Profile: Hans Op de Beeck
Sally O’Reilly | Contemporary #62, 1 June 2004
Sally O’Reilly meets the Belgian artist on the road to nowhere.
Location (5) is a reconstruction of a motorway service station: the snack bar is closed, a forgotten radio transmits its eclectic play list and the large picture window gives onto an empty highway where the orange-y sodium lights recede round a bend about 2 kilometres away.
In fact, the whole installation is ‘only’ 24 metres long. The entire scene is counterfeit – the booths have been fabricated, as has the deserted kitchenette and, amazingly, the landscape. The apparent perspective has been mocked up with a sculpted landscape bordering a model road with street lamps that decrease in size. The effect, if not totally convincing (the darkened interior is far too disorienting for a real public space), is evocative of the uncertainties of travel. Even in reality the motorway service station is a dehumanizing place, where all are reduced to the stereotypes of traveller and consumer, and individuality holds no currency. Op de Beeck has extrapolated this alienation further, reducing the writing on the menu to an unreadable language and the images of food to silhouettes of generic burgers and cups of hot drink. When you’re on the road choice is cornered by necessity, discernment buckles to contingency; here, however, the implication is a long, long wait for who-knows-what.
The on-the-road narrative is one of the twentieth century’s many nihilist inventions: it destroys plot structure and the denouement, essentially doing away with the need for stage-y scenarios. The heroics are in the will to journey itself, casting the hobo as the modern-day seer. Place gives way to the stretches in between, so that the journey is as important as the point of arrival.
Beckett’s Waiting for Godot takes place in one of these inter-places or nowheres; in fact many of Beckett’s characters hang in surreal limbos. The word Utopia, as invented by Sir Thomas Moore, means nowhere or no-place, and can be, strictly speaking, either good or bad, an expression of desire or fear. Op de Beeck’s service station is born out of a similar ambivalence when confronted with the unknown – the excitement of anticipation or sweaty foreboding.
All of Op de Beeck’s models are made from memory rather than strict observation. They are simulacra – copies without an original – in which the memory of mood is indistinct. The bombed-out Eastern Bloc buildings in Location (4) (2001) have no real predecessors, they are an evocation of type – grey brutalist structures engulfed in a mist that appears to billow to infinity, in contradiction to the optimistic fountain that spouts at the nearby crossroads. Often Op de Beeck creates an atmosphere that oozes a bittersweet melancholy that, like a mysterious smell, cannot quite be sourced. Staged Memory (1) (2000) and Staged Memory (2)(2000) are table-top model gardens in which the specifics – trees, a ball, statue or pond – are surrounded by empty spaces that the artist’s memory has not filled in. The construction is left bare, like a view behind a Western town’s frontage, so that we can see the edges where reality takes back over in the form of unmediated gallery space. It is like the long-view of a short story: we can see the framing of the narrative, where ‘once upon a time’ and ‘happily ever after’ take up their positions.
Op de Beeck talks about his appreciation of the two poles of literary narrative: the omnipresent narrator of a nineteenth-century epic and the viscous, internalized meditation of a Raymond Carver short story. In his own work, however, he favours the Carver approach – the representation of tiny incidents that might be analogous to a universal condition, like signposts of humanity. His selective eye for detail and refusal of absolute realism makes him more of a painter/novelist than a documentary or model maker. When sitting in the motorway service station, the eye is drawn to the horizon the other side of the window, as if it were a traditional landscape painting, golden section and all, while the predecessors of the foreshortened road range from Mantegna to Lucian Freud. Yet, unlike the epic painter, Op de Beeck’s processes of alienation, emptying and stultification bring him closer to Edward Hopper. His models, installations and even the videos hang within a sliver of time that could give way at any moment to event, while the space too is portentously charged, poised to accommodate some mysterious action.
And, like a fin-de-siècle painter or concrete poet, Op de Beeck employs symbolism and illusory space to promote the viewer’s subjective projection. The motorway service station, the public garden and the crossroads are incidental arenas in which our lives are played out, criss-crossing like disinterested traffic. In model or installation form, however, Op de Beeck carefully constructs the experience of encounter, maintaining the generic archetype that communicates to the majority, thereby allowing immediate access to fictional spaces, but incorporating just enough detail for the experience to be recognizable without being overly personal.
And, like Carver’s sad, desolate scenes, Op de Beeck often describes common failures or the uncomfortable reverse of a familiar coin: the futility of traffic lights running through their routine at night to an empty street, an abandoned ball in a deserted gym, a peep show stripper refusing to perform. Like a catalogue of rootlessness, the work is tinged with the existential: if not out-and-out angst, then at least an ache.
