Interview with Hans Op de Beeck
Jill Conner | WhitehotMagazine, 4 September 2009
Time, space and the various impacts of socio-political events appear as critical themes within the art of Belgian artist Hans Op de Beeck. Living in the heart of the European Union, Op de Beeck is most adept at creating psychologically alternative environments, as seen in Location (6), (2009) that appeared first in Amsterdam last year at the Westergastfabriek Festival and most recently with Art Unlimited at Art Basel 40. These different spaces utilize pleasant imagery to subtly provide pause for reflection regarding the individual’s role in making various living environments work. The artist also indirectly references Europe’s painterly past in a video piece titled Celebration, (2008) that features a banquet table full of day-long fare along with a substantial hospitality staff. However, everyone, including the viewer, spends the time silently waiting for guests to appear. His current solo project titled 'In Silent Conversation with Correggio', (2009) can be seen at the Galleria Borghese Museum in Rome through the month of October. Whitehot Magazine interviewed Hans Op de Beeck to learn more about the intricate connections that the artist makes between architecture, history, sculpture, and new media – visual elements that serve as the core components of his work.
Jill Conner: What are you working on now, and is your current work stemming from the experience in Asia? From the list of solo shows that I read on your site, this particular exhibition ('Staging Silence' at the Galleria Continua, Beijing) seems to have been the most adventurous to date.
Hans Op de Beeck: Over the past years I did several projects in Japan, China and Singapore and started to reflect on similarities and differences between Europe and Asia. But my most recent works and research for the new, upcoming projects are not departing from my experiences in Asia.
For example, I have just finished a series of six paintings for my upcoming project at the Galleria Borghese Museum in Rome. The title of this project is 'In Silent Conversation with Correggio', since I was invited by the Galleria to have an artistic dialogue with the oeuvre of the mannerist Renaissance painter Correggio, of whom they have a work in their permanent collection. Each year, over a period of ten years, they invite a contemporary artist to have such a dialogue with an old master of their collection: so, content-wise quite a European-oriented body of works.
The main work at my recent solo project in Beijing was a 300 square metre installation, titled Location (6), an entirely sculpted landscape evocation offering the spectator a panoramic, seemingly endless view on a foggy, deserted snow landscape. This work is rooted in the old European tradition of panorama-constructions. The aim of this installation is not to depict a spectacular or memorable historic event or view - as is the case for most of the old panoramas - but rather the opposite. Here, I try to offer a silent, withdrawn space for introspection. In that regard, it is close both to the rational and the meditative, the more Western and the more Asian orientation. But the work was already conceived long before I had the show in Beijing, so there was no direct influence of China in the conception of that work. I was happy to notice though that the work was warmly received and understood by the Chinese visitors.
But yes, I did have the texts I wrote for my animated film Extensions translated to Chinese characters, and China’s intimidating tradition of ink drawings oddly enough encouraged me to having the guts to - for the first time- show a large series of black and white watercolours on paper. During the finalization of the animated film, which is based on another series of watercolours, I felt I somehow had to relate both to China’s artistic heritage and the problematic booming socio-economic developments of the Asian metropoles over the past decades...
Production-wise, my projects range from very manageable pieces such as drawings and watercolours, or single channel video works, to extremely large-scale and labour-intensive installations. The content of the works and my intentions while creating them are quite different. Also, the aesthetics I employ vary, going from very minimal and withdrawn, to baroque and complicated. In that regard my work’s appearance is quite eclectic and post-modern in its approach.
Right now (and for quite some time in between the other ongoing projects) I am working on a body of works that will travel to a couple of European venues, comprising a new short film, a series of sculptures, paintings, and a short story. This project, titled Sea of Tranquillity, has its origins in a subject that talks about the excesses of globalisation and the current growing abstraction of time and space in both the West and Asia.
During a stay in the French coastal city of Saint-Nazaire more than a year ago, I became inspired by both the unique and remarkable historical developments of the city and by the harbour, particularly the shipyard, which constructs megalomaniac cruise ships.
The development of this city throughout history has been somewhat schizophrenic. Its major historic monument, the colossal WWII submarine base created by Nazi Germany, lies on the coast of the completely rebuilt city - an inert, sinister, silent witness. Post-war redevelopment has meant that Saint-Nazaire has not grown gradually and organically, but instead has had a disjointed, rational and inflexible grid of streets imposed upon it. The cruise ships, the super-size monuments that are constructed there nowadays, do not remain in Saint-Nazaire, but leave the city. Projects that have been worked upon with such energy and effort soon sail away over the water. There is a constant coming and going of people and goods, and so there is little opportunity for stasis and for calm. On the positive side, this creates a great sense of dynamism and a desire to give the city renewed vigour, but the flipside is that social and economic conflicts continue to surface in this city, which was rebuilt at high speed and so has been unable to develop a character that has matured over the centuries.
