Parool PS | Artist Ivan Cremer

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Artist Ivan Cremer (1984) | in-depth interview


by Anniek van den Brand | Parool PS

“Artist Ivan Cremer: ‘In hindsight, architecture was a detour.'” Image by Maarten Kools.

As a child, artist Ivan Cremer (37) already found the Thomaskerk in the South to be a magical space. Now he exhibits in this place, paying homage to his grandfather, who built the church. ‘If you don’t want someone to tell you what you can or cannot create, I’m afraid you have to become an artist.’

His father is an example, he says on the phone. But before Ivan Cremer agrees to a conversation, he wants to make sure that we will talk about more than just ‘being Jan Cremers’ son.’ He has had that experience with interviews. “I would rather show you who I am through my art.”

That art is in the middle of the Thomaskerk. The seven-meter-high sculpture Origins that Cremer placed there, he built as a tribute to his grandfather. On three rough, gray concrete forms stand figures made of old building material, lifting each other up towards the sunbeam that comes through the roof of the church at that exact point. The light reflects on the aluminum. The artist, who asked to initially view the artwork without him in it, puts an almost childlike enthusiasm into asking what his visitor sees in it. He listens attentively, hums in agreement, nods, and only much later in the conversation does he reveal what he had in mind when he created it.

Just before that, the visitor stood at the entrance of the church. On the outside, a banner with Ivan Cremer’s image is displayed for the duration of the exhibition.

I almost dare not say it, but this is a typical case of: whoever sees the son, sees the father.

“You can say that if you want. My father is a wonderful friend and a great inspiration to me. That man is a force of nature, everything he does comes straight from his core. He has taught me important life lessons.”

Such as?

“Going your own way instead of walking the beaten path. Following your intuition, not making compromises.”

Quite challenging, not making compromises.

“Yes. It’s difficult to remain true to yourself, not to let your uniqueness dilute. There is so much noise around you—other people’s opinions, teachers, colleagues, clients. Societal structures easily lead you away from your core.”

You were an architect. Nowadays, you are an artist. Was architecture not your core?

“In hindsight, architecture was indeed a detour. But I learned a lot from it. Perhaps I had to take that detour to become who I am now.”

“My exhibition here, now, is a tribute to my grandfather. In a way, I am having a conversation with him.” Image by Maarten Kools.

How did you end up on that detour?

“My grandfather, Karel Lodewijk Sijmons, was an architect. He designed this church, the Thomaskerk. He built several Protestant churches, but this is his magnum opus, his life’s work. A truly modernist structure, one of the few in the Netherlands. This building came entirely from him; this building is my grandfather. I always found that fantastic. I wanted that too: to practice a profession where you create, establish authenticity, show strength. That became my ambition: to become an architect, just like him.”


“We no longer live in the 1960s. The profession has changed. My grandfather undoubtedly had to deal with a program of requirements when building this church: so many churchgoers must fit in, there must be a theater because there is a youth center attached. But his authority was recognized and respected. He didn’t have to give up his uniqueness.”

Did you have to do that in your time as an architect?

“The profession gave me too little freedom. Nowadays, everyone interferes with your work. You have to find your freedom within the often short-sighted motives of others—limited budgets, building regulations. Then there is little space left. In practice, it means endless compromises and compromising your ideas. I became very unhappy with that creative and intellectual poverty.”

You didn’t feel that way when you studied architecture at TU Delft?

“No, not at all. The education was fantastic, very free. The academic world of architecture is one of experimentation, philosophy, inspiration. In Delft, I learned to think about concepts, I got acquainted with all kinds of materials. I could be completely myself there; I loved it. I can’t imagine a better foundation. I still think the profession of architecture itself is great.”


“After my studies, I confidently knocked on the doors of architectural firms in New York with a portfolio under my arm. I was hired and worked sixteen hours a day on projects that never materialized. I’m a very positive person, but that made me incredibly unhappy. I was wasting my time and getting further away from myself. I felt that I was betraying myself, and at the same time, it seemed impossible to rediscover my dream. Everything inside me screamed that I had to pursue my own ideas, but I dismissed that dream as childish. Somehow, it was very difficult to dare to feel that this was indeed the path I had to follow. At some point, I couldn’t think clearly anymore; I was beaten down.”

After four years in New York, you went to Los Angeles.

