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Go Figure

The floor crunches in Folkert De Jong's studio.

Some terrible atrocity happened here, in pretty pastel colours. Limbs lie ripped from their sockets, or strapped with tape to trestle tables. Headless bodies are propped, stiff, against the walls. Pink and lilac and purple and sizzling blue are everywhere, dripped and dropped and oozed and splattered.

"After each project I clean up," says De Jong. He is a personable family man, his tidy manner at odds with the raw, unnerving drama of his art. We are standing in a converted factory north of Amsterdam, picking our way through flamboyant debris to examine his work in progress. Here stands a lurid Charles Rennie Mackintosh, and there, a dayglo Margaret MacDonald Mackintosh: both destined for Glasgow School of Art as part of the Glasgow International Festival of Visual Art, opening this Friday.

"I've never used colour in such a bright way," says the artist, as we pick our way through the synthetic clutter to the styrofoam actors, "but I think for this project it's appropriate to do that."

De Jong was born just 13 miles away from the studio, to a family of fishermen in an old coastal town. If there's anything discernibly Dutch about his crazed figures (made from the expanded polystyrene foam commonly known as styrofoam), it's that uneasy marriage of death and merriment which often lurks in genre paintings of the Golden Age. Beyond that, his work is made for the international stage, where for the last 10 years it has made its mark.

Particularly memorable are the distracted characters of Gott Mit Uns in 2007: soldiers and skeletons, grinning and posing, a leering danse macabre. De Jong packs his works with criss-crossing cultural references: the hard-hitting paintings of Otto Dix, Goya's disasters of war, the notorious photos from Abu Ghraib – they are all equally potent in this toxic concoction. And yet the chalky, pastel colours are gleeful, the roughly modelled figures like plasticine borrowed from the toybox.

For Glasgow School of Art, De Jong's starting point is uncharacteristically positive. "What I'm interested in is power," he says. "It can be a political power, an economic power, but also a cultural power. In this case, if you look at the characters of Charles Rennie Mackintosh and his wife, the fact that Glasgow School of Art is still active after 150 years has something to do with them. They are individuals who did something in the past that still plays a role in our reality. And that is powerful."

Invited to Glasgow, De Jong was inspired by the unique gallery at the heart of Mackintosh's art school. "It's like a theatrical space," he says, "where you enter in the centre, and suddenly you're in a play." The artist is no stranger to theatre; beginning his career as a performance artist, his art is still brimming with drama. When I visit, his studio is filled with half-made costumes – his first such commission – for an avant-garde Shakespeare production in Stratford upon Avon.

De Jong is still toying with ideas for how to arrange his characters, whether on Mackintosh chairs, or scoffolding, or a ladder. He shows me period photographs which he is working from, some of women in Glasgow School of Art and one of the Dutch queen. He hints that Margaret's face owes much to an iconic female death mask of the time, L'Inconnue de la Seine. But the biggest reference in this work, he feels, is the gallery itself.

"Usually I use more links or objects or symbolisms related to historical moments, or historical characters, but in this case I could only think that they would come back to that space, multiplied, and what would happen then? Something scary maybe, or something fantastic, to see them right on the spot."

And so the artist is multiplying his two characters, pouring expanding foam and pigment into the same silicone moulds as they get progressively more damaged, to produce figures which will be chopped up and glued back together in a variety of poses. "I like to refer to the idea of mass consumption," he says, "and how artists like Rodin and Degas used these reproduction techniques to make more than one. I like to talk about this taboo subject in art, that is also part of this mass consumption society. The material doesn't like to be pressed in the mould because it's expanding, so you get this oozing effect, and every time the mould is getting weary. So I like to show that it is self-destructive, the process of mass consumption."

The medium is a serious part of the message for De Jong. Since 2001, the artist has made his name on the international stage as the sculptor who works in styrofoam. "I was first interested by the colour of it," he explains. "It's a baby blue colour; it's very light; it expresses kindness to me. But then I realised that there is another side to it."

Styrofoam was developed to keep warships afloat, the artist explains; in America it was made by the same company which produced Napalm and Agent Orange, and in Europe by the company that developed the gas used in Nazi extermination chambers, Zyklon B.

"When you research on BASF," he says of the latter, "they want to create this romantic, natural history, but at the same time if you look at the chemicals that were used for warfare purposes, or the second world war death camps, you realise that these companies are only interested in one thing, and that's profit."

It doesn't stop there. The production of styrofoam releases toxic chemicals. The finished product can't be recycled and won't decay. But although he's keen to expose the evils of this material, the artist finds himself in the strange position of producing it himself. He shows me two big buckets of "A component" and "B component", sitting among ranks of chemical bottles in the corner of the studio.

"I call this the dirty workshop," he says, "and I wear this gas mask when I'm working with the chemicals. It goes against my nature. It's harmful to the body. When you look around here, visually it looks very attractive, but it's not meant to be attractive. It's against my feelings to work with it, so I have to go into this state of mind, to enter a dialogue with this material, to exploit it in a way that I can communicate with it."

Styrofoam is profoundly paradoxical in De Jong's hands. He may hate it, but he clearly loves it too. "I think I have found a way to take it out of the context of its industrial purpose," he explains, "and to disarm it, beautify it, exploit it in a way that it's not meant to be. There are beautiful things happening with it."

De Jong shows me the soft, silicone moulds he has made from mannequins sculpted with clay. To make his figures, he brushes pigment on to the inside of the moulds and, gas mask on, he mixes the chemical components. He then has less than a minute to pour the foam into the mould before it becomes rigid, taking the colour with it in its bulging flow.

"I like that it's a bit mechanised," he says of the colour, "that I add it without making an artistic effort. I like that I'm in between this production process and the artistic process, and where normally an artist would stop, for me it's the beginning of the next process."

I don't witness the toxic process for myself, but I am present at the birth of the head and torso of Margaret. De Jong takes his knife and slices his way through the bindings of the unopened moulds. "It feels a bit like I am still performing for myself," he says as he prises the two halves of the mould apart, and peels away the silicone to reveal an explosion of colour underneath.

"There she goes," he says, brandishing the head at arm's length. It's a moment of revelation, as we see for the first time how the pigments mixed and flowed inside their silicone cocoon. She is beautiful, a symphony in pink and purple, bathed in light for the first time. She can't, surely, I think to myself, be fated for one of De Jong's nightmarish tableaux. Or then again, maybe she can.

Folkert De Jong: The Immortals is at the Mackintosh Museum, Glasgow School of Art, from April 20-May 7 as part of the GI Festival. For the full programme, see www.glasgow interntational.org

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