Hans Op de Beeck
Sally O'Reilly | Frame, 15 September 2005
There is a universal experience of language that transcends all borders. If you repeat a single word it eventually becomes senseless, bizarre even.
This unease is generated by the commingling of the familiar and the unfamiliar. A common word wrenched from the anchor of its context becomes dislodged, unstable and essentially alien; meaning buckles in deference to sound, the hardness of the ‘c’ and the rattle of the two ‘t’s dominate our experience of the word. We begin to understand how the word must sound to someone who does not speak the language.
Reiteration as an alienating process has been discussed much throughout the twentieth century, from the moment of déjà-vu to digital simulacra, parallel universes to genetic cloning. When you meet your doppelganger you are supposed to die, but then again you can never dip your foot in the same river twice. Repetition is monstrous in that it is improbable, yet forever pending. Reconstructions, as a special case of repetition, can be useful – as an appeal for witnesses to crimes, for instance – or sick, as in the case of copycat murders. The work of Hans Op de Beeck falls between these extremes, however. His images and objects constructed from memories and archetypes create an atmosphere that is more like disembodied language: odd, with an unspecified threat of disorientation or disembodiment.
Location (5) (2004) is an approximation of a motorway service station made on a scale of 1:1. The viewer enters the space, sits at a table, listens to the radio and looks out of the window at the motorway – all inside the gallery space. Op de Beeck lets us know, though, that this is not intended as a convincing rendition of a real place: the generic burgers and non-specific drinks on the menu would never be condoned by any marketing executive, neither would the matt-black interior décor. The trickery of the motorway apparently seen through the window has been achieved by streetlamps that diminish in size and a foreshortened road. But is it the canniness with which the illusion has been pulled off or the uncanniness of its effect that dominates? Is it the familiar, generic vocabulary of European road travel or the disquieting gaps and contradictions within this specific encounter that governs our experience? Throughout his work, Op de Beeck oscillates between the universal and the singular, the recognisable and the strange – in short, he courts the uncanny.
Walter Benjamin talks about the aura of an object arising from the transposition of human-to-human relationships onto human-to-object relationships: ‘The person we look at, or who feels he is being looked at, looks at us in turn. To experience the aura of an object we look at means to invest it with the ability to look back at us.’ In the language of film, a haunted or bedevilled house is often viewed from the outside, the camera pointing upwards to imply that there may be someone inside looking at us from a higher vantage point – the classic mad woman in the attic, perhaps. Op de Beeck’s diminutive models, on the other hand, afford us, the gallery viewer, the prioritised position with the all-seeing overview. Modernist literature departed from its nineteenth-century counterpart with respect to these relative positions of author and reader. The traditional role of the author was that of ubiquitous narrator, through which the relevant events and information were relayed to the reader. In contrast, the stories of Franz Kafka, for instance, do not seem to be full accounts of a situation, but partial interpretations. The protagonist, and even the writer, appear to have only a fractured understanding of what is going on, as if they too are caught in the flow, experiencing things as they happen, rather than up in the umpire’s chair with a clear understanding of cause and effect. Op de Beeck talks about his constructions of reality in relation to this: a park or an interior patchily pieced together from memory is more of an honest reflection of what it is actually like to be in the weft and weave of the world. We rarely have a sense of overall pattern or direction until an episode is truly over, at which point its clarity starts to fade and a different sort of uncertainty takes over – that of hazy memory, exaggeration and auto-suggestion. And it is in this state of submergence that we find ourselves surrounded by so many auras: no longer are we watching out for the all-seeing eye from above, but are instead surrounded by the reflexive mechanisms of surveillance embedded within a system.
Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon was a utopian, yet ultimately hegemonic, surveillance device. His circular prison architecture was designed from a central point, the corridors radiating outwards, so that the centre offered an authoritarian position of omnipotence. Unlike Kafka’s autocratic meta-structures, immersion within Bentham’s panopticon was empowering, with everything arranged on the horizontal. You could take this as a metaphor for the artist, who places him or herself in the centre of a self-made universe. Op de Beeck, on the other hand, confuses things by inviting the viewer to bring meaning to the work too, placing us alongside him at the central point, our associations flying in all directions. The motorway café, for instance, is something we all recognise, prompting recollections of anticipation, disappointment, boredom and contentment. We are implicit in identifying and generating meaning.
