Hans Op De Beeck, between sculpture and scenography

Hans Op De Beeck is an artist who concentrates on the power of shape, and its many expressions, leaving aside any explicit messages, any stress on novelty, or even the seductions of colour.

In his sculpted work, he may starts from the general idea of an image which attracts him, which crosses his mind. It could be the “idea” of a man riding a horse or rowing on a river, or of a couple of shy youngsters. He then composes a scene with actual people and objects, which may be objects related or dear to the person who will embody the scene, as a live subject. Depending on the visual effect of this “three-dimensional sketch”, he may add or subtract this or that object or accessory. And because the rendering of the overall shape must be as close as possible to the sketch in all its proportions, details and expressions, photography from all possible angles will be used as an intermediary step.

The resulting sculpture, on whichever material it is made (a mix of polyester, steel, glass fiber, polyamide, etc), will be covered with a uniformly light grey layer with a slightly powdery aspect. The absolute uniformity of the shade of grey chosen by the artist allows for no other colour gradient than the neat, sharp shades resulting from the light source in the room: here is shape at its “purest”. The eye is not distracted by any colour, or by seeking to acknowledge some previously stored memory, or by some amusing trait; no process of identification is possible, this grey even defeats the seductions of black-and-white films. It is the opposite of a wax museum. Strangeness, eeriness, are seeping into this colourless, perfectly homogeneous yet quasi-lively subject, perception is struggling halfway between reality and the familiar conventions of art. A strangeness that is part of the background of Belgian or Flemish art history, and it should not come as a complete surprise that the artist is indeed Flemish.

If “pure” black and white are not really colours, grey – which is a mix of the two, and is defined by the intensity of light without any impression of colour – is not really one either. Because pure black absorbs all the light, it would be very difficult to perceive any details, leaving the shape inexpressive, completely unrelated to life. And because pure white reflects all the light, it tends to glow and give a ghostly look to the person, to withdraw reality from her, as can be seen from recent works of Elmgreen Dragse or Alex Hanimann. But the point of these artists’ work is precisely to stress the humanity forgone in digital absorption. Grey, instead, preserves both the earthly dimension and the maximum visibility of each detail so that the eeriness of the sculpture may exert its power.

For it is important to stress that Hans Op De Beeck’s sculptures are anything but realistic, or related somehow to so-called hyperrealism. Quite the opposite. The scenes are carefully composed, they are  mere constructions which use persons or objects extracted from reality as building blocks : here, reality serves as the stone quarry of the artwork.  

In the sculpted work of the artist, we are catching an instant within the flow of time; a three-dimensional snapshot. These instants would be meaningless without a before and an after, they are not images meant to suggest immortality, even though they may be studiously paused; but here the pause imitates the flow of life so as to immortalize human life itself, be it through its smallest gestures or its grandest feats, just as the Greek sculptor Myron did with his Discobolus (c.450 B.C.), a masterpiece of which the 5th century “Lancellotti” marble copy at Palazzo Massimo, and a 2nd century bronze copy in the Munich Glyptothek, give us a pretty good idea.

What we see in this Asian man rowing on his small boat is the rowing more than the man; what we see in this young boy looking at a seemingly indifferent young girl is the amorous gaze rather than the young boy…

Would the artist agree with the statement of Henri Bergson in Creative Evolution (1907) that “form is only a snapshot view of transition” ? For the philosopher, the only reality is the continuous change of form, whereas a photograph, for instance, would be deprived of substance and density. But what if a photograph were three-dimensional, keeping in mind that the flatness of photographs has long been a factor driving artists towards texture, installations, and mixed media? This does not refute Bergson’s argument in any way, and even though one may circle around a sculpture and never quite exhaust the resulting perspectives, the sculpture remains outside of reality. Except that the human brain is probably able to reconstitute the sequence from a mere snapshot if faced with enough verisimilitude, which we are provided with except for the colour, and texture. The artist knows that there is a border not to cross, that if he flirts too convincingly with reality, he will be leaving the territory of art, which requires the active participation of the viewer.

Sculpting after photography is a choice that could come as a surprise, since more and more artists since the 1950s, such as George Segal or Brice Nauman, have used casts from life. One of the most spectacular examples is that of Gormley’s Another Place (1997), where he used casts from his own body and then dotted the shoreline around Cuxhaven in Germany, and later elsewhere, with standing figures facing the horizon. But as James Hall notes in The World as Sculpture (1999), “once photography had been invented, naturalistic sculpture and casts from life started to be thought of increasingly as three-dimensional daguerreotypes; and photography was in turn seen as a two-dimensional casting from nature”. The grey coating would have increased this sensation.

Gormley – Another Place (photograph by Chris Howells)

As we know, “petrification” is a recurrent myth; the best known is the myth of the Gorgon Medusa, who turned into stone anyone who looked at her face. Similarly, Lethaea was turned into stone by the gods due to her vanity. Or the shepherd who gave away the location of Saint Barbara to her father Dioscorus was punished by being turned into stone.