But when does the archetype become cliché? Op de Beeck likens the difference to painting a bowl of fruit. Dutch still-life painters rendered the fruit fecund, at its peak, so that now the rosy apple and moody plum have become the typical portrayal. Alternatively you could paint the fruit bowl empty, or before the fruit is ripe, which would produce a somewhat dead-pan image. On the other hand, you could paint the fruit when it has gone too far the other way, when it has started to decompose. The allusions to sex and death would be so over-wrought that the painting would enter the realm of hysteria. This is precisely what Op de Beeck experimented with in his video Situation (2) (2003): a successful businessman has a breakdown and ends up in a squat hanging out with junkies – a plot so well-trodden and characters so crassly delineated that the video tumbles head-first into (intentional) cliché. Usually, though, Op de Beeck’s videos are calm reconstructions of found moments, sometimes with actors, sometimes with people playing themselves. Determination (1)(1996) is a reconstruction of a motorway incident, when a young boy stared expressionlessly from the back window of his parents’ Mercedes, making contact with the artist driving behind him. By restaging the strangely prolonged and impassive connection Op de Beeck recaptures the atmosphere of accentuated alienation.
The artificiality of many of the videos and photographs are an attempt to cajole sublimated elements of authenticity from their subjects. Isolating a victorious cyclist or a running family against a white ground, while removing the context, accentuates nuances in the same way that a gallery wall elevates the art object. Similarly, by asking supermarket cashiers to act as themselves at their tills, Op de Beeck creates a situation in which their self-consciousness intensifies their self-projection, amplifying the minutiae of their movements and attitude. He likens this to the blatant manipulation of reality in filmmaking: ‘you see for example, a conversation in which you hear only the protagonists’ voices, but no background noise can be heard. These films are full of surreal elements, and yet, they keep a certain earnestness. Despite the fact of being artificial, they are not ridiculous.’ The cashiers are somewhat wooden and convey a pastiche of the pall of waiting and the stultification of work-a-day communication which Op de Beeck likens to the staged portraits of Holbein or Vermeer: ‘...one can look through the obvious fakeness to the person, who is real, even when posing. Maybe even thanks to the posing.’
For the series of overtly staged photographic portraits Determination (2) (1996), the sitters were instructed to adopt an absent state of mind and somehow convey this to the camera. Hands crossed limply in their laps, the sitters stare into the middle distance – that no-place where innumerable gazes must meet every second of every day. The sitters are at a mental ‘point zero’; they seem oblivious to their surroundings, occupying an intellectual and social nowhere. Op de Beeck wonders if perhaps consciousness is the artificial state that society forces us to occupy when, in fact, this drifting off is an automatic tendency to revert to our natural state. Is, he wonders, identity another absurd human construction?
Coffee (1999) is the only instance that Op de Beeck did not ask permission to film his subject, which he still feels is totally unethical and makes the piece uncomfortable for him to watch. But, he insists, the image of the elderly couple drinking coffee was too perfect to discard. As they sit either side of a table in an anonymous café (a motorway service station or an airport, perhaps), they barely talk to or even acknowledge one another. Are they bored to death or blissfully content? Op de Beeck doesn’t direct our reading, but leaves the ambiguity raw. For him authorship is completed by the viewer, he doesn’t feel the need to contrive outcomes: ‘fortunately my work is often misunderstood’. The running family, for instance, provokes empathy, horror, laughter and incomprehension in equal amounts – all correct responses as far as the artist is concerned.
So far, it would appear that Op de Beeck has been wary of the rather difficult status of narrative in art: the potential for stories is set up, the atmosphere hinted at, but the narrative impulse is never quite completed. Completion is one of the taboos in art, to be avoided in favour of ambiguity. Last year, however, he was working on a story about an autistic man who loses his legs and begins to draw gardens as an escapist pursuit that eventually takes over as a surrogate reality. Op de Beeck ignored prejudices against overt narrative (‘in art you’re not supposed to give so much away,’ he was warned), and intercut beautifully drawn animation with shadowy live action to make My Brother's Gardens, a quixotic story that, at times, topples into over-ripe romanticism. Here, Op de Beeck oscillates between pastiche and seriousness, knowingness and eager story telling. In this case the ambiguity lies not in the narrative reading, but the artist’s intention. Is this real saccharine or parody?
Recently Op de Beeck hitched a ride with narrative rather than driving it himself when he designed a set for a production of a Monteverdi opera in Düsseldorf. The set – a nineteenth-century park at night that anachronously incorporates video – engulfed both actors and audience. This stratification of fiction and reality (the real space of the audience, the fictional space of the opera, the virtual space of the video and each associated time structure) is a coalescence of many of Op de Beeck’s explorations into installation, genre-bending and literary atmosphere. How better to bamboozle the viewer, commandeer the moodiness of music and convey the absurdity of the human condition than pairing cool installation with baroque opera?