Hans Op de Beeck: In their minds...
Nicole Klagsburn | Modern Painters DC, 3 April 2005
The Belgian artist Hans Op de Beeck is fascinated by the knowingness of children rather than their innocence. Instead of pursuing a sanitized vision of bright plastic or singing animals, he deftly charges the unselfconscious fantasies that are specific to the young. Skilfully using a variety of media, Op de Beeck explores the inherent difficulty of making the territory of the child’s imagination real.
The sculpture Car (2005) resembles a coin-operated ride found outside a suburban grocery store. Painted black, its headlights glow gently, like a friendly firefly in an anime film. Its counterpart Helicopter (2005) could pass for a macabre tropical fish. Suddenly they churn slowly to life, striking a delicate mix of understated menace and intrigue.
One of Op de Beeck’s recurring motifs is the carousel – the iconic staple of circuses and fairs with only a vaguely discernable purpose. In Merry-go-round (2005), a thirteen foot tall carousel is shrouded in black curtains. Utterly still and silent, it’s like a dormant testament to pleasure postponed. With little ornament, the object becomes a monument to the shifting nature of what we think we want.
The carousel is very much alive in Blender (2003), a video where a deserted merry-go-round begins to spin faster and faster until it becomes a blur of light before mercifully slowing down and coming to rest. The theme-park organ soundtrack heightens the sense of funhouse paranoia; a few clowns is all the scene needs to complete the descent into full circus panic.
But Op de Beeck isn’t concerned simply with fright and displacement: he draws terrains that are faintly fantastic and look as if they might evaporate like the memory of a dream. Abandoned swings and docks projecting into clouded water are set in grey landscapes that could be storyboards from a Bergman film.
Determination (New York Kids) (2003-5), is a series of lightbox photographs of children’s faces set against a black background. Their eyes are closed; they’ve been asked by the artist to imagine they are someone or somewhere else. Their sly grins are mischievous and alive. Empowered with their secret they are liberated from adult condescension and the strictures of their size. With its mix of sweetness and willfulness, and freedom from cynicism, it’s one of the most compelling portraits of children since Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959).
Op de Beeck’s understanding of the power of fantasy play for children is the foundation for the success of this work. The vividness of their desire unexpectedly reveals our collective tendency to misunderstand our own past.