Never Get Old

Immortality and constant change through the teachings of Chinese alchemy and the makings of Ruudt Peters

Text by Marina Elenskaya, Photography by Jan Hoek

I first approached Ruudt Peters about featuring him in the Youth issue in early May 2013.
My original idea was to talk with him about his resiliency in terms of making work, his capability of reinventing himself by creating an entirely new body of work every two years, about his youthful mind and his tireless dramatic relationship with jewellery. He greeted me at his beautiful Amsterdam home; we hugged, sat down in two designer chairs in his living room and started talking. I started explaining what I wanted with the article and the words ‘never getting old’ came out. His reaction was absolutely unexpected. He cried “I know! Yes, that’s it! Never getting old, never dying, it’s about immortality! It’s about alchemy!” I had no idea what he was talking about… until he told me the whole story.
It took two intense and emotional sessions, where we cried and we laughed and we talked about everything. I really love this story and after trying to re-create it in my own words and failing, I chose to write it as Ruudt told it.

I always want to stretch my borders, to find new ways. That’s where it starts. New ways always come when I put myself in an uncomfortable situation.
I was sitting in these two chairs with my husband, talking about the trip, which we both wanted to take. Usually we stop our activities for three months and seek new inspiration, new life… all this crisis talk in Europe is so boring! So we were talking and talking and there were few of options, like India and China.
I thought I would like to go to a place where I don’t like being so much, because we have been in China back in 2000 and we didn’t like it. People are very kind, but their exchanges are very hard to understand. It’s very difficult to get into the culture; the language barrier and the cultural barrier make you work very hard to understand things. It is not a holiday country at all!
But regardless of all that we made a final decision to go to China…
And you know how before the trip you do all kinds of things and preparations… and I thought, shit, I have something, like a bump inside my cheek; so I decided to go see a dentist to be aware of what it is and make sure it was ok. He couldn’t figure out what it was and sent me to a jaw surgeon. I went exactly one week before the trip. And the surgeon said: “Well, I can’t do anything about this”…I just thought he was a strange guy…
So we went on our trip. We had a one-entry visa, meaning we would only enter the country once. And honestly that was the best thing… because after three weeks I was bored of China, it is so incredibly overcrowded, everywhere you go there are people, you can’t hide yourself, it is always, full, packed, packed, packed… It is always public there, and there are no moments for secrets. I grew really sick of it: Chinese were coming out of my ears, and coming out of my nose…But I couldn’t leave because I had a workshop and a lecture planned at the end of the trip and the fact that I couldn’t leave turned out to be fantastic, great, perfect!
There were three things I wanted to do: to travel, to get to know the country and research the subject. Then do artist in residence in Xiamen and a workshop in Beijing.
My reason to go to China was to know more about Chinese alchemy. That was my leading interest. It was extremely difficult, because all the information, all the texts are in Chinese and very little bit is translated. And even when translated, books are very difficult to understand. And there was a difficulty in me concerning China and Chinese alchemy…
I knew a little bit about Chinese alchemy, about the Naidan and Waidan, inner and outer alchemy. The outer, coincides more with the Western understanding of alchemy. In this difference lies the exact problem: we think with the brain, we try to control things intellectually… trying to achieve gold from led. It is about creating objects and giving value to these objects outside your being. For the Chinese, the understanding was exactly opposite: they were trying to create gold to ingest it. Ingestion of gold elixir was targeting the ultimate goal: immortality. They saw the process of making gold as a holistic, total experience of life prolongation. They ate gold, instead of making gold to make objects; and they ate it to extend their lives… I find that great! For me death is one of the most romantic things in life. Death, what to do with death!? The romance of being here, knowing that there is this point at which you are going to die, and not knowing when exactly this point is in your life – I find this to be the highest romantic aspect of living…

 

Being in China, I was confronted with things I couldn’t deal with. The more difficult people are in front of you, the more you learn about yourself, because they constantly keep the mirror up and you see the reflection of yourself. Difficult people are difficult because they make you confront yourself. So being in China, I met my mother and I met myself, little Ruudt… I was constantly annoyed with the Chinese because I had to deal with my own issues. The first few weeks were very confronting: you can’t read anything, they don’t help you, in a restaurant no one can translate anything, I felt like a real stupid Dutch ‘cheese head’, thinking I really cannot cope with this culture! Clash! There was no one to help, to translate, to explain, but that exact thing turned out to be great in the end.

