CHAPTER 0. Introduction
The work of Hans Op de Beeck (*1969, Belgium) encompasses sculpture, painting, drawing, installation, photography, video animated film, and short story writing. It is his quest for the most effective way of presenting the concrete contents of each work that determines the medium that the artist ultimately selects. The artist also deliberately employs a diversity of aesthetic forms, ranging from an economical, minimalist visual language to overloaded, exaggerated designs.
Op de Beeck shows the viewer non-existent, but identifiable places, moments and characters that appear to have been taken from contemporary everyday life, aiming thereby to capture in his images the tragicomic absurdity of our postmodern existence. The artist sometimes calls his works “proposals”; they are irrefutably fictional, constructed and staged, leaving it up to the viewer whether to take the work seriously, as a sort of parallel reality, or immediately to put it into perspective, as no more than a visual construct.
Selina Ting, 22 March 2011, Paris
CHAPTER 1. On Sea of Tranquillity
Selina Ting [ST]: We know that video is one of your favourite mediums, some presented alone as independent work, some are parts of installation work. But this time, in the Sea of Tranquillity show, you have integrated a 30-mins short film. Is this your first film? Is it the longest one you have made so far?
Hans Op De Beeck (HODB]: There is another film, My Brother’s Gardens (2003) which is seven minutes longer than this one. But this is the first time that I produce a rather cinematographic work although there is no real narrative. There are a starting and an ending, and in between is a succession of scenes. It doesn’t have an in-depth storyline or a psychological drawing of the characters. It stays under the surface or in between the lines of the images. You can say that the ship is the main character and all the passengers are there in the small situations from which you understand what happens on broad.
ST: You conceived the project in Saint-Nazaire (France) where you were invited for a residency in 2008. You were there when the Ocean Liner Queen Mary 2 was just built and this inspired you. What’s the story of the Queen Mary 2?
HODB: Queen Mary 2 was built in 2003 as the largest cruise liner to date. If you read the publications on the event, you would have one happy story. Everyone was smiling, very proud to be part of it. But then, the other side of the story goes like this: when they constructed the Queen Mary 2, they needed 10,000 people for the job, so workers from Malaysia, India, etc. were imported to the city. But then, the workers were underpaid and housed in poor condition. There were lots of strikes. It became a big social problem. So it was not such a happy story though it was sold as something memorable and prestigious. But of course, nothing like this was mentioned in the glossy publication on Queen Mary 2.
ST: So there is a kind of tension and social conflicts going on in the real story. Can we say that the idea of the cruise liner is a kind of microcosm of the society?
HODB: The idea of using the cruise liner as the subject for the whole exhibition derives from the thought that nowadays we like to construct environments that are protected and safe. There is nothing to worry about because everything is taken care of. It’s a model of high consumerism and leisure, like a floating shopping mall where everything is organized. It’s also like an artificial city comparable to the overly-protected gated communities in China and America where people have their large mansions completely fenced off and security guarded. They are free from all kind of criminality but at the same time, they also take out the real flow of life. Everything seems to be programmed, organized and preconceived.
They are kind of internal worlds that abstract you from the experience of time and space. Centuries ago, people boarded on these ships to explore the other side of the ocean. They took in the wind and the sand, and experienced the distance and the elements. Today, we just want to be taken care of and to relax once on board. I am not judging on this kind of behavior but it says how far we are removed now from the initial idea of traveling. It’s an abstraction from the actual experience that we don’t even notice the weather outside. On board, we are so focused on the activities and entertainments – eating, gambling, dancing, etc, etc.
It’s something quite remarkable when we think of the way the cruise liners are conceived. It says a lot about how we structure, grid and rationalize our surroundings, and get full profits concerning the luxury.
ST: I am sorry to say this, but today when we see a boat like this, we associate it with the Titanic which of course evokes notions of vanity and fragility, arrogance and ignorance… When I saw the Sea of Tranquillity boat, I really saw Titanic…
HODB: That’s absolutely normal, no? All cruise liners refer to the Titanic and its tragic story. I think the way I designed my boat is kind of a Hadid or Frank Gehry version of the cruise liner, posh and luxurious. It has artistic qualities in itself but seems not to think too much about the functionality. So, it’s all about the very masculine way of showing off. The boat I designed is an echo to that kind of show-off architecture. It’s beautiful and scary at the same time. The head is inspired by the very high-tech and powerful military aircrafts. I wanted to give the Sea of Tranquillity boat a very military look, a sort of “defensive” ship that says “leave us alone”, that doesn’t want to be bothered by anything from the exterior world.
