Off campus
Interview: Volkert van der Wijk

University lecturer exchanged academic position for a life as a full-time artist

It is a job that some people would kill for: university lecturer at TU Delft. Nevertheless, Volkert van der Wijk exchanged his highly desirable position to become an artist. And he does not regret his decision. “I now have more time for both art and science.”

(Photo: Sam Rentmeester)

Volkert van der Wijk – whose work is on display in the coming two weeks at the Kunstschouw art exhibition in Zeeland – creates clever kinetic sculptures. Humanoid figures, for example, that incorporate the expressiveness of despair, intimacy and other human emotions in their movements. And artworks inspired by balance. That is hardly surprising, because the latter topic – or to be more precise: dynamic balance of rapidly moving robotics – was his focus of research for years. “Art and science go hand in hand for me,” he explained.

Plus, during his student days at TU Delft, where he studied mechanical engineering, he encountered a person who would become crucial to his career as an artist: journalist and writer Henk Hofland. The late Hofland became his mentor, source of inspiration and friend. “When I was studying at TU Delft, Hofland was a guest writer at the university offering masterclasses inspired by the Swiss painter and sculptor Jean Tiguely. I had to attend them because I was at that time making art from found objects, just like Tiguely.” Hofland started working together with the TU Delft students on an artwork in the style of Tiguely inspired by the myth of Sisyphus, who was doomed to push a huge rock up a mountain until the end of time. “As students, we were given the assignment to design a machine that could lift up a stone and drop it in water again indefinitely. Hofland called it a Sisyphus machine.”

Van der Wijk with one of his creations. (Photo: Sam Rentmeester)

A new world opened up

During the masterclasses Van der Wijk and Hofland soon realised that they had something in common, a click, despite the difference in their ages. “I cannot describe it exactly, but the way we thought, how we looked at the world, and how we lived our lives were the same. He would call me from time to time to debate for his columns. I would ask him for his opinion about artworks I was working on.” Hofland also turned into a springboard for Van der Wijk’s career as an artist. “He drew me into his network. I used to think, ‘I create art for myself.’ Thanks to Hofland I learned that there is an audience that is truly interested in what I create. And that I could even make a living doing that. He literally opened up my world.”

This moving sculpture, Anemone Magnifica, is on display until September 1 in Burgh. (Photo: Volkert van der Wijk)

Henk Hofland’s passing in 2016 ushered in a difficult period for Van der Wijk, both as an artist and as person. “It suddenly felt as if an important family member was missing. He was a kind of grandfather to me. There was the same way of thinking that we shared. You don’t meet many people in your life who match that well. Whenever I wanted to debate my ideas in the period after his death, I thought to call him. Then I would realise that it was no longer possible. As an artist, I experienced a terrible emptiness. Suddenly, you have to do it all yourself.”

Small and large version

The Sisyphus machine, on which the two friends were still working, was only finished after Hofland’s passing. “So sad that he did not get to see it completed.” One of the greatest challenges when building the machine, which is now called the Taaie Tiller [Tenacious Lifter], was the stimulus: how could you get a machine to run for a long time without using a motor to drive it? During his master’s degree at TU Delft, Van der Wijk came up with a way to make this work. He combined the Watt mechanism – a four-bar linkage conceived by James Watt that sparked the Industrial Revolution –  as the lifting and gripping mechanism with basins of water as the variable masses to avoid the dead points of its construction. A smaller version read-more-closed of the Taaie Tiller has found a home in the pond at TU Twente, and Van der Wijk has written several scientific publications about it. “By combining my vision as an artist with that of a scientist, I gain a different perspective on things and continuously encounter new principles.”

After obtaining his doctorate, he moved to London for a postdoc position, and subsequently became a university lecturer at TU Delft in 2016. He had been awarded a Veni grant the year before. “It felt as if my scientific career just landed in my lap. Suddenly, I had something that others would kill for.” But it was not the right fit. “As a doctoral student and then postdoc I was conducting research full-time, but could arrange my schedule as I wished. As university lecturer, that freedom disappeared. I had to deal with bureaucracy and teaching masses of students. That took all my time, and I was commonly working 60-hour weeks. When I discussed this issue with colleagues, we quickly realised that we could only conduct research in our unpaid free time.”

His atelier is in Delft, a stone’s throw away from the campus. (Photo: Sam Rentmeester)

Top of his field

Van der Wijk felt that he was only ticking off ‘lists of bureaucratic tasks’. He was not doing enough research, let alone finding time for his art. The question kept recurring: what would happen if I stopped working at TU Delft? When his partner became pregnant with their first child, he decided to quit his position as university lecturer. It was not an easy decision to make, but he still feels it was the right one. “I am still tied to the university as a guest researcher, which allows me to keep conducting research under the banner of TU Delft. And because all of the bureaucratic and teaching tasks are gone, I suddenly have more time for both art and science. When I first took up my position as university lecturer, I was at the scientific top of my field, but felt a decline set in. And now my scientific level is back up.” Van der Wijk has a lot of contact with scientific colleagues, and when he invents new mechanisms for his moving sculptures, he writes articles about them for scientific journals.

The moving sculpture ‘Knuffel’ (Photo: Sam Rentmeester)

By resigning as university lecturer, he also lost his steady income. Now he has to earn his bread entirely from his art. “This is partly the same as when I was a scientist. I would apply to funding agencies in the hope of obtaining a grant. But I had to think of other ways to make ends meet.” For Van der Wijk that presented ‘a fun challenge’. He suddenly had to ‘think in a very different way’. He began to come up with ways – along with selling his huge sculptures – to produce his artworks on a smaller scale and in series. He also hopes to earn money by lecturing, ‘For example, about art and ethics’.

Reaction from the public

The best moment for Van der Wijk comes when his kinetic art produces exactly the right movement to stimulate an interaction between the viewer and the sculpture. Consider his bronze sculpture ‘Knuffel’ in which two pyramid shapes portray attraction in one position and the intimacy of a hug in another. “At the exhibition in Leiden, I was told how impressive it was that such cold and heavy material as bronze could represent such vulnerability and warmth. That is why I do it,” he explained.

In the coming weeks, Van der Wijk’s artworks have again the opportunity to elicit reactions in viewers. His sculptures are on display at the Kunstschouw, a 10-day exhibition of a wide range of works at dozens of sites on the island of Schouwen-Duiveland in Zeeland. Van der Wijk added, “I am so curious about the public’s reactions.”

  • Van der Wijk’s sculptures are on view in the coming two weeks at the Kunstschouw, in Schouwen-Duiveland. His Anemone Magnifica – which was already on display at the Highlight Festival in Delft – stands near the church in Burgh. His other pieces are situated on the Prinsenhoeve country estate in Renesse. The Kunstschouw runs from Saturday, June 15, to Sunday, June 23. After the exhibition closes, Anemone Magnifica will remain in Burgh until September 1. In addition to a Delft bachelor’s degree, he completed a bachelor’s degree in art history at Leiden University. Van der Wijk occasionally pops up in YouTuber Mastermilo’s vlogs.

TU Delft alumnus Volkert van der Wijk completed his master’s degree in mechanical engineering cum laude in 2008. After his master’s, he received his PhD from TU Twente on dynamic balance of fast-moving robotics, and with a Vedi scholarship in his pocket, he returned to Delft. In recent years, his art has been shown at exhibitions such as the Kunstroute in Leiden and the Delft Highlight Festival.

News editor Annebelle de Bruijn

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