Nocturne: The Art of Hans Op de Beeck
Nicola Oxley and Nicolas de Oliveira | The Low Countries. Arts and Society in Flanders and the Netherlands, yearbook #16 (Ons Erfdeel, Rekkem), 1 April 2008
“A world which is not can not be called existing, because it is not.”
—Daniil Kharms, Incidences, 1993
The science fiction writer William Gibson1 is often credited with the invention and popularisation of the term ‘cyberspace’ through his novel Neuromancer. Cyberspace is indeed a metaphor that outlines a new conceptualisation of space after the advent of the computer, where massive amounts of data can be stored in comparatively small spaces. The concepts of linear space and time are jettisoned in favour of multiple, coexisting space-time narratives. The writer Anne Friedberg argues that “a ‘windowed’ multiplicity of perspectives implies new laws of ‘presence’– not only here and there, but also then and now – a multiple view – sometimes enhanced, sometimes diminished - out the Window.”2
The Belgian artist Hans Op de Beeck’s recent works echo this drive towards miniaturisation and multiplicity. Whilst the artist’s relationship with the physical or traditionally built model spans his entire career, it is the migration to digital animation in particular that marks the new body of work. The motif of the window appears frequently in the artist’s work, providing a two-way threshold between internal and external space; the shifts in the spectator’s positioning give rise to a subjective elsewhere in the orbit of the senses and highlights its phenomenological emphasis. Furthermore, the shift from day to night underscores the sense of displacement.
The Building (2007), a digital animation film, explores the seemingly endless spaces of a vast and uninhabited dwelling. The inward-looking rooms, corridors and stairwells are modernist in design, and display the cool detachment of civic architecture: designed for all, though for no-one in particular, creating a building type devised for collective- rather than individual identification. The resulting architecture creates a typology that reminds the visitor of every such building ever encountered, without actually lending the spaces any particular features, anything that actually identifies it as a place. Marc Augé argues that such a condition excludes any historical or social relationships. 3
As the animation guides the audience through the virtual space, the idea of architecture as a protagonist begins to take hold. The sightline or perspective does not refer to the experience of a spectator, but rather to the presence of a roving, disembodied eye, perhaps the eye of the building as it scrutinizes itself. The film theorist David Bordwell describes how perspective ‘creates … not only an imaginary scene but a fixed imaginary witness’.4 He claims that perspective ‘emerges as a central concept for explaining narration,’ and asserts that perspective is a ‘central and fully elaborated concept within a mimetic tradition’.5 The digital photographs Room (1), Room (2) and Room (3) (2007) extend Op de Beeck’s preoccupation with perspectival narrative: each image features a motionless figure placed in what appears to be an interior location. The stillness of the images promotes the reading that the characters are in between actions: no longer, and not-as-yet. The rooms are in fact digital constructions with the traditionally photographed figures inserted into them, melding real and virtual technologies. The 16:9 frame ratio reminds the audience of wide-screen film formats while the chiaroscuro of the subdued images is redolent of the film noir genre. Though the images owe their presence largely to digital technology, the one-point perspective appears to contradict these origins; in particular, this use of perspective has a strong association with quattrocento painting. This evocation of Renaissance painting shows perspective as narrative device, unsettling the technological roots of the image.
In his book Eccentric Spaces Robert Harbison speaks of architecture as a record of atrophied or undiscovered functions.6Buildings then do not solely provide the backdrop for human interaction, but are able to trigger narrative content. Indeed, examples abound in literature of buildings standing as the leitmotif for the plot. The Hypnerotomachia Poliphili by the 15th century author Francesco Colonna features no people at all, focusing entirely on the narrative developed by the gradual progression through an endless fictionalised building. ‘The order of chapters implies that the imagined buildings embody a more advanced kind of thought…by showing architecture in a more perfect use than can be met in actuality, imagining just the right life to go with it.’7 Similarly, the placing of a building at the centre of a book, provides ‘the scaffolding of automatic organization, for adventures in adjacent rooms that hang together by themselves’8. 'The idea of keeping all the characters prisoner in one lonely spot…depends perhaps on a decadent indoor sense of form, the book an invalid condemned to repetitions, immobile as a dying fire is.'9
Op de Beeck has explored the idea of the building as a central narrative device extensively in works such as T-Mart (2004-5), a large scale sculptural installation displaying the nocturnal lighting and cleaning patterns of a vast supermarket. The spaces are conspicuous by their absence of people. The architecture actually stresses the lack of human interaction, reminding us of is purpose and function. By omitting a key aspect of a familiar thing in its representation, it is rendered alien; the perceived ‘lack’ then becomes the central concern for the viewer, and we come to see what is patently not there. In this way, the buildings may be seen as a means of narrating the body through absence. In realism ‘we are invited to assume that what is outside the frame goes without saying’10 Op de Beeck’s architectonic work asserts the inverse: what is absent provides the key to the understanding of the work, and, as such, is its key concern, and what is unpresentable can never be depicted as itself; what is told or presented is often quite different in appearance from the meaning of what cannot be shown.
