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Organic Engines: Speaking with Artist and Sculptor Eric van Hove

Bridging the gap between the handmade and the industrial.

Dozens of local craftsmen helped Morocco-based artist Eric van Hove build a replica of a Mercedes-Benz 6.0-liter V-12 out of bone, wood, ebony, malachite, silver, and various other materials (below). The work looks to bridge the gap between the handmade and the industrial; his latest endeavor, a quad-turbo diesel engine from a Caterpillar bulldozer (above), is even more complex and ambitious. Van Hove says engines make sense as art because even in remote regions of the world, they’ve spread to become a part of everyday life.

AM: This V-12 is such a monumental project. Did you go into it with any experience working on cars?

EvH: Not exactly. My father was an engineer, and he tried to get me into fixing cars. I never really got passionate about it, but somehow it caught up with me later on. I’m generally interested, but there’s also the dynamics of progress.

V12 Laraki engine van hove 05
Photo of V12 Laraki: FranÁois Fernandez

AM: What do you mean?

EvH: The socioeconomics behind making cars. Buying them, running them, these ideas are core to what modernity is about. Engines in the 20th century have spread everywhere, even in the most remote regions, where a moped engine might bring water up a well. An engine is part of everyone’s present. Everyone can be included in it because they understand it.

AM: So there’s something universal to an engine that makes it a good subject for art.

EvH: An engine is about gathering a lot of parts. Some are very small and tiny, some big. Almost invisible. Some are very important. You need all of them, and they need to fit perfectly for things to run. I was sensitive to an engine as a metaphor for the world, composed of many individuals and cultures of different shapes and sizes. But they need to work together in order to move forward.

V12 Laraki alternator 02
Photo: Keetja Allard. Alternator made from copper, silver, tin, cow bone, wood, sandstone, cow’s horn, ram’s horn, cotton, resin, glue

AM: How did that inspire you to work with craftsmen in Morocco? There’s obviously a big contrast between that handmade aesthetic and the industrialized machines made by Mercedes-Benz.

EvH: Morocco made sense because it has a huge diversity of crafts, and I wanted to represent Africa in a way that’s different from the image most people have. Craftsmen carry tremendous heritage but have a hard time finding a place in modern society. The Mercedes V-12 fit because of its relationship with Morocco and its history, with Abdeslam Laraki and his mission to make a 100 percent Moroccan-made supercar, the Laraki Fulgura, for the 2002 Geneva auto show.

AM : But using a German engine means Laraki kind of cheated, right?

EvH: Exactly. The Fulgura was almost all Moroccan. So I had to finish the part he didn’t, 100 percent in Morocco.

AM: How does an artist get his hands on a 6.0-liter Mercedes V-12?

V12 Laraki intake manifold 01
Photo of intake manifold: Keetja Allard. Manifold made from yellow copper, cow bone, tin, glue

EvH: After a year and a half of talking with Mercedes, they couldn’t get me an engine. So I went to Latvia and found a mechanic with an S600 that took [out] a tree. I bought its V-12, got it to Brussels where it was taken apart, and hauled it in the trunk of my car to Marrakech.

AM: Sure.

EvH: Eventually I found a local mechanic in a little mosque. This guy had never touched anything but inline-fours, so when I opened my trunk he almost collapsed. Within 10 days we have the whole engine scattered on the ground, and every time we’d open up a new part, he’d say, “Oh my God, look at this. How can they make it so precise?” He was falling in love, like he could have slept with some of these pieces in his bed.

AM: How many parts were there in all?

EvH: About 465 parts. Craftsmen came in from all over the country, and they’d select them one by one based on their own materials and affinities. I tried to get every material and every technique that’s used in Morocco today.

AM: It sounds like you put the people together as much as the pieces.

EvH: Right, and it turned into an almost archaeological process, of going from person to person, backward from the finished industrial product and reducing it to its basic roots of shape and size. Many of these craftsmen can’t read, so they’d need the original in their hands. Once they had that, they could do miracles.

AM: And how long did it take to make and assemble everything?

Photo: FranÁois Fernandez. Flywheel made of nickel silver, yellow cooper, tin, cow’s bone, glue

EvH: It took nine months, and at the end it was a kind of consecration. I can’t even tell you what it was like, how people moved around it. All of these materials and techniques that make up Morocco itself, from Jewish to Andalusian and southern Saharan traditions, the whole millennium of history is represented. And some of these individuals who work bone, because their father worked bone and so forth, they suddenly saw that in an air filter their piece fit perfectly with the wood part, which fit plugs perfectly in the copper part, and on and on. It was a utopian moment.

AM: You all must have been hugely proud at the end of it.

EvH: Yes, and there’s another reason why. Arabs throughout the world think of Mercedes as the brand of perfection, the highest form of industrial design and engineering. These craftsmen are at the bottom, working with Chinese tools they fix themselves, managed to duplicate that. Seeing the whole engine reassembled, watching the crankshaft and pistons move, meant that everything was right.

AM: Wait, you’re saying it actually turns?

EvH: It did, but not anymore. A good 50 percent is made of living materials, like the block that’s made from cedar. So the engine moves over time; it keeps breathing. We took something that’s been drawn and redrawn and engineered for a century and remade it with materials and know-how that’s matured and evolved on its own over thousands of years. That’s how the engine functions as a bridge between Western and African cultures, fused in a way you rarely see.

AM: Can you elaborate on that?

EvH: Fifty-seven craftsmen worked on this, so directing it was like conducting a symphony. The only way we could make this thing greater than ourselves was to do it collectively. Like the real Mercedes engine, it’s a work of collective intelligence. That idea is cornerstone of the atelier I created from all this.

AM: So some of these are the same craftsmen you hired to build the D9T Caterpillar engine?

d9t caterpillar engine van hove 08
Photo: Lieven Geuns

EvH: Yes, the Caterpillar D9T was in my mind for a while. It’s an 18-liter monster. I read once how the D9 is used in a lot of war zones. It’s interesting as a civil machine that can be adapted for military use, something that’s used both for construction and destruction. Those are two things really core to art in general.

AM: Is there anything else we can look forward to?

EvH: Right now the project is to make an electric motorbike that will actually function. It’ll be using the same craftsmen and materials, but we’ll mix in some 3-D printing as another kind of tool for when superprecision is needed. A craftsman can do something almost perfectly, but then there’s always a flaw. Then again, I really like the flaw because that’s what makes it shine, what makes it human. Perfection can be a dead end of endless boredom. Imperfection can bring back stories within machines.

Photo Courtesy

FranÁois Fernandez

Keetja Allard

Lieven Geuns