ST: Just now you said that you are not judging people’s behavior or values, but for me, the critique is quite evident in the way the scenes are constructed…
HODB: I am not judging on it, but I think, as a contemporary artist, it’s good to reflect on some elements of our time. These reflections on current issues such as leisure and the luxurious, or on the categories that we use nowadays, such as “the tallest”, the “biggest”, the “first”, etc. in the ongoing competitions between nations and cities, and we know that these are just false or empty categories because they don’t say anything about the quality of the thing.
ST: I am thinking of the tension which for me is quite present in the film, such as the unspeakable burden of boredom and alienation between people even though they are in a luxurious cruise. For example, the dining scene where the elegantly dressed man savors a kind of blue jelly dish in a much elaborated setting and manner. The blue is very shocking and the dish looks like something very unnatural, even awful. I asked myself, is it a joke? Is Hans ridiculing the high society?
HODB: Haha… It’s actually a dish that exists. It’s the nouvelle cuisine of molecules, nothing futuristic at all. I wanted something very minimalist, delicate and unconventional. It didn’t have to look natural or recognizable but some sort of state-of-the-art dish. I worked with a Michelin chef who did the dish for free.
ST: I don’t know if the man enjoys it. He has this very cold and sophisticated manner, very controlled. And the others too, you always see the expression of sadness and boredom.
HODB: What I wanted is to have these people look natural. But when you ask people to be natural, they look sad because we expect people to smile on photos, to represent a feeling-good situation. For me, it’s important to stress that the ship is the main character and the passengers are not to be caricatures but people with a real story. There are some hints that you can understand what’s going on. For example, there is the man and woman in the jazz lounge. When you are there as a couple, you are confronted with each other because all the hidden frictions will be revealed. The only real warm relation in the film is between the Captain and his wife. She tried to show to her husband that he shouldn’t worry, that she’s fine, that she would wait for him to come back. But at the end of the film, you see that she’s waiting, and it wasn’t easy for her.
ST:In fact, the only character that seems to be enjoying the cruise is the jazz singer because you feel that she’s singing her song. You wrote the music and lyrics of it.
HODB: Yes, it’s a farewell song. The song is important in the sense that I deliberately composed it with old school jazz chords and style, kind of harmless, reassuring. When I wrote the lyrics, I also employed typical metaphors and language for that kind of jazz song. But it’s also the only text in the film, and it’s not an innocent one. There are different ways to interpret the text… This is what interests me. Like when you listen to a cliché at the right moment, all of sudden, it becomes very meaningful. You know, when you are in a fragile moment and you hear the most stupid song, it can really do something with you. This has been a kind of genre-exercise for me, both musical and textual.
ST: The structure of the film is also interesting. It’s made up of many different scenes, a kind of collage. Some of the scenes are typically your style, such as the smoking scene recalls the short video Time Takes a Cigarette (2000), or the couple in the lounge scene, the un-reciprocal gaze between the couple reminds me of Coffee (1999), or the meat room scene is very close to Colours (1999) and The Stewarts Have a Party (2006).
HODB: It’s an art film. I conceived the show as a kind of fictional museum dedicated to the cruise liner. In most didactical museums such as war museums, you would have soldiers in costume, all kinds of models, also films that take you to the battlefield, like a reconstruction that makes something from the past alive for the spectators. So that’s what I used in my fictional museum; I kind of departed from that structure. Aside all the three-dimensional objects, such as relics in glass cabinets, of course, each didactical museum also has quite some documents, drawings or photographs. In my case, I made a series of large black and white watercolors to refer to the two-dimensional imagery in such kind of settings.
All the three-dimensional objects and furniture, such as the boxes, the showcases, the life-sized characters, the model of the boat, etc. are handcrafted at the studios. I didn’t use any ready-mades. In this way I could formally interpret the archetypical space and displays of the museum. Also the film projection that takes the spectator on board of the ship is presented in a kind of representation of a museum’s projection room.
