Job Smeets’ ‘Embrace’ dips the rear façade of KunstKerk in ironies and iconography

The Dutch artist has transformed the rear side of a disused 19th century Dordrecht church into a bronze and glass sculpture that piques you to see more the longer you look.

by Zohra KhanPublished on : Sep 12, 2022

Though architecture places a certain emphasis on the frontage of a building rather than its often unconsidered rear, can art turn the narrative around by blurring these distinctions? The Netherlands and Milan-based Studio Job brings forward a playful answer to this inquiry.

The Dutch design, contemporary art and sculpture atelier Studio Job has unveiled its latest project, a freestanding work of art in the form of a glass façade designed for local art and culture foundation, KunstKerk. Meditating on a concoction of ironies and iconography, the studio's founder Job Smeets has transformed the rear façade of a disused 19th century church building into a landmark sculpture that attempts to capture the ideas of shelter and togetherness in its form. The installation, located amid rows of pitched roof houses in the historic Dutch town of Dordrecht, took five years to create, with over two years spent handcrafting it in Job’s atelier. Titled Embrace, the work features a casted bronze frame embracing three glass windows flushed with drawings that reference medieval iconography. The structure, fitted on the façade, sits atop four bronze turtles and carries a two-metre high screaming bronze cockerel on its pinnacle.

Embrace artistically revives the rear facade of a disused church in the historic Dutch town of Dordrecht | Job Smeets | The Netherlands | STIRworld
Embrace artistically revives the rear facade of a disused church in the historic Dutch town of Dordrecht Image: Jeroen Musch

KunstKerk commissioned the Dutch artist for an artistic intervention in their newly launched creative space in the city. Together with architect Andries Lugten, the foundation turned around the former church into a freely accessible meeting space that invites artists, culture makers, and scientists to create and display their works. Smeets' approach to the unused rear facade of the church was "to create the 'back' as the front, giving it equal or more importance". This idea of creating a "back" that is no longer subservient aesthetically to the front facade challenges a canon of architecture and how buildings are used. 

The artwork gives the rear side of the building an equal or more important outlook when compared to its frontage | Job Smeets | The Netherlands | STIRworld
The artwork gives the rear side of the building an equal or more important outlook when compared to its frontage Image: Jeroen Musch

According to Smeets, the installation is his "modern surrealist take on classical church windows that dramatically curve towards each other creating a physical embrace". "The work," he says, "is meant to play with the line between architecture and sculpture, the façade becomes a canvas for the expressive artwork. It could also be a huge piece of jewellery, a brooch. The strong structure firmly holds the 'embrace' together. It’s impactful as you first notice the unconventional shape of the windows from a distance. It's created to bring spirit to the KunstKerk, to be an identity, an object for interpretation, and a place to stop and have coffee.”

Elaborate hand drawings on the windows reveal visual cues where "rockets explode, roses climb, and cogs turn", in addition to illustrating symbols of healing, sacrifice, family, fun, and frivolity. Speaking of the iconography and its projection of the facade, Smeets shares, "Our decision to have glass drawings facing outwards instead of inwards was important to make it visible to everyone passing. […] My initial sketches started off as an interpretation of the shapes of the front facade, but over time it evolved into a composition that is about storytelling, our everyday life, about holding on to one another whilst the cockerel above freaks out."

  • The complex bronze casted frame of the structure was developed at Studio Job’s Tilburg atelier | Job Smeets | The Netherlands | STIRworld
    The complex bronze casted frame of the structure was developed at Studio Job’s Tilburg atelier Image: Courtesy of Studio Job
  • Installation of the bronze frame on site | Job Smeets | The Netherlands | STIRworld
    Installation of the bronze frame on site Image: Courtesy of Studio Job

Embrace was produced using bronze casting and a contemporary glass baking technique at Smeets' Tilburg atelier. Handcrafted, piece by piece, each element of the glass sculpture was painstakingly put together like a puzzle in a method that the contemporary artist describes as "a very rudimentary way of building".

Metalworking in developing the frame and other elements of the artwork  | Job Smeets | The Netherlands | STIRworld
Metalworking in developing the frame and other elements of the artwork Image: Courtesy of Studio Job

The bronze frame has been developed over the outline of the church’s original façade and showcases a hand-made textual skin that has been fitted using bolts. The use of bolts and hand-casted surfaces are recurring elements in the contemporary art and sculpture practice of Studio Job. The façade windows present a twist to the traditional stained glass apertures, its visual treatment connecting to a contemporary wild landscape. Iterations of these window transformations have previously been seen in the Dutch atelier's design of The Jane – a restaurant in Antwerp, Belgium, in addition to the bible-inspired collection of sculptures presented back in 2009. "The windows," Smeets adds, "are based on late medieval iconography, full of so-called references and all those references could mean something, but maybe they don't mean anything to you, it's subjective to see any meaning you want."

Further embellishment of the installation comes in the form of the four sculptural turtles that nobly bear the weight of the structure above, and the cockerel at the building’s pinnacle, shrieking as if aware of his fragile position. The placement of the turtles, as shared by Studio Job, is taken from an ancient Asian custom which believes that these animals signify protection and wisdom if they are placed at the backdoor of a property. 

  • Weighing 300 kg and featuring a hand crafted textural skin, the two-metres bronze cockerel sits at the pinnacle of the artwork
    Weighing 300 kg and featuring a hand crafted textural skin, the two-metres bronze cockerel sits at the pinnacle of the artwork Image: Courtesy of Studio Job
  • The elaborate textural skin of the cockerel  | Job Smeets | The Netherlands | STIRworld
    The elaborate textural skin of the cockerel Image: Courtesy of Studio Job

The cockerel, on the other hand, is a classical weathervane component and an early church symbol of Saint Peter. "The style has a reference to the mechanical startled cockerel in Fellini’s Casanova (1976) and those beautiful golden birds you'd find on top of a Swiss mechanical bird box," says Smeets. The two meters high and 300kg of bronze-cast cockerel ensued a challenging assembly over the already complex artwork. The overall form, featuring heavy metal and bronze panels, was put together like a hand-made giant puzzle on the site.

Job Smeets  | The Netherlands | STIRworld
Job Smeets Image: Courtesy of Studio Job

Distinguished for his playfully contrarian interventions within the domains of architecture, interiors, furniture, lighting, and art, Smeets believes he delivers his best work when everything is created with 'serious fun'. The conceptual artist has previously been featured on STIR in our exclusive video interview series UNSCRIPTED where he whisked us through some weird and whimsical things about him, while in another article, he invited us to discover his design adventures with Creutz & Partners’ office space in Luxembourg. Embrace, which was unveiled to the public on September 9, 2022, is one of the three public sculptures by Smeets that are launching in various cities of The Netherlands over the next three months.

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