Emmanuelle Lequeux | ARGOS Mag. No.1, 1 January 2011
Interview with Hans Op de Beeck by Emmanuelle Lequeux
Sea of Tranquillity is a typical Hans Op de Beeck project: the exhibition is conceived as one large installation, a Gesamtkunstwerk, where the senses are stimulated through the use of various media and different scales. The silence, the mysterious nocturnal mood and the subdued, underlying reflection on how we deal with time, space and each other nowadays, are recurring subjects throughout Op de Beeck’s work. Emmanuelle Lequeux had a discussion with Hans Op de Beeck about Sea of Tranquillity, the meaning of scale in his body of work and his position as an artist.
Emmanuelle Lequeux: As an artist you seem to employ almost every available medium (e.g. videos, installations, sculptures, photos, drawings, paintings, sound and music). A lot of your work is presented in an exhibition context, or in a strong relationship to other works. Can the separate works be considered independently?
Hans Op de Beeck: Oh yes, my works are independent pieces as well. However, during their conception, development and, later on, their first public confrontation with an audience, I like to create and show them as a valid whole, presenting them as a body of work with a focus on a specific exhibition subject or an overall mood. Later on, though, the works live their own lives; for example, my most recent video, Sea of Tranquillity (2010), was initially part of a solo exhibition, but will be shown autonomously in the film-theatre context and at group exhibitions with other artists. In fact, when conceiving my work, I am not a medium-focused artist, but rather a subject-focused one. For me, a medium is an available tool to construct an image. I won’t turn the medium itself into a subject, as some of my modernist colleagues did and do; that’s another research track. Usually, I start with a mental image and then look for a way to visualize that in an adequate way, mostly ending up using a variety of media and consequently stimulating the different senses.
EL: Your work could be labelled as figurative. That description aside, please explain your approach to the narrative.
HOdB: As is the case in my other work, in my films I try to summon up a given, rather-hard-to-pin-down mood, rather than tell a streamlined story. This is definitely the case in my evocative film Sea of Tranquillity, and it is even true in my earlier film My Brother's Gardens (2003), which has an explicit narrative structure. I want to make films that you can look at for two seconds and somehow understand what they are about, but also that you can look at for a longer time and dig deeper and discover details. I think a video should be an open invitation that exerts as little pressure or irritation on the viewer as possible. It’s like my life-size installations: you can walk straight through them or consider yourself welcome to spend a lot of time in them. Both experiences are very different, but equally legitimate. It’s important that this decision is left up to the viewer. It’s like timelessness in a painting: a fixed image that doesn’t force itself on you and that lets you decide for yourself how long you want to stay mentally in that fictive world. I love that moment when, by visualizing things in a certain way, you can make a construction, a representation, tip over into something authentic. Once, when asked to make an artist statement, I said that I believed in ‘the authenticity of fake’. It’s like the theatre: one moment you’re just seeing a few mediocre actors on what is clearly a stage, and the next the actors become believable characters and you stop thinking about the artificial context, the absence of the fourth wall, the red velvet theatre seats you’re sitting on. The whole thing all of a sudden takes on something authentic and experiential.
EL: What’s the meaning of the manipulation of scale throughout your work? And, in the case of your small models, are they mock-ups for larger installations?
HOdB: No, mostly they are not, although some are preparatory models, part of the creation and research process. There is no real logic or hierarchy in the use of different scales in my artistic output. Depending on what the work demands, things can turn out to be life-size, on a reduced scale or produced in magnified proportions. So, for example, a model on a reduced scale is not necessarily a mock-up for a life-size installation. I am interested in using different scales and media to question the visual perception of the viewer and to strengthen the tactility of the images – in sculpture, in ‘flat’ imagery, in three dimensions, in sound…. Generally, I don’t produce or evolve in a linear way, say, from small to big, from sketch to execution. In my sculptural research, since around 2004, I moved from fictive worlds built to scale to life-size environments, simply as an exploration in making the work more physical, more experience-oriented. In these works, the viewer is invited to literally enter the installations. I want to offer both the illusion and the failure of the illusion in these works on a one-to-one scale. To achieve that, I consider it important to reduce information to the essence of a shape. The architectural part of Location (5) (2004), for example – a 300 square metre walk-in installation of a motorway restaurant with a view of a nocturnal landscape – is completed in monochrome black. The only other colour in the entire installation is the orange of the streetlights on the motorway. With my assistants, I designed and made everything by hand, so without using ready-made architectural parts, furniture or street lights. My decision to do that was a nod to the fact that my work is a sculptural configuration of elements and not a literal simulation of a reality; it remains, undeniably, an interpretation, a translation, a re-creation on the basis of memory and imagination. The large-scale or life-size dimensions allow the work to be presented on a sensory scale: people go in and look at the ‘nothing’ and ‘nowhere’ of that deserted highway at night, for example, or find themselves surrounded by an entirely white, infinite panorama of a snowy landscape [Location (6), 2008]. The result is a kind of ‘fabrication’ of an experience.
EL: When you first visited Saint-Nazaire, you were touched by the story of the city and the activities of its industrial harbour. In what way did this influence your exhibition?
HOdB: It had a very strong impact on the conception of the show. During my stay in Saint-Nazaire, almost three years ago now, I was inspired by the unique and remarkable historical developments of the city and, yes, by its 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, 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.
The construction of the cruise ships, including the Queen Mary 2, then the largest cruise ship ever, was 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. Despite the current worldwide economic slump, there is still an incredible demand for such mega-sized luxury ships. On top of all this, there’s a kind of ongoing competition between the ship-building companies to produce the largest liner to date.