Since it’s a film of 30 minutes, I had to choose between narrative and non-narrative forms because it plays in loop and people just come and go. It’s up to the audience to decide whether they want to watch the film entirely or not.
CHAPTER 2. On Staging and the Kitsch
ST: Let’s talk about the presentation or set up of the show because you pay a lot of attention to the spatial conditions in which your works are presented.
HODB: Yes, it’s true. A lot of my work is really like staging or mis-en-scene. Staging is very important for me because it’s both serious and ridiculous. When you enter the space in Argos, of course you know it’s not a real cruise liner museum. But when you accept my proposition to believe that it’s somehow a museum, then you can go further. When it’s staged and overly clear that it’s staged – I’ve never try to hide that on any level – you know it’s not real. For example, Location (5) (2004) is an enormous construction which allows spectators to sit down in the life-size evocation of a motorway diner that bridges a motorway. When you enter into the construction, of course you know it’s fake, but at the same time, people stay there for a long time despite the fact that it’s a stupid non-event. People started lowering their voice. You see there is an impact. That’s what interests me. It’s stupid to stage the night because you can never compete with the real night experience. It’s ridiculous. But at the same time, it has a potential to become something serious because it’s a reduction of the real situation, a concentrated version or an abstraction from the open world that you reduced into a couple of hundred square meters.
ST: Is it a total sculptural work? I mean did you produce all the elements, including the chairs and tables, etc., like what you did for the Sea of Tranquillity?
HODB: Yes, at that time I worked with students from the art academy of The Hague (the Netherlands) to produce the seats, the tables, the counter, all the architecture and the entire sculpted motorway and its surrounding landscape. By handcrafting all the elements in monochromic grey, you get a kind of reduction of the information. So when you shape and handcraft things yourself, avoid the use of ready-made objects, and choose the textures, colors and skin of the materials yourself, it becomes an overall sculptural environment. If I would use ready-made seats and tables and architectural parts, it would become a simulation, like a film set is a simulation of the real. My work is an evocation or a representation, but not a simulation. Just like a couple of my large-scale installations where the fakeness is extremely obvious. This is very important because when it’s obviously fake, it’s not a simulation but an interpretation of the real thing. It’s like a painting, if you look at an old landscape painting and if you accept the proposition of the painter, you can really mentally wander around in this painted evocation. That’s the beauty of painting. My root is also in painting. Somehow I like the evocation of something fictional, but at the same time credible.
ST: When one looks at the photographic reproductions of your smaller landscape sculptures, one has the illusion of being in real places as well.
HODB: That’s why I rarely show photographs of my sculptures. A documentation photograph of the sculptural works is too much heading towards the question about the ambiguity of the real and the fake, while my works are about the physical experience in the space and the mood that it evokes. For example, the experience of depth and the changes of perspective, the shifting horizon you experience in Location (5), is something that you can’t achieve in a video or a photograph. Even if you reduce space to a certain scale, it still remains space, it’s always three-dimensional. Such experience is what I considered important in this kind of installations. The tactile quality or the experience-based quality to me is essential. That’s also why in the collage-like composition of The Sea of Tranquillity film, I have scenes involving body massage, eating, putting lipstick on, cigar smoking… all kinds of activities directly related to the body; or another example is the presence of the elements, such as water, wind, fire etc., which evoke moods and sensations that spectators can relate to.
ST: I read from an interview you gave to Marie-Pascale Gildemyn in 2001 which stayed in my mind when I watched The Sea of Tranquillity film. You said, “Kitsch comes out of the attempt to want to say too much, to want to make a big gesture. This inevitably strands in sentimentality”. What’s the difference between sentimentality and emotionality in terms of mood and sensations?
HODB: Sentimentality is the kitsch version of emotionality. The horrible thing is that it works! Like all the Disney films.
ST: Because it can touch as well, like what you just said about cliché.
