Things of Value and Joy: A Conversation with Hans Op de Beeck
John Gayer | Sculpture Magazine, 1 May 2023
Hans Op de Beeck works across many disciplines. In addition to creating sculptures, immersive environments, short films, paintings, and drawings, he writes, directs, and designs sets for theater and opera and composes music. He is best known for his monochromatic installations, which induce a sense of tranquility, from which questions begin to emerge about what we, as human beings, do. "The Quiet Parade;' his recent exhibition at Helsinki's Amos Rex Museum, swept viewers into an absorbing fictional environment made up of a host of mysterious settings accompanied by a rich soundscape. For curator Terhi Tuomi, the installation and architecture combined into a single realm echoing the real world and alienating us. The eccentric range of proportions in Op de Beeck's work commands attention and destabilizes memories of how things look and feel.
John Gayer: Could you explain a bit about how "The Quiet Parade" took shape?
Hans Op de Beeck: I was invited to Helsinki to realize an exhibition five years ago. It seemed extremely early to be beginning, and I remember thinking, "I hope I'm still alive then:' At the time, the Amos Rex building was brand new, and from the moment I entered, I perceived it as a landscape-like space. I thought it would be extremely enticing to do an immersive show conveying a particular feeling. Just before I set up the show, I installed We were the last to stay (2022), a large installation at the 16th Biennale de Lyon in France. While it also occupied one vast architectural volume, about the same size as the Helsinki space, I considered it a daylight exhibition because it was illuminated by natural light, which causes the character of the space to change. I treated readymade objects to make them monochromatic and made a large pond to create something more like an indoor landscape. It existed as a temporary, site-specific work. At Amos Rex, where the light was artificial, the show consisted of 24 autonomous sculptures. I had shown Danse Macabre (2021), the merry-go-round, as an outdoor piece at the Triennial Brugges (2021), in Belgium. There, it was more like a relic, something dysfunctional, that stood in contrast to the color and life of the city. It was near a Baroque church decorated with putti very much like the little angels on my
merry-go-round. But for "The Quiet Parade;' I wanted to create a nocturnal park with paths that allowed viewers to meander and discover a disproportionate world. I deliberately selected works at different scales. For example, the objects making up Vanitas XL (2021), a still-life, and the piece of cake in Happy Birthday (2020) are extremely large. The idea derives from my dreams, in which things tend to appear in different sizes.
JG: Do you keep a record of your dreams?
HOdB: I have never done that, though I've often thought I should write things down, because dreams are easily forgotten. During my dreams, everything seems logical, normal. I will be in an enormous, landscape-like living room and then my father might descend from an escalator, and I wake up wondering: "What was that all about?" At Amos Rex, I wanted to have a slumbering, free association of things that might crisscross your mind when you dream. Within dreams, things often have a self-evident appearance and are, in an illogical way, connected. It is only when you wake up that you understand how illogical they were.
Though the landscape at Amos Rex was conceived as an achromic setting, it included pink cherry blossoms, as well as variously toned gravel and stones. Those choices were intuitive, but they also derived from necessity. I tried to find achromic gravel, but it was impossible. Then I thought: "Why not incorporate that mild touch of color?"
Though the core of what I do is sculpture and installation, I have also made many movies, one of which, the black and white Staging Silence (3) (2019), was included in the show. In those movies, I often use full color. When I use color, I must have a reason for doing so. But when you have an achromic setting, you can mix things up. You can include banalities, like sculpted soft drink cups or cigarette butts in ashtrays, and beautifully ornamented things, like the carriage in the merry-go-round. I like when I am given a playground where I can juxtapose silly, supermarket stuff with gems-beautiful objects or natural products, such as berries, for example, which have a magical connotation or speak about the sublime in nature.
As a teenager, I started making comic books and graphic novels. Then, in art school, I was told that my language was too illustrative, and I should simplify things. Though I understood this, I eventually concluded that I should just accept that I'm someone who likes graphic novels and cinema.
JG: It's part of the process of being an artist, isn't it? You have to find out who you are-not what others want you to be.
