Enjoy the Silence
Margherita Dessanay | Elephant 8,, 1 September 2011
As I went from the Brussels train station to Hans Op de Beeck's studio, I was nervous. There is something positively intimidating about the extremely rich and varied body of work of this Belgian artist – that since the end of the nineties comfortably shifts from sculpture, to micro- and macro- installation, video works, painting, drawing and photography. On his extensive website one can also read his short stories. Hans Op de Beeck has always been comfortable with multi-disciplinarity. As a teenager he was involved in theatre, and attended an acting course and performed on stage. Meanwhile he also learnt to play different instruments (violin, keyboard and guitar), and like many high school students, played in a band. After spending his teens drawing comic books – '[My twin brother and I] were that kind of kid that doesn't play sport but stays indoors reading and drawing' – studying art seemed the most natural choice. Driven just by what he liked to do, Hans wasn't really thinking of a proper artistic career for his future when he decided to study Fine Art at St. Lukas College in Brussels. But during his university years, he gradually gained enough self confidence in his artistic potential, and went on to experiment with different media.
'In the last two years of art college I started to explore three-dimensional objects, and when I graduated I made my first video. I was not so focused on the medium, and was using different kinds of media in order to create an image, rather than to reflect upon the medium itself. The focus of all my art is life in general, and life's experiences.'
Hans Op de Beeck’s art comes from his constant reflection on 'how we relate to the relativity of human life.’ We tame nature to a kind of humanized surrounding, both on micro- and macro- scale. We manipulate and structure these surroundings to have a kind of reassuring stage, in order to deal with the unbearable. 'It’s something you cannot oppose. It's just the way we are. It's in the nature of being human. It's like language – we do everything through language. When we experience something and later on we tell it to someone, we are turning it into a story, into something logical. But it's good to know that beyond language stands something else that we cannot grasp. I guess this is also the zone where artists operate. When you create images, you try to talk about the unspeakable. I can talk about my intentions when I conceived Location (6). In creating this almost infinite-depth panorama with everything that blurs into fog, my aim was to talk about beauty and loneliness. But the very thing lies in you sitting there and experiencing it. That's the core of the art piece that you cannot talk about, that you cannot explain.'
Probably the best possible description of Location (6) is the synaesthetic one given by the artist himself: 'It's a very silent, abstract and almost monochrome white experience.’ I ask Op de Beeck why, considering his reflection on the human condition, there is never a human figure to represent it in the Location series. 'It's a deliberate decision. To me it's important to create fictional spaces. It's like the difference between fiction and fantasy in a novel. In what we call fiction, you read about characters, where and in what way they live. Everything is described as plausibly acceptable. Fiction has a notion of authenticity and reality in it, regardless of the fact that it's not real.'
Pointing at the photographic reproduction of Location (6) on his desk, he explains, 'If you sit in this observatory surrounded by this snow landscape, you always know that it's all fake, just like you know that a painting is just a layer of paint on canvas or wood. But at the same time it is an invitation to go along with it and to gaze, to mentally wander in this space. It's different from, say, a Caspar David Friedrich painting in which another person stands on the foreground of the painting gazing at the landscape. This character is interrupting your own loneliness, your own exclusive experience with the landscape. For the large installations in which I evoke nature or architectural spaces or the combination of both, I just like the spectator to be on his or her own. Having a fictional or fantasy character sitting there would be like an interruption.'
Location (7) will be exhibited at the Venice Biennial until November. For the first time in the series, Op de Beeck has constructed a private house. But in continuity with most of the previous installations, he creates an indoor space from which to view an outdoor one. Location (5)evoked a diner with a nocturnal window onto a motorway, Location (6)an observatory from which to contemplate a snowy landscape. In the private apartment of Location (7) there is a couch facing a garden with a fountain.
'To me it's important to turn the image into an experience. And I don't avoid emotions. When I was studying art at the end of the nineties I had some 'minimalist' teachers, and they were much more into bringing everything down to abstraction in lines and colours. I've always used a very figurative language. When I was studying, I was opposed to the idea that art should not be emotional. There is a massive difference between emotionality and sentimentality. Sentimentality is the kitsch version of emotionality – it’s like crying tears because of something not fundamental, so there is something cheap about it. But emotionality is pure and authentic. If an installation gives you goose bumps, I think it's good, and I hope that people have a real emotional experience of my installations. It's what I want to experience when I see a movie. I want to be into the mood, the total atmosphere of the film. And when I leave the cinema I want to see the world with different eyes. That's what good cinema does to you. When my last film, Sea of Tranquillity [now shown at the Kunstmuseum Thun, Switzerland], was screened at Art Unlimited in Basel, quite a few people told me, “Wow, it's a film you have to digest, you have to sit there for a while before you get up again”. I consider that a great compliment. If it does something to you and rolls you into emotions and experiences – that's the best thing; the almost physical and mental involvement of the spectator.'
