Juan Pablo Plazas (°1987, Bogotà, Colombia)

Titel: Wat Later

Jaartal: 2021

Materiaal: polyurethaan, plasticrete, hout, glas, lakverf

80 x 145 x 160 cm
144 x 66 x 7 cm

Foto © 2021 – Jean Cosyn

Juan Pablo Plazas beschouwt zichzelf niet zomaar als kunstenaar, maar ook als een antropoloog. Zijn artistieke praktijk neemt de vorm aan van een toevallige etnografie waarbij hij gebruiksvoorwerpen verzamelt, uit hun context haalt en assembleert tot eigenaardige kunstobjecten. In deze samenstellingen worden de gebruiksvoorwerpen blootgesteld aan alternatieve connotaties en bijkomende betekenislagen. Nieuwsgierig tast Plazas de mogelijkheden van het objet trouvée af en tracht hij de grenzen van dit kunstbegrip te verleggen. De kunstenaar is steeds op zoek naar onverwachte elementen in het schijnbaar vanzelfsprekende, naar de flagrante zekerheid van het onbegrepene en naar de foute antwoorden op de vragen die niemand ooit stelt. Toevalligheden vormen steeds de rode draad in zijn projecten, alsof ze het enige bewijs vormen dat er een constante bestaat die de wereld samenhoudt.

Het idee voor het project Wat Later ontstond tijdens het eerste plaatsbezoek van de kunstenaar aan de VUB-campus. Hij was gefascineerd door de omgevingsaanleg met zowel besloten, intieme plekken als open, publieke ruimtes, die gecreëerd zijn door de weldoordachte situering van wandelpaden en aanplanting. De campus is volgens Plazas een mooi voorbeeld van een landschapsontwerp in de Engelse stijl, waarbij er een schijnbaar natuurlijke omgeving wordt aangelegd zonder het toedoen van de menselijke hand te onthullen. Hoewel er op de campus verschillende valse heuvels te vinden zijn, viel het de kunstenaar op dat er hier geen enkel gebruik gemaakt werd van valse rotsen om het landschap te ensceneren. Het werd zijn doel om de universiteitscampus van haar eerste namaakrots te voorzien. Het project groeide uit tot een gedachte-experiment over het verleden en de toekomst van landschapsaanleg.

De vormgeving van het rotsblok dat onderdeel is van de sculptuur Wat Later baseerde Plazas op de illustraties die hij zag in een Jommeke-strip. In dit visuele verhaal verdwaalde de papegaai van Flipke in een valstrik die de vorm van een rotsformatie aannam. Het meest van al was de kunstenaar gefascineerd door de manier waarop het stripverhaal begon, namelijk met de tekst “Wat later”. De openluchtsculptuur vormt een cartoonesk tafereel dat pretendeert een blik te bieden op de nabije toekomst.

In een brief lichtte de kunstenaar het idee voor het project Wat Later gedetailleerd toe:


                                                                                                                         Pilar le 02/05/2021

Dear Friend,

Please dive with me into the stream of thoughts that gave shape to this project. Let me guide you through a series of experiences that shaped not only the end result of it, but a whole process guided by mere curiosity and simple coincidences. The last time we saw each other I told you that this project was about Jommeke, the Flemish comic book character, about fake stones, also about the son of the first ever prime minister of England, and how present and future times are constantly being shaped and reshaped. Although I never told you what all of this elements have to do with the VUB.

After Nina, Bart and me got invited to make a sculpture for an outdoor project in the VUB, Bart and I decided to go for a walk around the campus, we wanted to check out the site and fantasise about what to do for it. Nina couldn’t come because she was in Ghent that day. Me, I couldn’t help but to notice that the campus has a very interesting design of sinuous paths and gardens of different sizes of trees that create enclosed and open points of view. Along the paths it’s possible to find moments of solitude and privacy, while other spaces seem to be designed with the intention of bringing large groups of people together. It has also micro hills here and there that makes the tour even more dynamic and amusing. I said to myself: “it seems that a conscious set of decisions has been taken in terms of landscaping when this campus was built, so the experience of studying and living here can be pleasant and inspiring”. I also wondered if in the future these kind of decisions would still find a place or if institutional security regulations and budget efficiency management would favour a more rigid looking spatial design of educational spaces.

We walked around and checked some of the locations where the plinths for our sculptures would be. We discussed which ones would be ideal for the vague ideas we had in mind. I have to say that I found it hard to ignore that the logo from the company that made the plinths was glued on it. It was a small figure made of thick flat shiny green plastic, a logo like composition between a letter and a plant. I learned that day that this company is responsible for most of the gardening being made on the campus and probably for taking care of the small hills in front of the building of Pilar where our works will be exhibited. The same company is also responsible for covering the tram tracks with grass in front of the building where we live. The tracks looked nicely green and trimmed in the beginning but due to a dry summer it turned to shades of yellow. Nowadays, thanks to a rainy winter the tram tracks are very green again.

