I believe in the authenticity of the fake
Agnese Čivle & Elina Ije, 21 November 2017
Belgian artist Hans Op de Beeck (1969) is one of the most multifaceted figures on the current international contemporary art scene – an absolute virtuoso in providing experiences that pull the viewer out from the here-and-now and into fantastic wanderings through realms of consciousness reconstructed from broad scales of sensations both familiar and completely new.
While Op de Beeck’s largest-ever retrospective, Out of the Ordinary, was going on in Germany (at the Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg, 09.04.2017 – 03.09.2017), we met with him in his Brussels studio – a former toy factory that Op de Beeck has transformed into his fantasy workshop. In a sense, the old factory is still performing its original function as a “playroom” of sorts – Op de Beeck creates dreamy, tragicomic scenes from life by presenting the ordinary in an extraordinary light, transforming the banal into something original, and converting the mundane into the exotic.
As the Wolfsburg museum retrospective – which consisted of twelve installations and video works spread out over the exhibition hall’s 2,200 square meters of space – confirmed, his creative endeavors work in a kind of unison to simultaneously envelop a wide range of media, from painting and sculpture to installation, photography, and video. Along with showing works in, on average, thirty exhibitions a year (of which around ten are solo shows), in the last few years Op de Beeck has also become involved with theater and opera direction, scenography, and costume design. Two of his operatic productions will premier in 2018: Das Floss der Medusa, by Hans Werner Henze, as part of the Ruhrtriennale; and Béla Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle, at the Oper Stuttgart. The turning of his attentions to theater, opera, and musical composition attests to Op de Beeck’s constant artistic searchings. It is interesting to note that one of the motifs that he returns to time and again is the caravan – an element of the Romantic era that symbolizes the nomadic life and perpetual traveling. This widely used metaphor is also linked to the ability to constantly improvise and stage life, essentially a regular changing of the set decorations and scenography of one’s existence. Another widely used metaphor in Op de Beeck’s works is the carousel. Because of their bombastic colors and grandiosity, they are usually identified with absolute kitsch, yet Op de Beeck does not shy away from skillfully inserting them into his exceptionally designed works, thereby reminding us of the numerous gradations of life – even if they don’t fit in with the accepted aesthetic or ethical norms.
By weaving throughout his works references to both the Flemish Old Masters of the 15th-17th centuries and the Romantic period, as well as elements of contemporary kitsch and societal issues, Op de Beeck creates peculiar in-between worlds in which the viewer’s personal experiences are aroused, leading to a journey within the self and the unleashing of both familiar and foreign emotions. Light, darkness, the play of shadows, an achromatic tonal palette with a few hints of muted color, magical sound compositions, but overarching it all – authentic experience. Whether it be video works or sculptural still lifes, Op de Beeck contemplates existential subjects through seemingly banal and mundane objects and situations.
Please describe a typical day in your studio.
It’s a bit complicated since my work is very diverse. There has never been a period when I was solely working on one thing – there has always been a combination of several things. I might be working on sculptures downstairs, I might be painting watercolors upstairs, I might be making a film here...and usually it happens all at once.
The environment for me is quite important. I think, for the artist, the studio is his or her home. And I say this with all due respect to my family. I usually stay here for rather long periods.
How does an artwork start for you? Please tell us about the process from very beginning, from conception to execution.
The conception of the idea is always very simple; the most difficult part is the execution. I have never understood “writer’s block” or people who struggle with coming up with what they should do next. And I don’t say this because of arrogance; I am first to admit that I have made a lot of crap in my life. I am not the kind of artist who thinks that everything he does is fantastic. But I don’t feel limited in producing things, and this is a liberating point of departure because this means that any subject can become an art piece.