Technologies of scrutiny developed over recent centuries concentrate on what is out there: alien, other, or distant. Its devices make us able to travel elsewhere, to discover new places, or that allow us to look into the distance (binoculars) or the future (telescope). More recently, scrutiny has been directed inward, to the body. According to Christine Boyer, the systematic observation and management of the body's minutest functions serves 'to annihilate the materiality of the body' as a way of releasing the organism from its physical restrictions: 'a body evacuated, devastated, disintegrated, disappearing', a flight from the body into transcendence.
In cyberculture, argues Dani Cavallaro, 'the body is often conceived of as a fluid entity', stressing the body's lack of clear boundaries. Biosociality and technosociality are terms that challenge the principle of finitude: biosociality refers to the possibility of combining different organic matter to form bodies, while technosociality 'refers to the merging of nature and technology in a shared environment'.11 In cyberculture, the fascination with the body is related to the degree in which it is altered and infiltrated by means of technologies, which are themselves the product of changing social patterns, norms and practices. Accordingly, 'technology conceptualises and systematises the body in accordance with specific cultural requirements.'12 Furthermore, if the body is extended by technology, then it follows that its sensory faculties are stretched beyond familiar territories, beyond its own empirical knowledge. Here, the body remains in a state of perpetual becoming.
In the installations Extension (1) and Extension (2) (2007) Op de Beeck addresses the contemporary concern with technology: how it controls the body, and the way in which it is used as a tool to extend the body's perimeter. Extension (1) shows a white intensive care unit with a hospital bed and complex life-support equipment, while Extension (2) is a matt-black office environment replete with banks of computers, scanners, routers, cameras and endless cabling connecting the equipment. Both works feature handcrafted equipment that is reduced to a generic typology by the loss of detail and examine our physical dependence on - and extension by- technology. Technology is used as a tool to streamline productivity in our work, and as a life-preserver as we become infirm. The body then becomes a means of generating and transmitting streams of abstract data, where once it was productive of identity through social interaction. The individual suffers the loss of identity when the body's boundaries are dissolved, and it becomes chiefly a conduit for information feeding commercial, social or medical databanks.
For his short story Spa (2007), Op de Beeck uses the setting of a contemporary health retreat that can be seen as today’s equivalent of the 19th century sanatorium. Usually associated with the long-term treatment of tuberculosis, the sanatorium had a direct link with often terminal illness. Spas on the other hand, are associated with exercise, health and well-being. In its contemporary incarnation, the spa borrows from the clean aesthetic of the sanatorium, echoing its emphasis on architectural restraint and minimalism. Though stressing the vital aspects of the body, the spa medicalises human experience; the body becomes a host for symptoms that lead to the detection and cure of ailments. The body is thus truncated, it is split up into areas and zones of discomfort to be targeted by medical intervention.
Op de Beeck’s story recounts how an elderly scientist, Professor Verbeek, passes his days while at a luxurious health spa. The process of admission strips all ‘inmates’ of their identity, whilst supposedly lifting their everyday burdens. However, the professor's position is one of detachment from the location, which he describes as 'the place where your suffering is turned into a lifestyle product' 13 He strikes up an unlikely relationship with one of the nurses who discovers him standing by the bedside of another patient, after a nocturnal amble through the vast building. The professor scrutinizes her, as she lies dormant and linked up to a life-support machine. Here the machine seemingly acts as a benevolent extension to the human body; however, technology is also seen to be postponing the inevitable, as it confines the patient to the latter-day purgatory of suspended animation, literally a state between life and death. The tale has distinct parallels with Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, in which the central protagonist Hans Castorp visits a relative in a sanatorium, but ends up staying for seven years. Mann shows that his character comes to understand that one must go through the deep experience of sickness and death to arrive at a higher sanity and health.14
Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s drama, The Physicists also chooses a sanatorium as the location in which patients assume the roles of Albert Einstein, Isaac Newton and Johann Wilhelm Möbius (who believes King Solomon speaks to him).15 Though ostensibly a comedy about the cold war, it relies particularly on the tension between the characters’ sanity and madness. Op de Beeck’s story also narrates the growing, though essentially silent relationship between three elderly patients at the spa who leave the complex on expeditions to a nearby pedestrian bridge that crosses the motorway, to observe the traffic, whilst comically attired in their matching white terry-towel bathrobes worn over their clothes. What sets them apart from the other spa users is their resignation to existential boredom.