Leaving aside the superficial – or at least insufficient – psychoanalytic interpretation of Medusa (pictured: Medusa by Arnold Böcklin, 1878) as an image of the threat of castration, let us go back to fundamentals: the early Neolithic myth of Medusa, the grand-daughter of Gaea, the goddess Earth, has been re-elaborated over time but certainly precedes by many centuries the Dorians and the Hellenes. The key point is that in her coexist the two fundamental powers of killing and curing : Asclepius, the god of healing, had received from Athena the blood from the Gorgon’s right side, capable of resurrecting the dead, while the blood from her left side was a mortal poison. These are the same powers as those of goddess Kali of India, for instance, who gives birth to all beings and also licks their blood, a necklace of skulls around her neck; she is the ultimate reality of nature. Petrification is death, no doubt, but also the prelude to a new birth with the same or some other shape.

If you transpose the myth to the realm of art, these petrified persons have met the face of the artist, who stripped something from the world – a symbolic destruction – and created some other reality therewith, a symbolic resurrection. But that attempt is doomed to fail, life has frozen in the process, leaving only its shape as a shade. The artist has stolen the powers of the queen of the Gorgons, and could well meet his Perseus should his art fail the test of immortality… Or is it so inevitable ?

The myth of the Gorgons is in contrast to the one of Pygmalion and Galatea (pictured: Pygmalion et Galatée by Falconet, 1763) where Pygmalion, having sculpted a woman of greater beauty than any living one, fell in love with her, a desperate love as it could not be returned; Athena took pity, and gave life to the statue so that they may embrace. A myth which has its own relevance here. What greater metaphor of the artist as a rival to the gods by means of its creative powers ? In the case of Hans Op De Beeck, it is not the all-powerful creator who is celebrated; the confrontation between the artist and an ever-fleeing, ever changing reality becomes implicitly the subject, in the silent expectation – intertwined with the fear of an impossibility – that something from life may be created in addition to, in excess of reality, if only he picks the right moment in this never-ending flow.

The characters chosen by the artist are the opposite of heroes: two shy teenagers, a modest Asian peasant probably transporting his products to the marketplace, a tired cabaret dancer taking a break, all glamour forgotten… they are but aspects of ordinary life observed with such empathy that the characters become endearing. Galatea could be brought to life not by the sculptor’s kisses, but through the viewer’s emotions, should he succeed in arousing them. What is closest to Pygmalion’s powers but having one’s stone-dead images arising any such feelings? Deprived of the masks corresponding to their social roles, if any, of their Jungian “persona”, children appear in their innocence and adults in their vulnerability.

These two men facing each other on their ladders are two scientists confronting their theories, with the ladder as a metaphor of their knowledge and eminence; but one of them must be wrong, probably the one with his hands in his coat’s pockets. He looks less assured, in a slightly defensive position. He could fall from his ladder after so many years climbing it step by step. 

And this part woman, part wooden dummy, smoking a cigarette with her gaze lost in the distance, is she still alive or a living dead ? What did she miss ? Is she close to being one of those drunkards-turned-skeletons leaning on a brick wall, who still seem to wait for something or someone, as if they had not realized that they were already dead?

In a recent interview to the online magazine STIR, the artist said “The recurring theme in my work is a broad reflection on our complex society and the universal questions of meaning and mortality that resonate within it. I regard man as a fragile being who stages the world around him in an inept, rather tragi-comic way. Above all, I am keen to stimulate the viewers’ senses, and invite them to really experience the image, as I seek to create a form of fiction that delivers a moment of wonder, silence and introspection”. Petrification was always a sign of fear, or death: Pindar uses the phrase λἰθινος θάνατος, “stone death”, and for the Ancient Greeks death is fore and foremost the world of silence. Fear in the face of this uncontrollable adventure that is life, death to one’s aspirations, or just silence: here is a powerful questioning of the absence or the necessity of meaning : are these figures in some way justified in their existence?

Hans Op De Beeck has also produced with the same technique a number of still-lives, some larger than real displayed on the floor, some on a mere shelf affixed to a wall, some on a table, which he groups under different categories including that of vanitas or, when in a closed cabinet, Wunderkammer. The translation of “still-life” from the German Stilllebens (same meaning in Dutch and Flemish, which are languages of Germanic stump), is nature morte (“dead nature”) in French, naturaleza muerta in Spanish… Is a still-life not a form of petrification ? German languages prefer Pygmalion, as Galatea’s stillness is perhaps transitory, while Romanic ones are decidedly siding with Medusa…

These sculptures or installations juxtapose objects such as vases, glasses, books, grapes or candlesticks, directly taken from the most classic tradition of Flemish still lives, and contemporary artefacts such as cell phones, cigarette boxes, or plastic cups which refer to contemporary everyday life. They may also include miniature models of furniture or suitcases, for example. In this manner, the sculptures destroy the hierarchy between nobler and trivial objects, between reality and its models, between objects of contemplation and objects of mere curiosity. Because of the uniform grey colour, all the technical virtuosity displayed by the 16th century Flemish masters to render transparency, brilliance and shimmering becomes pointless. Gloss and mattness are on the same level. You could read their being a vanitas precisely because everything that has made these objects interesting or remarkable is now abolished, and in a sense “all things dead are equal”. You could read it as a radical statement in favour of the general equivalence of all things, their role being subsumed in the larger reality of a group of objects (individuals?) which is only interesting as a group, and where the proximity of the objects matters more than their individual nature as they lend to the whole the many shades which makes this whole noteworthy.