Sea of Tranquillity is a medium-length film set on a cruise liner. It does not consist of a proper storyline, but captures different moments and situations on board without a clear logical connection. Rather than following a narrative, the film suggests an eerie mood. It is now being shown at the Kunstmuseum Thun in Switzerland, with a selection of the sculptures and watercolours realised during its production. The idea for the project originated in France in 2008: 'I was invited to do a show in Saint-Nazaire. The city was entirely bombed in the Second World War, but there is still a very weird and massive bunker for submarines as a silent witness of the war. After the war, the rest of the city had to rebuild itself entirely and this has transformed it into a neatly patterned little city with artificial shopping malls. Economically, they specialised in building very large cruise liners. By speaking with people, I got to know that every commission for large cruise liners today comes from cruise ship builders willing to make the largest one to date. It's like an ongoing competition to have the highest building in the world.' At this point the artist recalls an experience he had a few years ago in Singapore, where he saw the largest fountain in the world standing in the middle of a shopping mall. It was not just an experience of the ridiculousness of such a 'monster’, the fountain wasn't even working.
To give value to the fact that it's the highest, or the biggest, is typical of the categories we think in nowadays. It does not imply any quality. These – the highest, the biggest – are just fake categories and they are very much related to capitalism and globalization.’
The case of the cruise liner Queen Mary II – built in Saint-Nazaire, and the largest in the world at the time – is a telling example of all the cultural and social implications that lie behind the production of such a boat. Its realization required an immigrant work-force that was housed in poor quality accommodations, and to which a fair wage wasn't guaranteed. Saint-Nazaire is representative of social issues that are now spread all over the world. Hans Op de Beeck says that he found the same lack of basic social security measures in Singapore as in Saint-Nazaire.
'You see such social problems appearing in places like Saint-Nazaire, where they are working on something supposedly “mythical” like the largest cruise liner. I understood that a cruise liner was a suitable metaphor for how we deal with time and space today. I wanted to use the contrast between extreme luxury on board and the poorest conditions for people working on the project, which is built just for making money out of the leisure industry. Then I thought, “Well, I am going to develop my own cruise liner and it will be the largest to date.”'
Following the suggestion of two friends, and according to the system of naming a boat with the word 'sea' on it, the artist came up with the apparently inviting name Sea of Tranquillity. 'Then I thought: how can I talk about storytelling, and how can I talk about creating myths? Considering that an ocean liner can host around 2300 passengers and 1400 crew members, you can really say that it's a city, a floating gated community. Everything on board is overly protected and arranged in an almost military hierarchical way. The movements of the workers are controlled with high-definition fingerprinting and electronic passports. Everything has been taken care of and there is nothing improvised for the passengers. Of course, they want to give you the feeling that you discover things on board, like a spa or a small Italian coffee bar. But while in a real city there's a real life that flows and breezes – like, let's say, somebody installing a new small coffee bar in Paris, while you're walking on the streets – this does not take place on a cruise liner. Everything is preconceived and there is no real life going through it. In this tamed, cold and sterile world there's no danger and nothing can really happen incidentally. Even the natural elements are denied. When you sail on the water the experience should be about the view on the water, about the taste of salty water, about the wind and the sun burning on your skin. It's about experiencing distance.’
This reflection on the leisure industry was also present in his short story Sea View, in which the protagonist goes on holiday in a typically artificial touristy locality. He describes the place as 'spineless' and adds that what 'gives a town oxygen' is 'conflict, surprise, indefiniteness, danger, tension, mystery, unpredictability'. Though meditating upon the same human dynamics, he does not consider his writing to be the complement of the production of his material pieces.
'For me writing and creating a piece have always been separate things. In writing short stories I just use language as a visual tool. The amazing power of language lies on its ability to construct worlds in the readers' heads. For instance, when I describe a spa resort, you construct it in your head through my words. What's beautiful is that it will always look different in your head than in someone else’s head. But I never really managed to blend short story writing with video or something else. With Sea of Tranquillity I experienced something quite close to cinema, with a lot of people, actors and a camera crew. While standing on the set, I thought: “Next time it's going to be a real film with dialogues, texts, plots and the psychological drawing of the characters, their evolution...” For Sea of Tranquillity I also made an old jazz song and it was the first time I composed a jazz song for my own video work. It's an ambiguous farewell song – it could be a farewell to a beloved, but also a farewell to life. The new project will take some time because I want to make it as a proper film and I need to combine everything. I can do the scenery and direct and make music and... It's such a complete form of art, it's fantastic!'
It sounds as if all the various creative activities he has experienced since he was a teenager – making music, the theatrical world of props and sceneries, drawing them, writing, etc. – are finally coming together in this new project. With just one exception: 'I would not act in my own film, that would be ridiculous. I can't stand looking at myself!'
He has found inspiration for it in an Art Deco villa in Brussels. It immediately conjured up the atmosphere of a family dinner for him. He's working on the script. 'It will have a theatrical approach like that of Dogville by Lars Von Trier, in which the set is constructed with only essential props and sets, but regardless is a beautiful and authentic experience. That's what I would love to do with my project. It was also the case for Sea of Tranquillity. For the design of my boat we contacted a boat engineer to make sure that it was credible, which is always something quite important to me. But the film is overly staged and composed. You feel that the world on board is too perfect. Eighty percent of the sets are drawn in a photo-realistic style on a computer. You feel it's too clean and too sterile to be true, but at the same time it looks real and acceptable.’