On our way out of the campus I saw a row of offices made inside containers as a temporary solution for workspaces while a building was renovated. There was a sentence written across the containers that stayed in my mind for some days, it was something like: “VUB: 50 years with our eye on the future”. Maybe it was the strange structure of the sentence, or the boldness of the statement but I couldn’t stop repeating it in silence. In my mind this sentence created a very strange and fascinating image: the VUB as a thinking head that has one eye on the future. I loved the image of a university being a kind of Cyclops that has an eye somewhere in the future and it’s body in the present. I have never come across an idea like this before, a body that extends in time instead of extending in space. It sounded like the description of a monster coming out of a gothic novel or a delirium from a conference of French postmodern philosophy. I found it also interesting that a university would promote itself in the same way as a fortune teller with the skills of looking at the future. Although I’m aware that scientists are most of the time busy with the creation of probabilistic models to anticipate what could be the outcome of an action or a situation. What experts in either obscure and clear sciences would have then in common is the ability to anticipate scenarios in a more accurate way than others. In fact there was a time when spirituality and science walked side by side but that's more rare these days.

I have to confess that I don’t know much landscaping or gardening. In fact I have only read a couple of books about landscaping and gardening in my life. One of them, titled On Modern Gardening by Horace (first published in 1771), explained that it’s possible to understand gardening (and somehow landscaping) through the styles of two different countries: England and France. On one hand, The English style of landscaping would be interested in creating the illusion of an untouched, “natural" and “free and wild” scenery where the human hand couldn’t be recognised at first. This style can be identified by fake hills, fake caves and fake ruins that make it all seem just as if it was there forever. The French style, on the other hand, would strive for a style were the virtuous and tempered hand of the gardener would dominate nature and this could be clearly seen and easy to point at. The best example of the French style would be the gardens of Versailles with it’s geometrical shaped parterres, trees and rigidly defined strolls. The interest of Horace with his book was to convince people that the English style of gardening should be the future as opposed to the French style which he considered passé. While researching on the internet I found out that Horace is also very well known for other very curious achievements. He wrote and self published the first gothic novel The Castle of Otranto which he described at first as the translation of an ancient manuscript only to reveal his authorship a few years later. He also built his own residency, Strawberry Hill, by mixing and reviving gothic styles from medieval times in order to make it look ancient and timeless. By coincidence, I found that Horace is known for being the first person to coin the word Serendipity. He mentioned that term in a letter to another man named Horace as the ‘faculty of making happy and unexpected discoveries by accident’ . It’s said that he was inspired by the book “The Three Princes of Serendip” which describes the adventures these princesses in search of a missing camel in what is known now as Sri Lanka.

From what I learned about Horace it seems indeed that he was visionary about what gardening and landscaping would become in the future, because both styles of gardening he describes, The French and the English can be found all around Europe up until today. In Brussels we can find clear examples of French Style landscaping and gardening in places like Botanique or the Abbaye de la Cambre. Not so far from there, in the Bois de la Cambre we can see a clear influence of the English style with it’s fake rocks and fake branch shaped bridge barriers. I have to admit I’m more interested these days in thinking about the English style of gardening and it’s influence in how our contemporary world looks like. I’m fascinated by the idea of how the illusion of what seems “natural”, “untouched”, “ancient” can be produced, politicised and taken for granted. How elements like fake stones made their way up until now into places like amusement parks, which are an ode to artificiality, is something that keeps me thinking these days.

With all these elements in mind I feel entitled to state that the style of landscaping of the campus of the VUB follows more this paths of organic “naturalness” of the English style than of the rigid rational French style. There is just one element I’m missing from the campus and that is fake stones or human planned placed stones. This seems a bit strange since huge stones are such a recurrent element of defining space circulation and access nowadays even in urban spaces. For me stones are the anchor point of any attempt to create a feeling of produced “naturalness”. The only elements of landscaping that would resemble fake stones in the campus are actually the square concrete plinths were our sculptures would rest sometime soon. They are about half a square meter cube, a size that feels like harmonious looking half size stone in a landscape, they are organised organically in clusters near trees and hills. Most of all, the plinths are designed and produced by a landscaping company.

A crazy idea just came to my mind, what if the gardening company that made the plinths is actually producing the future of landscaping and gardening through these square looking stones. Their version of the future could finally bring together the “naturality” of the English style and the rigidness and rationality of French style: one single style that is organically and playfully dispersed in the landscape as rocks do but also geometric, hard and branded. Perhaps this company is being really visionary and, since the VUB has one eye on the future, they decided to go hand in hand in defining the future of what landscaping would look like.

Ok, let’s say these plinths are just exactly how stones would look like in 100 years on, but then what? What would happen in-between now and that time, I do want to know what the near future of landscaping design stones would look like before they become concrete squares. I decided to give it a try and propose the fake stone of the near future. A new kind of near future stone will be my contribution to the outdoor sculpture project at the VUB. Since we are living in a time of extreme uncertainty, I think that near future speculation is enough pressure to take already. What would a near future stone look like? What would be it’s shape? How big or small would it be? What would be it’s more distinctive features? How different would it be from the other ones that have already being made? Would it be more fake or more “real”? Where would I find inspiration for making this stone?