HODB: Yes, I think it’s good to be aware of the potential of kitsch. I think that in the works where I deliberately employ kitsch aesthetics, such as in all the table scenes of the film All Together Now (2005), it’s not about kitsch itself anymore because it’s consciously used as a tool. Someone who produces kitsch is not aware that he or she is producing kitsch. I think we have to be careful with strong labels concerning the formal appearance of art because people seem to quite exaggerate in labeling nowadays. Sometimes I am confronted with critics who very fast use the word “kitsch” from the moment you work with figurative elements. So it’s a tricky line. I just use different aesthetics as a means. Some of my works are minimal, some are overly decorated, etc. I articulate my works in different aesthetics in order to evoke different meanings and moods.
I hope I can evoke certain kind of emotions or involvement or identification of the spectator, and get into this part of the artificiality. To me, emotion is a not a bad word. Someone said you have to sublimate, to take out all the emotions of the work. But for me, if you only work on form and shape, it’s a dry way of making images and you have a huge risk of making something formalistic. It’s like poetry. If it’s written extremely hermetic, dry and formal, then the poet is always right because he’s using his own rules as a kind of safe umbrella. If you work figuratively and you work on cliché, I think it’s much harder to get it right.
ST: How did you keep the thin line? Your work deals a lot about emotion and nostalgia as well. How did you keep the thin line to not to fall into sentimentality?
HODB: Sometimes I succeeded, sometimes I failed. I am always the first spectator of my work, I can of course only feel whether it works for me or not. If you take out any possibility for sentimentality or emotionality, you can also end up with very sterile objects that don’t have any chance whatsoever to involve the spectators. So, I would rather take the chance.
It’s true that some of the media I used in some of my works can be considered kitsch. For example, in Location (6) (2008), I used fake snow and fake trees. Imagine how kitsch can you get from fake snow! But at the same time, the architectural space of the observatory that offers a view on the infinite snow landscape is very minimalistic, simple and silent. It contrasts to the original idea of the panorama which is to overwhelm the spectators, to be something spectacular. But I wanted it all to be serene and silent. One could label it sentimental but for me, it’s not sentimental, maybe melancholic. There is also a difference between nostalgia and melancholy. The nostalgic is longing for the past which is perceived as always better. But melancholy is being abstracted from the ordered, structured life and being slightly dissatisfied and being lost in thought. It’s not necessarily an unpleasant feeling but something you need or long for is no longer there and you can’t label it. It’s a kind of frustration and dissatisfaction, but it’s not specifically connected to time as nostalgia which is much more related to the past.
ST: So the reconstruction of childhood scenes is melancholic instead of nostalgic?
HODB: It’s not that I long for it but that it’s part of who I am. The first 12 years of your life are very important in determining your conception of life. Such determination is a defining factor of your life but at the same time it cuts off other possibilities.
I am not the artist who says that things were better in the old times. I don’t believe in that. The condition has changed. With all the communication technology, our sense of space and time also drastically changed. But basically we have to deal with our ridiculous short life and mortality and other big issues such as love, happiness, etc. So not so much has changed since, why should we then long for the past?
CHAPTER 3. On Time and Space
ST: I think time and space are two main determining elements in the structure of your work. We have talked about time and space as the content. I would like to talk about time and space as the form. I am thinking of video which brings in the dimension of time and speed. But then in your videos, very often we see the static or slowness in motion which is close to a photograph, though there is a time transition. What’s the choice between video and photography? How do you decide when to use video or photography?
HODB:I am not so much into photography because for me, it’s an extremely hard medium to work with. Photography is a tiny part of my work although I did a series called “Room” in which the space was completely computer animated, like in The Sea of Tranquillity. The idea is to put the people in a fictional surrounding. That’s why it’s interesting to use photography as a medium. But mostly in my working process, there is a precise content then the rest comes in. For example, I had the idea of a ship and a museum then the sculptural elements and the film came along. Another example is Location (1) (1998) (Nocturnal Crossroad.) I first went filming a real crossroad and when I watched the footage, it looked like a horror movie. The images were very quirky, like something is going to happen. Due to the time-based medium that a video is, one was expecting a narrative to develop, whereas I wanted to talk about the absurdity rather than the horror. So I finally decided to show the crossroad as a big model which allows people to walk around. You become the camera yourself. This is more adequate and consequent to me than showing it as a video.
On the other hand, I am not a film maker. My roots are in painting and sculpture. So when I use video, I use it in a different way than a film-maker would do. I have another conception of time and I am not fighting that. I don’t want to be a film maker. I am not pretending to be one. To be honest, I don’t know much about film-making! I am a visual artist.