EL: You use these ships as a metaphor for the way in which we deal with our lives. What do you mean exactly?
HOdB: These mega ocean liners, as with huge shopping malls, are archetypes of 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 in 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 pools, spas, temples to cosmetics, clothes stores, luxury shops and other facilities. The cruise ship is an enormous floating shopping and leisure mall, a gated community that seems far removed from what travel should be all about: being mentally in transit and experiencing the natural environment. The many-themed interiors on the ship resemble the post-modern pseudo-chic of hotel chains and malls that all look the same no matter where in the world they are. Cruise passengers on an ocean liner (the largest type) 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 agonizingly 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?
EL: Do you think that cruise liners in general have something mythical about them?
HOdB: That’s what people like to believe and what they tend to project on to these ships. The fact that the Queen Mary 2, even before entering into service, was already being touted as a ‘legend’, says it all. Only with time, probably decades, can things prove themselves to be legends. It is, of course, rather peculiar for something with no history to be instantly 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. However, categories such as ‘the biggest’, ‘the tallest’ or ‘the heaviest’ are superficial and tacky. They say nothing about the quality of the object. 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. 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 as such. By the way, there is actually 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.
EL: How did you come up with the title Sea of Tranquillity for your project in general, your fictional cruise liner, the jazz song you wrote and the film?
HOdB: The credit for the title goes to my writing friends Nicolas de Oliveira and Nicola Oxley who suggested it to me. I instantly loved the title because of its layered emotion and its analogy with the names of existing cruise ships. Literally translated into Dutch, Sea of Tranquillity is “zee van rust”, which is a common saying to express a moment in which one experiences timelessness, calmness, peace 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. The moon itself is an icon of melancholia. As such, 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 a ship.
EL: What made you conceive the show as a walk-through museum-like installation, not yet open or after closing time and full of silent melancholy?
HOdB: I liked the idea of presenting a show as a total environment, a film-set-like evocation of a dark museum, in reference to the mysterious and eclectic collections of objects in traditional, old-fashioned museums, with classic display cabinets, leather benches, 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 avoid all forms of textual explanation and omit anecdotal aspects from the work, so as to keep the presentation evocative and allow for a range of interpretations.
EL: The Sea of Tranquillity ship, in the show presented as both a large-scale sculptural model and as the leading character in the movie, satisfies high technological standards and is fashioned on the nowadays so-called ‘landmark’ architecture style and 'lounge-y' interior trends. However, the appearance of this deceitful museum in an ‘after-closing-time’ kind of setting, creates the impression that we are dealing with a mythic tale of days gone by.
HOdB: At odds with the conventional museum form of this show, is the urgent, current, but also universal content that I try to examine, a story about the problem of globalization and the belief in false values. By not giving the three-dimensional work in the exhibition a concrete interpretation, and by leaving the dark, mysterious Lynchian film without words, I 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’.
EL: Your works seem to be full of melancholy. It reminds me of a writer like Samuel Beckett, who also evokes a kind of desperate end-of-the-world mood. Do you consider art as a temptation to escape reality, or rather to unveil its deeper levels?
HOdB: I am not too fond of escapism or fantasy or sci-fi genres. I like to talk about life as we experience it here and now, in all its contradictory complexities, and with all its references to the past and to universally recognizable subjects. So, I’d rather say I try to unveil aspects of what we call reality. Therefore, for example, the Sea of Tranquillity movie doesn’t employ science-fiction aesthetics: such a ship could actually exist today. That’s really important to me. And it might surprise you, but I am not at all into an end-of-the-world way of thinking. I am not a fatalist. Rather, I see my work as a way of dealing with the melancholy – not to be confused with fatalism – and the tragicomic absurdity that are so much part of our human existence. My works are constructions for reflection; I always want my viewers to be able to fall back on the realization that ‘it’s only a mockup’, a construction that allows you to step back and relativize our lives here on earth. By the way, in my oeuvre you can also discover quite a lot of colourful, playful and humorous works. I think that absurdity, a typical Beckettian notion, isn’t something negative or positive. As a concept, a point of view, it allows you to see cruel beauty in things. And it also provides a healthy distance, comfort and consolation. But, I must admit, I do like the tragic as a tool as well. As we know, a novel in which everything’s just fine and everyone is happy, just isn’t worth reading. Only when intrigue, conflict and problems enter the story does it become interesting and – looking back on it – ennobling to the reader. Compare it to the cruelties of the Greek tragedies, where the audience can identify with the protagonists who are mercilessly struck by fate, and which still leave the viewer feeling calm and dignified afterwards; the old catharsis idea.
EL: Your work is often silent; words disappear. How would you define your relationship to language?
HOdB: I am two-hundred-percent a visual artist, thoroughly enjoying the advantage of showing things in silence, operating between the lines of visual information, without having to name things literally, without having to tame them into words. Silent visual works, at their best, invite introspection, offer the viewer consolation and a sense of peacefulness, despite the fact that the contents can be cruel or dramatic. Silent works can be emotionally more overwhelming than flashy, loud and noisy ones.
Nevertheless, I am very interested in language as a tool and am a keen reader of fiction. I do write myself: short stories and column-like reflections, though my writing output is very modest; it’s such a hard job. The format of the short story suits me well, since its production length is similar to that of developing a visual piece. For these writings, I’ve been happy to solely make use of language, without feeling any need whatsoever to additionally illustrate them. Language is such a visual tool all by itself: images created in the reader’s mind are incredibly powerful.
But I will never stop producing the wordless images that so strongly refer to my artistic roots: the silence of a painting.