When I told Andres about my project he told me about a movie that Pierre made where he is looking for a fake stone that Ed made years ago. The movie is called “Where is Rocky II”. The problem for me is that Ed made this stone exactly like the ones you find in the Mojave desert in the U.S.A. so no one could ever find it. He simply build it and dropped it there, among the other real stones. It all seemed like an extremely poetic and selfish act at the same time. I looked around for the film that Pierre made about the stone, without any luck. Suddenly I remembered that Jan once screened it in Bozar. I wrote Jan asking if he could give me a sign of how or where to see this movie. In response I got a very kind e-mail from Emilie who was interested in my interest on the movie and wanted to know more about the text that I’m writing. I answered to her email describing my interests and intentions with the movie but unfortunately I didn’t get any further response from Emilie. I seriously started to loose hope on finding the movie. Moreover when Pieter, who used to assist Pierre, told me that he used to have the film in a hard drive, but the hard drive mysteriously broke down some weeks ago. Luckily as I told to Marc last week about my quest to find “where is Rocky II” he said that he could find it easily. I could not believe what I was hearing: “do you really know where ‘where is Rocky II? ́ is?” I asked. He didn’t want to reveal his sources or methods to me, but as he promised he sent me an email days after with a link where I could see the movie. The shady nature of his move seemed to anticipate the content of the movie. The whole movie was written as a police detective thriller where even the legal nature of the artistic gesture of Ed was questioned. Why did Ed wanted to hide a stone so badly? And why did he want a fake stone to look so real? At the end of the movie the stone is never found and Pierre makes it look as if it doesn’t matter anyway.

Right now, the fake stone that I was doing for the VUB is totally done. For making it I invited my friend and neighbour Sarah to work on it together. I asked her because she is very talented and has a lot of experience working in amusement park decorations. She is responsible for some of the decorations of the Italian restaurant of the Jommeke amusement park. It was really fun to work with her and I could not imagine the boredom that would be to have done this alone. We shared a lot of conversations but she always refused to share a cup of coffee: your coffee is too bitter, she said. I really love the result of our months of hard work: our stone is definitely rock hard but it doesn’t resemble a stone all the way. It kind of looks like a stone that you can predict it’s fakeness from far. The stone we made is honest in it’s nature but dubious in it’s intentions. It’s a fake stone pretending to be the near future of artificial “natural looking” gardening.

As a sign of what this stone is about there is a sign next to it that says “Wat Later”. Bart told me that in Dutch this could be translated as somewhere in the near future. The assemble of both stone and sign creates a scene that is supposed to look like a window to the near future. I hope other people feel it and see it this way too. It also looks a lot like the aesthetics of comic books but that’s simply because I borrowed the sentence “Wat Later” from a Jommeke comic book. Why Jommeke? I will tell you about it later, I promise. This sign has been painted by François who is a very talented sign painter. He is devoted to the job of hand painting all kinds of different shaped letters in his studio and in businesses that hire him. I saw his work on social media and wrote him asking to reproduce the comic book sign but in a glass cut in the size of a wooden sign. He was very fast and generous with it and made it look exactly as I expected. I think since then he got into painting on small size glass.

The days of exhibiting this long due work are coming and so a lot of communication needs to happen. That’s how I recently met Bjorne who is in charge of a fraction of that whole strategy. We got into a nice conversation together with Maarten during the opening of the last exhibition at Pilar. She told us that there is finally now a new stone that makes part of the landscaping of the VUB. This new stone on campus is a real stone that has been artificially placed as a way to refurnish the surroundings of a monument that commemorates the tragic events occurred in Tiananmen Square in China in 1989. She also found it very curious that suddenly this monument receives such attention in the admits of the difficult political climate we are living in. I followed her advise and payed a visit to the monument. I have to admit that even though I didn’t know that much about the particularities of the tragic events in Tiananmen, I was glad that somehow the university payed more attention to it and gave it some care. It is true that now the stone we made with Sarah was not going to be the first stone in the Campus of the VUB, but I was happy to see that at least it won’t be alone.

Be sure not to miss the other sculptures that Bart and Nina made for this project. I think they look great and somehow I feel that the fake stone is deeply connected to what they both did.
I hope they feel the same way.

Have a good day,

Juan Pablo Plazas.


Dit kunstwerk maakt tijdelijk deel uit van het Humanistisch Sculpturenpark van de Vrije Universiteit Brussel. Het symboliseert de waarden en filosofie van de universiteit of stelt ze in vraag. De cluster waartoe deze sculptuur behoort, werd gecreëerd in Barak Lili M, de residentie-ateliers van Pilar op de site van See U.