The construction of the cruise ships, including the Queen Mary 2, then the largest cruise ship ever, is accompanied by problems caused by the economic reality of short-term work contracts. The complex network of subcontractors and migrant workers has often led to serious conflicts with small businesses and workers, who are often paid too little, too late, or not at all, and have to contend with harsh terms of employment or work in difficult conditions. Given the current worldwide economic slump, there is little certainty of continuing demand for such luxury ships and so the long-term guarantee of work is never secure. Nevertheless, in the city itself, evidence of a desire to construct is all around, as an unflagging optimism about progress leads to the construction of new shopping centres and living units.
I saw the Queen Mary 2, the ultimate cruise ship, as a fitting metaphor for the modern luxury leisure market, which may be viewed as symptomatic of prevailing Western attitudes to the concepts of spare time, work and consumption. People who sign up for a cruise of several weeks from, say, Europe to the States, can while away their time experiencing the ultimate degree of consumption in a completely tame and risk-free floating land of plenty. The staggering size of such a ship, with over a thousand crew members, means that thousands of passengers are let loose around the clock upon casinos, cinemas, swimming baths, spas, temples to cosmetics, clothes stores, luxury shops, and other facilities. The cruise ship is an enormous floating shopping and leisure mall that seems far removed from what travel should be all about: being mentally in transit and experiencing the natural elements. The many themed interiors on the ship resemble the postmodern pseudo-chic of hotel chains and malls that all look the same no matter where in the world you go. Cruise passengers spend weeks in an atmosphere of style-free decorum that is devoid of any form of authenticity, just part of the faceless no-man’s-land that is spreading its way around the world. What is the appeal of a mass cruise that, by current travel standards, is so agonisingly slow? Is it a touch of nostalgia for the old super-size ships of days gone by and the sophisticated character of transatlantic cruises, which used to be prohibitively expensive? Maybe, amongst all of that consumer leisure time, there is even a deeply hidden, subconscious desire for a catastrophe. The large cruise ships, in spite of all their mod cons, still have an air of danger about them: like the Titanic, they are not “unsinkable”.
A particular point of interest is the fact that the Queen Mary 2, even before entering into service, was already being touted as a “legend”. It is, of course, rather peculiar for something with no history to be referred to as a legend. Perhaps the ship was given this premature label because it was the largest passenger ship ever built at that time. But categories such as “the biggest”, “the tallest” or “the heaviest” are superficial and tacky. They say nothing about the quality of the object. And yet we have a passionate desire for such larger-than-life objects, because they appeal to our imagination and create myths, so transcending the mundane. At the same time, they also serve as evidence of the crushing insignificance of the individual. This lends such objects a certain ambiguity: they demonstrate what humans are capable of, while at the same time illustrating the triviality of a human life. Furthermore, these large cruise ships have no ethical concerns. They celebrate emptiness. All of these factors make this kind of ship an interesting and appropriate metaphor for our modern attitude to time and space, our interpretation of the concepts of work and leisure time, and, finally, the way in which we deal with our mortality. A lot of people say they want to go on a cruise at least once in their lifetime. The cruise, in spite of its modern, predictable form, still retains a touch of “adventure”. However, it is hard to condemn the cruise ship. There is in fact nothing wrong with the idea of occasionally allowing some superficial pleasure to colour the short life we are allotted. Too much seriousness can, of course, be deadly. But superficial pleasure also has its drawbacks. Every illusion demands sacrifices.
As an extension of my previous multimedia projects such as T-Mart (a scaled-down sculptural evocation of a non-existent supermarket, animated by a video projection) and The Building (a sculpture and an animated film of a non-existent megalomaniac hospital complex), I am now developing my own, imaginary cruise ship.
The ship will have the name Sea of Tranquillity. I’ve decided to use this name - suggested by my friends, the London-based authors Nicolas de Oliveira and Nicola Oxley- because of its layered charge and its analogy with the names of existing cruise ships. Literally translated to the Dutch, Sea of Tranquillitybecomes “zee van rust”, which is a common saying to express a moment in which one experiences timelessness, calmness, piece and silence. Sea of Tranquillity, in Latin “Mare Tranquillitatis”, is also the name of a lunar “mare” that sits within the “Tranquillitatis” basin on the Moon. Sea of Tranquillity has a complex, poetic charge, but also presents a touch of irony regarding the superficial, safe and unimaginative leisure opportunities that are on offer on board the ship.
As mentioned, my exhibition based around this fictitious ship will, like previous projects, be presented through a variety of media. At present, a short film is planned that will combine live video recordings of actors in digitally created surroundings, in which the viewer pays a virtual visit to the strange, slightly ominous cruise liner at night. A large sculptural scale version of the ship will also be created, along with a number of display cabinets containing all manner of different objects. Another element will involve two-dimensional work: a series of achromatic paintings featuring places and people associated with the fictitious port town, shipyard and cruise ship.
As previously, during my travelling Extensions exhibition (2007–2008), I am again writing a new, autonomous short story. The main character is Charles, an ageing boat engineer, a loner who has a love-hate relationship with the small coastal town where he has spent his entire life. The story is about the tragedy of a traumatised city, the naïve modernist belief in progress and its failure in the face of rampant postmodern capitalism.
