In Conversation with — Martin C. de Waal

Martin C. de Waal is an artist, dj, musician, club promoter, stylist, occasional media personality and icon in his spare time. His work as a visual artist has been shown in museums at home in the Netherlands and internationally and he is represented by one of Amsterdam’s best known and most respected contemporary art galleries, Torch Gallery.

Martin C. de Waal 'Untitled (1)'  (2009)  photo print, on plexi/dibond & aluminium in wooden frame

Martin C. de Waal 'Untitled (1)' (2009) photo print, on plexi/dibond & aluminium in wooden frame

But, Martin de Waal is perhaps even better known for his larger than life antics connected with Amsterdam’s underground club scene and hip hangouts. He’s been around long enough to be part of the current success du jour, the cult Italo Elite night but still remember the heady days of The Roxy, the notorious and lamented fleshpot that reigned at a time when people from around the world still had to travel to certain sinful cities to find out what decadence actually is.

Noted for his practice as an artist that saw him using plastic surgery and turning the camera on himself, his engagement with fashion and media practices has been a large part of his art, refusing to acknowledge traditional divides between the rarefied world of ‘fine art’ and fashion, mainstream media or the DIY trends of the underground.

But, as some have pointed out, De Waal’s practice has always had a conceptual clarity that his smoke ‘n mirrors mode of operation has often clouded. Producing outrageous photographic works of himself; film works using footage of his own marathon facelift or spectacular performances in one of Amsterdam’s landmark baroque churches – later reprised at Fondation Cartier in Paris- with a huge cast; or subverting the role of the roving television interviewer by actually working as one. His slightly off-kilter work has often come so close to media whoredom that there are vast crowds who may not have got its subtleties. In fact, subtlety is not a word that many would associate with Martin C. de Waal.

Whilst the tight conceptual basis was much more evident in earlier works – such as a film piece directly reenacting the work of renowned conceputalist Bas Jan Ader, remade for the MTV generation- it has been less so in works from more recent years. Up until now.

The last two years has seen him working on a new series of photographic works, portraiture, in which all of the traditions of 16th century Dutch painting are evoked without resorting to historical costume or setting.

OE tracked him down to pose a few questions…

KP: Are you getting old, darling? The new photographic works are very serious, very grown up. What do you want to tell us about them?

MdW: Do you mean by getting older that it is synonymous with reflecting upon oneself and work? Yes, in that case I’m suddenly ancient! (laughs).

My works can’t hide the fact that I’m trained as a painter and the new ones are still very much based on ’self-portraiture’. I now use a form of typecasting in what I see in other faces. And because these faces aren’t passing by everyday, I started to work -for the first time in my career- on several series simultaneously, trying to get to the core of what fascinated and influenced me from the word go. For instance one work is inspired by the image of the late singer Dalida and her tragic life. Another is about, what I like to call ‘high-maintenance women’ and my ongoing love affair with them.

Even closer to home is a series of works where I use my immediate family. And since naked subject matter reveals more about the artist than the model, I just completed two of those…

KP: You seem to be having a lot of fun with Italo Elite and all that Italo disco music that you kids like so much. I see it’s escaping, not just an Amsterdam cult thing, huh? Do tell…

MdW: It all has to do with creating your own input: I just wasn’t hearing the music in clubs that I’ve been playing for years at home -and it is always great to hear a tune through huge speakers. Also the cleaning up after guests leaves a lot to be desired. So I took matters out of my own house and into my own hands.

But as an artist you want to be provoked; inspired by outside influences that nibble at your comfort zone, in this case 3 other dj’s who have the same love for the italo disco sound but all have a very different take on it. Lupe is looking for the gems in italo history, whereas San Proper is coming from a more disco funk based origin and Tom Trago makes new tunes based on the sound.

This, and the fact that I am the odd one out (when not?) in this company – I’ll sing my own songs; always talk between the records that more often than not feature heavy breathing and the crack of a whip. This always adds up to an exciting night for our public and certainly for us.

KP: Your clubbing credentials go way back – don’t worry I won’t mention exactly how way back- and you were one of the fierce Roxy crew. For the sake of our younger readers, would you like to say something about that time and what you were all about?

MdW: The Roxy in the Netherlands is becoming the Woodstock of the House generation; we were all there and every night was legendary. The truth is that two years before the fire that destroyed the former-movie-theatre-turned-club, the place was already dead and nobody that mattered went anymore. Even so, I still had severe withdrawal symptoms.

Holland is known for it’s “every person is his own political party” landscape and in the club scene it is no different. Even though the Roxy had different nights for different people, there where certain nights when it all mixed together. And that’s what all the ‘legendary’ fuss is about. Unfortunately introducing a separate gay night meant the kiss of death.

I was a part of a performance group originating in the Roxy called ‘Haute Couture Junkies’ that consisted of such an array of personalities that the stage was always too small to accommodate us, even if there were only two of us on it. From that I started to create my own performances that eventually even led to a gig in Tokyo.

KP: One of the reasons I ask about the old days is because of what’s going on now; the cleaning up of Amsterdam and the very, very weird political climate. You’re a legend and fixture on the scene here so I wonder what you make of it all; what changes you’ve seen in the city for better or worse…

MdW: Holland has always been about making money and spending the rest of your days counting it. Out of political repression comes a bit of mayhem; I don’t know, I hope so. If only the youngsters take a bit of a time out of their counting, hopefully they’ll wake up and smell the napalm! There is more to life than opportunism, but at the moment it is very difficult to get people interested in more than their coins. Only in Holland is the very, very first thing people ask when they visit one of my exhibitions, “How many did you sell?”

KP: Of course, you’ve also had a bit of a career as a stylist, working with some of the Dutch kids and magazines that have gone on to find an international audience. Which of these projects was the most exciting for you?

MdW: I was always very much into creating something for the masses without mass-oriented content: free printed matter to go alongside an art show, which is now a common thing. In the nineties the artists’ initiative I worked a lot with was the Rotterdam-based “Salle de Bain”. I have fond memories of the catalogues they made and the things we did that varied from “The Hardcore Lounge” during the shortest night of the year on 21 July to a group show in NYC above the gallery of Andy Warhol on Broadway.

KP: I would mention your television career, but it’s all been in Dutch which means that only about twelve people reading this would know what we’re talking about. So I’d better ask about your book instead. Tell us about your book…

MdW: The last three years when booked to vj (sic) at a party, often a request came with it to deliver the photographs for the publicity. This latest foray into photography – I call it “nightlife in daylight” – is combined with the latest works made for Torch gallery. It’s actually a double book called ‘Disco Culture/You Don’t Look Like You Need The Money’.

KP: Do you think I’m as good as you as a chat show host? Do I ask the right questions, darling? Which question would you like to answer instead?

MdW: I have seen you in action during artists’ talks , all I can comment is that I would love to hear more of your private snappy remarks woven into your professional ones…….

Martin C. de Waal at work dj'ing Photo: Milan Boonstra

Martin C. de Waal at work dj'ing Photo: Milan Boonstra