Critics’ Picks

Jos de Gruyter and Harald Thys, So ist Das (So Be It), 2013, mixed media, dimensions variable.

Jos de Gruyter and Harald Thys, So ist Das (So Be It), 2013, mixed media, dimensions variable.


Harald Thys and Jos de Gruyter

Museum van Hedendaagse Kunst Antwerpen (M HKA)
Leuvenstraat 32
February 8–May 19, 2013

The stilted scenarios in Harald Thys and Jos de Gruyter’s videos match stupidity, vanity, and cruelty with dull interiors, cheap clothes, and blemished skin, pairing moral and physical ugliness. In the selection screened within this retrospective—part one of an exhibition that will continue next year at Kunsthalle Wien—slouching, fumbling, and gaping live actors in Ten Weyngaert, 2007; Der Schlamm von Branst (The Clay from Branst), 2008; and The Friagte, 2009, give way to stiff, pock-marked polystyrene heads with push pin eyes and bad wigs in Das Loch (The Hole), 2010, and Les Énigmes de Saarlouis (The Riddles of Saarlouis), 2012. The bleak vision providing continuity portrays art as a therapeutic activity, surfacing sexual and violent urges alongside clichés (Der Schlamm von Branst), and as a professional undertaking, breeding careerist machismo and humiliating self-doubt (Das Loch). Sculptures from the videos, many modeled from found photographs, appear as themselves in the gallery, as do dummy characters, including Johannes, the German artist who believes painting can mediate a relationship to the divine, and a selection of his banally daubed works.

The Leibnizian exhibition title, “Optimundus,” relates to the philosophical dad joke that is the lecture video Over de relatie tussen de reële wereld en de parallelle wereld (About the relationship between the real world and the parallel world), 2010. A more revealing frame for the whole of the show, though, is found in a series of drawings, “Untitled (Public Transport),” 2013. Pencil sketches of several Belgian trams and their passengers not only depict the mundane irritations, confusion, and loneliness of the shared space of public transport, but also suggest a cultural specificity to the work. One might notice, for example, that So ist Das (So Be It), 2013—a café table with ridiculously oversize glasses and an unnaturally tall figure obscured by the sun umbrella—is titled in German, not Dutch as you might expect if it were local beer culture being caricatured directly. Or that the excruciating, chorused twins Kitty & Katty, 2013—who ask the sometimes inane, sometimes impossible puzzle questions in Les Énigmes de Saarlouis—are francophone. An uncomfortable edge to the black humor is that it draws on Flemish sensitivities—low-level intolerance of variations in language, accent, and style—a narcissism of small differences, if you like. The show pushes us to sense any version of such in ourselves.