“There, I could get a part-time job at a megalomaniacal architectural firm. That corporate world: a nightmare. The Office, but for real. I didn’t belong there. It was laughable and painful at the same time. I saw how people endlessly adapt to their self-imposed, meaningless structures. Fortunately, I had a good team with whom I worked on interesting assignments. And that job gave me the money to rent a studio and the time to get to work. Finally, I could execute all the ideas I had when I was building models in New York. Slowly but surely, I rediscovered myself. Until I knew again who I am in essence.”

Was that tough?

“Such a journey is, of course, not unique. But many people get lost along the way for good. They get distracted by money, status. I found out that I cannot fully live if I spend my time doing things I don’t really want to do. And living, that’s why we come to Earth, that’s the goal. That’s why I want my work to align with who I am, that my work is my life. That’s the lesson I learned from both my father and my grandfather, simply by looking at them. If you fundamentally don’t want someone to tell you what you can or cannot create, I’m afraid you have to become an artist.”

“There was a workshop in our house, and whenever possible, I was there, working on carpentry.” Image by Maarten Kools.

Sculptor, in your case.

“When you create a sculpture, simply put, no one can tell you what to do. It has to come from you. Besides the form, sculpting is also about the essence of the material. I want to know what the material can handle and what it cannot. I want to feel where it comes from and what it does. There is a specific energy in wood, in metal. I try to capture that, and it guides me.”

“In retrospect, you could say that I always had that in me. As a child, I would collect materials from the side of the road. There was a workshop in our house, and whenever possible, I was there, working on carpentry. At the age of two, my grandmother gave me a drill. Of course, my mother didn’t think that was such a great idea, but in a way, my grandmother saw it right. I still thrive on the sound of saws, on a hammer hitting steel; the smell of it, the smell of wood.”

“You moved from America to Leipzig.”

“The old soul of Europe, especially that of Germany, touches something in me that deeply inspires me. The oppressive history, but also how open the country is to art. I lived in Berlin for a while and heard that Leipzig has a real artistic climate. I found a studio in a ruin and a room in a dilapidated pre-war building.”

“How did the transition from architect to artist look like?”

“In my new hometown, I roamed the surroundings, searching for abandoned buildings and industrial ruins. There are many of them there. For my sculptures, I used the remnants of destroyed architecture. I literally built a new life from the remains of my old existence. The first series of sculptures I made in Leipzig was ‘Dancers From Oblivion.’ Ballet dancers give shape to emotions with their bodies. That was a big inspiration.”

“As a sculptor, you wanted to pay tribute to your deceased grandfather by exhibiting in his church.”

“He said about the Thomaskerk: ‘Everything I have to say is in this church.’ In my view, he let it be known that the architecture of this building tells the story so clearly that words no longer matter. I hope to achieve the same with my work: that you don’t have to add anything to it because it speaks for itself.”

“This church is a magical space; I experienced it that way as a child. On the outside, it may seem like an inconspicuous, yellow brick building, but the inside is a true work of art. Modernism and brutalism are huge sources of inspiration for me. My exhibition here, now, is a tribute to my grandfather. In a way, I am having a conversation with him.”

“Your grandfather was a religious man. Are you religious?”

“I am not religious, and the word ‘spiritual’ also has a connotation that I don’t resonate with much. But both my work and that of my grandfather are about a deeper layer; it is a quest for another truth. You could call that religious. Of course, my grandfather incorporated Biblical symbolism into the Thomaskerk. The sandy-colored concrete brick floor refers to the desert through which the Jewish people traveled to Israel, the undulating roof symbolizes the sea through which Moses led the Israelites, the twelve square windows represent the apostles, and the prism with a window in the ceiling, where a direct sunbeam falls for a few hours a day, refers to the Holy Trinity.”

“But this church is about much more. My grandfather was inspired by architect Le Corbusier, who built the Notre-Dame du Haut chapel in Ronchamp. He also worked with geometry and sunlight. During my architectural exploration in the Thomaskerk, I measured everything. The only elements in the space are the communion table and the baptismal font. At first glance, their placement may seem accidental. But I explored the space endlessly, and it turns out that they both stand in their own infinity point: in the Fibonacci spiral, the divine proportion. That refers to the infinite cycle of nature. This church is fundamentally about life and its origin. My grandfather did that consciously.”

“It seems like you were seeking contact with him.”

“During the research, I thought a few times: is this a coincidence, or is he guiding me? I wanted to unravel how he worked, what his thought behind this building was. After his death, no one could ask him that anymore. I really had to search for the answer.”