 

I found out that Taoism, ying-yang, Tai Chi, acupuncture are all aspects of the inner alchemy and all of these combined make up the way Chinese, ordinary people, live their lives. In the morning people wake up and do these fantastic practices, they do them consciously, because they believe in them. So, we have been to the monastery, we’ve learned these practices, we have done workshops in acupuncture and all kinds of things to get in contact with the culture… But the strangest thing was, I found myself struggling with a constant thought: how can I translate this into jewellery? This holistic, huge thing… I didn’t know how to react to the culture, the things I saw. I had no clue…

 

It took some time and finally, step-by-step I started grasping it. I had one thing, a routine of making blind drawings, which I performed every day – during the journey, lying on the bed, in the evening – one or two each day. It became a journal, a story of my experiences.
I believe that blind drawings are a direct connection between the belly and the hand. I ‘exclude’ the brain by not seeing what I’m doing. I can’t force, because I can’t see. My emotions come directly on paper. I think my hands are stronger than my brain, and my belly is in between. Of course, I guide this process, I ‘eat’ a lot of information, I read a lot, but at one moment I say: STOP. I ‘burn the books’ – that is an alchemic principle, meaning forgetting everything. And then I work, without thinking… So most of the time when I make something, I realize what I did only afterwards.
I believe that when you grasp things too seriously, the beauty will retreat. When you want too much you will never get it, but if you do have a certain destination, but you let it go, it will come to you. It’s not about taking distance – you have to be completely in it, but not wanting…

When I was in Xiamen, I saw incredible acupuncture medicine shops. You can get amazing body treatments there and I did everything they do because I was here, I was lonely and I wanted to know why are they doing these things. They have a hundred thousand treatments compared to what we have in the West. Once I went to a herbal medicine shop and saw the ‘supernatural’ Lingzhi mushroom there. I first saw it during my trip to China in 2000, I loved its shape, but I didn’t know what it was. I asked the shop lady and she said that Lingzhi is used to prolong the life of a dying person, by putting it in their mouth. And as the patient sucks on it, the liquids from the mushroom get into their body, helping them to live longer. My eyes popped open! I loved it. I thought it was fantastic! I was thinking about the Lingzhi when I was making my blind drawings…
Soon I noticed that the drawings contained a figure. A man, maybe my alter ego… A human body and a human figure somehow were reappearing, like a main subject in the drawings. I was drawing men with distorted faces and thought they were the faces of the ‘eight immortals’ of Taoism.

 

I really got obsessed. I was in the studio working for four weeks alone. I took big sheets of paper 80x100cm, stuck them to the wall and started making blind drawings with charcoal.
I gave myself a precise time limit of 25 minutes. I’d set the alarm, close my eyes and start drawing. Only when the alarm would go off I’d open my eyes to see. Really being with each piece for 25 minutes was very intense.

 

Three months later, after coming back to the Netherlands, I was still worried about the bump in my cheek. I asked for the best doctor and went to see him. For me it was just a regular check-up, so I came to the hospital alone. I was sitting there and the doctor said: “Oh!” I said: “What oh?” And he was like, well, it can be positive or negative. I had no idea what he was talking about. I asked what he meant. Then he said the word ‘cancer’ and I think I fainted. I was completely gone for a few seconds, all the blood drained out of my face, I was completely white. All these doctors came to help me… I remember I was trying to walk out of that room and everyone was following me, because they didn’t want to leave me alone…

When I came back home and entered my studio I realized that the faces of the ‘eight immortals’ were actually me. I didn’t see this before. In my brain I was still into the abstracted notions of immortals, Lingzhi, a great story about sucking on a dead mushroom… Until I heard the words of the doctor: “Mr. Peters, you have cancer”. And there I was, standing in front of these eight drawings and I thought: “Shit!” I understood everything now. The first thing on my mind was: “I’m ok. I’m ok, I’m still in contact with my body”. My body knows more than my brain. It knows everything. It was a really powerful feeling that I was alive and I wanted to live. You also get extremely clear about things: ok, I don’t want to spend time with some people anymore, only the people who really matter, only people who really confront you. And also pieces that are not good are out. Jewellery without significance has no right to exist. When there are no balls in it, when there are no guts in it – forget it. I don’t want to walk on a smooth side. I don’t want to compromise.

 

At that moment I thought it was over, I was going to die. But strangely enough two days later I was completely Zen. I became highly aware of every moment, my eyes were wide open, I could hear everything, I could smell everything. This never happened to me before. I realized how calm and kind I could be, being a drama queen that I am.

 

Then the surgery happened. Something I still don’t understand: I went to the hospital a week after the operation and they said: “Ok, you are in good shape, you don’t need chemo or any such treatments. You are done.” I walked out of the hospital and said: “Back to normal now. Work.” And that is something strange, going quickly from a Zen experience of reevaluating life to “back to normal” in a finger snap. It was like “I die”, then “maybe I die”, then “I wouldn’t die” and then – “work!”
I’m ALIVE! I shall show you that I’m alive! I will make things. Make-make-make, go-go-go!

This article was first published in #2 Youth issue of the CURRENT OBSESSION magazine.

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