Erwin Olaf in conversation with Erik van Ginkel
Ron Mandos, MENDO and Studio Erwin Olaf present Erwin Olaf, April Fool 2020, a limited edition publication on a series of photos about the corona pandemic. On Sunday August 9th this year, Erwin Olaf and Erik van Ginkel, Managing Director of Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, sat together to discuss Olaf’s new representation by Galerie Ron Mandos and spoke about the impact of the corona pandemic on the artist. A fragment of the conversation is translated into English and published below.
[EvG] Erik van Ginkel
[EO] Erwin Olaf
[EvG] How does the pandemic affect your everyday life?
[EO] At the moment, I’m very cautious. However, my anxiety has also manifested itself in a creative way. To be honest, it has also inspired me and stirred new creativity – a kind of anxious creativity. I’m full of new ideas related to our times.
In March I took this series of pictures entitled April Fool 2020: my first reaction to the corona pandemic and a first response to emotions in my body that I had never felt before. For a few weeks I felt completely paralyzed. Together with my studio staff I wanted to capture that paralysis.
[EvG] You came back from a holiday on March 4th and two weeks later everything shut down.
[EO] Yes, everything shut down. It felt like I ended up in a James Bond movie. We were just coming back from a vacation in Asia. I felt like James Bond jumping out of a collapsing building, while running to my plane together with my husband. Our plane took off and Bangkok entered its lockdown. Once we arrived in Amsterdam it was total silence. At the same time, people were panicking and flocking to supermarkets. Going to a supermarket that first week, I was unable to buy seven out of ten items on my shopping list. People were pushing. It was ridiculous how much toilet paper they were taking. I got so scared!
Despite everything, I felt brave enough to cycle to my studio, which is very spacious. I took my bike going through small streets, so I wouldn’t meet anyone, and arrived at my studio, where I met Shirley, my manager with whom I share everything, and Feriet, one of my employees who’s doing prints in our Dark Room. The three of us sat together silently for a week. The phone didn’t ring. I was just worried about business. How long would I be able to keep this running?
After about seven or eight days, Shirley asked, “Shouldn’t we do something?” I said, “It’s weird, I have a crazy idea in my mind, a zombie clown walking through this empty world.” And then it all came together. This idea of a clown with pointed hat and a white face was a translation of this feeling I’d never had or seen before.
‘I wanted to give shape to my fear.’
‘I wanted to give shape to my fear.’
[EvG] Was it an image you’ve ever seen or used before?
[EO] No, never.
[EvG] Completely new?
[EO] Honestly speaking, the makeup and the pointed hat are from a very obscure, old picture I found on the internet. I was looking for an image of clown makeup and found a black and white picture of a man together with someone else at a birthday party. The photo was out of focus. Lines were marking the old man’s face. I thought, that’s crazy, that’s so freaky! I’ve never seen anything like that before. And I wanted to take a picture of myself in a way I had never portrayed myself before. I wanted to portray an old man that leaves his house and feels this discomfort, this huge weight on his shoulders.
[EvG] For your newest project you really had to portray yourself?
[EO] Yes, because I wanted to give shape to my fear.
[EvG] Was this fear related to your concerns about your health?
[EO] No, just related to everything going on across the world right now. It’s anxiety for a pandemic that will never come to an end. If you realize there’s still no vaccine for HIV, it’s very optimistic to believe there will be a vaccine for coronavirus this fall. I think we’re still on the precipice of a very turbulent time. It’s also part of my character, you know, to be anxious.
[EvG] April Fool 2020 was a huge production. It’s not like you’re making selfies and simple photographs here. This production is quite a big deal.
[EO] Yes, it is. We decided on Wednesday the 12th in the morning that we would give it a go. We stumbled upon a big Asian marketplace in the Bijlmer, near the ArenA Stadium in Amsterdam, which was willing to cooperate after closing hours. Then we looked for locations around this market and on Friday morning we started shooting. It turned out to be a form of guerrilla-photography. Without having any permits we went shooting on a parking deck and then went on to the Asian place at seven in the evening. It was all very strange. The marketplace was across the street from Hanos, a food wholesaler. There were all these people walking around with shopping carts. We could see them through the windows while we were photographing this supermarket with empty shelves. It was great to finally express my feelings and publish the works.
[EvG] You took the photos mid-March and the publication was early May, right?
[EO] Yes, we finished this project in a very short period, while I’m usually slow as shit… [laughing loudly]. This time everything was done relatively fast. We managed to arrange the entire photo shoot in two days, as everybody was sitting at home unable to do anything else. Everyone shared this universal feeling: the stylist, the supermarket employee, the intern who had to empty the supermarket shelves. As a photographer who’s making pictures of staged scenes, I have never been able to capture my feelings so quickly. I’d never expected it to go this fast and to receive so many reactions as well. It was like a form of therapy for me.
About the book
Erwin Olaf, April Fool 2020 is a stunning by Galerie Ron Mandos, MENDO and Studio Erwin Olaf. The book contains all photographic works from April Fool 2020, as well as some explanatory texts and an interview between Erwin Olaf and Erik van Ginkel, Managing Director of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.
Erwin Olaf, April Fool 2020 will be released in December 2020 as a limited edition of 350, of which only 100 copies will be available online. Shop now and receive a numbered and signed copy.
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