Lode Laperre


My hands guide my mind's journey

interview with Lode Laperre for Hautlesmains


“Sorry, can we go back to what you’ve just said?”
Somewhat caught off guard, I interrupt the enthusiastic stream of words with which Lode Laperre welcomes us when we arrive at his home. Our amiable host is understanding and nods: “I'm used to that, I have a tendency to pass information around like a waterfall, or rather a small waterfall.” And he continues swiftly: “Everything I think and do is connected, hooked together. Leave one thing out and it no longer makes sense, the little universe falls apart. In my work too, one thing arises from another: coprolites, paintings, ink drawing.”

We are standing in the small studio next to his living room (we cannot visit his second studio for the major works because he is still in the middle of a relocation). There are abstract sculptures on a table: coprolites. In the ordinary sense, these are fossilised feces. Lode gives the word another meaning, they are “the excrement of his paintings”. He builds them from layers of acrylic paint that he applies and removes one above the other using various techniques. This creates a meaningful relief structure that makes us realise that there are always fascinating layers and colours beneath the surface. The coprolites are constructed from the paint waste that accumulates over time by scratching away paint from the paintings or removing it in other – often unconventional – ways. A kind of circular art.

It is important to Lode that each of his works contains something new and unique. He explains this in his work Metaoism, the only coprolite on which he has written a text. It is a quote from Lao Zi, the founder of Taoism. It consists of nine Chinese characters and can be roughly translated as follows: “The usefulness of a pot, vase or bowl is determined by its emptiness”. “Emptiness is so meaningful. You can't repeat it enough. That's why I repeated that quote endlessly", he says.

The artist has lost his heart to the Far East, where he often travels and exhibits. Metaoism is an expression of that. But there is also a connection with his childhood. His father was a calligrapher in his spare time. On weekends, he was already writing texts on parchment at five in the morning. Lode, the middle child of three boys, was allowed to watch because he was able to sit still and calmly so well. “Only later did I realise how much influence that had on me. Hence my ink drawings and the passion for ink.”

Zen and the art of circular movements

In our further conversation, he will repeatedly cite examples of how he sees connections between the East and the West in his work and life and how he combines the best of both worlds in everything. This also colours his view on the role and meaning of hands in his work. “I am interested in everything that happens in the East: philosophy, thought patterns, social systems, ways of acting, visual arts, dance. Since 1670, something has happened in the West that has marked us: the Enlightenment. From then on, the spiritual was placed above the physical. That never happened in the East. I've thought about that a lot. That separation never happened to me either. That is probably precisely the reason why I became and remain an artist. I've never felt my brain programming my hands. I never know in advance what a painting will look like. I consider my hands to be the indispensable guides of my mind in carrying out my visual work. But sometimes also the other way around. It goes both ways, like most good things.”

To make it clearer, he brings in a beautiful Chinese inkstone. He sprinkles a few drops of water on it and makes slow circular movements with the inkstick. “That is how a Chinese calligrapher prepares his ink. I learned it too”, he explains. “There is only one way to make good ink: making gradual, circular movements from the loose wrist and elbow, keep the pressure on, do not change direction. Then you get a nice, consistent ink with the appropriate viscosity.” In addition to the technical aspect, there is also a mental aspect: “If you are stressed, it is difficult to start your work. Those incentives have to go. This happens automatically through the preparation of the Chinese calligrapher. By the time your ink is ready, you are completely zen and ready to – in my case – stand in front of a canvas. That's because of the hand movement. It calms you down. Even if you're just looking at it." He recognises something from his childhood again: how calm and quiet he became when he saw his father writing uniform, calligraphic letters in a controlled and steady pace.

Repetitive circular shapes and abstract patterns

The repetitive circular or loop shapes in much of his work are certainly no coincidence for him. “The image of those circular movements creeps into my paintings. It is a beneficial movement for me and that is why I also incorporate it, without realising it. So I think my hand has programmed my mind. Someone once wrote that I am a kind of ‘meditative artist’. I had not seen it that way, but afterwards I dare to say that it is correct.”

He also says that he grew up in a small textile company in Kortrijk. He often saw his father draw geometric, repetitive motifs for textile designs. “That part of my history, those abstract patterns, has also slipped into my work. Everything is connected. I suppose – it's a strong assumption, I have no proof – that the cosmos is like that too. Every part is absolutely necessary or the whole would fall apart. Every circle is necessary for me. My history is in each of those circles.”


