PRINT May 2010


FOR ALMOST A DECADE, Jos de Gruyter worked at Ten Weyngaert, a Brussels community center that began as a utopian experiment in the 1980s. Intended as a place that citizens could visit in order to freely express their creativity—a latter-day Esalen—the center is now frequented, de Gruyter says, by disaffected individuals: failed artists, retired yoga instructors, and so on. These denizens often partake in art therapy programs there; when invited to access their imaginative inner worlds through such sessions, they often become confused, angry, or depressed, and the ensuing atmosphere of silence and estrangement affects the stewards as well. “After working there for nine years,” de Gruyter says, “I became catatonic too.”

It is this kind of empathetic experience that de Gruyter and his collaborative partner, Harald Thys, bring to their sustained ruminations on inwardness and the psychological lives of others. At the beginning of the twenty-six-minute film Ten Weyngaert (In the Vineyard), 2007, the Flemish artists’ burlesque of daily life at the center, five habitués of the place and two sadistic, boilersuited “helpers” (named Tim and Tom) line up against a wall. We hear gunshots, and each, in turn, falls to the ground. When we see these characters next, however, they’re not dead—just somehow removed, asocial, trancelike. Long takes depict the center’s guests, their expressions somewhere between serenity and trauma, staring into space; watching one character, we hear an internal monologue about a man who becomes sexually aroused by pinching black mice to death in his trouser pockets. Others communicate on perverse preverbal levels, such as choking one another. Intercut, meanwhile, are dimly lit scenarios wherein Tim and Tom (who, in this work’s dream economy, might be considered emblematic of bullying figures in society as a whole) push the visitors about or inveigle them into silent, abject theatrical scenarios: elliptical, queasy narratives featuring bearded women, men in blackface, and ritual mockery. The last shot shows a deserted room, toppled furniture, and a window open onto darkest night. An escape, but—as the sound track of an ugly, itchy sine wave suggests—a fate perhaps even worse than containment.

Like all de Gruyter and Thys’s filmic works, Ten Weyngaert features as its cast a stock company of family and friends, indicating the intimate scale of their practice. The artists met at the Sint-Lukas Brussels University College of Art and Design in 1987, initially united by their shared rejection of the teaching methods in the film and video program there; they have been collaborators ever since. Only recently, however—via showings at the Museum van Hedendaagse Kunst Antwerpen in Belgium, the Fifth Berlin Biennial, and Manifesta 7—have they come to wider international attention. A resurgent interest in theatrically inflected art is surely a factor here. So, too, is the fact that the artists’ 2007–2008 trilogy of films set in therapeutic institutions—beginning with Ten Weyngaert, continuing in Der Schlamm von Branst (The Clay from Branst), 2008, and concluding with Het Fregate (The Frigate), 2008—made their elliptical vision more pointed, while cloaking it in increasingly cinematic production values. Yet throughout the years, de Gruyter and Thys’s focus has remained consistent: characters that live, mutely and intently, in their own heads.

At first, the pair reacted to their immediate surroundings. The black-and-white student video Mime in the Video Studio, 1988, is a five-minute essay in calculated grotesquerie sound-tracked with Europop. It features Thys, spindly in his underwear, performing amateurish mimes and manipulating items belonging to the ex-priest who ran the school’s video studio (and who, de Gruyter says, stashed pornographic U-matic videos there; both artists, he adds, had discomfiting religious upbringings). Soon, however, they turned to more allegorical story lines in which deviations from normal behavior are treated without judgment through neutral, verité-style camera work. The brief video The Bomb, 1995, depicts an aging man ritually and clumsily assembling a bomb in his garage—a task that involves a toy tank, stuffed toys, copper piping, and, seemingly, flour—before exploding it in the woods and laying out the charred remains like prizes. More emphatically stylized, The Deserter, 1997, is an eighteen-minute epistolary narrative told using intertitles: A man is found prone and wounded in the forest, cannot (or will not) communicate in any way, is institutionalized, and eventually starves himself to death rather than assimilate to the “normal” world.

