Mark Luyten was born and raised in Antwerp, the main metropolis in northern Belgium. The city is densely and vertically built, its elaborate architecture evidence of centuries of accumulated trade wealth. The surrounding landscape is low and wet, the local weather often gray. This strongly flavored visual environment has been important to Luyten’s work, as has the Belgian obsession with language. The country has two official tongues (Flemish and French) and its citizens are schooled in those and two others (German and English). In Luyten’s world, language is an ever-present signifier that can indicate one’s religious, political, social, geographic, and even familial affiliations.
The relationship between man and nature, as mediated by the artificial construct of language, has been the focus of Luyten’s work, which often takes the form of installations combining video, sculpture, text, and photographs. He likes to site his work in the interstitial spaces between indoors and out—balconies, porches, windows—or in landscape simulacra such as greenhouses, parks, and gardens. In 1990, he made a piece in the Hotel Furkablick, which sits at the Furka Pass high in the Swiss Alps (the hotel’s name means “view of the Furka”). It consisted of phrases and words (“dream,” “boredom,” “storm,” “music”) rubber-stamped on windows throughout the building. As the artist has noted, windows serve as both access and barrier to the landscape, and here the texts function in the same way, both describing the view and suggesting that it will eventually be reduced to an abstraction in our memories. Later projects have been more complex, involving multiple sites and mediums, but each is more or less a lament on the difficulty of satisfying the desire for profound contact with nature. He has written, “Seeing is always linked with what has been seen, with descriptions, conventions, stories, memories, desires, etc. A landscape is always a landscape of words… . [Language] creates a distance between the subject and the object.”1
In late 1993, Luyten was commissioned by the Walker Art Center to produce a series of installations in the museum building and the adjacent Minneapolis Sculpture Garden. He devised a working process in which he traveled from Antwerp four times a year—at each solstice and equinox—to create a new work somewhere on the site. Each installation remained in place until he returned to make something else. This evolving constellation of notations, ideas, and objects rarely appeared in the exhibition galleries proper, instead turning up unexpectedly in hallways, offices, stairwells, skylights, and other odd corners of the building, as well as in the Garden’s conservatory and plazas and along the walkways. Between visits, Luyten corresponded with museum staff, who carried out instructions and made decisions as necessary; this working process became an important aspect of the final work, which was completed in early 1996. Its sixty-four components—videotapes, photographs, objects, drawings, letters, and films—were acquired for the Walker’s collection under the umbrella title On a Balcony.
For all its procedural complexity, On a Balcony was ultimately as simple and richly varied as everyday life. Luyten traveled, packing his art in a suitcase and putting it in place when he arrived. He cheerfully incorporated the uncontrollable and accidental into his plans (objects were stolen, luggage was lost, weather turned sour). He invited the collaboration of the Walker’s staff, providing a Super 8 camera for them to make films of trees in the Garden, or asking them to install his objects in their offices. He walked miles of the city’s streets, then packed clay from a deposit in Collegeville, Minnesota, into his worn-out leather shoes (which promptly effloresced with a garden of mold). He brought things from home—shells from the North Sea, charcoal rubbings of his studio floor, videotapes of the view from his window—and left them in out-of-the-way spots throughout the building. He made a solo road trip into Minnesota’s northernmost reaches, videotaping the view from inside his car. He mined the Walker’s film collection for casual evening screenings in the Garden. And from the voluminous correspondence that accumulated over the course of the project, he made a simple, sculptural stack and displayed it in a vitrine—an acknowledgment that the project was based, in the end, on relationships among people.
All of this added up to an extended meditation on the specific yet paradoxically generic nature of concepts such as home, museum, and garden. In the book that documents the project, Luyten ended with an anecdote and a reflection that suggests one is never far from home: “During my last visit [Walker Director Kathy Halbreich] gave me a snowdome of the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden as a gift for my son. So it was around the corner. Everywhere. Portable.”2