Nothing Is Hands-Free in the Hirshhorn's New Black Box
Jeff Campagna | Smithsonian Online, Around the Mall Blog, 7 December 2010
Scale modelers of the world, unite! In the Hirshhorn’s new short film exhibit that opened yesterday, Black Box: Hans Op de Beeck, anonymous hands moving with a fluid, mime-like grace create stark, uninhabited set designs, in miniature. A lit city street, a theater stage and a barren forest-scape are among the scenes set to a soundtrack of keyboard and xylophone blips and beeps. Filmed in black-and-white to emphasize shape and shadow, the film's dramatic lighting and forced perspective makes its dollhouse-sized sets appear life-sized to the viewer.
I corresponded with Belgian artist Hans Op de Beeck via email to find out more about his project.
Jeff Campagna: What was your initial inspiration for Staging Silence?
Hans Op de Beeck: Actually, the work arose from a need, more than from a concept. As you know, most of my work as an artist consists of very large, experiential installations and sculptures. These projects are very demanding; I work on them with an entire team of assistants and every time these projects take us to the limit. Construction- and conservation- wise these installations and sculptures need to be well executed and finished to the finest detail. Some of my videos are very labor intensive as well, like my last film Sea of Tranquillity, where an entire film crew and hundreds of actors and extras were involved. Making Staging Silence was the opposite; a kind of counter-reaction. It departed from my great need for something very small, something improvised, not well finished and tinkered on minimum-scale. I was longing to work on something small that I could steadily work on aside of the other activities at my studio, a kind of intimate, growing project in the margin, like my paintings that I mainly produce on my own at night. I first started to build a tiny movie set of just about one square meter, and put an amateur video camera, fixed on a tripod, in front of it. That little movie set and the camera stood there for months. Then I started knocking together many small things in very simple and direct materials such as cardboard and paper, and I started collecting banal objects that could be of use later on. It was just a spontaneous game of free association, without any storyboarding or script. The only general idea I had was to create both fictional interiors and outdoor scenes. Whenever some new stuff was finished, we recorded a couple of scenes. From the beginning I decided to have two pairs of anonymous hands coming into view every now and then, like a deus ex machina constantly transforming one small world into another before the eye of the spectator. As in much of my work, I wanted the video to look funny and somehow ridiculous, as well as serious, melancholic and deserted.
JC: It must have been an incredibly tedious shoot, due to the precise lighting and movements required. About how long did filming take and how many people were in your film crew?
HOdB: Ha ha, it wasn't tedious or that labor intensive at all. Both the tinkering and recording went extremely playful and relaxed; it was a lot of fun. There were three of us: my assistants Jasper and Bert and myself produced the objects, and taped and edited the video at the studio. As I said, the work evolved as a sort of side project over a period of about five months; every now and then we continued working on it. Time wise I think the three of us worked on it for about a month, all together. Initially I edited a film of seventy minutes out of all the footage we collected, with, I estimate, about three times as many scenes. I used the "kill your darlings" principle to finally end up with a film of twenty-two minutes. The scenes we have worked on the longest, such as a deserted nightclub and a bumper car track at night, ultimately didn't make it. First Jasper and Bert were not that happy that I deleted those, ha ha, but now everyone's really fine with the final result.
JC: Which of the set pieces from "Staging Silence" were you most satisfied with, and why? And don't worry, I won't tell the other ones...
HOdB: I prefer the simplest scenes, such as the clouds -just some cotton balls on a string- that reflect in a kind of water surface -a simple sheet of plexi glass-, and my discovery that I could use a stupid light bulb as a sun and a full moon. I like it when you see this hand screwing the light bulb in sky in the background; a banal and stupid gesture but with a great visual result. I'm also happy with the birthday cake that first looks like a building in the background of a park, then turns into what it is, and then later on turns into a ruin in a winter landscape. The outpouring of cheap boxes of granulated sugar at the end, creating a snow landscape, is also a good example of using plain stuff with a efficient result.
JC: What kind of reaction do you hope to get from viewers with "Staging Silence"?
HOdB: In general I like to show that fiction, illusion and authentic experiences are malleable with the simplest and most banal means, and that, in our lives, on a real scale, we actually do pretty much the same. We constantly stage our lives, our surroundings, creating habitats onto which we can project our desires and feelings, and in which we can profile our identities and actions. By having anonymous hands appearing and disappearing on the screen it all remains readable as a homemade game, while I also hope that it is a serious movie that, after you've seen it, might make you reflect on how we deal with time and space and each other. Most important is that the film is a poetic and almost tactile experience that guides you into moods, creating a kind of silent parallel world in your head that allows you to just let go your daily worries. Hence the title: the Staging Silence, without the interference of a plot, language or narration.
JC: And I just have to know, were you the mystery hand model in "Staging Silence"?
HOdB: Ha ha, I've been asked this question before. I must disappoint you now: the elegant hands you see are Jasper's and Bert's. They did such a great job. I think, just with their hands they should consider to develop a professional dance career, ha ha.