Your favourite hands in life?
Lode Laperre: “I can look long and fascinated at the hands of older people. The scars, the skin somewhat dried out and wrinkled, the veins that are visible. That is beautiful. There's a whole life in those hands. You can also always tell someone's real age from their hands. Hands tell the truth. They cannot be treated with botox. Recently, I also saw a friend with his daughter. She touched everything, grabbed my finger, grabbed a piece of lint. ‘She explores the world more with her hands than with her eyes,’ my friend said. Those little exploring hands, enriching the world of experience of a small human being, also fascinate me.”

Your favourite hands in art?
Lode Laperre: “Some icons immediately come to mind, such as Michelangelo's Creation of Adam in the Sistine Chapel. But I also think of the hands in the portrait paintings of Lucian Freud or Oskar Kokoschka. They sometimes say as much as the face, graphically and expressively painted with character. I also feel strongly addressed by hands in music. A friend of mine, a Bulgarian pianist, told me something unique about Rachmaninov, who had enormous hands. He could span twelve keys with his fingers stretched out. You have to be extremely talented to perform his compositions, but that is not enough. How do other pianists do that if they have smaller hands? When I asked my friend, he replied: ‘With the resources we have.’ They drop a few notes here and there, take a small jump. How unique is that! If you practice really hard, you might be able to paint an eye like Rubens did, you can keep trying. However, you can never perform the piano music of Rachmaninov, who also played super fast, as he did because you don't have those hands.'

Your best remembered movie scene involving hands? 
Lode Laperre: “I spend a lot of time on other art disciplines, but film is one of the things that I drop due to lack of time – like those musical notes. I can remember something from the Asian performing arts, Thai traditional khon dancing or barong from Bali. You see how the hands almost perform a dance in themselves, in harmony with the body. In Asian ethnic cultures, the hands play an extremely important role. My Thai sister-in-law explained to me that children there at school learn to use their hands better to make graceful movements. Their hands become much more mobile and flexible than ours.”

A book or a beautiful story that features hands? 
Lode Laperre: “Without any doubt: the story of the Monkey King, compulsory reading in Chinese schools. Sun Wu Kong was the king of the monkey kingdom, super ambitious and talented. But he wanted more, he wanted to become immortal and divine. In his unbridled ambition, he becomes extremely arrogant and gets into more and more monkey tricks. Buddha wants to teach him a lesson and challenges him: 'If you sit on my hand and can jump off in one jump, you will receive divine status.’ The monkey, who is exceptionally flexible, thinks it's a piece of cake, but he fails. He urinates against a column, but that column turns out to be one of Buddha's fingers. He is tamed by the hand of Buddha and receives a mission. Ultimately, he still obtains divine status because he carries out the mission successfully.”

Your favourite quote or saying that includes hands? 
Lode Laperre: To take up the gauntlet. Not in the sense of going into battle, but in the sense of rising to the challenge. Every time I choose to get out of my comfort zone and take on something difficult, it takes me a little further. Sometimes it feels like I'm facing a mountain, but I know it will bring satisfaction. It makes me happy.”

Your favourite hand gesture? 
Lode Laperre: “I don't have any, but there is something you have already pointed out to me: when I explain something, I cannot keep my hands still. If my hands were tied behind my back, I probably wouldn't be able to speak. My hands support my words. I need both my hands and my brain, across the board.”

The characteristics of your handwriting? 
Lode Laperre: “Fickle. You can immediately tell from my handwriting what my state of mind is. When I feel rushed, no one else can read my handwriting. But when I am calm, I write evenly and straight. Then people say: wow, your handwriting is beautiful.”

Something you once painted directly with your hands or fingers? 
Lode Laperre: “Many people have a somewhat stereotypical image of a painter as someone who applies paint to a canvas or panel with a brush, but I sometimes also work with my hands. My sculptures are made entirely by hand. As a painter, you can also choose to work directly with your hands, just like some pianists play pizzicato.”

The hardest thing you have ever done/made with your hands?
Lode Laperre: “The sculptures with paint, they are not so easy. You can't just make something with paint that stays up, it blubbers apart. It took me years to perfect the technology that makes this possible. Of course, you should never think that you are the only one in the world who does something, there will always be others, but I don't know about it.”