Indeed, it is the neatness of the shades that gives such a presence and uniqueness to each one of these still-lives. Giving the preeminence to the whole rather than the individual is – politically speaking – the point where democracy at its extreme joins the communitarian ideals of theocracies and traditional, highly ritualized societies. For who sees and judges this whole, if not a god or a principle standing outside of it, as we do as viewers? One could also read these innocent still-lives as a questioning of the fundamental aims and justifications of social systems.

Neat shapes are sculpted exclusively by the lighting

One assumes that Hand Op De Beeck is fond of Wunderkammers, which were historically rooms or cabinets where one would collect rare, unusual and bizarre objects, whether natural or man-made. They were born in the Renaissance as an evolution of the medieval Schatzkammer where treasuries were kept, and the Italian studiolo (small study) where scholars and princes liked to retire in order to engage quietly in their reflections. Thought and rarity came together in the Wunderkammer (wonder room), which 16th century German princes were particularly fond of.

The point of these Wunderkammers, at a time when travel was difficult but scientific curiosity on the rise among educated classes, was to constitute a sort of physical encyclopedia that could allow to study the world, make comparisons, classify, in short apply a scientific method to the diversity found in nature and among human societies. It was also a microcosm, a summary of the world in a naturalistic rather than spiritual sense. After having wondered at God’s creation, a new step was taken by examining this creation, by having the mind penetrating the mysteries of its workings. The step which separates mystery from wonderment; paradoxically for a wonder room, a step towards disenchantment. A rebirth of these cabinets of curiosity has been observed in the 20th century with the opening to new worlds, as could be the case with the collection of André Breton; here aesthetic pleasure dominates, dandyism ultimately replacing the quest for knowledge by owning the skeleton of some rare dinosaur, or the space suit of some famous astronaut.

In our case, the artist regroups in a cabinet several objects which are often borrowed from his other works, perhaps at a different scale. None of these objects is particularly remarkable; as they are deprived of colour, they belie through dullness the very idea of wonder. It is the oddity of seeing them one next to the other that elicits curiosity, not the characteristics of this or that object; again, the whole takes a significance that the particular fails to convey. And by reusing some of his own shapes or works, the artist humorously points at them as either wonders, or curiosities, which may be a comment on the status of contemporary art which is exploring the terrain left between the sacred and the decorative.

Hans Op De Beeck – Wunderkammer (2020)

Some of Hans Op De Beeck’s most impressive achievements are his black and white watercolours. Their technique is dazzling, with a mix of precision and impression that provides a ghostly atmosphere where threat is always hovering, perhaps simply the threat of disappearance. These are visions, such as in the Merry-go-round, or the seemingly deserted Lunapark at night, in the vicinity of a harbour, a sinister amusement place on the shoreline, awaiting some dreadful event, yet another example of the introduction of some slight oddity, enhanced by the absence of any colour. Or this naked woman facing a mirror, or trapped by it, looking back to the house she just left in pitch dark, with the viewer left uncertain if the seemingly real woman is looking at the house, or only her reflection is doing so.

The skies and desert seascapes are among the artist’s highest achievements, with a mastery of moonlight glimmering on the sea foam, of barely nascent sunlight, which demonstrate an amazing control of the technique, but which also unmistakably belong to the world of the North See, as does his iconography in general.

Many of these watercolours are brought together in the video Night Time (2015), thereby bringing forward the importance of scenography in the work of Hans Op De Beeck. Here is a world made of pieces which can be rearranged, set in a new context, sewn or affixed one to another, as if they were all characters or decorations in a wider scenography, and the Silent Room (2019) installation is precisely that. Nothing seems to stand alone but temporarily, secret affinities bind these unrelated individuals and things, unknown perhaps to the artist himself.

Silent Room (2019)

A full study would be necessary to adequately speak about the artist’s videos; it will come as no surprise that they are “written” in the same dreamlike key, B minor perhaps…  

Did Hans Op De Beeck find, with his particular grey, the very shade of questioning, uncertainty, suspension of time and events? The shade of “in-betweenness”, between the death strike of Medusa and the breath of life experienced by Galatea? Of a place neither on earth nor in the sky, neither in reality nor in dream, neither in hope nor in despair: a very contemporary place.  

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