Immersive public art redefining our relationship to public spaces
by Vatsala SethiDec 30, 2022
•make your fridays matter with a well-read weekend
by Rahul KumarPublished on : Jan 05, 2021
Passionate and highly animated discussions at my dinner table is a norm. And somehow, art and creatives invariably find their way into the debate, even if the topic being discussed is as unrelated as the global political environment or precautions we must take for the prevailing pandemic conditions! I sometimes feel it is done to provoke me since I am known to have strong opinions about the arts! The one area that remains a bone of contention with my father is: ‘architecture a form or art (or not)’. Briefly, to me anything that is created with imposed conditions steps away from the purity of art. It will take me a whole separate attempt to elaborate that thought, but artist Hans Op de Beeck beautifully brings the two worlds together. His installations consume space and yet create spaces within. Often with life-sized sculptures contained in architectural structures that invite viewers to wander and discover.
I speak to the artist on his reasons to keep his palette dark and gloomy, and moving across various creative disciplines to tell his story.
Rahul Kumar (RK): Your immersive installations often include icons and objects that have a deep link to certain cultures. For instance, in ‘The Silent Room’, you uniquely connect Belgian along with Japanese references. Please explain your thought process in how you use these metaphors and plan your large-scale works.
Hans Op de Beeck (HB): In general, when I create large-scale, immersive installations, even when in some cases they appear rather dark and gloomy, my first aim always is to create a calm, silent, consoling atmosphere. I try to make the visitor as receptive as possible to fully experience the work. When the spectator accepts my invitation to take time, to walk through or sit down in my space, and breathe that atmosphere of tranquillity, I can then offer him a collection of references and layers that speak about much more; things he can gradually discover or unveil.
By free association, in a stylistically playful, inconsequent and anachronistic way, I mingle sculptural interpretations of the human figure, furniture, architectural shapes and props into a new whole. Doing so, I am not afraid to mix so called ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture, to combine gems with banalities. I for example sculpt a beer bottle and an emptied pizza box and combine those with precious mystical objects that refer to ancient cultures, or, for example, the early development of science. But I will never fully explain all the references the spectator could find in my large-scale installations, because that might harm the newly found chemistry and inner logic of the whole, or it could be understood as a form of legitimation of the artwork. The main idea is that my ‘visual fictions’ speak about life, actuality and history by themselves, without textual guidance, in both a seemingly simple as well as a complex, multi-layered way.
The planning of developing such installations is quite diverse; sometimes I start with constructing a chair and some weeks later it turned into a life-sized motorway diner. In other cases, I do need to start with quite precise technical drawings in order to safely build a work with, let’s say, the size of a house. The core of the work is always done at my own studio with my team of eight assistants. We only outsource when it is needed, when we don’t have the space, time or equipment to do certain technical jobs ourselves.
RK: Further, your works are monochromatic. Why do you choose to erase all the colour from the surrealistic world you create? And why grey?
HB: I never stopped using colour, but indeed a large, and probably the better-known part of my sculptural works, watercolours, and photography are achromic: in grey tones, black and white. However, most of my video works, and quite a few installations and sculptures are in full-colour, or a combination of a few colours.
The works you refer to, those that don’t contain colours, are the ones where I love to fully focus on the play of light and shadow, and how that gives life to a three-dimensional shape in a more direct way. To use colour in those cases would be distracting from that essence. For some of my immersive installations, and for the sculptures of the human figure, I realised that I love to use my own specific grey, making them appear as if they were frozen in time, or petrified as it were. The grey I developed has a tender, velvet like appearance and silences down the sculptures, creating a mood of tranquillity; a feeling I hope I manage to stage and convey to the viewer.
If I were to make my sculptures of people in full colour, for example, those works would then be too focused on simulating reality, and that, with all due respect for the artists that do wonderful things in that direction, is not a goal of mine whatsoever. I prefer to abstract reality and thus create an evocation of a mood, an atmosphere, an internalised feeling. I love to evoke, not to simulate. Therefore, I also always prefer to fully and instantly show that my works are nothing but a construction, an interpretation, and not painstakingly copying the full-colour world that surrounds us.
RK: You call your works ‘proposals’, in a sense that they are staged and alternate reality. Are there recurring themes in your work?
HB: My artworks are a ‘proposal’ to the viewer in the same way that fictitious characters and storylines in a novel are propositions to the reader. As an artistic author, I offer a parallel world to the spectator, the reader, the listener, who, at all times, knows that what is presented is a construction of a creative mind, and not the world as it is. To me, as a maker, it is by no means hiding. It is a construction, and at the same time inviting the receiver to find an authentic, true and profound experience in it. Something as ‘false’ as a representation can evoke a real emotion; that is the amazing power of art. Through identification with a protagonist or subject, and through our senses, we can mentally enter a fictitious world that then becomes real and that can move us, involve us, touch us.
