I was honoured to do the graduation speech for the graduates of the Master of Photography at the opening of their exhibition Really Real at Roodkapje in Rotterdam. The graduating artists were Sheng Wen Lo (TW), Nikos Kostopoulos (GR), Lavinia Xausa (IT) , Matija Pekić (HR), Lou Muuse (NL), Katarina Jazbec (SI), Martijn van Mierlo (NL), Ruben Üvez (NL) and Anne Lucassen (NL).
Read the speech below.
This is actually the first time I was invited to do a graduation speech so I thought I can finally take the opportunity to talk about something I really want to talk about which is my cat Fien.
But jokes aside:
Playwrite, theater director and poet Berthold Brecht, wrote:
Die Mühen der Gebirge liegen hinter uns // Vor uns liegen die Mühen der Ebenen.
The difficulties of the mountains are behind us. Before us lie the difficulties of the plains.
Anne, Lou, Sheng, Nikos, Lavinia, Matija, Katarina, Martijn and Ruben – The difficulties of the mountains, in this case the Master of Photography, lies behind you as of today and I, together with your teachers, family and friends, want to congratulate you on this achievement!
But in the wake of achieving this goal the next challenge already lingers: what’s next?
Your works and the discussions during the master often circle around reality. The (re)presentation of it, interpretation and manipulations. ‘Real’, ‘unreal’, ‘fake’ are terms which are not only part of our daily life but which are concepts and questions of your research.
Today I want to talk about reality, not the one you’re unveiling and questioning within your works but the reality after today, after graduation, the reality you’re in as of now.
I will not talk about works specifically as I think that is best done by you and I encourage everyone to engage with these 9 artists when the show is opened.
Instead I want to talk to you about those plains Brecht talks about, the long stretches in which seemingly nothing happens or advances; yet everything does.
How do you get through those stretches? So I want to talk about what has been most valuable to me in the past seven years since I graduated. And I want to do so by telling you about two things: failure and, indeed, my cat Fien.
In 2010 I graduated from the Master of Photography just as you’re doing today. Yet, I didn’t graduate right at once. Instead I failed. I failed the final exam and I graduated two months later. It now sounds as if it wasn’t that much of a big deal but to me it certainly was. It was actually the first time I overwhelmingly failed at something big. In the moment itself and even in the weeks after, it simply hurt and, even worse, made me question my ability to create.
The day of the graduation was beautiful, the sun was shining and my fellow students, except for myself and one other, had passed the exam. So, of course, besides the hardship, it was also time to celebrate. As we sat on a terrace on this sunny evening in Breda Suzanne, who I had become particularly close to, suddenly handed me a few 20 euro bills and said: from this money you will get a cat.
It was only years later I found my classmates had put together their money in the heat of the moment, so to speak, whilst discussing how they could cheer me up.
They certainly had come to know me well.
I had been wanting to get a cat for a while but as money is often tight during a study such as this I always used it to invest in my work rather than getting that much wanted feline from the shelter.
Of course Fien, my cat who I got from the shelter three days later, cheered me up right away and I eventually climbed Brecht’s mountain and graduated just a few weeks later.
As I mentioned earlier, I want to talk about reality, life after graduation.
Fien is a daily reminder of a period in my life in which I pushed through to reach my goal but she especially reminds me of the wonderful, priceless gesture from my study mates. They helped me to pick myself up and go on, to persevere.
Network is not simply an abstract notion of curators, collectors, critics or publishers you should get to know but it’s essentially the people around you, next to you, your fellow students, amongst others.
They know you and your work, your strengths and weaknesses inside and out.
During the past two years they have seen you succeed, they have seen you fail and they are witness to your development as a person and as an artist and, as such, can advice you well.
When you’re on those plains, they can help you get through and make you more resilient because they know you. They are your biggest, but constructive critic. They will help you reset when necessary.
They will help you advance.
Although all of you are most likely to move elsewhere, keep each other close.
Share your knowledge,
Keep each other at arm’s length even when you may be thousands of kilometers apart from one another.
7 years later I’m talking to you and I want you to remember that, now that this study has come to an end, your fellow students are ‘really real’. They are those people, they are your network.
Your strongest alliance.
Watch out for each other, support one and another
and those plains Brecht talks about will be a piece of cake.