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:

About the author(s)

With an eye on sustainability and societal well-being, Vivian specializes in the development and facilitation of solutions for fundamental sustainable transitions in society and the economy. Together with partners and clients within and outside the organization, she translates the FreedomLab framework on Deep Transitions to concrete workshop methods, business model innovations and investment opportunities. Vivian studied Global Business and Sustainability at Erasmus University Rotterdam, where she conducted research on how systems thinking and a paradox perspective can resolve conflicting tensions in corporate sustainability. Next to the development and operationalization of the framework, she is the driving force behind the creation of a sustainability strategy for all of Rasile Group's entities.‍

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