The conception of the idea is pretty simple, but once I get started, I try to mold it and define it in a way so that the audience will be able to experience it. And I think that to the artist, that is the very exercise itself: to find the precise balance between form and content so that it really becomes something. I strongly believe that the subject itself doesn’t matter so much. And when I say this to my students at the School of Arts in Ghent, they’re utterly perplexed. When this happens, I usually present them with an example from Giorgio Morandi, who would paint three bottles sitting on a table – content: zero, but it’s great art! It has to do with the palette he used, the way he painted the bottleneck of the bottle, the fragile lines, the preciseness in which he executed the still life of three bottles on a table, making it into content, making it into something that represents the world.
This is an example in which form seemingly prevails over content.
And that is something I consider more as the task one must complete – to go through a difficult, interesting and challenging process, as opposed to considering the very subject itself. This does not mean that I am not engaged or that I am not involved in what’s going on in the world. It is not a form of escapism; rather, it is because my art is very pictorial and figurative.
Are you questioning the medium? Or do you just use what is necessary to express your ideas, to create the environments and the moods that you want?
When I make a sculpture, the sculpture does not primarily talk about sculpting itself. It’s not meta-art. It’s not art that talks only about art itself. Ever since I was a small child drawing comic books, I have felt that pictorial/figurative language is the most appropriate and precise one for me.
Of course, I have to reflect on the medium as I use it. When I make a life-size figure on a pedestal, I have to think about sculpture, about the representation of the human body – all of the classical concerns that are implicit in a certain medium. I am, at some point, confronted with these questions, and I do have to deal with them.
What is your greatest discovery in a specific medium such as video, sculpture or installation? In other words, what has been your most technically successful experiment?
I think that I make discoveries with every medium I use...but also in a negative sense. For example, at some point I thought that 3D printing of architectural models would be interesting, but then I found out that it was so sterile and that it lacked the human, personal touch...little errors or little flaws that make things authentic, things that look more improvised and sought after.
For example, the village on the water (or The Settlement, which is the title of the work) was simply improvised. We started with one little cabin, then another one, and then we added some boats and some jetties. And it organically started to grow. When something is printed, you need to have everything planned out in advance. You have to go from A to B, whereas when you sculpt in a studio, one day you work with the shape, but the next day you may entirely destroy it...it’s growing all the time. This organic process of things growing all the time is, in a way, more interesting than having something just programmed into a machine.
Of course, there are some things you cannot sculpt, for example, tree branches, because they are too filigree, too fine, but they do need strength, so I do use a 3D printer when there is no other way.
Essentially, I make discoveries and I know what I can do with 3D printing in a useful sense, but I also know what I definitely should not do with it. For example, in the film Sea of Tranquillity (2010), you see people on a fictitious boat for which all of the interiors have been created in 3D on a computer. This allowed me to film people with a camera in a green- or blue-screen studio, and then put them into virtual surroundings that looked photorealistic. I am very open to new techniques and new media. Nevertheless, every time you use it, there is the question of how you use it, how can you mold it into something that is useful for your type of work.
At the moment I am working on a new animation film in which everything is being drawn on the computer – the landscapes look very photorealistic, which allows me to make it rain over the landscape, or to change the sunlight, and so on. As I’m working on this film, I’m discovering all kinds of new and different things that I could never do just by hand. Computers give me greater freedom.
Up to now I’ve only talked about contemporary techniques, but back when we were doing lifecasting on people, we were making molds of hands and arms and bodies. It is an old-fashioned molding technique that has nothing to do with high-tech novelties. When we did this for the first time, we also didn’t know how it would work out. In some way, every new project brings new techniques, new research, and a new position for me – something along the lines of a new relationship towards the act of creating.
In much the same way you tend to discover and “try on” new creative roles, such as that of theater director...
Yes; I directed my first theater play in Frankfurt, After the Party (Nach dem Fest), and I recall my first rehearsal with the actors: I was sitting at the table with them, and they were looking at me as if I were an experienced theater director. But I was not.
Likewise for the costume design for this same play – I was designing costumes for the first time ever. I would do little sketches, and instantly a woman appeared who would put fabric on the mannequin to see how it would look like in real life. I must admit I felt a bit like Karl Lagerfeld. When you are put in a position that you have never been in before, you discover a very different and new definition of creating.