But no one, of course, is entirely immune to reality’s rules. De Gruyter and Thys’s subsequent suite of millennial films is set in pared-down domestic interiors and involves couples whose interactions seem wholly administered or defined by external cultural structures; the characters are eventually delivered into impregnable, insular lives. In The Curse, 1999, Maria, who the intertitles tell us has married a “strange but friendly man” and given birth to their son, progressively reduces her activity to sitting on a couch (the spartan set’s only creature comfort) and hiding under a blanket, while family and friends try to cheer her up with parties. The film suggests that in her remoteness, she has seemingly developed telekinetic powers, moving her shoes via arm signals. Similarly, the silent, brooding husband in Parallelogram, 2000, is revealed to have an inventive internal life: Paralyzed, he begins to direct two stooges in fights and kidnappings that unfold in dreamlike intercut scenes.

Such narratives suggest that these films aren’t merely intended as defeatist studies in alienation and anomie. Indeed, they imply that the border between renegade self-realization and depression or outright mental illness can appear perilously thin, but that riding that line may be worth the risk. It is this shifting problem of alienation in late-capitalist societies that seems to be de Gruyter and Thys’s core focus, underwriting their fascination with the degraded sites of psychotherapy. If therapeutic attempts to harness “creativity” have foundered, they imply, it’s because such efforts are another form of behavioral control whose only escape is willful inaction.

Over and against such manufactured treatments, both artists speak sincerely of another kind of cure. They discern a fragile beauty in willed aphasia and inertia—in recognizing the ache behind what is being semaphored but not said. They cite the influence of the breathtaking scene in Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar (1966) in which a downtrodden donkey looks in turn at a caged tiger, a polar bear, a chimp, and an elephant, and a deep understanding is conveyed without words. The Flemish filmmakers pursue a comparably rich yet alogical field of allusions—positing existence as anterior to language, as perpetually constrained, because there are no words to express the benighted modern subject’s acme of discontent. If Samuel Beckett lamented humankind’s inability to communicate, de Gruyter and Thys take it as a given, attempting to leverage what is left.

To make things “speak,” to open that which is closed off to language or rational articulation—this is even more properly the province of psychoanalysis, and of art therapy. In The Clay from Branst, silent protagonists sit in a sculpture workshop. The only figure who speaks (and, really, she only grunts in pain) is a praying woman who, clinging to faith and also to a boxy chunk of clay, appears not to have reached the plateau of wordless stillness where the others reside. Meanwhile, in The Frigate, another group behaves according to internally consistent but wholly alien codes of conduct. They sit impassively, videotape one another and the walls, and intermittently gather in fascination around an obscure object of desire: a caulk-black model of a frigate. The opaque drama of these moments is redoubled by honking bursts of Baroque organ music; that sound, almost atonal in its dense, pounding polyphony, is as close as we get to the inaccessible mental processes running inside the characters’ heads.

This staging of isolation increasingly extends to the artists’ installation of their works. At the Berlin Biennial in 2008, The Frigate and a series of associated photographs were presented in the cellar of the Kunst-Werke Berlin; the windowless space felt wholly cut off from the venue, and a disorienting bright light was switched on when the projection ended. For Projekt 13, 2010, shown recently at Kunsthalle Basel, de Gruyter and Thys spent a month in a Brussels basement, mechanically tracing hundreds of randomly selected photographs on the same type of paper with the same type of pencil. These drawings were displayed alongside sculptures of expressionless white heads; a handout credited the eerie, uninflected graphics to “an indefinable group of technocrats”—who, to judge from their impersonal handiwork and its flattening of wildly differing aspects of human life (from explicit sex to television weather maps), appeared to have mastered a profound indifference to external reality. Nothing here is more meaningful than anything else.

At the installation’s far end, the artists projected a pseudoscientific presentation titled Über das Verhältnis der wirklichen Welt zu der parallelen Welt (About the Relationship Between the Real World and the Parallel World). This video slide show progressed via diagrammatic representations of the “real world” and the “parallel world”: In this schema, the “real world” (figured as a solid circle) is the objective universe; the “parallel world” (a dotted-line circle) is a subjective interpretation of it. At the end of the slide show, a “terminal phase” is described, in which the dotted circle slides to completely cover the solid one: a shift in which, if you like, a private, insular model of the world entirely eclipses reality. After passing through several roomfuls of cataleptic drawings on angled dividers, which intentionally separated viewers from each other, one might have felt as if he or she had reached the apex of total isolation—and felt, too, how fragile is the membrane separating inner and outer worlds, real and imagined, sane and schizoid. The choice to withdraw is not an ideal, de Gruyter and Thys seem to say. But it is, at least, the lesser of two evils—free will’s closest approximation in a world of invisible but implacable constraints.

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