Michel Cardena was a flamboyant, literate persona. He loved designer clothing, chess, good food and excellent art. He was intelligent and ironically humorous, and was never one to shrink away from anti-bourgeois actions. A hint towards his homosexuality or Roman Catholic upbringing easily popped up. Back in Bogotá, he studied architecture, art history and art criticism. Cardena was fond of theatre and dreamt of a career as dancer in his youth.
The In-Out Center was Cardena's idea. He felt an urgency to develop an independent art space on a democratic, non-profit, experimental basis, focusing on young and good art. He imagined its possibilities when a friend moved into the small canal house at Reguliersgracht 103 and allowed Cardena to rent the main floor. He had a keen eye for art by young artists. Pieter L. Mol, Hreinn Fridfinnsson, Kristján and Sigurdur Gudmundsson and himself all enjoyed solo shows in previous years with the gallerist Dolly Melchers at Galerie 845. Michel Cardena’s invitational phone call is still vividly remembered today by the artists of the In-Out Center. He came to know the other artists in different ways. He met ceramic conceptualist Hetty Huisman at COC, a club for homosexuals where – both good dancers – they danced the tango together. Raúl Marroquín studied at the same university (Universidad Nacional) in Bogotá as Cardena had, when on a certain day Cardena was scheduled to travel from the Netherlands to give a lecture. Raúl Marroquín attended the lecture, and soon became an artist in the Netherlands as well. After his arrival in the summer of 1971, he was accepted to his Master’s degree at the Jan van Eyck Academie in Maastricht, which ensured the intense exchange between Reguliersgracht and Maastricht since the start of the In-Out Center. Cardena and Ulises Carrión probably met each other around 1970 in Amsterdam, as Carrión informed his father of his new address – which was Cardena's old address – on a postcard from December 1971. It was Carrión who suggested to invite G.J. de Rook – his peer in text works – to the group. The procedure was immediately accepted by all, as each member endorsed the responsibility for one month.
Michel Cardena was good at bringing people together. Most of his projects from the end of the sixties involved people who collaborated as subjects in his actions, and he often asked his students to assist him. For the opening of the In-Out Center, he prompted students from the art school AKI in Enschede to come to Amsterdam and film the whole evening. They did so – Mellendijk, Terbeek and Oosterhof – but the film did not survive. Cardena loved to be the centre of attention, but not without a whiff of irony. Irony is also imbued in the name of the company that he invented in 1969 – Cardena Warming Up etc. etc. etc. Company – suggesting that he had a whole group of workers behind him, when in fact the function was rather physical and intimate.
In advance of the grand opening of the In-Out Center, the three Spanish-speaking members – Cardena, Marroquín and Carrión – performed on September 30, 1972 at the theatre De Lantaren in Rotterdam under the label In-Out Productions. Cardena's act was titled Heating time. He entered the stage in the company of two boys and one girl who assisted him with various heating activities. For instance, the girl warmed her hands with a heating device and transported the warmth to other people in the audience. One of the boys wrote formulas from a book on thermodynamics on their foreheads and hands. The performance stopped as soon as the heating device was cooled down. This performance was not recorded on videotape. Instead, Cardena pasted a series of photographs – three rows of four – on a big sheet of thick paper that he titled and signed. He repeated this way of presenting for other performances as well, like a retrospective storyboard. In the name Cardena Warming Up etc. etc. etc. Company, etcetera is used three times, as Cardena said, because three is a holy number in the Bible. Cardena designed a logo for his company that references the French heraldic fleur-de-lis, which he loaded with sexual references. The elegant, symmetric logo adorned, among other accoutrements, his director’s chair, his van and his black leather jacket.