The music that you composed for your film Sea of Tranquillity was also a first for you. If I do something for the very time, it’s never a success!
Well, of course, I have been playing music since I was a child, so it wasn’t something entirely new for me. If I didn’t have the skills to make music, I wouldn’t have dared to; but I admit that I had never before composed a jazz song. I was a bit out of my comfort zone, but that’s good because I learned from it. I believe that if you do something with dedication, it will work out.
Yet the text I wrote for my theater play, for instance – the playwright I was working with in Berlin told me: “That’s total crap; how could you write something like that?” He was very tough on me so that I could learn from him. After a while, I wrote another play for the theater in Antwerp – De Nachtwandelaars. This time it was a play for kids, and step-by-step – by learning and daring – I improved. As I began to do more theater directing, people from the opera world also began asking me to direct operas.
So, when you gain confidence and experience, you’re not just emancipating yourself as an artist but it also triggers something in other people; then they begin considering that, maybe this time, it would be nice to not have an “opera nerd”, but someone from the visual side who also knows how to direct, or who at least seems to know how to direct.
Could you tell us a bit more about the children’s play that you mentioned?
Both my play in Frankfurt and the play for kids in Antwerp have to do with growing up in a certain family situation. They are pretty much about how people deal with difficulties in life. The plays are not just happy and innocent; they contain dramatic events and things that are not easy. Even in a children’s play, which is a play for kids six years old and up, I didn’t want to make this kind of innocent fairy tale or lovely performance; I wanted to include difficulties that kids also have to deal with. The play was about three sisters who lost their father and had to move on in their lives as they grow up in an old caravan near the forest. Before he passed away, the father said to his eldest daughter: “Look, I have made three backpacks for you and your two sisters. They are full of surprises, and I’ll send you tonight to walk through the forest. My voice will guide you because I recorded it on tape.” And so the sisters go on this quest, a night walk guided by their father’s voice, and they experience all kinds of things and learn a lot.
The play in Frankfurt was about a man in his 70s or 80s who used to be a popular scientist and TV personality, and about his son and daughter who are now adults. The play is called After the Party, and it’s like a metaphor. Once the party is over, the lights come on and the illusion is gone. You could say that the three main characters are all at the end of the party at that moment. They had their struggles and now they have to recover.
Do you involve your family in your creative processes? Haven’t you used molds of your children in some of your sculptures?
Yes, my daughter and son, Lucas and Lauren, are in The Collector’s House (2016). Sometimes it happens.
Is your work Table (2006) – which is like a dining room except for it being completely white and oversized – linked to your personal experience watching your children grow up? – A process that requires so many small struggles and great effort that everything appears much bigger than it actually is...?
A lot of my work really departs from daily life situations. And then, of course, you can make it more complex. Like with the work The Collector’s House; being an artist, I have been invited to many collectors’ houses, which led me to come up with the idea of producing this sort of pompous, neoclassical nonsense. If it were in full color, it would be an enormous kitsch space; it would be the weirdest, silliest room in the world. But because it’s all in gray, it becomes more silent and serious. The only presence of color is the color of the viewer in the room; it becomes more like a dampened, frozen-in-time space, like Pompeii. And so it has become something else… For me, the staging of silence is extremely important; it is something I always hope to find when I am the viewer – tranquility and silence...I could sit and just watch a video, listen to music, look at a painting, and somehow mentally project myself into the depiction of the painting, into this parallel world.
But what I wanted to say is that this is my fine-tuning of the work. The departure point was to make a reference to some of these oligarchs who come up with nonsense ideas like, “Let’s make our house like the Louvre or the Musée d’Orsay”. Then they make this enormous library to show off their knowledge, even though they might not have ever read a single book in this library.
And then there is The Silent Piano, of course. No one plays it, but it’s there. So, there are a lot of humorous and funny things, and very banal and silly things that I have put into these works.