The recurring theme in my work is a broad reflection on our complex society and the universal questions of meaning and mortality that resonate within it. I regard man as a fragile being who stages the world around him in an inept, rather tragi-comic way. Above all, I am keen to stimulate the viewers’ senses, and invite them to really experience the image, as I seek to create a form of fiction that delivers a moment of wonder, silence and introspection. In between the lines, my works reflect on many socio-political issues, but in a discrete, subtle way. I always try to find a universal image that speaks both about yesterday as well as about today. I love to question things, but I don’t want to judge, nor pretend to know any answers to ethical issues. Who am I to judge?
RK: The ambient atmosphere you create is theatrical, almost like a stage of a play or set for a film. Do your works refer to fictional (or real) stories or folklore? Or are they always created using your imagination, even as a plot that you display?
HB: What I try to offer in my visual art is the beginning of possible stories. Sometimes I directly depart from my own life experiences, at times I totally make things up. The core indeed is my own imagination. I do refer to quite some existing cultural phenomena though, but I will always interpret what surrounds us and deliver it as fiction. Not fiction as employed in the ‘fantasy’ genre, but a form of ‘plausible’ fiction that one can visually read and understand as something close to life as we know it. In that way, it speaks about us, our human condition, the difficulties and blessings we meet in life.
RK: You recently collaborated with Studio MOTO, an architectural firm, to create a life-sized work for a museum in Belgium. How was that experience different, in terms of planning space and movement, something you usually do in many of your works, but for this there was an architect you worked with?
HB: The Belgian museum Dhondt-Dhaenens (MDD) invited me to create a house as a permanent installation and residence place, which became ‘The Wunderkammer Residence’. I totally transformed an old, worn out villa on the museum site, into a 'Gesamtkunstwerk’. The architectural firm that was involved in this case, was there to technically assist me in realising my design; apart from four remaining walls, all the rest is newly done, including the roof, the monumental staircase and the entire new interior. The architectural firm mainly took care of the technical calculations and follow-up of the building, so my team and I could concentrate on doing the execution of the whole floor-to-ceiling Wunderkammer inside of the space.
It was the museum's request that I’d also conceive the 'Wunderkammer' as a residence place where artists, curators, researchers and writers can live for a certain period of time. Aside of a whole collection of objects and sculptures I created for it, the house also houses the personal library collection of curator Jan Hoet. With ‘The Wunderkammer Residence’ I aimed to create a space for dialogue, reflection and research within the typical rural context of the museum.
I have always been incredibly interested in architecture. My films as well as my large-scale installations always deal with architecture. When you try to stage an environment that evokes a mood, an atmosphere, a charged silence, then architecture is most essential. As a visual artist I have all freedom to being both artistically correct as well as aesthetically incorrect when it comes to the use of architecture, architectural components and interior design. At times my architectural surroundings are minimal and pure, sometimes they are baroque and complicated. Throughout my multi-disciplinary art practice, one can find references to eras as old as the renaissance for example, baroque, classicism, neo-classicism, modernism as well as post-modernism. But whether I write a theatre play or create a sculptural space, the staged or evoked environments are always fully fictitious, in the sense that they don’t quote nor depart from a specific architect’s or designer’s oeuvre. My life-sized interpretation of a motorway diner that overlooks a (sculpted) desolate motorway at night. On the other hand, my installation ‘The Collector’s House’, architecturally, looks like the neo-classical nonsense a well to do person with a doubtful taste might have come up with in, say, the ‘50s. Yet, when you look more closely to their details, you will always discover details that refer to today and other periods as well.
RK: How are your smaller format and 2-dimensional works different in approach, as compared to your large-scale sculptural works? What governs the choice of media and scale?
HB: My two-dimensional work mainly consists of watercolour paintings.
When I start to paint at eight in the evening or so, when my assistants are gone and the studio building is empty, I find the silence and concentration to paint. Most of my watercolours are almost three meters wide, and you have to work on them layer by layer, with moments in between where the paper has to dry. Ideally, I work on a watercolour for about 12 hours on end. So around eight in the morning, the essence of the watercolour is already there. For most paintings I then still need one or two extra nights to get them finished to the detail. The advantage is that I can work without any form of interruption at night. No phone calls, no visitors, no guiding of my assistants when they need me to help with the sculptures to make the next decisions. In one flow I can paint in the highest form of concentration. The disadvantage is of course that it is exhausting when your paint several nights in a row and still have other things to do during the daytime, which, at my studio, is always the case. In the periods when I paint over night, I am often exhausted. But for some reason, the night helps to set the right tone of each watercolour. Probably it is romantic nonsense, but to me the night seems to be the ultimate moment to create these works, that, content wise, all have a nocturnal mood.
Aside of the watercolour paintings, I write as well, mainly theatre plays and short stories. This as well is a lonely activity that often takes place at night. Some of the small sculptures I make, are also done just by my own hands. One could say that these personal, lonely forms of creation are quite different than the big works I realise with my team. The one-to-one relation with the empty sheet of paper, whether that’s for writing or painting, feels a bit like ‘back to the basics’ for me. But I must say that, to me, there is no difference between the intensity or artistic weight of the works I do by myself or the ones where I involve the extra pairs of hands of my team to make them happen. The process is different, but the journey as adventurous.
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