Ellen Fernhout




































 Ellen Fernhout


















 Ellen Fernhout







not a single moment in life that we can have again.

On September 1958, I received a surprising birthday gift from my mother. It was a notebook in which to collect poems. Nothing special in those days and for that age group. What was special was what she had written on the first page. I don't think she realised how special it was. Instead of an obligatory poem about roses or puppies, she had opened the great book of wisdom.

She wanted to share something that I could carry with me for life, and chose three quotes that she felt I should take to heart: 'our first duty in all we do, is to pay attention' and 'there is nothing worse than laziness and tardiness'.  The messages weren't pleasant, but they were crystal clear. But it was the third one that hit me hardest: 'There isn't a single moment in life, that we can have again'. That was a terrifying eyeopener. I had been alive for about 252-and-a-half million seconds. Except, I didn't know that at the time.




I have only known this for a few days, since I saw Paul Combrink's digital clock that so explicitly places this exhibition in perspective of how life devours time. That clock shows Combrink's age to the hundredth of a second. The number of moments that have passed is growing at breakneck speed.  

Anyway, I had been alive  for about 252-and-a-half million seconds and not once during one of those seconds had I realised that it would pass.  Realising that this was in fact what happens, hit me like a bomb. And it couldn't be undone. Before that time, time did not exist.  Afterwards, it couldn't be forgotten. Vasalis puts it into the following words in her poem 'Time'[1]:


How could I not have known before,
not seen it in earlier days?
How will I ever forget


Later, I discovered another quote. Every day when I rode my bike to school, I would pass a sundial, high on the wall of the technical school. Underneath, the ominous words: 'praetereunt et imputantur'.  They pass and are accounted for. Combrink's clock does not need that caption. You can't actually read that clock, by the way. The number is so large and changes so quickly, that it's impossible to read. It's the ultimate embodiment of that latin text: 'they pass and are accounted for.'


This self-portrait was not made with a mirror, but with a camera


This exhibition is called 'self-portrait'. At first glance, the name isn't obvious. Because what is you see is mostly very abstract: canvasses and photos and many numerical references to Combrink's age and time in general. But you won't see anything that refers to his physical appearance.

A self-portrait most often refers to a representation of what the artist sees when they look in the mirror. This self-portrait was not made with a mirror, but with a camera. Every day, Paul takes a photo at the same time, wherever he might happen to be, a picture of what happens to be on his retina at that moment. That is physically impossible, of course, he can't actually go through his pupils with his camera to capture what is on his retina, or build a camera into his retina. But he gets as close as possible and manages to avoid even the smallest suggestion that it's staged.

You wouldn't choose to take a photo out in the drizzle of cars out the front of Aldi in Scheveningen, with the depressing shop window of 'Hout van Wout' in the background. And one wouldn't create a still life of a stack of old papers with a washing-up bowl on top. It's what has been captured in that moment during one single glance. It is literally that one moment in life that he's been given, that he can never have again.



Every 'daily canvas', every 'time landscape' is the story about a story about the story of a moment


In the room above, the Albert Vogel Room, there are 'time landscapes' and 'daily canvasses'. Underneath layers of paint are photos.  Combrink takes on the role of Father Time, and does what he does with those moments. He turns them into memories that grow with us like poems, often leaving no trace at all of the original moment. When you return twenty years later, it seems that the cute little town square in front of a church in a French village never even existed. And you can imagine what happens to those coincidental moments, one of those moments like out the front of Aldi on a rainy morning. What of that moment really remains?

 Every 'daily canvas', every 'time landscape' is the story about a story about a story, etcetera, of a moment, an anecdote. In different compositions, those stories make up life, which can be told in many different ways: in the towers of future expectations, in the rooms of imagination, in series about tone, about colour, about numbers. Vague notions of the moments they were created shine through the layers of paint.


The intriguing thing is this: Through his artificial intervention, Combrink deprives himself of the possibility to absorb that dreary moment at Aldi into other experiences and memories. After all, it is recorded and dated. Until recently, he hid them on his canvasses. And now these photos are on display for all to see. An immense number shows Paul's age in seconds at the moment the photo was taken. It's an attempt to capture seeing those moments that will never return, to hold on to them and give them meaning in time, or in life itself.

 But he puts that meaning into perspective through the much larger numbers that are next to it. They indicate the same moment in time, but according to the Gregorian, the Armenian and the Chinese calendars.  With this clever tactic, he shifts the perspective from our own lifetime to eternity and from that perspective, our entire lives are just moments that happen in the blink of an eye.


'I dreamed that I was living slowly'


Written on that wall is the line: 'I dreamed that I was living slowly'. It is the first line of the poem 'Time' by Vasalis. Just like Combrink, Vasalis tried to imagine what it would be like to look at time the way we experience it from the perspective of eternity.  To do that, you have to try to imagine being a creature that's immortal. But an immortal creature doesn't really exist. So then perhaps, a stone? Rocks are associated with being ancient. And rocks have an 'age' in our primitive experience. And imagine that the experience of life would be the same length for everyone, we'd have to live for about 80 years. That's really short, if you compare it to a stone that would take millions of years. In that sense it lives very slowly, and experiences the most. For that almost unnecessarily slow-living rock, a day happens in a flash, a year in the blink of an eye.


I dreamed that I was living slowly

slower than the oldest stone

It was fearful, around me everything

I had known as still, shot up and shook

I saw the urge with which the trees

singing with hoarse and halting sound

were writing upward, out of the ground

the seasons flying, changing hue

and fading fast as rainbows do

I saw the tremor of the sea

its welling up, its quick retreat

like swallowing of a giant throat

And night and day of brief duration

flare and die, a flickering conflagration

- The eloquence, the despairing will

in the gestures of the very things

that use to look so rigid, still,

their breathless, their bitter fight...

How could I have known, not seen

it all before in earlier days?

How am I ever to forget?*

Dreaming that you're living slowly is quite an adequate way to experience this exhibition


Dreaming that you're living slowly is quite an adequate way to experience this exhibition. With its changing perspective between looking at the moment, looking at life, and looking at eternity and back again. It's an alienating experience. You can just let it wash over you, and you can ponder it and let it drive you crazy. And it is wonderful to see how so many objectifying elements brought together create an absolutely authentic self-portrait.



  Ellen Fernhout


[1] M. Vasalis, From Parkland and Deserts (parken en woestijnen, 1940). Translated bij James Brockway in consultation with the pot. Published by van Oorschot 1940