And then twisted it into something else…
Yes; it’s like when I’m having coffee with my mother in a shopping mall, and, of course, most of the shopping malls in Belgium are incredibly ugly. But regardless of the setting, it is a precious moment with my mother. And in that moment, the very setting becomes something else because it is a place where we meet, where we have a coffee, and it becomes almost like precious scenery. Sometimes the important things in life happen while the most stupid song is playing on the radio; it could be the most kitschy, silliest pop song in the world, but it can become meaningful to you because you have formed an attachment to that moment. It is similar with this work – the departure point is a collector’s house done in silly, bad taste, but when you define it well, it becomes much broader and it can become something that talks about life; in that sense, it becomes serious. I didn’t make this installation as a joke. I really hoped that it would move people and affect them when they walk through it.
One could say that you speak about the world in a tragicomic way by revealing its ugliness and silliness.
Yes, there is some silliness in my works; I am not someone like Anish Kapoor, who produces marvelous, sublime artworks. For some reason, I feel that I have to include the silliness and clumsiness of daily life in order to find my definition of an image. Similarly, when I was writing the play for Frankfurt, it contained very serious monologues and dialogues but also some silly conversations. I took the freedom to mix up design and baroque aesthetics, the Gothic with shopping-mall kitsch.
I try to use everything because I think the world is not a perfect design object. It is full of nonsense. Look at this street – perhaps it is the most boring street in the country; it is clumsy and ugly, it’s not well made, but it has great buildings – like this one.
You achieve a multilayered effect in your works this way.
Life is so diverse, and I try to find balance in this diversity; in a way, I’m trying for the kind of preciseness seen in a Morandi. It’s not the bottle itself, but rather how it is defined and articulated, and how precisely an artist can inhabit or appropriate a subject.
Many artists make political art, and I understand why they do that, but I also see the difficulty with that. When an art piece is so straightforward with its political statement, it has a really one-dimensional reading; whereas if you include societal reflection in your work, and if it’s done in a more subtle way, then the work retains a certain richness in terms of its perception potential. That’s why I like to smuggle things in on a more discrete level.
This can also pertain to curatorial work. For example, the Venice Biennale curated by Okwui Enwezor was really in-your-face with political content, whereas Christine Macel wanted to make sure that the art did not have just one single message, but rather that it be plurivocal.
Yes, it is the same in curatorial practice. A lot of curators want to have a kind of legitimacy for what they do. If you say you’re curating a biennial with the topic of refugees, that is a form of legitimation, and then you can invite Ai Weiwei and other artists who are usually associated with that subject. But then, of course, you’re narrowing down the entire reading of the whole event. If it’s aimed too much in one direction, it becomes simply illustrative – all of the artworks become illustrations of a fashionable theory, even though that may not be what the artist originally intended with their piece. When you look at an artwork, you, as the viewer, should never feel that it is a legitimation of itself. I think that creating a direct experience is the most important aspect, and then you can find so much information in there. For instance, in the library of The Collector’s House, somewhere there’s a sculpture of a pistol. Actually, it looks like a pistol, but if you look carefully, you will see that it’s really a water pistol. So, it must have been left behind by the grandson of the collector. This playful sculpture of a water pistol speaks about weapons as well – it’s not an innocent object, but it’s not in the front of the installation either; it is just there.
I believe there was also was a snail... What is that about?
Yes! You found it! That snail is very typical in the still life paintings of the 16th and 17th centuries done in Flanders and the Netherlands. If you look at the traditional vanitas painting style, snails are very commonly depicted. An empty glass, a skull, an open book, a candle that is blown out, soap bubbles, and a snail – these are the classical elements of vanitas. I wanted to smuggle it in, and you are one of the few who noticed it!
And also somewhere in the installation there’s a crate with fake water lilies and flowers in it, which makes you understand that the pond in the collector’s house is not a pond or a depiction of a pond, but also a part of the fictitious art collection. Because the presumed art collector is still installing it.
These are little games that I play in the installation, and not everybody notices them. However, for me, it is not so very important that the viewer reads all of that from the piece. I just love to do things like that...much like the painter who, 500 years ago, would put a fly somewhere in the corner of his painting.