HOdB: Of course. But in the beginning, you are afraid. It took years before I dared show my drawings and watercolor paintings. That only happened in 2009, when I was invited to engage in a dialogue with the old masters collection at the Galleria Borghese in Rome. Finally, after years of producing installations, sculptures, and films, I was ready to exhibit what I had been doing since I was a teenager. I decided to take what some saw as a weakness and turn it into a strength.
JG: Roy Lichtenstein's sculptures translate his comic-strip style of images into planar structures. You, though, seem to have jumped from comics into fully three-dimensional objects.
HOdB: For me, it's related to the atmosphere of graphic novels. They tend to be gloomy, post-apocalyptic, a monochrome world populated by creatures and people with difficulties. My installations tend to be permeated by similar moods or feelings. Though the content is not explicit, once you step into them, it envelops you. But in these worlds, you also discover things that are silly, serious, and awkward-like the teenage couple in The Cliff (2019). They are 14 years old and hold hands for the first time while sitting in their hiding place on a cliff.
JG: Yet they were fully displayed to viewers since the Chesterfield sofa placed opposite the sculpture invited people to sit and observe them at length.
HOdB: Yes, that's true. Entering the space, you first encountered an enormous piece of rock and when you reached its opposite end and turned, you suddenly saw the couple sitting there. I like to talk about things like growing pains and can sympathize with humanity, provided clumsiness and silliness are part of what we do.
JG: The word "parade" has various meanings and is used as both a noun and a verb. Why did you choose it for the title?
HOdB: I often try to choose titles that create an image in your mind. In this case, I was thinking about scenarios like Dancer (2019), for example, which depicts a Brazilian dancer taking a break. She is sitting with her eyes closed, not having to smile or perform, and she holds a cigarette. The contrast between her quiet presence and the glittery costume and feather headdress is what appeals to me. It feels like one has opened a window onto a colorful, loud, and festive parade that is totally silent. For me, that is a lovely image.
The Settlement (2016), on the other hand, consists of houses perched on stilts over water. The scene, which may suggest an establishing shot of a movie, invites you to invent a narrative. In that sense, the exhibition offered a parade of settings that provided starting points for a host of possible stories. The collection included still-life scenes, architectural structures, and, in The Horseman (2020), a man who, among other things, transports objects related to alchemy.
JG: The Horseman is a question mark for me. Is he a lone traveler, a courier, a shaman? Where is he located and in which era? Why is he sitting like that, and what is he seeing?
HOdB: I usually start with a simple idea because it inevitably becomes more complicated. The starting point in this case was that I wanted to make a man on a horse. But I also wanted to do something that diverted from depictions of kings or historical figures on horses. So, I made this undistinguished, bare-chested guy in jeans, who is transporting a weird collection of things. A monkey holding a parasol is his traveling companion. Since the figures are looking in different directions, it seems they may be lost.
JG: Seeing the monkey on the horseman's shoulder got me thinking about other characters who have animal companions. For instance, in Memorial to Pieter Bruegel the Elder (2015), Tom Frantzen placed a monkey with a funnel on its head on the painter's shoulder.
HOdB: When making the sculpture in my studio, the horseman was made separately and then placed on the horse, which is when I realized something was missing. Because I often worry that my work may be too serious, I look for things that will make it more fanciful. Here, the monkey was the solution. I had a similar experience while making The Conversation (2019). While looking at Rubens's paintings, I became interested in his faces with those marvelous beards. I thought I would make a bearded man and then decided to make two so they could have a conversation. Two men were brought in to pose for this work, which was made at a scale of I:2, and again, something was missing. We then placed them on small ladders, where they stood comfortably, totally unaware of where they were. That added the absurd twist that was needed.
JG: The Conversation reminds me of how people sometimes behave. Two individuals will discover a shared interest and then become so absorbed in the ensuing discussion, they lose sight of everything around them. That's how I imagine they ended up standing on the ladders.