The warming up should be considered in an erotic perspective, rather than in reference to an immigrant arriving in a cold country. When crowned princess Beatrix and her husband Prince Claus invited small groups of young artists to enhance their feeling for contemporary art in 1969, Cardena warmed up a wall in their castle Drakensteyn. This was his first warming up action. The evening is best remembered because of the performance Cardena arranged, Symphonie voor 7 obers. Seven waiters held trays with glasses, and by walking with the tinkling glasses, they created tones in a pre-scripted musical mood – like allegro vivace or moderato cantabile. Among the waiters were artists – Jan Dibbets, Peter Struycken – and Prince Claus himself. At the final signal of Cardena, at Finale con brio, all the waiters dropped the trays for the apotheosis – to the detriment of the antique heritage glasses. This did not prevent the royal family from maintaining contact with the artist, who received a high standard knighthood many years later.
Such uninhibited behaviour also marked Cardena's homosexual flirtations, which was the motive behind many of his artworks. He considered the hormone-driven libido to be a unique impetus for creation. Cardena often said that his father did not tolerate his homosexuality, and that he felt free in the Netherlands to openly underline his longings.
On the evening of the opening of the In-Out Center, on November 24, 1972, Cardena's Warming Up etc. etc. etc. Company was ready to warm up the water of the Reguliersgracht in front of the In-Out Center. In this case, Cardena was assisted by Marjo Schumans and Willem Elzenaar. They used a big, industrial heating device that, attached to a fishing rod, was immersed in the water until the canal became steamy. The performance was broadcasted by the national TV as a news item, which was quite exceptional for an art event. Additionally, one of the Dutch newspapers, Het Parool, published a review and a photograph of Cardena in his logo jacket. This was certainly in sync with the ambitions of the artist, who enjoyed the public attention for both his Company and his In-Out Center.
Michel Cardena (born Miguel-Ángel Cardenás in Espinal, Colombia in 1934, died in Amsterdam in 2015) came to the Netherlands via Barcelona. In 1961, he obtained a grant for studies in graphic art from Colombia. In Barcelona, he participated in some group shows and happened to meet a man from The Hague, Ton Berends, the founder of gallery Nouvelles Images (later focusing on contemporary art, and in the sixties was a shop for religious images). In his company, Cardena moved from Spain to The Hague in 1962. Soon after, in 1963, he not only enjoyed a grant from the Netherlands, but also had a show at Haags Gemeentemuseum and a catalogue with an essay by Wim Beeren.
Cardena was a good draughtsman, and to characterise his work would mean pointing to a mix of abstract, figurative pop-like art. He soon developed more bold assemblages with objets trouvés, shown behind a plastic theatre-like curtain that was partly taken up to give sight to an object-filled scene. These works ensured his place in the trailblazing group show Nieuwe Realisten that curator Wim Beeren organised in 1964 for Haags Gemeentemuseum – a show that travelled to Wenen and Brussels. Now, Cardenas (he used in this period the name Michel Angel Cardenas) figured in a huge panorama of artists who masterfully contributed to the shifting notions of depicted reality. Among them were contemporary artists such as Francis Bacon, Marcel Duchamp, Jean Dubuffet, Richard Hamilton, David Hockney, Yves Klein, Willem de Kooning, Marisol Escobar, Maryam, Robert Rauschenberg, Willem de Ridder, Daniel Spoerri, and many more.
Wim Beeren was a visionary curator, who detected the innovative currents in new art early on. In 1969, he made the seminal Op losse schroeven at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. In that same year, he participated in Cardena's performance for Kasteel Drakensteyn. On the occasion of the celebration of Filliou's Art's Birthday in Aachen, in which the In-Out Center participated on January 17, 1973, Cardena's Company warmed up the bed of Wim Beeren and his partner Liesbeth Crommelin while they served him hot drinks and stories. Not long after being appointed director of the Museum Boymans-van Beuningen in Rotterdam, Beeren curated a great retrospective in 1981 – simply called Cardena – dedicated to the works of his friend.