Roads and motorways often feature in Op de Beeck’s work and highlight the desire to escape one’s predicament, trapped in a limbo-like state of existence. Location (5) (2004), is an installation of a full-sized roadside café that straddles an empty motorway. Viewers are invited to take their places in booths and to look at the nocturnal scene below, echoing the experience of the three elderly characters in Spa. There is no means of escape, since there is nothing at the end of the road; there are only diversions conceived of as ways of appeasing boredom. The Swedish philosopher Lars Svendsen argues that boredom is the effect of culture’s inability to transmit meaning. ‘If there are more substitutes for meaning, there must be more meaning that needs to be substituted for. Where there is lack of personal meaning, all sorts of diversions have to create a substitute, an ersatz-meaning.’16 Our striving for diversion then ‘indicates our fear of the emptiness that surrounds us. This fear of the void runs through much of modernist and postmodernist culture, from Samuel Beckett’s plays to Georges Perec’s writings, from Hiroshi Sugimoto’s photographs to Iggy Pop’s song lyrics.
Hans Op de Beeck’s works often foreground entertainments, festive occasions and spaces for leisure: parties, dinners, fairground attractions, cafes, swimming pools and gardens. The artist challenges the diversional status of these activities and places, stripping them of the supposed pleasure and conviviality.
In the video The Stewarts have a Party (2006), a family spanning several generations is depicted 'having a party'. The participants are all dressed in white, they sit on white furniture in a shallow, featureless white space holding white balloons. The mood, however, is not joyful; instead, it appears that the whole family is simply going through the motions of a celebration. At a certain point in the narrative, a set of assistants appear, dressed in black, who proceed to attend to the family: they check their makeup and lightly brush their faces with stage powder. Thus, the story is interrupted, and the viewer's eye is drawn to the narratology of the scene. Narrative involves viewers in its artifice, while narratology exposes the artifice for what it is: a scene or event created solely for the purpose of viewing. The artist thus confronts us with the scene as nothing but a representation stripped of its narrative continuity, leaving the audience to its own reflections.
Op de Beeck's prodigious oeuvre, spanning sculpture, installation, photography, video and drawing, bears witness to his desire to question boundaries between media, and between artist and spectator. The task of the work is to engender familiarity, to unlock the audience’s latent ability to recall, to remember, and then, to locate their own experience in representation. The artist’s vision, though deliberate and personal, is transformed by the work; these artworks, then, are employed as mnemonic triggers to locate the audience’s own recollection.
1 William Gibson, Neuromancer, Ace, New York, 1984.
2 Anne Friedberg, The Virtual Window from Alberti to Microsoft.The MIT Press. Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, 2006.
3 Marc Augé, Non-places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity, New York and London: Verso Books, 1995, op.cit.
4 David Bordwell, Narration in the Fiction Film, University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, 1985, p.5.
5 David Bordwell, ibid, p.4,7.
6 Robert Harbison. Eccentric Spaces, MIT Press. Camb.Mass, 2000, op.cit.
7 Robert Harbison. Ibid, p.73.
8 Robert Harbison.ibid, p74,
9 Robert Harbison, ibid, p.74.
10 Daniel Chandler, Semiotics, Routledge, London, 2001, p134.
11 Dani Cavallaro, Cyberpunk, p72.
12 Dani Cavallaro, ibid, p.74.
13 Hans Op de Beeck, Extensions, Hatje Cantz, Ostfildern, 2007.p29
14 Thomas Mann, The Magic Mountain, trans. H.T.Lowe-Porter, Secker and Warburg, London, 1927, op.cit.
15 Friedrich Dürrenmatt, The Physicists, James Kirkup (trans.), Grove Press, New York, (first published 1962) 1994.
16 Lars Svendsen, A Philosophy of Boredom, John Irons trans., Reaktion Books, London, 2005, p 26/7.