The sculptural installation The Amusement Park (2015) had a very strong impact on me. As I was looking at it, I was swept away into a mystical world of memories. Almost as if I had been there before, even though I know that I have never been to an amusement park like this one...or even in a similar setting or situation. Nevertheless, my subconscious was telling me that I’ve experienced this before.
It is very nice of you to mention this because, as a visual artist, it is very important to know that your work gives off a certain sense of self-evidence. When you write a short story or a theater play, you can make it very absurd and strange, but in order for the audience to identify themselves with it, they need elements that feel very familiar. Otherwise they cannot relate with it, and the work cannot open up into an experience. When you employ a form of fiction in which a lot of familiar elements resonate for the viewer, then the work can become self-evident and logical, whereas by itself it can be entire nonsense.
The same holds true for theater. The curtain opens up and you see the stage design, which is illogical and absurd, and, of course, not realistic; and then there are the characters, who are false – yet you have to present the whole thing as if it’s true. Not as a simulation, but as something that contains something that you feel is true or authentic.
I believe in the authenticity of the fake. This is my statement as an artist. It’s like when you’re reading a novel and, at some point, you forget that you are holding a book in your hands; you just drift off into the characters’ world and you can be profoundly moved by the story. It’s all false, but as an emotion, it’s true.
And it can become true as an experience.
This is what I say when I give lectures to people who are not versed in contemporary art: I know that there is a lot of crappy contemporary art out there, but there are a lot of great works as well, so please don’t judge too hard. Then I tell them: If you take the time to learn what contemporary art is about, you will lead a life that has doubled in richness, or even tripled. It is a way in which to greatly enhance your emotional life.
Can one say that fantasy/the imagination is an infinitely inexhaustible resource? Or is it the opposite, and our imaginations cannot go far beyond what we have already experienced?
Of course, we are always guided by language, which is very structured. If you have a story, then it has a beginning, a middle part, and an ending. We tame everything into the logic of language, and I think that language influences our memory. We somehow give logic to things. I think that our ability to fantasize is also somehow limited by or through language.
You know, there was a certain place where I had gone as a very little boy; years later, I was talking to my brother about something that had happened in our childhood, and I said: ...you know, back in the days when we went to that house where everything was white... And he said: No, everything wasn’t white. Then I replied: Oh, come on, the whole house was very modernist and everything was so white in there!
But then I thought, maybe I had somehow fantasized this, and I had stored it in my memory incorrectly; perhaps through the word “white”, I had deformed my memory of the space itself into something extremely white… And then the white came back into the white room with the big table.
So, I don’t know if fantasies are limitless; I think they are pretty much tamed through the logic of language and memory. But, of course, imagination and creativity are infinite – you can always create something, regardless of the medium. But it will always be filled with who you are psychologically. It will never be neutral; it will be filled with your temperament or the person that you are.
I believe that our memory is more pictorial because language is something that we have learned. When you spoke to your brother about the white house, perhaps you filtered it through your visual memory, and not through language…
Of course, I cannot narrow down everything to language.
I have another example: my mother had a friend who wore a very specific perfume. It’s been something like 40 years since I’ve smelled it, but I still have a vivid memory of it. In this case, it’s clearly not due to language.
I had a similar experience at this year’s Venice Biennale, in the Georgian Pavilion. There was this old-fashioned, nostalgically worn-down wooden house; in its loneliness, it cried tears of rain that dripped in through holes in the roof. The water would soak into the carpet and the bed… And this smell of dampness – a bit of mold, of rain, a layer of dust, abandonment and desolation – it immediately brought back memories. It was such a strange feeling.
I remember back when I first began making visual art, when I said that I want to make atmospheres, that I want to make environments that exude certain moods. Some people thought that was problematic. It really is an extremely ambitious objective; it’s not something that you can defend to a curator. That’s because it’s not about an obvious subject; you cannot say – it is about “X”. I think that the best art pieces are about nothing and about everything, all in one go. It is something that you cannot name or pronounce. There is something in there that turns it into a true, authentic experience.