PRINT April 2005


The scene is a dimly lit diner. Hemispherical lamps hover over tables whose generic salt and pepper dispensers could date from the ’40s or from today, and the menu—in an unreadable script—furnishes no further clues about where (or when) you are. In any case, the proprietor has shut the kitchen and gone home. Outside the picture window, night has fallen over a landscape bisected by a highway that curves away invitingly. Of course it’s too dreamy to be true, not least because no institution—including GEM in The Hague, where Hans Op de Beeck’s etiolated walk-in environment Location 5, 2004, was shown in a solo exhibition last year—can accommodate several miles of semirural vista. Yet while Op de Beeck’s interior is a fabrication and its landscape a glassed-off model in which steadily shrinking streetlights simulate distance, it isn’t a con. Rather it’s a febrile consideration of the problem of looking at and reacting to an over-familiar urbanized reality. Accordingly, though the Belgian artist’s work might sometimes suggest visual poetry, his real metier is editing—stripping out extraneous information to the point where that reality is legible and seemingly unmediated.

If that winding road actually went anywhere, one might follow it back all the way to 1998 and Op de Beeck’s Location 1, the first of (to date) five uncommonly large atmospheric landscapes that, with maniacal model-maker’s precision, he has produced in a steady stream while also dipping into video, photography, drawing, fiction, and even stage design. Made while the artist, who is now based in Brussels, was studying at Amsterdam’s Rijksakademie, this twenty-by-twenty-three-foot tabletop tableau centers on a deserted crossroad, complete with blinking traffic lights, bathed in deep blue light. Like most of Op de Beeck’s work, it began with a mental image he just couldn’t shake—a childhood memory, a scene glimpsed while driving or, as in this case, a product of the imagination. The artist’s hand is nowhere present in the ghostly sculpture, nor, for that matter, is anyone else’s, so it’s hard for the viewer not to fall immediately into it. (It matters, too, that the piece sits at chest height; we can’t really look down on the enterprise but rather are encouraged to enter into it, to look through it.) The absence of people serves not only to aid projection but also to highlight a particular melancholia in the blunt signs of mankind in the environment—the makeshift systems we’ve invented to acclimate ourselves to the world.

When people do appear in Op de Beeck’s work they seem to be weathering an ongoing estrangement from their surroundings, like the bored boy riding a kiddie car outside a shop in the video Insert Coin—Highway Car, 1999, and the rows of supermarket cashiers trapped behind their registers over whom the artist’s camera glides in Situation 1, 2000. What counts here is not just what’s included but what’s left out: the townscape around the jiggling child, which would mitigate the mournful nature of his action; the distractingly bright and hectic sprawl of the supermarket, with its multiplicity of messages. A world pictured in full is resistible; a world pictured in part, and thereby engaging the imagination, less so.

To make Determination 4, 1998, Op de Beeck had a family of four run together on a treadmill, then airbrushed out the motorized belt as well as the entire background so that the runners stumble endlessly forward against a white backdrop. With so much visual information removed, what can one see? Despite the very artificiality and bruising metaphorical shunt of the work, sincere emotion comes through. Op de Beeck calls attention to the family’s genuine efforts to keep each other from falling down, just as in the supermarket video he sought to show—aside from the inhuman architectures of commerce—involuntary reactions, such as the nervous high breathing of a checkout girl all too aware of being filmed.

All of these works were staged: Considering art as essentially communication, Op de Beeck wants to convey a sense of the real, but he doesn’t want the guilty feelings of voyeurism that come with it. This requires a false front of artifice. His method has pedigree: There are elements in the paintings of Holbein and Vermeer, he says—usually facial or bodily expressions—which do not advance any narrative but betray a life beyond the pose, serving to remind the viewer that a real person sat in front of the artist; and that realness can be as valuable as anything the artist intended to say overtly. Viewing Op de Beeck’s films or sculptures activates a preconscious mental agility wherein one continues to suspend disbelief even after the artifice is foregrounded. As such, one both absorbs a narrative about the contemporary world and discovers air pockets of the uninscribed real. These latter elements, though they may not be central to Op de Beeck’s work, give it a conviction that propels it along. If the artist weren’t in control of the ratio of construction, seduction, and authenticity in his work, this process would fail.

Op de Beeck’s thirty-five-minute black-and-white film My Brother’s Gardens, 2003 (adapted from a novella he wrote and shot during the year he spent in New York at the P. S. 1 studio program) follows the separate lives of three adult brothers blighted by extremes of happenstance: Eric, who has moved into a deserted house in the countryside, has lost the use of his legs and discovers that he doesn’t understand his partner (to his disappointment, she starts attending the local church soon after they settle in); Koen, who is autistic; and Marc, fatally fascinated with his own melancholia. Acted (somewhat stagily, with plenty of close-ups to increase the awkwardness) by members of New York’s Leonard Theater Group, the tale is nevertheless narrated in voice-over; the scene keeps cutting to footage of the voice-overs being recorded in a studio. What gets lost in the shuffle is much of the story’s sentimentality. Aware of the work as a tightly limited fictional construct and wise to potential manipulation, we’re free to absorb a sense of the problems and cruelties of being-in-the-world while sidestepping the slings and arrows of deconstruction.

Near its conclusion, My Brother’s Gardens blooms into an extended series of some 135 cross-dissolving drawings, with a sound track of calculatedly emotive strains from Thomas Tallis’s sixteenth-century chorale Spem in Alium. Supposedly made by the handicapped Eric, these pencil sketches feature fantastic or banal imaginary adjustments to the landscape outside his window, from the installation of large statues to the digging of ponds. Naturally, these are Op de Beeck’s own drawings, and he’d shown them previously in this manner as the 2001 animation Gardening. One drawing also features one of Op de Beeck’s sculptures, Room with a View, a “one-person house” deposited in a field in Aarschot, Belgium, in 2001.

Gardening is, of course, a method of shaping one’s surroundings to suit oneself. There is an obvious analogy here. Op de Beeck is pruning and bordering the reality that he presents to us, through his ongoing process of isolating and testing the weight of certain recurring subjects: the endless, nameless highway; the shabby backyards with spindly, bare trees and reflecting ponds. It’s a procedure that engenders, even necessitates, productivity, and Op de Beeck, whose first solo show at New York’s Nicole Klagsbrun Gallery was last month, is unquestionably busy.

Op de Beeck’s art has the effect of presenting a dirty, imperfect world in a comprehensible edit—and revealing it, segment by segment, as a patchwork of provisional adaptations and overdetermined symbols. This is apparent in the overwhelming evocation of transience conveyed through his black-and-white 2004 video Loss (recently shown in the incongruous location of a shipping container on the beach at Art Basel Miami), an inexorable progression from images of lush, late-nineteenth-century gardens to waterlogged ones devastated by World War I. But intentionally or not, it is the performative nature of his practice that speaks most eloquently about the degradations of being human. “I write of melancholy by being busy to avoid melancholy,” wrote Robert Burton in his Anatomy of Melancholy. It’s a phrase—or at least a tactic—that Op de Beeck seems to know well.

Martin Herbert is a writer and critic based in Tunbridge Wells, Kent.