Hans Op de Beeck: All the grey there is
Sara Boggio | Arte no. 564, 1 August 2020
With his installations, the Belgian artist evokes worlds that are parallel, foreign and, at the same time, familiar.
The imagery of Hans Op de Beeck (Turnhout, Belgium - 1969) finds stunning expression in – and is widely known for – large scale immersive sculptural installations, while at the same time nurtured by a plurality of means, including watercolours, paintings, photographs, films, animation films and texts for theatre plays. Predominantly marked by a distinct tone of grey, his work is the objective correlative of a mental zone of profound tranquility: a sort of inner scenario for silence, introspection, sense of wonder.
Hans Op de Beeck lives and works in Brussels, where I visited his studio and started a conversation about the many facets of his art practice and vision (hence the following interview, which is the shorter version of a subsequent email exchange).
Could you describe a typical day at your studio?
A ‘typical’ day at my studio is quite hard to describe in fact, since my team and I parallelly work on so many different things every week, that each day can have a completely different content. The diversity of my work creates a most irregular art practice in the organisational, pragmatic sense. Today we have projects planned up to 2023. Generally speaking, we work normal nine to five workdays at the studio, from Monday to Friday, since I want to fully respect the private lives of my collaborators. Only for me, as one can expect, the creation keeps flowing 24/7.
How many people do you work with and how is their work organized?
I work with a permanent team of eight lovely assistants, ranging from 25 to 53 in age, both men and women, French and Dutch as well as native English speaking. There is a general studio manager who coordinates all incoming requests, planning, contacts and business related work; there is the assistant to the general studio manager, who also works on the archive, website and newsletter; there is a general production coordinator, who mainly plans, organises the sculptural productions and who pre-visualises the set-up of exhibitions; a project coordinator who works on all my film productions and the sculptures of human figures; an assistant who photographically documents the works and works on the sculptures; and there are three other assistants who mainly help me with the production of installations and sculptures, and the installing and take-down of the exhibitions. Since many years by now, on request by art colleges and universities, we welcome interns from around the world as well.
Managing the process of turning ideas into works: do you aspire to absolute control or are you comfortable with a certain degree of unpredictability?
Maybe my 250 square meters sculptural installation The Collector’s House (2016) is a good example. At my studio, we didn’t have 250 square meters of open space available, so we started with making all the furniture, the human figures and props that I wanted to be part of this house. We made the whole interior architecture, display cabinets in parts, departing from my sketches, and made all possible things to fill the space with. For certain objects we collaborated with an external studio. My team and I only saw the whole installation coming together for the first time when we directly installed it at Art Unlimited in Basel in 2016. I had confidence, but up to that point I had no real idea of how the whole would look and feel like when you walk through it or sit down in it.
The color grey: when did you find it and how do you make it?
I discovered that grey coating almost coincidentally, about eighteen years ago. One day I tried to give a model of a building a concrete like look with paint and subtle patinas, and no matter how hard I tried, it always felt like a layer on top of the sculpture, instead of a colour that is part of the matter. I then started to experiment, by mixing water based, cement like glue with pigments. When that was fully dry, it looked too dark, but when I then sanded it, it turned into this soft, brighter, almost velvet like concrete grey; a ‘skin’ that reflects the light very tenderly. In my view, it gives a special aura to the depicted, something that abstracts the figurative forms into a kind of a silent world. The absence of colour puts the focus on the light. Throughout my work, light and how it reflects and animates, is of extreme importance, since it totally defines and articulates the mood of an image, regardless the medium.
Most of your videos seem to be sculptural installations in motion (a seamless combination of images derived from the same vision, just expressed in different media): would you agree with this presentation?
For some of my video works, I can indeed relate to that idea: the three movies I made with the title Staging Silence (2009, 2013 and 2019) for example, in a way show instant and ongoing sculpting with the simplest of means. But I have made about 25, most diverse art films so far, ranging from a silent choreographic movie with 800 actors (Dance, 2013), to a cinematic fiction film with studio and location recordings (Sea of Tranquillity, 2010), to fully digitally created animation films (The Girl, 2017). What these films do have in common with my immersive installations, I think, is, as you mention, the sensorial evocation of an over-all mood, a deep and quiet atmosphere that transports you to an alienating, yet recognisable parallel world, a mental zone.
When and why did you first challenge yourself with the direction of an opera?
Directing opera somehow arrived to me through my experience of directing film and theatre. In the year 2014 I was invited by the German theatre intendant Oliver Reese of the theatre house Schauspiel Frankfurt to write, direct and do the scenography, light and costumes of what would become my first own theatre play, Nach dem Fest (2015). He was the first theatre professional who gave me his full trust to write and direct a play, two things I up to that point hadn’t done on a professional level. Afterwards I successfully wrote and directed two other plays (The Night Walkers 2016; The Valley 2019) and since I had been doing stage design for opera in the past, all of a sudden I noticed through different invitations that the opera world started to be interested in me as someone who is capable to combining the directing and full scenography for opera, as one package.
A piece of advice for young artists (or for artists who can’t fully express themselves yet): what keeps you going – believing in what you do – in difficult moments?
Over the past twenty years I have been teaching at many art colleges and universities, and I have always tried to encourage my younger colleagues to focus on the essence: stubbornly but self-critically stay close to your own specific self, the background you come from, your artistically correct or incorrect taste, subjective contents and preferences, and then broaden that to something that speaks universally. Approach wise, always challenge yourself to leave your comfort zone to deliver your story, in order to stay creative in the true sense. And aside from that: whether the contents of your work are deeply dark and serious or super light and bright, it is most important that you should find the very type of creation that brings you joy and energy. I don’t believe in the act of creating as a path of tormented suffering, but as a consoling, constructive way to digest and sublimate our tragicomic life.