“The first thing I found was a report of his trip to Ronchamp. Then I found Le Corbusier’s Modulor, a mathematical approach that connects the proportions of humans and nature to architecture. That turned out to be the key with which I could understand and unlock the Thomaskerk. It was amazing. Then I drove to the Amsterdamse Bos, where I hadn’t been for twenty years, and accidentally ended up in the place that he – I heard later – had seen as an example of the ideal relationship between humans and the landscape: the Bosbaan, before it was widened. Three times in a row, such a coincidence, I found that special.”

“The sculpture I have placed here now is about the moment my grandfather dies. I want to capture the meaning of his work through the materials I use in conjunction with the play of light. I want to capture the moment when the architectural elements disintegrate in the light.”

“Choreography of the Origins,” a preliminary study of Cremer’s sculpture “Origins,” in bronze. Image by Maarten Kools.

Your grandfather is important to you. However, you were very young when he passed away.

“My grandparents have always been a great inspiration for me, and they still are. As a small child, I visited them frequently. Their house on Johannes Vermeerstraat was a universe for me. Sculptures were everywhere, and paintings and photos of my grandparents, along with artists in their studios, adorned the walls. They knew all the important international artists. Each photo had a fantastic story. My grandfather had a ship’s knife from the French sculptor Étienne Martin. I remember the photo of Martin in his studio very well, with chains and ropes to hoist his works. That’s how my studio looks now.”

“I was also allowed to go to exhibitions, like the one featuring Constantin Brâcusi, for example. My grandparents hosted parties attended by people like Willem de Kooning, Karel Appel, Jean Tinguely, and Niki de Saint Phalle. My grandfather was always searching for art. He made it a part of his architecture. Now I have placed an artwork in his artwork.”

“I was five when my mother told me he had passed away. During his last moments, the sun shone on his face, she said. I’ve always remembered that. Light was the most important element my grandfather played with. That became evident again when I explored this church.”

In the church, you present the ballet “Without Words” by choreographer Hans van Manen as a tribute to your grandparents’ relationship.

“My grandfather and grandmother met on November 26, 1944, during the Allied bombing of Euterpestraat, now Gerrit van der Veenstraat. The British were trying to destroy the archives of the Sicherheitsdienst, containing information about resistance fighters. My grandmother was there and fell to the ground. In the chaos, she saw my grandfather coming out of a house. They caught each other’s gaze, without words. Later, they collided on a street corner and recognized each other. From then on, they were together.”

“My grandfather was Protestant, and my grandmother was Catholic. At that time, a marriage between them was almost unthinkable. But no one could stop them. My grandmother was even disinherited because of her choice for my grandfather.”

“My grandfather had been deaf since he was twelve. He heard nothing and spoke little. My grandmother spoke for him. She was a flamboyant figure, and he was a well-dressed gentleman. They loved adventure. They drove to Paris in the middle of the night to celebrate the highest point of a sculpture by a friend sculptor. Like my parents’ relationship, theirs was very symbiotic; they were a powerful duo. In that sense, too, an example.”

You met your girlfriend in Leipzig.

“She’s from Uruguay and is an artist in the true sense of the word: uncompromising. With her, I experience the strength I saw in my parents and grandparents. It’s amazing. She understands that every night I go to sleep with a head full of plans and that I want the certainty that I can shape them in my own studio the next morning. And that’s what I live for.”

Ivan Cremer | June 10, 1984, Amsterdam

Ivan Cremer lives together with artist Silvina Rodriguez Amelotti (stage name Selvanara). They reside alternately in Amsterdam, Berlin, Leipzig, and Umbria.

1997-2003 Hervormd Lyceum Zuid

2004-2011 Delft University of Technology (TU Delft)

2011-2014 WORK Architecture Company, New York

2014-2018 AECOM Architects, Los Angeles

2015 Opens Atelier Cremer in LA

2018 Establishes himself in Leipzig; works and exhibits in Italy, Germany, and the Netherlands

2019/2021 Exhibits at the Amsterdam Sculpture Biennale ArtZuid

2021 Exhibits (until November 14) at the Thomaskerk, built by his grandfather, architect Karel Lodewijk Sijmons

Artist Ivan Cremer | In-depth Interview

Author | Anniek van den Brand

Publication | Parool | PS

Date | 1st of October 2021

Original Publication

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