The most important contribution that Michel Cardena has contributed to the Netherlands is, undoubtedly, his video work. To his studio from Paris, where he regularly stayed to visit his sister and her family, he brought one of the first portable cameras, and he was the first in the Netherlands to use video in a meaningful way. Since 1972, his work has been shown in specialised video and film venues, such as Lijnbaancentrum in Rotterdam. The video technique enabled the artist to include both his passion for the effects of warming up – like melting processes – and his sense for space. Awareness of space (ruimtebesef) was the theme of the lessons that he gave at the art academies in Enschede and Amsterdam. Space also relates to his old passions: architecture and dance. Space is better observed from different angles, which prompted him to introduce new technical possibilities as a wiper, splitting the screen into two parts to show connecting but different movements and scenes. Hand, ice, body no 2, for instance, shows a cube of ice that is moved over a body on its right and trickling water on its left.
His first solo show at the In-Out Center lasted from April 15 until April 28, 1973, and was a demonstration of chess, titled Cardena et JCL réchauffent une partie d'echecs de Marshall et Marcel Duchamp. Together with the French poet and art writer Jean Clarence Lambert, he imitated a chess game that Marcel Duchamp once played against Marshall. First, the two paid a visit to Dutch chess grandmaster Max Euwe, who lived in Amsterdam and was kind enough to provide them with a diagram of the famous game. Cardena pasted the diagram on an apple. After each move, the player took the apple in his hands and read the following move aloud. As soon as the game was over, they clamped the apple between their foreheads and walked closely together out of the gallery without dropping it. They hung anatomical drawings on the walls, which were illustrated by Lambert with a clarification inspired by the thinking of Duchamp. Today, Lambert remembers this performance well. "Michel Cardena was a very original and complex persona", he remarks. "I really loved working with him, even if his propositions were surprising".
Did the apple act as Eve's apple – a symbol of wisdom about good and evil that had better not be consumed? Or did the warming up of the title relate to the bodily contact with the apple, like in his video work Two hands warm a cube into a circle no 1? The videoed timing of this work from 1972 is the exact time it takes for a cube of ice to melt into water, while the chess performance came to an end after the last move and the disappearance of the apple, supported by the players.
Cardena always had clear ideas about the length of his performances, and on a few occasions referred to the times of the clock. At the opening of the Cardena exhibition at the museum Boymans-van Beuningen, the artist performed a chess game in a similar vein. This time, the Dutch grandmaster Jan Timman was his opponent in a blindfolded play, which only occurred in the mind. The notations of the moves were visualised with pieces of dried spaghetti. After a move, the previous move was thrown into a saucepan filled with boiling water. When the game was over, the players started to eat the cooked play, ending the thought process with a relativising meal.
One of the works that was the most characteristic of the imaginative presentations at the In-Out Center was Cardena reads hot passages from the holy bible and Pellaprat's modern cookery book, shown from March 11 to March 17, 1974 as a slide show with audiotape. On seven consecutive days, the artist read passages from the creation story aloud, settling on each creation day in a corresponding landscape. The story from the Bible was mixed with passages from a cookbook. On the seventh day, he was seen laying relaxed in the grass with a woman who, on her turn, read to him. Is the artist – also a creator – similar to God, who rested on the seventh day? Cardena's playing with Christian stories is complex and funny. If Jesus' flesh could turn into food, why not think of excellent food? The body and its need to eat was the subject of several of Cardena's video pieces during this time.
In a previous show at the In-Out Center on October 6, 1973, the body was figured as if it were ousted as a commandment of God. On the window in white paint, the artist painted this sentence in three languages: "zeg niet lul of kut in negatieve zin - wees trots op je lichaam". In English, the word body (lichaam) disappears: "Don't say fuck with a debased intention - isn't this a beautiful act?" The artist took a position behind this so-called Correction of a catachrese and photographed the reactions of passersby.
Michel Cardena re-baptised himself as Miguel-Ángel Cardenás at the end of his life "to honor his father". Under both names, he remained proud of the In-Out Center. He was glad to know that new light would be shed on a center that meant so much to the development of art in Amsterdam.
© Tineke Reijnders, 2017