Hans Op de Beeck: Meanwhile…
Zoe Gray | Modern Painters, 5 May 2004
Proudly presented as his first solo museum exhibition, the Hans Op de Beeck show at the GEM opens with a retrospective of six silent video works. Some consist of unexpected moments fortuitously caught on camera. Others are carefully staged scenarios with a recurring theme of frustrated movement. Of the latter, Situation (1) - a panning shot of check-out girls waiting at their tills without a customer in sight - is one of the slicker and more orchestrated works, reminiscent in atmosphere of Andreas Gursky’s photographs of overstocked supermarket shelves with an air of melancholy infecting the brightly lit space and permeating the multicoloured packaging. In Insert Coin (for love), a bored go-go dancer spins slowly on her pedestal, yawning and stretching her black-clad limbs, as she waits for the punters to galvanise her into action. Without an audience, like the check-out girls without shoppers, her task is rendered pointless and she is caught in the relentless loop of the video.
Two further segments of impromptu footage share this sense of limbo, but are less original, the artist assigning clichéd roles to his unsuspecting protagonists. In Determination, a boy stares out of the real-windscreen of a moving car, his gaze challenging the viewer to look away first. In Coffee, an elderly couple barely exchange glances, let alone words, over their drinks in a sterile café. Blender, on the other hand, is a magical piece of whimsy. A fairground carousel starts to turn and despite a lack of children to ride its graceful white horses, the film converts this futility into breathless poetry. The image blurs as the roundabout spins faster, the effortless stampede gradually blends together and disappears. Slowly the action is reversed, and the horses return to their starting point. As with the other videos, particularly Determination (4) - which shows a family hurrying through a void towards the camera without ever coming any closer to it - Op de Beeck frames his moving subjects at a fixed point in the viewfinder, highlighting the juxtaposition of movement and stasis. Annoyingly, the sound of the film projected in the next gallery interrupts the contemplative air established by these opening pieces. Yet certain phrases from its script resonate through the exhibition. One voice refers to the ‘banal chronology with its big and little stories’, another describes how ‘the slowness comes to a halt’.
That film is My Brother's Gardens, ostensibly the story of three brothers and the record of the garden that one of them designs and re-designs to the point of obsession. Beautifully written, with clunky symbolism that is deliberately literal, the film delights in its own theatricality (like Lars von Trier's Dogville) and is a testament to the power of the artist. At its core is a series of beautiful drawings (some of which are presented in the subsequent gallery) charting the progress of this imaginary garden. Accompanied by a haunting Tallis score, they morph together to form a hypnotic vision of nature and creation. Their fictional author describes with jubilation his realisation that if he ignores the seasons, he can bring together whichever colours and flowers he wishes. Similarly, in his own work Op de Beeck refuses to stay faithful to realism, flitting between beguiling mimesis and the obviously fictional, most evidently in a new installation, created especially for this exhibition, entitled Location (5) - a life-size replied of a service station café overlooking a trompe l'oeil motorway. Certain formal elements of the installation recur in the film and the atmosphere of the earlier videos is present again: that awful sense of travelling without moving. Whilst avoiding a narrowly biographical reading of My Brother’s Gardens, or indeed of any of the artist's works, one cannot help but hear his voice in the line ‘Without melancholy, I would cease to exist’.