The exhibition is conceived as a small, dark museum, in a reference to the sometimes mysterious collections in traditional, old museums, with classic display cabinets, a film projection and freestanding spatial (re-) constructions relating a coherent story about a historical subject. My presentation does indeed allude to a didactic display, but it is not one: I will try to avoid forms of textual explanation and omit anecdotal aspects from the works, so as to keep the presentation evocative and allow for a range of interpretations. Although the design of the Sea of Tranquillitysatisfies high technological standards and is fashioned on hip, lounge-style architectural and interior trends (and is therefore far removed from the usual pseudo-art-deco chic of most cruise liners today), the appearance of this deceitful museum will create the impression that we are dealing with a mythic tale of days gone by.
At odds with the form of the presentation is the “urgent”, current, but also universal content that I try to examine. By not giving the three-dimensional work in the exhibition a concrete interpretation, and by leaving the film without words, I want to invite the viewer to wander through a collection of nameless images, objects and impressions in a strange, fictitious museum that is dedicated to an equally fictitious “legend”...
JC: Your work exhibits a clear tension between artifice and artefact, or the depicted world and the real world. When did this become an interest and why architecture? Is it possibly due to the physical framework that is defined by the structure?
HOdB: Throughout my artistic research the past ten years, I always kept the basic proposition of the figurative painting in mind: the spectator fully knows he’s looking at nothing but a thin layer of paint, a depiction, but can embrace this visual invitation and accept this fiction as an authentic parallel world that says something about the authentic in what we consider the real, factual world.
People, characters and extras, are explicitly present in my video works, photographs and short stories, and at times they appear quite prominently in my drawings and paintings as well. But for the three-dimensional works it is certainly true that I focus on uninhabited, depopulated deserted places - both landscapes and architectural environments. I am quite convinced that if I made sculptural representations of human beings a part of such an environmental installation, this would inhibit the spectator from fully mentally inhabiting the staged landscape or architectural construction. A three-dimensional work that represents a space will always remain a factual space, manipulated in its perspective or scale or not. But a three-dimensional representation of a human being is not a human being and will never have the same physical credibility as an appearance. Because of these reasons I feel I cannot use three-dimensional evocations of human beings in those works. Therefore my large installations represent humanized space and not human beings: these constructed architectural and outdoors scenes are like deserted film sets, where something is about to happen or just happened. The protagonist completing this physical image is the spectator himself.
JC: Extensions (2009) appears to draw upon the relationship with Chinese culture to the notion of structured urbanism. Can you elaborate more on this piece?
HOdB: In terms of general content, the animated film Extensionsdeals with cultural and subcultural rituals, science and technology as extensions of the human body, and as the physical manifestation of an unfailing belief in progress, which is both redemptive and ethically problematic. So today, this film talks about both the Western and the Asian context.
I define the extension of the body in very broad terms. Body extensions may involve objects such as computers, weapons, scanners, prosthetic devices, or large constructions such as shopping malls or waiting rooms - anything that seems to make Western life easier, serving to channel and automate life and present it in terms of data, grids, and patterns.
Extensions takes the spectator on a quiet, nocturnal travel along abandoned buildings, interiors, objects and anonymous characters that appear from and disappear into the dark. The animated film, which is made using black-and-white watercolours based on photographs taken from the Internet and images from documentaries and educational videos, shows our technology-driven and globalised environment as a dark dream, a dark and intangible maze in which the individual tries to maintain himself by means of his rituals and habits.
JC: I was positively struck with the painterly composition that you set forth in the video work Celebration. What is your relationship to painting, especially with respect to historical paintings? What piece inspired the documentation of this moment?
HOdB: The relation with painting and, more specifically, historical painting is the clear posing of the characters, the undenied mise-en-scène and the frontality of the composition: there is no doubt all this was arranged by me, the artist behind the camera. But this video is not only about the staging by the artist, but in the first place about how we try to stage and give sense to our relative and replaceable lives, staging rituals in decorated cardboard scenery.
The video has no pronounced narrative line. The heat, the wilting food and the decoration already reveal the vacuum that will be left behind after the feast, and so undermine what should be a memorable moment. The staged scene of the feast looks awkward and foolish in comparison with the impressive, timeless Arizona landscape in the background.
So, this surface image of chefs and waiters, food, heat and landscape also contains the vacuum and the tragedy of an uninspiring failure of a feast, showing how we celebrate our own mortality with such rituals.
Another element that strongly refers to painting is the “tableau vivant”: a living painting in which neither the view nor the picture frame changes. The video offers the viewer a frontal view of a long, festively laid table, with a line-up of seven waiters and two chefs in immaculate white uniforms. Beside the table, to the right, two young waitresses stand with trays of glasses and appetizers. A gentle wind ruffles the clothing and the tablecloth. The waiters and chefs are very different in terms of appearance and age, from young to old, fat to slim. They are all poised motionless, staring aimlessly in the direction of the viewer, as is the case in many historic paintings. In front of them, an over-the-top, baroque still life of food is displayed on dishes, on stands and under silver lids. Everything, from food to flowers, is beautifully arranged. This refers to the still life genre.