Rinus Van de Velde - Ashtrays | König

Here in the UK, smoking’s been banned in many public places for well over a decade. Which means that smoking-related objects, like the humble ashtray, are passing into obscurity. The kids are vaping these days.

As a result, I wouldn’t have necessarily recognised Rinus Van de Velde’s cute yet disturbing sculptures as being ashtrays, had it not been for the title of this show. But there they are: round, shallow dishes, with notches around the rim. Ashtray format, in other words. Though there are a few differences. For one thing, they’re way bigger than an ashtray actually used for smoking. For another, inside their notched brims, Van de Velde’s ashtrays teem with miniature figures and animals!

installation view

He’s clearly making the point that his scenes are meant to be of human detritus, as useful as a used cigarette. The ashtrays are on wooden plinths, some as low as shin height, but all low down enough that the viewer looks down on them.

There’s a few common themes to the subjects in the ashtrays:

  • Blood and guts: including a dinosaur attack, as cute velociraptors chew off the limbs of fleeing humans, dead bodies strewing the floor. Or a hospital scene, with mad white coated saw-wielding doctors cutting up cadavers on operating tables
  • Solitary men: my favourite of all, a Bjorn Borg-style figure on a clay court, defeated, unreturned tennis balls behind him. A lone cowboy on a horse.
  • Artists: in one scene, a pair of scruffy guys paint a leering nude woman, legs akimbo. In another, Monet, looking rather Gandalf-like with his beard and hat, stares at us, or at our knees from his low perspective, from a model of the Japanese bridge at Giverny.

“Van de Velde’s work suggests that the fictitious quality of art relates to its distance from the particulars of everyday life. But if art is something that we can only experience at select – one might even say privileged – moments, viewers still have to account for the living, breathing personalities who shape a work,” the show notes state. (What about the dino attack then?)

“To the extent that we might think to actually use these ashtrays, we become little gods, ominously lording it over the majesty of an alienated creation, exhaling plumes of fire.” To which there’s the added pathos of the slight wobbliness and homemade quality of the figures and scenes.

To ensure structural stability, Borg’s racket and the horse’s tail are pinned firmly to the clay floor. Which is itself uneven, moulded with Van de Velde’s visible finger and thumb prints.

The sum effect is a collection of works that are funny, poignant and wise. The ashtrays are overlooked by a charcoal portrait: one of Van de Velde’s other preferred mediums. I hope König considers having a show of those in London soon, too.

Rinus Van de Velde: Ashtrays is at König (London). July 01 - August 08 2020