HOdB: Do they come from work? Are they colleagues? They seem to be people who rely on routine, which reassures them, is never questioned, and will be followed until their last days. I also made two little briefcases, which "they" placed neatly at the foot of the ladders-or so it appears. As an artist, I want to engage viewers, but not as a person who pretends to know better. When I was studying art in Amsterdam at the end of the 1990s, there was a saying in Dutch that translates: "You must kick the viewer's ass with a moral lesson." But I thought, "Who am I to do that?" That left me asking, "What can I do?" I want to depict life-the tragic/ comic sense of it-in a form that might console viewers, that makes them feel that they can relate to the figures, situations, or problems depicted. I am interested in how life presents itself to me. Growing up in a working-class neighborhood, your idea of paradise is small. In my case, it was a rectangular patch of grass surrounded by a fence made of concrete slabs-that is my point of reference.
JG: You've made a number of works that feature children, including Tatiana (soap bubble) (2017), Lauren (2016) with her string puzzle, and Timo (2018) with his bow and arrow. I not only recall doing these things, but also how, as a child, you become completely absorbed in such moments, which seem so perfect you think they should never end. What pulls you to such subjects?
HOdB: If I had to choose my life's top moments, I would choose the things that seem pure, beautiful, and essential. There is nothing that beats those moments when things seem to be in harmony. I am drawn to simple moments. Some might consider them to be corny or cheesy, but I think the girl blowing the soap bubble or the child sleeping on the raft are things I can talk about-not as a form of escapism, but as a realization that it is consoling, calming, something I want to share with others, without being ironic about it. I seriously believe that these are things of value. The staging of one, calm mood, which I tried to do in the Amos Rex Museum, is what I also do in my films.
JG: Who models for these works?
HOdB: It is almost random. For The Horseman, I was looking for someone with a profile that suggested Don Quixote, so I used a Flemish actor. The process can involve a bit of typecasting. One of my sons was the model for one sculpture, and my daughter Lauren served as the model for Lauren. But none of these works are accurate portraits of people.
JG: So, you don't make molds of the models' bodies to produce these figures?
HOdB: Life casting was used for the arms and the legs because they can take a long time to carve, but we used Monster Clay for making the horseman's head. This reusable material is important for my assistants and me, since the form can pass through multiple phases before we make the mold. The sculpture is a compilation of materials, including polyurethane foam, Monster Clay, and plaster. Its surface was sanded, and then we made the mold. We then cast the figure in polyester resin. We also cast works in bronze at times. My first life-size sculptures of people were made using synthetic plaster, which is heavy and fragile. That resulted in problems, including breakage during transport, which pushed me to find another technique. Polyester resin is strong and light. The horse's body has also been reinforced with a steel armature. Its narrow legs-like the legs of the polyester Chesterfield sofas, which viewers can sit on-have also been reinforced in this way.
JG: The lighting at Amos Rex highlighted the sculptures' contours and accentuated textural contrasts. One of the recesses in the ceiling intimated a giant moon hovering overhead. Did you consciously consider this characteristic of the space?
HOdB: That was just there. The spotlights on the ceiling are also a bit like a starry sky. This wasn't my intention, but it turned out well. I made only one modification and that was to hide a cylindrical, fixed architectural volume with a staircase in it, situated at the center of the space. I thought I had to turn it into an art piece and therefore covered it in wood. It became a strange little house called The Workshop (2022), a curious place with light illuminating the odd window.
JG: The soundscape offered another surprise. It seemed to be everywhere at first, tying things together, and then one discerned localized sounds related to specific works. There was a trumpet playing in one area and what sounded like distorted speech in another. Was I hearing things correctly?
HOdB: Yes, and I also used a Japanese instrument for one part. There were about seven different sound sources. The musical components were in the same key, so they blended well together. I started with an overall idea, and it was a trial-and-error process to work out how they should be looped, how often they repeat, when certain sounds should be paused and for how long. Predicting how the acoustics would work presented another challenge since it was hard to calculate where you would hear the sound. It required a lot of testing. Many of my installations, like the one I did for the Lyon Biennale, have no sound. So, I wasn't sure whether I should use sound, but then I decided that if I did, I should use it fully. When I have used sound in a film or a theater piece, it has always been created especially for that project. That, for example, lets me invite a fantastic trumpet player to join the process or gives me the chance to collaborate with other artists. In this way, it becomes a dialogue, because I am also a musician. These collaborations counterbalance my visual art activities, where I largely work alone. Taking part in them is a real joy.