Leuven/Antwerp, Belgium

Dirk Braeckman, Prague # 1b / 2011, black-and-white photograph, 47 1/4 x 70 7/8". Zeno X Gallery.

Dirk Braeckman, Prague # 1b / 2011, black-and-white photograph, 47 1/4 x 70 7/8". Zeno X Gallery.

Dirk Braeckman

M – Museum Leuven/Zeno X Gallery

Dirk Braeckman, Prague # 1b / 2011, black-and-white photograph, 47 1/4 x 70 7/8". Zeno X Gallery.

Recently a Swedish curator told me that he learned a lot about Belgium by looking at Dirk Braeckman’s work. If this is the case, there must be something rotten in the state of Belgium. His dark, gloomy photographs provoke an uncanny feeling. It is almost never clear what it is you see in the gray murk, and if you think you do know, a split second later you’ll start to doubt it. With shows in Leuven and Antwerp and the publication of a vast monograph on his work, Braeckman seemed to be Belgium’s unavoidable artist this autumn. And that’s more than justified, since he is one of the very few who has created his own style with a recognizable signature. He refuses to use photography as a medium to capture or interpret reality. Although his subjects or models come straight out of his environment, the result seems totally unfamiliar.

Braeckman credits Luc Sante’s book Evidence (1992), with its pictures of crime scenes taken by the New York police department between 1914 and 1918, with inspiring him to find or purify his own style. Like the nearly century-old photos Sante collected, Braeckman’s images seem to tell more about what you don’t see than they do about what is depicted. The titles he gives them don’t help either, since they often feature only initials and the year in which the photo was taken. A rather dreary image of an empty bed, B.E.-H.O.-96, is framed against a striped wall in such a way that it becomes macabre. Likewise, in what seems to be an empty or deserted hotel room, P.O.-S.P.-02, the curtains are closed, yet a ray of sun is shining on the blanket and we can see a rather ugly, old-fashioned bed of carved wood. Braeckman succeeds in imbuing apparently empty, meaningless spaces with a subtle sense of drama.

The artist’s themes are essentially three—confined spaces or interiors, portraits, and landscapes—but he approaches them in myriad ways. He’ll home in on a detail, catch someone in the glare of a flash, or even rephotograph an existing photograph to get the effect he wants. The portraits are almost exclusively of women, very often unclothed and treated rather brutally. In Prague # 1b/2011, a naked woman wearing cheap high-heels lies on an embroidered couch, anonymous, without identity—one suspects she might be a prostitute. In Vladivostok/Model # 7-07, a naked woman lies on the floor in an odd position, as if dead. Braeckman makes the viewer an accomplice in this invented reality.

Although Braeckman has hardly ever photographed men, there are a couple of rare exceptions, one of them iconic. In 2002, Queen Paola of Belgium honored the artist with a request to produce some photographs for the Royal Palace. He was free to use the royal salons to make some interior photographs but was also asked to make two individual life-size portraits, one of the queen, the other of King Albert II. The way his subjects pose is rather artificial, and the weird lighting makes it look as if they are standing before a photograph of a landscape instead of a real environment, the royal gardens of the Castle of Laken. They look like cardboard cutouts, actors in a theater of illusions. Perhaps the Swedish curator was right after all. Maybe this dark, puzzling, yet brilliantly complicated and layered world of Braeckman’s invention tells us a lot about the dislocation and rootlessness of contemporary Belgium.

Jos Van den Bergh