Hans Op de Beeck

Hans Op de Beeck’s early work investigated issues such as the fate of refugees or the consequences of living in an inhumane urban landscape. He used multiple means and media to fabricate an imitation of life or comment on our environment. Often Op de Beeck reproduced a hushed world on a small scale or filmed common situations, isolating them and turning them into immediately recognizable documents of our age.

With “Family: Scenes and Scenery,” Op de Beeck looked at a different aspect of daily existence, turning his lens on the social niceties of what we all know well—family life. Where he used to reduce the big world to scale models, he now blows things up as if under a microscope, making them alienating but terrifyingly familiar. By scratching the surface of family codes and observing the propriety of contemporary bourgeois life, Op de Beeck succeeds in holding a mirror up to his audience.

In the video The Stewarts Have a Party (all works 2006), a family prepares for a social occasion with strangely solemn movements. Shown in an empty white room, dressed in white costumes, the Stewarts appear and disappear with no display of emotion. They are less like performers than moving props, manipulated by figures dressed in black—an entourage of production assistants, a makeup girl, and a hairstylist, who fasten balloons to the family members and place cardboard party hats on their heads. At first you might not identify with this odd ritual, but little by little, you start to relate to the characters: Perhaps you recognize the old man’s formality or the recalcitrant behavior of the kids.

The enlarged scale of Table makes sense when you dig into your memories—it makes you feel as though you are being catapulted back into your childhood, when everything seemed so enormous; this effect creates ambivalent feelings, at once amusing and disturbing. Leftovers and partly cut cake sit atop the table next to overflowing ashtrays, signs that you’ve just missed the party; only minutes ago, people must have been sitting at this oversize table. Without realizing it, you become a participant in a performance and start to project your own memories onto the setting. This tableau vivant might be a fragment of our collective memory: the family gatherings on Sundays that we hated so much at the time but would now give anything to experience again. But this table is white and totally different from the traditional site of most chaotic family meals. This is more like the formal setting for a chat among dignitaries of a village or a meeting of shareholders.

The strength of this installation is the way it metamorphoses into something else simply by the process of the viewer’s own projections and personal associations. The same Table was recently on display at Galerie Krinzinger in Vienna. There, in a totally different context, the experience of walking around the table was quite different. Less personally involving, it worked more as the perfect setting for some Buñuel film one could walk into—like the famous scene in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972) where a group of friends meet in a restaurant: Suddenly a curtain opens and they are shocked to realize that they are sitting onstage; in a split second they decide to become actors in this new “reality.” Likewise, Op de Beeck’s work doesn’t allow you to remain a spectator. You become a participant in a puppet show in which the artist is pulling the strings.

Jos Van den Bergh