Hans Op de Beeck: the Twilight of Illusions
Evence Verdier [Transl. C. Penwarden] | Art Press, 1 September 2005
While the works of Hans Op de Beeck are tinged with melancholy, they are as far from Georges Rodenbach’s poetics of the “dead city” (Bruges la Morte) as they are from Beckett’s desolate universe. His ensembles comprising sculptures and sound, his drawings and videos and his photographs are all presented in such a way that viewers can take a distanced perspective on their disillusioned aspect. The Flemish artist will be exhibiting at the Kunstverein, Hannover, from November 26, 2005 through January 29, 2006.
Visual remnants, traces of situations either dreamed or lived, the sculptural propositions of Hans Op de Beeck take effect by a process of decreation and by putting the viewer in a position where, as with the models presented at chest height, it is particularly easy to project onto them. A series of operations of reduction and subtraction produce generic places that are devoid of formal or diegetic details, and have no obvious “artistic touch.” Because the places are without geographical locus, they free the imagination. Given the very real senselessness and alienation of our daily urban experience, what else could the artist do but abandon mimesis? As Jacques Rancière has written, “the move away from mimesis does not betoken a rejection of figuration [and] realism does not mean an emphasis on resemblance so much as the destruction of the frames in which it functions.” The point of Op de Beeck’s work is to make us aware of these contexts that mould our behavior and shape our sensibility. His theme is our undying fidelity to models. His pieces are plain simulacra, not tricks. Their point is to present forms that not only provide an ironic description of the absurdity of everyday situations, but also communicate the desire to invent and experience another reality. This desire can be found in the gap between what is fixed and what still moves, still fights inertia.
Location 1 (8 square meters, 1998) represents a deserted, night-time landscape where roads intersect in an aura of bluish light enlivened only by the blinking of traffic lights. In Location 4, we are invited to sit on a bench and look through a window in the shape of a movie screen. What we see is a dilapidated crossroads in a ghost town where, much to our surprise, a fountain bubbles up. Hans Op de Beeck systematically disrupts the stasis of his no-man’s-lands with a moving element. In Staged Memory 1 (2000) the statue in his model of his childhood schoolyard seems to be watching over a red balloon that has been left there. This is like a red light, an injunction to stop disobeyed only by the clouds floating across the sky. Life continues elsewhere, on the screen of the “enchanting illusion,” but Hans Op de Beeck has taken care to give the beholder a narrator’s viewpoint: an overview that makes the viewer the mobile element that contrasts with the fixity of the model.
Hans Op de Beeck replaces the outside world with a “mental aquarium” inhabited by shadows of the real. A case of absurdity versus illusion. Room with a View, the permanent sculpture environment that he made for the Belgian town of Aarschot in 2001, is a small house made to hold one person. Inside, they can sit in front of a panoramic window and take in the landscape. The frame delimiting the view ensures an aesthetic experience in the instant, rather than leisurely contemplation after the moment. If it is true, as we are told in the video Loss (2004), that “the idea of leaving a trace is an illusion,” then no doubt the best way of resisting the real would be to learn to “love the silent slippage of time.”
As in the world conjured up by Maeterlinck who, according to Bachelard, “worked on the borders of poetry and silence, where the voice is minimal, in the sound of still waters,” we are there waiting for something to happen. Determination 4 (1998) is a silent mural video in which we see, life size, a couple and two children walking and running, their feet exactly at the level of the real floor. Their movement is perpendicular to the wall, towards us. They stand out against a white monochrome ground and the absence of perspective means that they seem to be walking on the spot for the nearly eight minutes of the video’s duration.
The image becomes a kind of mirror making our own movements seem uncertain. In the video piece Insert Coin (For Love) (1999), the spectator is asked to put the coin in the slot in order to see a peepshow. But the girl refuses to strip and leaves us with our voyeur’s curiosity and—this being the only possible “stripping” here— wondering about our own motives for wanting to see. Another kind of frustration is found in the video Situation 1(2000), where checkout attendants wait by their tills in an empty supermarket, with no work to do.
As it does for insomniacs, time here seems to stand still. The world put before us by Hans Op de Beeck seems to have lost all functionality, to be adrift between real space and the virtual space of representation. And the artist is gradually reducing the gap between the two. Location 5, a large-scale installation made on-site at the GEM in The Hague in 2004, then shown at Art Basel, comprises a night-time expressway diner some 20 meters long. The snack bar is closed, a radio is playing. Travellers can sit on the banquettes and look out onto a road edged with lamp posts. The scale and perspective are designed to offer a distant vista, inviting us on another kind of journey. Rather than the kind of place privileged by Baudelaire, this is one where setting suns are replaced by strip lights. Hans Op de Beeck suggests that we stop, for a coffee maybe, and take stock of our lives. He produces non-places that are laid out so that we can forget and lose our sense of identity in the saturated representations that they generate (posters, objects for immediate consumption). Such non-places affect “our representations of space, our relation to reality and our relation to others” (Marc Augé).
The Metaphor of Drawing
In 2004 the artist showed a video projection at the Galerie des Filles du Calvaire, Paris, entitled Loss/Perte (2004). Its images included waves whose momentum seemed to want to carry them to the center of the space. At that center stood a pool not unlike the pond with water lilies also seen in the video. This sculpture which seemed to have been washed up by the video and the exhibition itself, in black and white, was like a three-dimensional drawing that it was the visitor’s job to colour in. Another metaphor of drawing is the video Blender (2003), showing a scene of “erasure” and recomposition: a life-size carousel of wooden horses starts spinning like the blades of the eponymous blender and, as they accelerate, they disappear into a blur of colours. Then the carousel starts spinning in the other direction and the horses gradually become distinct again. There is always an alternation of unmaking and remaking. The looped video evokes the incessant pendulum movement in which the identity of the image— like the meaning of life—is to be found between the beats of the metronome. Hans Op de Beeck’s stagings are in fact ways of putting today’s world in perspective (another allusion to drawing). TMart (2005), a work shown recently at the MuHKA in Antwerp, is a large-scale model (8 x 9 m) presented over a metre above the floor. It represents a night-time scene, a crossroads with a dark, deserted parking lot and, on the edge, a white cube. This houses a supermarket and has no roof so that we can see its internal layout, its aisles, shelves, escalators and crates. This same square is also used as a frame for a video projection. As the rays of light sweep across it, it looks like a card in an electronic circuit or an X-ray or surveillance device. Hans Op de Beeck composed his own music for this sculptural proposition in order to reinforce our feeling of being both nowhere and personally involved. The point is to destabilize the certainties that support the world as it is and change the way we understand it. As in all this artist’s pieces, the experience of suspended time is not an escape but, on the contrary, gives us the chance of a “deep way of feeling” which is conducive to the work of conceptualization that viewers are encouraged to undertake. As in the video Places (Gardening 2) (2004), a digital animation with the artist’s drawings in which the landscape is constantly changing in a succession of cross-fades, the point is not so much to show images as to represent the time of transition and the possibility of reformulating things. What could be more appropriate than drawings, models or twilight for evoking the focus on instability of meaning that characterizes the art of Hans Op de Beeck?