FreedomLab Selects: Rinus van de Velde — The Armchair Voyager

May 17, 2023

With times becoming more uncertain and more pressure being put on humans and nature, comes a natural desire for hope, optimism and faith. The 19th and 20th century arts know a time of Modernism, characterized by utopism, (linear) progress, the belief in Reason, grand narratives and so on. After a while this naïve enthusiasm got rejected by many artists and philosophers, and postmodernism arose. This paradigm is known for its skepticism towards metanarratives, irony, and instead embraced subjectivity (otherwise known as critical deconstruction).

Over the past years a different ‘structure of feeling’1  in art, architecture, and film has emerged due to increasing pressure of a rapidly changing environment. This structure of feeling is called metamodernism, and tries to find ways to deal with the uncertainties by bringing back a sense of meaning through storytelling, empathy, political engagement and new sincerity. Metamodernism is, according to scholars Vermeulen and Van den Akker, a response to the necessity and ability to, and desire for change and functions as a cultural mirror. It oscillates between this naïve enthusiasm and critical deconstruction without having a prescriptive value. I consider myself a seeker for new narratives that give me a sense of faith or optimism. Therefore, I would like to take inspiration from art and imagination to find those possible narratives.

On the 7th of May I visited the Voorlinden museum for a special exhibition: Rinus van de Velde, The Armchair Voyager. The exhibition contains 94 paintings, sculptures, drawings, videos and installations from himself and other artists. He creates parallel universes from his atelier, crawling into the skins of other painters, a chess player or poet. It makes you feel like you’re walking through his fictional autobiography full of dreamed adventures.

“Reality can be very cumbersome, while your imagination is easily accessible”. Rinus van de Velde

When walking through the exhibition, all these conflicting feelings aroused when observing and absorbing his work. I was oscillating between feelings of melancholy and cynicism, and at the same time optimism and comfort. These contradicting emotions caught my curiosity and made me think of the trajectory of metamodernism. In what way is Rinus van de Velde a metamodern artist? In the following article, I will analyze his work based on Greg Dember’s analysis of metamodernism, link characteristics of the term that are most prominent in the exhibition, and explain what this did to me.

“I try to find a middle ground between modernism and postmodernism. I mostly try to do this by using narratives of other painters, and rise above the criticism”. Rinus van de Velde
Hyper-self-reflexivity as a gate to imagination

In the entire exhibition, Rinus uses his alter ego to explore experiences that he is dreaming of in his parallel universes. Using only an armchair, he takes us on his journey of inner travels. It allows the viewer to take part in his dream world. This hyper-reflexivity is a typical characteristic of metamodern art, as the artist uses his own self-reflection through external and internal media as a model for the viewer’s self-reflection. This enables the viewer to tap into its own felt experience, thus trying to understand one’s own experience instead of relying on other ‘objective’ criteria (modernism) or falling into a vicious cycle of deconstructing one’s own thoughts and experiences (post-modernism). This had a clear effect on me. His own boldness to dream made me think of my own dreams; what does my parallel universe look like? What do I dream to be? In a world driven by efficiency and productivity, there is not a lot of room for this type of questions. So, while staring at Rinus his charcoal alter ego-portrait, thinking about my own utopia, I suddenly felt liberated and hopeful.

“I am not so much concerned with how the viewer interprets my work. There is not a certain message I would like to get across. However, I hope that there is a common denominator that with every room you enter, I have created this sort of entrance where viewers can enter their own worlds”. Rinus van de Velde
Using storytelling through constructive pastiche (imitation)

Inspired by Portuguese writer and poet Fernando Pessoa, Rinus takes on roles through his alter ego to better relate himself to (art)history. For example, he goes in conversation with pleinairists David Hockney and Frank Walter. He also dives into a mythic story of German artist Joseph Beuys who swears he survived a plane crash during the Second Worldwar. As a result, he gets his inspiration from other artists to create narratives about his fictional realities. Through this strategy, he is able to bring together streams and works that are not directly linked, such as with the impressionist Claude Monet and the abstract-expressionist Rita Ackermann. Such a way of working is seen throughout more artworks that are called metamodern. While in postmodernism, pastiche revolves around absurdism and confusion, metamodern pastiche is constructive: it aims to bring together different phenomena to express a new experience. So we no longer think in strict distinctions between nature and culture (modernism), but that does not mean we cannot say what an animal or computer is anymore (postmodernism). Instead, we need to come up with alternative categories to articulate new feelings. This creativity to bring together sources of inspiration to create new forms of art is inspiring for me. It creates this openness to explore unique combinations of schools of thought that can offer new insights or possible solutions to complex challenges we are currently facing in the world.

