Hans Op de Beeck: My Brother’s Gardens
Marcus Verhagen | Art Review, 1 April 2003
Belgian art has long evolved in the force field between two major tendencies: a carnivalesque absurdism and a romantic pessimism. In the late 19th century, a period of real cultural effervescence in Belgium, the first tendency was best represented by James Ensor and his grotesque masked revellers, while Xavier Mellery and Léon Spilliaert exemplified the second with their bleak seaside towns and shadowy interiors. Now that Belgium is again emerging as a crucial node on the art circuit, the absurdist mantle has gone to Wim Delvoye, with his scatological humour and his taste for paradox and inversion, while the romantic strain has resurfaced in the work of Hans Op de Beeck. Like Mellery and Spilliaert a century ago, Op de Beeck is drawn to desolate places. He has made scale models of a dreary playground, an empty swimming pool, a deserted out-of-town road junction. What these lovingly detailed, vaguely agoraphobic visions suggest is that humankind is a messy, anomalous life form, out of step with an elemental stillness that will eventually overtake it - that may in fact have overtaken it already.
In his current show at Hales Gallery, the artist presents a 35-minute video piece entitled My Brother's Gardens, his first narrative work. The story revolves around three brothers, the twins Mark and Eric and the autistic Koen. The twins are restless, Mark, who doubles as the narrator, left his partner three years ago: the warmth and stability she offered filled him with dread. Eric moved to another country, where he bought a large property. He had great plans for the garden, but then lost the use of his legs. He has since been sitting at a window in his wheelchair, exorcising his restlessness by drawing an endless sequence of imaginary gardens. Koen is the most rooted of the three. As a teenager, he embarrassed visitors to the family home by lying on the floor and masturbating. Now he swims with a grace that surprises Mark.
The day Eric dies, Koen draws for the first time. After the funeral, Mark sits at his brother’s window and he, too, prepares to draw. On Eric’s death, his creative compulsions have plainly passed to his brothers. Throughout, Op de Beeck presents sexual intimacy as a danger and a brake on the imagination, but filial love as a safe haven.
During the middle portion of the video, Op de Beeck’s narrative is interrupted by a long sequence of animated garden designs, drawings that merge and morph to the strains of Thomas Tallis’s Spem in Alium. A barren wilderness turns into a breezy meadow and then a formal garden. A fountain takes shape and then mutates into a statue before the garden lapses into a featureless expanse of snow. These, presumably, are Eric’s drawings. Here are circular motifs: round pools and hedges, trees arranged in circles. They underscore the restlessness tinged with impotence that drives Eric to make drawing after drawing. But here Op de Beeck’s pessimism is qualified by a faith in the therapeutic power of art. Eric’s drawings attest to his disability and frustration, but they are also a consolation, just as drawing is implicitly a salve for his brothers as they mourn his death.
My Brother's Gardens is an ambitious piece, and the animated sequence in the middle is spellbinding. But it is difficult to escape the sense that the artist has overreached himself. In his writing, which is less sure-footed than his camerawork and drawing, he overplays his hand. The script insists on its soulfulness, the introspection is wordy. This is an absorbing show, but it leaves the visitor hankering for the more plain-spoken fatalism of Op de Beeck’s earlier work.