All together now...
Catherine Somzé | Next Level, 5 April 2007
The camera smoothly sweeps along a dinner table. The movement is slow and controlled, almost too perfect. We seem to literally float along the horizon line of the table’s white napery. None of the family guests seems to pay attention to our presence except for the groom who keeps on staring at us with a serious and questioning expression drawn on his face. A mundane cackling is heard as though it was a recording played at half-speed; speech has turned to growls and grunts, language into some new undecipherable dialect. The sequence finishes and another begins; Hans Op de Beeck’s video work All together now...(2005) portrays three different meals, three different rituals, taking place within three different social contexts. Marriage, birthday and funeral constitute the different family and community gatherings, which cross-section the fabric of contemporary society along the lines of class and age divisions. Yet, just as in his many other works, from photographs to scale models and installations, the tragicomic essence of everyday life constitutes the undercurrent of All together now... regardless of social origins and other group divides. Op de Beeck’s works draw their inspiration from the experience of modernity and constitute an invitation to think about its conditions of existence and the specificity of its ways of seeing.
As the artist comments: “The viewer’s perspective matches that of a guest taking part in the scene. He is invited to join the dinner in the manner of an observer.” Yet, the stylized settings and careful direction, lighting and camera works make it impossible for the viewer to mistake the video for a document of some genuine gatherings. “I wanted to put the spectator in a position that he immediately sees that this is a perfectly staged kind of surrounding, that it is artificial,” says Op de Beeck. However, as much as the scenes are staged, they convey a trustworthy sense of authenticity. We are drawn to participate, heckled by, among other visual devices, the insistent gaze of the groom in the marriage sequence. Yet - do we feel fully involved?
The smooth movement of the camera, the incomprehensible soundscape and the artificial lighting establish a clear distance between us, the viewers, and the rest of the guests. We are put in a situation in which we feel alienated from what is happening before our eyes. This is a piece that forces us to become spectators of our own life. “With All together now... I wanted to talk about something that I know thoroughly well. I wanted to stage aspects of my own background and hopefully they are universal enough to be recognized for other people,” he explains. Life becomes a panorama that we are invited to view from a privileged perspective. In this case, to be privileged is to be put in a familiar situation in such a singular way that we can once again feel alienated by it.
For, according to Hans Op de Beeck, alienation is not a negative outcome of modernity, it rather constitutes an epistemological strategy, the way to acquire a different knowledge of life and to grow towards a new level of existential consciousness. Reflection is only possible if we step back from reality and regard it from a distance. Then, we will be able to notice and value contemporary life for its specific beauty.
Solely by featuring the many minute gestures and attitudes performed by the guests, All together now... invites the viewer-listener to focus on the participants’ appearance and their aesthetic quality. These are the terms through which we are drawn to find new meanings in these characters and to interpret them anew. The same goes for our relation to the spoken word. Language here is distorted and our attention is captured by qualities that are not appreciated in daily life. Language becomes a new generative system of meaning in which texture and tone become signs to be interpreted.
However, as much as we try to understand the different sequences of the video, one is obliged to acknowledge the impossibility of actually making coherent sense of them all. Always touching, regardless of whether they irritate or amuse us, these images of different family and community meals ultimately highlight their sole expressive power in terms of pure performance. Hans Op de Beeck elevates their status to objects of aesthetic value while never hinting at the possibility of comprehending them in deeper terms. While constituting surface phenomena and the implications of multiple alternate meanings, the images fail to convey straight answers. Yet, according to Op de Beeck, the experience of this work mirrors a more general human condition: “We tend to humanize everything in order to get a grip on things, to tame and have control on them. But it’s always failing. It’s like this general human failure that is so terrible and so beautiful at the same time.” All together now… invites us to acknowledge this failure –as observed in the clumsiness and pathos of some of the guests’ gestures and attitudes—not in order to critique but in order to acknowledge the absurdity of life. And while doing so, one might enjoy the video’s sense of contemplation and surrender to the beauty of it all. For it is in acknowledging the failure of the self that we might also, paradoxically, understand our completeness, one that doesn’t need to be measured, but whose being is justified by its existence - the absurd fate of merely being human.