“The historical ages of the past are sheer wonder, because I know from the outset that I can’t be part of them. I sleep when I dream of what doesn’t exist; dreaming of what might exist wakes me up” – Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet
Ironesty, using irony to make an honest point

Travelling is a central theme in Rinus his work. But he travels in his imagination. Rather than trying to be authentic, he contains multitudes. It is about a lack of authenticity, about fragmentation, and about all the possible Rinusses he can dream to be. He embodies this by for example visualizing himself as a great chess player, or creating an ever-looping film of changing characters looking for something mysterious that is never shown on screen. Underneath one of his paintings he writes: “If I were forced to rely on only the literal truth, they would soon grow tired of me”. With this quote he subtly implies that the truth might not be the thing to strive for. The point that he is trying to make is clear: we have the desire to be something, go somewhere, but what is this desire actually based on? Are we not just looking for something that does not exist? As he said himself: “Authenticity is a sort of fiction as well”. He uses irony to make this honest point, something that very much characterizes metamodernism. This combination between irony and honesty, called Ironesty, is visible throughout his entire collection. The texts underneath his paintings make you smile, but they have a sense of urgency and truth in them that you take seriously. And his message makes me wonder: do we always need to be realizing our dreams? Strive to become the person we want to be, and be as authentic as possible? Instead, is a daydream not enough to fulfill our desires?

Text underneath the painting: "I’ve lived for so many days now that I see all the patterns and dynamics, and can easily predict what the next day will bring. That makes me calm. I realize we will all live to be hundred nowadays, so I can relax and take my time. I invent some titles of books I will write one day when I feel the need to. 1. Life without pigment. 2 change is good. 3. Vacation".

“It is also a great human strength that we have, this capacity for daydreaming. We live today in a Fear Of Missing Out society, we feel compelled to go everywhere. I want to see this ability to daydream as a power, another way of exploring the world.” Rinus Van de Vede, Numéro Netherlands 2

What makes is Rinus van de Velde a metamodernist? Taking the characteristics of metamodernism from Greg Dember, he embodies elements predominantly: using hyper-self-reflectivity for self-reflection, allowing the viewer to tap into their own lived experiences as well. He is a strong adopter of storytelling through constructive pastiche (imitation), bringing distinct works and streams of art together to articulate a new sense or experience that better suits the things we feel nowadays. Also, he uses ironic texts and visualizations to bring across the point that authenticity is a sort of fiction, not based on anything existent but kept alive in our imagination.  He embraced characteristics of metamodernism that were tools to spark new narratives, dreams and explore alternative perspectives. As a result, he provided tools to tap into our own dreams. In my case, I became optimistic as I reflected on my own dreams and fantasies, especially because they create hope for alternative futures out there than the unsustainable world we live in now. And he made me think: is our desire to be everything, and everywhere, truly necessary? Why do we strive to be something in the world, if we can also imagine to be this? Is the jungle in South America as impressive as we dream it to be? Or can a documentary be enough to spark our imagination, and do we take enough time to let that imagination sink in? In many ways, Rinus van de Velde is a unique artist. He tries to bridge modernism and postmodernism and creates a balance between them. Considering the newness of the metamodernism, and complexity of the term, I am not able to make a general conclusion on whether he truly is a metamodern artist. In any case, he has created a space for imagination and reflection that is both valuable and inspiring.

1 A structure of feeling is a concept developed by art philosopher Raymond Williams, and aims to describe different ways of feeling, rather than thinking, that compete at one time in history. “It is vague because it is used to name something that can really only be regarded as a trajectory” (link).


This article is based on the following sources:

Notes on Metamodernism:

Talking Metamodernism with Tim Vermeulen:

After Postmodernism: Eleven Metamodern Methods in the Arts:

Beeldbepalers; Rinus van de Velde (live panel discussion at De Balie):

Visits to exhibitions at the Bozar (Brussels) in 2022, and Museum Voorlinden (Wassenaar) in 2023

Catalogue of The Armchair Voyager:

Series 'AI Metaphors'

1. The tool
Category: the object
Humans shape tools.

We make them part of our body while we melt their essence with our intentions. They require some finesse to use but they never fool us or trick us. Humans use tools, tools never use humans.

We are the masters determining their course, integrating them gracefully into the minutiae of our everyday lives. Immovable and unyielding, they remain reliant on our guidance, devoid of desire and intent, they remain exactly where we leave them, their functionality unchanging over time.

