Folkert de Jong (b. 1972)

Clean Hands

Image from Clean Hands by Allen & Overy
Year: 2007
Material: styrofoam, pigmented polyurethane foam
Dimensions: 97 × 45 × 44cm

When Folkert de Jong did a show in 2001 at the Stedelijk Bureau Amsterdam (a branch of the Stedelijk Museum), his realistic polyurethane foam sculptures caused a wave of excitement. The exhibition introduced a wider audience to his work and marked the start of a lightning-fast, international career.

Theatrical, provocative, tragicomic and narrative; his best sculptures have it all. De Jong’s polyurethane foam finds its way through the darkest corridors of the human soul and not everything you find there is of the highest ethical standards.

The material the images are made of already reveals a bit about the way De Jong explores contemporary morality. Unlike classical sculptors, De Jong doesn’t use marble, bronze or steel. Rather, he uses PUR foam (polyurethane). It’s a chemical substance, which means that working with PUR requires respiratory protection due to toxic fumes. Is this unethical? Perhaps you shouldn’t use or even produce this material? There is demand for it, so mankind produces it. Who takes responsibility?

Open hands on an old Bible and law books are a fitting theme for an environment where the prevailing law is assessed, interpreted and influenced on a daily basis. What is feasible? And is feasible the same as decent or honourable? These are questions to ask yourself when you’re pushing boundaries. De Jong’s image is not a moralising work, but it does pose questions to the viewer: the hands are open, almost as if in prayer, and ask for help and wisdom. The stack of books in which knowledge and skills are contained, represents our desire to gain control over our lives. Taking in knowledge and getting familiar with certain content may result in an alteration of morals. And are you going to project these new morals onto others as well? Can you hide behind the Bible or that law book? One person may consider his hands to be clean, but someone else may think they’re quite dirty…

At the same time, our desire for a life that can be socially engineered, with or without a God or science on our side, is represented by an old-fashioned dice at the bottom of the sculpture. It’s a classic Vanitas motif that has been used in mathematical/scientific experiments for centuries. The moment you think you’re in control of your existence, fate has something else in store for you.