The constant search for the delicate and almost paradoxical balance between authenticity and fiction is always present in Hans Op de Beeck's work. If in Sea of Tranquillity it was the mix of digital sets with real actors, in his sculptural work it leads to handmade creations and the subjective manipulation of objects and furniture.
'I like to work with sculpted objects for my installations. The couch for Location (7) is made of polyester and all kinds of mixed materials. The banal everyday objects in the room were poured in coloured plaster, so they all look different and less detailed. Table (1) is made on a one and a half scale, in order to create a slightly disturbing effect. When you make these decisions you automatically have to sculpt every single detail because there is no other option... and also because it adds so much to it. It gives a unique “skin” to objects. The narrowing down of all information and textures leads to everything bending together in a sort of artistic-plastic way. This is hard to achieve with readymade objects.’
The realization of his installations results in a labour-intensive manual process that the artist says is necessary for his creative process. 'Generally I don't have a very clear plan. Mostly I start with a ridiculously small part of something. The first thing I made when I was working on the motorway diner was a double seat in black, and then I made another one, and another one. At the time I wasn't working with assistants. I only had some students volunteering from the Academy helping me. Everything was made by hand in a process of trial and error. For example, I had made part of the landscape when I realized that it must be a lot deeper. To obtain this effect, the streetlights had to shrink on the horizon, so that every piece had to be of a specific size. You can't buy such things. I'd say that my work grows organically: it's not like having a perfect plan and then executing it. There are a lot of in-between stages going on and I need this period of development. Otherwise I would be just a conceptual artist devising my concept and then asking an external company to make it. For me it is more interesting to have an idea and then gradually go there, adjusting and changing things, trying to find and to mould and change things.'
Extremely labour-intensive, the production and mounting of such installations can take place in the most adverse conditions. Location (6)was produced by the artist in Potsdam during wintertime. It was freezing, and this made it very hard to work. Later Op de Beeck and his assistants mounted it again, this time in Singapore. The hot and humid weather made them sweat the whole time they were immersed in a (fake) snowy landscape. But when that ‘shape that you want to have' was finally achieved, they all sat on the bench and were simply happy.
'Silence is of course a very relative concept, as it actually doesn't exist. What we could conceive as silence is just a moment in which you're not performing an identity, a moment when you don't have a specific focus on anything. If you undergo a kind of mental zero, that's the moment of silence. I think about silence as a broader notion than just the absence of sound. It's about a kind of peacefulness with the passing of time. It's time gliding, and you not being uncomfortable with that, not the slightest feeling of hurry or worry. It's something that you can find in an art piece. I find silence in a good old painting, like in a Vermeer painting with the girl looking at a letter, or the girl pouring milk. There is something very banal taking place, in a beautiful interior with beautiful lighting. But the strongest part of these paintings is the silence. It's as if you were there, sitting in the room and having no further questions. There's no conflict, just peacefulness and tranquility. Silence is like sitting in the motorway diner with a cup of coffee and just gazing at a view and not thinking of something specific, dissolving in a mental no-man's-land. With my installations, I'd like you to experience silence. This is also why I called one of my videos Staging Silence, despite the fact that the soundscape, made by Serge Lacroix here at the studio, is quite present. Staging Silence has a major part in my work, because it's the attempt to stage a context in which mental silence can appear for the viewer.’
His Staging Silence is a black and white video. Location (6) is a white-dominated installation. Location (7) is mainly dark, with black and grey furniture. I wonder if this economy of colours – so noticeable in many of the works of Hans Op de Beeck – has to do with his search for mental peacefulness and if he considers colour 'noisy'.
'Sometimes people have the impression that I'm a black-and- white artist, as I have made a lot of works in grey tones or white or black. But I make a lot of coloured work as well. The choice is different for every work. In Table (1), for instance, the leftovers sculpted in polyester are in a deeply saturated red: the fruit and the strawberry pie are the only coloured elements. The red really sticks out much more powerfully than if everything were fully coloured. I think that when you use colour it's important that it has a certain value, that it is a signifier. In my Location (5) – the motorway – there is this very typical orange of the streetlights that also becomes a signifier containing a certain 'nocturnal' value. I also made some quite baroque videos, like All together now... featuring people eating and the colours there are almost unbearable. It's incredibly kitsch with rich, saturated colours. Those colours were needed as part of the mood, like when you're invited to a party and everything is just too colourful. Every time I use colour I really try to think about the most adequate way to use it. It's a visual tool. If you use colours without any other consideration it may become quite banal, just like watching things in colour-television. It's a pity not to use the power of colour.'
Apart from the idea for the new film, he's now working on an outdoor project in Germany and on the new installation Location (8). 'It will have very strange proportions, about eight by thirty-three metres. The project needs to grow in my head before I really start to build it. What I mostly do is work in parallel on different things, and then when things collapse or go really bad I just leave them where they are and focus on something else. But I do always have something.'