2021 Jozefien Van Beek – The puppet master in Maen Florin

A gigantic little boy is sitting in the grass between the trees. That sounds like a contradiction, and yet it is true: although he is three metres tall and has an overpowering presence, he is also unassuming, just a child. Seemingly imperturbable, he sits there with his eyes closed. His name is Benjamin, and he is a bronze sculpture by the artist Maen Florin.

Benjamin is pale pink and has donkey’s ears. Is he being punished? Is that why he is sitting on his own in the middle of nowhere with only the trees to keep him company? Is he a mythical being? Does the sculpture allude to Nick Bottom, the comic yokel in Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream who had a spell cast on him by the fairy Puck, with his head being turned into a donkey’s head? Benjamin’s head too looks as if you could take it off and swap it for another.


Maen Florin has a thing about heads; she has always made them in various materials. ‘Everything is in your head,’ she says, ‘literally and figuratively. Rembrandt records what it is to be human in a face – in his self-portraits especially you see disillusion and pain. I am full of admiration for the way he succeeds in displaying the whole of someone’s life in a portrait.’ In 2015 Florin started making heads using ceramics. ‘I can paint my ceramics and thus explore characters in greater depth. But they are no portraits; they are all archetypes.’

She gave the title Commedia, to a whole series of heads, with the idea that the world is a stage. And it is no coincidence that it looks as if many of Florin’s figures are wearing a mask, as if they could swap heads just like that. ‘A person has various facets, is more than one person at once. We all play different roles.’ Hence also the title of her most recent exhibition: Playing at Being Human. ‘Things are not always as you think they are; an actor lies concealed in everyone.’ Just think about it; you don’t see what you see.

After the heads came the busts, hung on the wall. ‘Like stuffed animals, killed in the hunt. But my busts are not trophies at all.’ It is not the success stories that are shown, but human drudgery.

In 2007 Maen Florin started making puppets. ‘I’d read an article about someone with autism who made puppets and communicated through them. I thought this was a beautiful idea: puppets that help make connections.’ This attempt at communication, the human desire for genuine contact, free of fundamental loneliness, can be found throughout her work.

Florin’s figures often have their eyes closed and their gaze is turned inward; equally often they are outsiders or beautiful freaks. Many of them look as though they are suffering, while at the same time they appear strong. Others are clownlike figures, the fools who, as tradition has it, tell the truth while laughing. As a viewer you remain an outsider; you have difficulty making any contact with the sculptures, while at the same time they have an enormous attraction. They reject and invite you at the same time.


The same goes for Benjamin, a sculpture based on a work of 2014. Maen Florin says, ‘I made the original work, We belong to Paradise, out of a shop-window mannequin that I sawed into pieces and then put together again. The original arms were two sausages made of rags, stuffed with wool and bound by cloth; one hand was cast in rubber, the other in polyester.’

Benjamin is much larger than his original form and was cast entirely in bronze. His body and face are painted pale pink, his feet are grey and the inside of his donkey’s ears are white. His body is smooth and clean, while his feet could perfectly well be those of a real person, with wrinkles and nails. It is an enlarged print of the feet of Florin’s grandson. The two hands, that have also been cast, are different: one is that of a dwarf, the other – a little bit smaller – that of a young girl. The arms, which are too long to be anatomically correct, still have the cloth texture that the original sculpture had.

Florin put all the parts together like a present-day Doctor Frankenstein. In Mary Shelley’s famous Gothic novel, Victor Frankenstein composes a being made of the body parts of corpses – ‘It’s alive!’ – and in godlike fashion he creates a person; he is a puppet master in the depths of his soul. But he is horrified when he no longer has his creation under control. The human being he has created is seen as a monster by the outside world. Someone only becomes human when viewed as such in the eyes of another.

That brings us back to Benjamin. What is he doing here, hidden between the trees in Wenduine, just beyond the inhabited world? Was he rejected, like Frankenstein’s creation, because he is different? Is he afraid and does he therefore seek shelter here? His expression is hard to fathom. Although he modestly closes his eyes, his hands are open and receptive. It is up to you, visitor, to enter into a relation with him. Is he a monster or a human being in search of contact? It is not only beauty that is in the eye of the beholder.


Jozefien Van Beek