ST: Are you interested in cinema?
HODB: I am interested in cinema but not particularly. I am more into the timeless image than into the time-based construction of plot and narration.
ST: Language or dialogue is another form of artistic time frame, in the sense of narration or story development. Again, in your videos, you either have speech / voiceover without showing the images, or have murmuring conversation that goes along with the projection.
HODB: Yes, this is something quite remarkable because I wrote short stories, but just texts and characters, no images. All images are to be created by the readers. So I’ve never managed to merge both the text and the image. But now after The Sea of Tranquillity film, I think I would like to make a short movie with a storyline, and to try to merge the story-writing, dialogues and images together.
ST: One last question on the colour of your work, be it sculpture, video, photography, drawing, installation, etc. you have a strictly reduced colour scheme, very minimalist indeed. What are you looking for other than not to copy the reality?
HODB: If colours are not necessary, I like to reduce the use or amount of colour. Like the over-sized tables in Table (1) (2006), they are enlarged to the proportion of the height experienced by a six-year old kid. All the colour is gone except for the leftovers of cherry an strawberry pie, cigarettes and coffee, which are extremey hyper realistic and colourful. The space was extremely white, kind of daylight casts onto it. You can dematerialize it somehow because all the objects in white lost their physical importance; it almost becomes an after-image, an image from your dream. Again, I am more interested in evoking and staging something. It’s more a mental image than a physical image. And this is what you can achieve when you don’t use ready-mades but sculpt your own objects, enlarge, reduce, rethink or twist them. I tend to use colour only when it’s extremely valuable, such as in All Together Now. I think it’s an important and conscious decision. When you use a colour, you have to know what it implies, what it means, how it works and how it fails.
ST: Thank you very much!
CHAPTER 4. In the Studio
Located in the suburb of Brussels, the Studio Hans Op De Beeck occupies a whole building of four floors. Stijn Maes, General Coordinator of the Studio, greeted us and guided us through the studio. A miniature factory indeed, except that you don’t see assembly lines. Here, everything is made by hands. The first three floors are the production sites where different objects and elements we saw in Hans’ works were conceived and concretized. This time, we had a “work-in-progress” spatial arrangement model – a miniature white grand piano sitting next to a white Coca Cola can, and of course, they are not in the same proportion.
We found Hans on the third floor, tall and slim, elegantly dressed, kneeling in front of a huge watercolour – abstract, monochrome
brown. “I draw on the floor to avoid dripping”, said Hans. In the daytime, Hans works on sculptures and installations with his five assistants. In the evening, he draws and paints in the partitioned area, “you can’t delegate drawing and painting. It’s something very intimate. Usually I draw in the evening, quiet and alone”.
Our interview took place in the office located on the top floor – a very spacious, airy, minimalist and monochrome white space, very much like what we saw in his constructed architectural models. Growing up in a bourgeois environment, full of objects and overwhelming colours, Hans embraces the opposite of it, the minimalist, but he’s equally aware of the potential of kitsch, as he said, “when you deliberately use kitsch, it’s no longer kitsch, it becomes a tool”. Kitsch and minimalism do co-exist, and, harmoniously.
About the Artist
Hans Op De Beeck was born in Turnhout, Belgium in 1969. He studied Fine Arts at St Lukas College in Brussels and took part at the post-graduate program at the Higher National Institute for Fine Arts. Later he worked in connection with the Rijksakademie for 2 years in Amsterdam. Op de Beeck won the prestigious prize for Young Belgium Artist and in 2003 took part at the PS1 project in New York.
His recent solo shows include: Staging Silence Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum, Washington (US), Sea of Tranquillity Le Grand Café, Saint-Nazaire (FR), Silent Movie Marianne Boesky Gallery, New York, all in 2010. In 2009: Staging Silence Galleria Continua, Beijing; In Silent Conversation with Correggio Galleria Borghese, Rome; Location (6) Art Unlimited, Basel. In 2008: Celebration Galleria Continua, San Gimignano; Location (6) Holland Festival, Amsterdam; Circumstances Rogaland Museum of Fine Arts, Stavanger (NO).