A triangular moment of espionage occurs in Determination (1)(1996), between artwork, artist and viewer. On the motorway one day, a young boy in the back of his parents’ car made eye contact through the rear window with Op de Beeck as he drove behind. Instead of the usual waving or obscene gestures, this boy had a beguiling earnestness, a mysterious seriousness. Op de Beeck reconstructed the situation with an actor and filmed it from his viewpoint, as before, in the car behind. When installed as a projection there is a confusion of object and subject, as Benjamin’s aura is palpably communicated to us through the boy’s gaze. Op de Beeck has often employed this undermining of orthodox relationships between viewer and viewed; we quite often feel like an interloper, as if the artwork is not intended for display but intruded or stumbled upon. In Insert Coin – (For Love) (1999) an arcade machine, when fed with money, plays a peep-show film of a reticent stripper. The woman lounges glumly, refusing to play up to us, the audience. The norm has been subverted as the artwork revolts. In Room with a View (2001) the landscape becomes a representation of itself through the viewers’ own efforts. A small hut or hide with a large window gives onto the artist’s favourite framing of a field and distant woods, so that the very act of looking takes on the role of medium and genre.
Another cornerstone from which to construct unfamiliarity or mystery is, of course, the night. Darkness masks, envelops, empties and subverts, like the mechanisms of memory. Op de Beeck is sensitive to the evocative potential of night, though, using it sparingly. Many of his staged memory pieces – table-top models of half-remembered places – are boldly lit; few require darkness to play up their peculiarity. Location (1) (1998), however, requires the depopulated night to make its point. A model of a traffic intersection is deserted, yet the traffic lights continue their diligent cycle through red, amber and green. The hegemony of stop and go becomes something to question when the danger it is intended to overcome is absent. We have probably all wondered whether it is such a crime to jump a red light in a deserted street, but nevertheless acquiesce to the law with the unease of the watched.
This anxiety towards control, technology and the state recurs in T-Mart (2004) at MuHKA, Antwerp. In collaboration with the writer Joost Zwagerman, Op de Beeck devised a new brand: a hypermarket that sells everything, a general store of the most general kind. Op de Beeck’s facet of the project was a model of an archetypal Belgian superstore, with low, sprawling, windowless, brutalist architecture and the delicacy of something plonked. The car park is optimistically large and empty; ironically, it is the empty parking lots at night that makes us more aware of potential excess than if it were full. The roof of the supermarket itself has been removed to reveal the empty shelves and deserted aisles within. Op de Beeck can identify the clothing section, the fresh produce and electrical goods – this is a model of something that could feasibly function, but again, the absurdity of unquestioned systems becomes apparent when that which is to be systemised is removed. An animation is projected from the gallery ceiling onto the model interior so that the floor plan becomes a graphic environment for digital events: a line of light scans the model, single pixel-like points follow the rectilinear grid of the shop layout, like a Pac Man game, strobes, dilations and glances of light dance over the model like frantic analytic activity. When activated like this the scale of the model interior becomes ambiguous. Are we looking at a supermarket or a housing estate or electronic circuitry?
The ghost in the machine is now rather a cliché, but here we seem to be confronted with machine as ghost, surveying and controlling the concentric rings of digital, human and architectural scale. In his post-Freud update, The Uncanny, Nicholas Royle talks of the unheimlich as ‘a crisis of the proper and natural, it disturbs any straightforward sense of what is inside and what is outside. The uncanny has to do with a strangeness of framing and borders…’. This seems to be the crux when thinking about the mysterious in Op de Beeck’s work. He draws lines around the work that include us within its function and structure; the world is reframed so that familiar relationships are defamiliarised, tainted with what we suspect has been laying in wait for some time.