by a contradiction that I would describe as an uneasy sense of sincerity and intimacy.

The Rainbow woman painting is an essential work in this presentation. The sensual almond shape suggests the feminine vagina and is surrounded by a lot of fabric, skirts and dresses that I painted from reality. The work has something sad and sober, but at the same time it is exuberant. This is about layering. It is as much about a celebration as it is about the finery and fatigue of all those different “layers” as a woman, as a human being in the complexity of our society.

Shame is an important compass for me in creating, I always have to go there. If I have doubts about putting a certain image on canvas, I just know that I have to do it. Craftsmanship is equally indispensable. I want my painting to be perfectly executed and to ultimately convey a certain “studied nonchalance”. When painting, I work like the Flemish Primitives. I apply the oil paint in transparent layers on a white painted background. The reflection of the light on the white creates an enormous depth effect that makes it seem as if the light “shines from within.” The technique contributes to a more intuitive, phenomenological viewing experience.

An important group of works that you create are sculptures in wood. Wood is of course a very pure, honest material in which you can literally see ánd feel the hand of the maker. Moreover, sculpting in wood is also a very “slow” and time-consuming process that to date is mainly associated with craft and technique, rather than art. Why your choice for this specific material?

It is such a living material, it literally houses time. The time I spend on a work lets the idea simmer. I am also absolutely obsessed with plasticity and sculptures. Nowhere better to create that experience of form than in wood, right? I can get into a wonderful daze by chopping wood, it is such an incredibly beautiful process. In the beginning I made very ephemeral work, they were sculptures from plaster that I completely destroyed afterwards. Out of the need to make the image more concrete, my reliefs were later made from a wooden core covered with plaster. The fascination for the tension between the volatility of the plaster and the durability of the wood has developed further and further.

Just as important as the sculpture itself is the negative space or residual space that arises around it. I often accentuate that space by not placing the sculpture on a plinth, but positioning it on the wall as I did with the foot sculpture. The air between the toes and the wall is an essential part of the sculpture, as is the space between the sculpture and the viewer. Sculptures have that special capacity to make you aware of your own body and position in space. A painting has that quality much less and rather carries the illusion within itself.

Many of the works have an immense sensual quality. You zoom in on the sensory aspects of the body such as an ear, hands, a nose or mouth. Naked hybrid figures, swaying between man and woman, are also no stranger to you. Can we call you a feminist artist? 

I definitely feel like a feminist artist because I think there is still a lot of work to be done. In my artistic practice, however, this is never a goal in itself. My work speaks about inclusivity and the fluidity of an identity, be it a woman or a man. These thoughts actually go against the “identity politics” that is triumphing today, both within and outside the arts sector. Today as a human being you are almost reduced to where you come from, your geographical origin.
In my work I am looking for fundamental love that, despite everything, can never be rejected by anyone. The connection with each other, the indestructible desire to love, the centuries-long, unstoppable journey in which we participate and which images return tirelessly. In essence I try to express this concentrated humanity.

Conversation between Femmy Otten and Charlotte Crevits