Benjamin Verdonck

The Belgian artist Benjamin Verdonck is best known for multidisciplinary projects in theaters, but in recent years he has also entered the stage of the visual arts, with performances as well as presentations in the context of exhibitions. Recently, under the title “On the Way to Work,” Verdonck featured a group of his visual art projects, all attesting to the transitions he effects between stage and gallery, action and object.

This passage from gesture to material was made evident even in the exhibition’s title, which immediately suggested that the artist’s project resides in a creative process envisioned as a whole: its occasion, the time one devotes to it, the collaborations it calls for, the enjoyment one finds in it, and the objects it ultimately produces. It is along this entire spatiotemporal line that Verdonck’s work operates—a line he does not hesitate to run along in both directions, with the action, having become an object, sometimes becoming an action again.

The exhibition primarily consisted of models in cardboard, paper, plaster, and wood. At once sophisticated and fragile, they represent a sensibility that is equally elusive, a fondness for disguise and metamorphosis, an affinity with the worlds of the circus and the fair. Beyond their amusing, baroque, ephemeral character and their colorful appeal, these models touch with great subtlety on the individual’s relationship to his or her socioeconomic environment, or at least to the one proposed by consumer culture, especially advertising. Leef zoals je wil (Live How You Want To), 2007, for example, draws its inspiration from the logo and slogan of a Belgian supermarket chain, mocking the store by giving it the appearance of a fairy-tale castle or a gift box; this in order to suggest the kind of ready-made happiness the company claims to deliver every day to its customers, a cruel fantasy given the harsh realities most people face.

Other models, such as On the Way to Work, 2009, consider the complex commercialization of the private sphere, which is also to say the thorny question of knowing what position to take as a creative person, both with regard to the sources of one’s inspiration and to one’s public image and the market; the dilemma escalates when one bases one’s production on a seemingly priceless material, that is, life itself—a material that, what’s more, one inevitably betrays in trying to catch hold of it.

In addition to the models, the exhibition also included groupings of photographs with texts, assemblages similar to synopses of brief performances taking place in other times and places. In a tone at once serious and mocking, reminiscent of the one adopted in his time by Bas Jan Ader, these works deal with the artist’s political commitment (An Artwork for a Nice White Gallery, 2004), as well as the vanity of every system of individual improvement (At the Count of Three I Can Disappear, 2006). In the end, seeing the profusion of ethical and aesthetic issues Verdonck touches on and the skill with which he handles them, one can only hope he continues along the path that he has intuitively opened up between theatrical art and visual art: the way of a tightrope walker.

Yoann Van Parys

Translated from French by Molly Stevens.