If you could exchange hands with those of another artist, who would it be? 
Lode Laperre: “There are many artists who I appreciate immensely for what they create with their hands, but exchanging my hands, no, I cannot do that. They are the indispensable guides of my mind, connected to many things. All that might be worthless to someone else, but to me it would be a loss.”

Which living artists’ hands would you like to hold? 
Lode Laperre: “I love jazz musicians very much. The advantage of music is that you can listen to it while you are working. I was once lucky enough to see a concert by the saxophonist Pharoah Sanders in Rotterdam. That was unbelievable: an old man who had to pull himself up. But then you saw his hands, they were like butterflies when he played, you saw him revive. Of course, I could also mention living jazz musicians: Kenny Garrett, Dave Holland. Even if you can't follow the music, you can keep watching.”

Which heroes or heroines in art history deserve your hands’ applause most?  
Lode Laperre: “There are many. I'll start close to home: the Flemish Primitives, van Eyck, van der Weyden, van der Goes. Their work was world class. The Ghent Altarpiece, for example, was earth-shattering at the time, like the invention of the internet.
In Madrid I saw Goya's ceiling frescoes in the San Antonio de la Florida. That really moved me. It was the middle of summer but we were alone in that little church, very special. Then you can see that he is the forerunner of impressionism. He already had that touch of paint. He suggests with his brush, the rest must be completed. Ingenious.
When I discovered that we have the same birthday (laughs), I started to look into Picasso's oeuvre. I was really impressed by the pigeons he drew at the age of 12. And the bullfights when he was about 16 years old. So much movement, imagine drawing this without a camera.
I also attach importance to many aesthetic experiences that are not tied to one name. In the Reina Sofia, for example: the kinetic art, the sound, the installations ... it all came together as a kind of symphony for me, an experience beyond words. Very personal.”

Something you, as an artist, don't want to get your hands dirty with? 
Lode Laperre: “There are many things I don't get my hands dirty with because I'm not involved in them. I shouldn't say it, but I'm extremely clumsy. I can't put a screw in the wall. Sometimes I have the impression that everything my hands can do takes place in the field of visual arts. Because of my focus, I have failed to use my hands for other things. Perhaps it would be better to do that and discover new things, but a lack of time prevents that. Anything you don't get your hands dirty with is a missed opportunity.”

Does your spending ever get out of hand? 
Lode Laperre: “My wife says yes, but not to the extent that I would get myself into trouble. I have a few weaknesses. For example, I buy a lot of art, preferably from young artists. I remember how excited and motivated I used to be when someone bought work from me. The money is very useful but it is also an incredible token of appreciation. I also collect artifacts and texts from the East. My collection keeps the memories and experiences alive, it is a way to keep the East close to me.”

Does working with your hands make you happy? 
Lode Laperre: “Yes, it does. Sometimes my wife says: 'You shouldn't paint every day.' But when I’m having a rough day, she sometimes also says: ‘Wouldn't you rather start painting?’ Then that is indeed the reason why I’m heavy-hearted; I have been away from my studio too long.'

Something for which you would like a better manual at hand? 
Lode Laperre: “I don't have to think about that for long, but I want to express myself carefully. It is never my intention to target people. I think there should be a good manual to make people understand that they can view art from their own perspective. In Flanders, you often see that people have a very low profile towards art and prefer to 'listen to the wisdom of the artist or art critic'. They think that art is something sublime. Why don't they view art from the perspective of their own knowledge and abilities, like a good sports match or a good book? I am a great supporter of more democratisation of art. Unfortunately, there has been a generation of ‘art popes’ who did not understand this at all. They dictate what is good and what is not good. That bothers me.'

Any final comments you wish to “hand over”? 
Lode Laperre: “When talking about hands that fascinate me, I immediately think of the Mudra, the hand gestures of Buddha. We have no code on how to depict the hands of God. In the East, it is completely different. Asians look at Buddha's hands and recognise those fixed symbolic gestures. I’ve learned from people who introduced me to Asian art that you should always look at the head and hands of an artifact. I also see that as a bit of a metaphor of how I have refused to allow enlightenment into my personal life.”

(English translation: Maarten D'hoop)

Chris Meplon