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Balance, solidity and geometry. Conrad Willems’ modular sculptures

Modularity, geometry and repetition. But also the magic of balance and stonework knowhow. The architectural sculptures by young Belgian artist Conrad Willems will be featured at the 50th edition of Biennale Interieur in Kortrijk.

When you are in front of Conrad Willems modular sculptures, you have to watch out. The desire to extract one of the marble blocks that compose them is almost unstoppable. What would happen if you gave in to temptation? «Nothing», he says, pulling one out and leaving the installation intact. «Because it’s all like a construction game. But maybe a little more complex than that».

Conrad Willems and Biennale Interieur

We met Conrad Willems at the Atelier Jespers in Brussels, featuring his personal exhibition Modular Sculptures (until July 15th). It’s a special year for Willems, 35, a dancer as well as a sculptor, a construction enthusiast. Because he has selected him among the artists who will set up the public space of the Kortrijk Biennale Interieur, a key appointment for the furniture design industry in Northern Europe. This year, the overall scenography is designed by Studio Verter.

The magic of balance

«So. You can take off bricks», continues Conrad Willems. «But you could even have five people climb up to its top and nothing would happen». Yet there is no glue or fixed connection between the thousands of pieces that make up the modular sculptures. Did he do any static calculations? «No. But I have been a classical dancer since I was a child and I know a thing or two about balance».

A multi-faceted work

Conrad Willems’ works have many souls. They look like architectures but have no function, and can not be inhabited. They are sculptures but are made by adding elements rather than by eliminating material from a single block. Their stability is unquestionable, but to keep them together is not a glue but the strict laws of the joints, weights and counterweights. And Conrad Willems realizes them through a performance that can be repeated at will: each work, in fact, corresponds to a design that would allow the reconstruction. Even their names lead to different, almost opposing worlds. Some, in fact, recall the grace of classical music (such as Variation or Composition). While others (Construction, Incision, Brick Works) seem borrowed from the practical mind of a bricklayer.

«I throw the pieces on the carpet and create…»

In a world where everything passes and goes in a blink of an eye, listening to Conrad Willems’ story opens the heart. Because it is that of a childhood passion that has transformed the kid into an adult, the hobby into a profession, and the game into art, «I started when I was six», says the artist. «I used to throw the pieces on the floor, on the carpet, and build worlds. Then I started to write the drawings of the buildings in a notebook, because in the end everything had to come back to pieces».

Apparent simplicity

This is what, albeit in another format, Conrad Willems still does today. «I have about 2000 pieces of wood, including bricks, bridges, cylinders. I scatter them on the ground in my studio in Gent and build. When I’m satisfied I design the project on a sheet. And that’s when the hard work begins». Because the simplicity of these buildings is only apparent. Static balance and the grace of the composition have to be found. There is to be a degree of surprise in the relationship between the interior and the exterior. And, above all, the blocks need to be made: in clay, cement, stone, marble, wood. It is the artist himself who creates them, although he also works with artisans or specialized companies too

Perfection fascinates when it is a human tension

What struck me most in the works of Conrad Willems is the fact that he plays – with geometries, modularity and repetitions – within fixed parameters. Which reminded me of the algorithms of certain 3D printers, which design in “random” mode within a grid provided by the designer. A computer could make Conrad Willems drawings in minutes. And churn out hundreds of different designs. But if they were generated by a computer, these mini-architecture would lose their appeal because perfection only becomes emotion if it is the result of human effort. Only if it is the result of a desire (quite an ancestral one at that) to build something beautiful to leave to others. For the mere joy of doing it.

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