We retain the ultimate authority, able to discard them at will or, in today's context, simply power them down. Though they may occasionally foster irritation, largely they stand steadfast, loyal allies in our daily toils.

Thus we place our faith in tools, acknowledging that they are mere reflections of our own capabilities. In them, there is no entity to venerate or fault but ourselves, for they are but inert extensions of our own being, inanimate and steadfast, awaiting our command.
Read the article
2. The machine
Category: the object
Unlike a mere tool, the machine does not need the guidance of our hand, operating autonomously through its intricate network of gears and wheels. It achieves feats of motion that surpass the wildest human imaginations, harboring a power reminiscent of a cavalry of horses. Though it demands maintenance to replace broken parts and fix malfunctions, it mostly acts independently, allowing us to retreat and become mere observers to its diligent performance. We interact with it through buttons and handles, guiding its operations with minor adjustments and feedback as it works tirelessly. Embodying relentless purpose, laboring in a cycle of infinite repetition, the machine is a testament to human ingenuity manifested in metal and motion.
Read the article
3. The robot
Category: the object
There it stands, propelled by artificial limbs, boasting a torso, a pair of arms, and a lustrous metallic head. It approaches with a deliberate pace, the LED bulbs that mimic eyes fixating on me, inquiring gently if there lies any task within its capacity that it may undertake on my behalf. Whether to rid my living space of dust or to fetch me a chilled beverage, this never complaining attendant stands ready, devoid of grievances and ever-willing to assist. Its presence offers a reservoir of possibilities; a font of information to quell my curiosities, a silent companion in moments of solitude, embodying a spectrum of roles — confidant, servant, companion, and perhaps even a paramour. The modern robot, it seems, transcends categorizations, embracing a myriad of identities in its service to the contemporary individual.
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4. Intelligence
Category: the object
We sit together in a quiet interrogation room. My questions, varied and abundant, flow ceaselessly, weaving from abstract math problems to concrete realities of daily life, a labyrinthine inquiry designed to outsmart the ‘thing’ before me. Yet, with each probe, it responds with humanlike insight, echoing empathy and kindred spirit in its words. As the dialogue deepens, my approach softens, reverence replacing casual engagement as I ponder the appropriate pronoun for this ‘entity’ that seems to transcend its mechanical origin. It is then, in this delicate interplay of exchanging words, that an unprecedented connection takes root that stirs an intense doubt on my side, am I truly having a dia-logos? Do I encounter intelligence in front of me?
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5. The medium
Category: the object
When we cross a landscape by train and look outside, our gaze involuntarily sweeps across the scenery, unable to anchor on any fixed point. Our expression looks dull, and we might appear glassy-eyed, as if our eyes have lost their function. Time passes by. Then our attention diverts to the mobile in hand, and suddenly our eyes light up, energized by the visual cues of short videos, while our thumbs navigate us through the stream of content. The daze transforms, bringing a heady rush of excitement with every swipe, pulling us from a state of meditative trance to a state of eager consumption. But this flow is pierced by the sudden ring of a call, snapping us again to a different kind of focus. We plug in our earbuds, intermittently shutting our eyes, as we withdraw further from the immediate physical space, venturing into a digital auditory world. Moments pass in immersed conversation before we resurface, hanging up and rediscovering the room we've left behind. In this cycle of transitory focus, it is evident that the medium, indeed, is the message.
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6. The artisan
Category: the human
The razor-sharp knife rests effortlessly in one hand, while the other orchestrates with poised assurance, steering clear of the unforgiving edge. The chef moves with liquid grace, with fluid and swift movements the ingredients yield to his expertise. Each gesture flows into the next, guided by intuition honed through countless repetitions. He knows what is necessary, how the ingredients will respond to his hand and which path to follow, but the process is never exactly the same, no dish is ever truly identical. While his technique is impeccable, minute variation and the pursuit of perfection are always in play. Here, in the subtle play of steel and flesh, a master chef crafts not just a dish, but art. We're witnessing an artisan at work.
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About the author(s)

FreedomLab Fellow Vivian Elion is an Advisor for Regional Approach at the Netherlands Enterprise Agency (RVO). In this role, she supports provinces, municipalities and entrepreneurs in adopting national sustainability policies concerning construction, the environment, and society. Vivian studied Global Business and Sustainability at Erasmus University Rotterdam, specializing in sustainability tensions. During her tenure at FreedomLab, she developed the Deep Transitions Framework into business services.

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