Interview with Hans Op de Beeck

The artist Hans Op de Beeck answers questions about his solo exhibition The Cliff, which he also personally choreographed. Get some background information on the show.


When did you start concerning yourself with art?

As a teenager I was always drawing cartoons and comic books. Drawing was as self-evident as breathing to me. I was the slightly nerdy kid that wasn’t playing football with the other boys in school but preferred to stay indoors reading comics. Those are the very roots of my fascination for the pictorial image, way before I learned anything about the world of fine arts and art history, let alone contemporary art.


The exhibition here in Krems covers a broad range of your work: sculpture, video, and painting.

Since I graduated, I have always combined several media in solo exhibitions, as something very organic and intuitive, rather than rational. I try to conceive a solo show as a walk through an evolving landscape, a total experience, where the senses and the mind are triggered in different ways.


How do these different aspects play together in the Kunsthalle show?

At the Kunsthalle, I start with a sculptural installation that evokes a dreamlike mood of silence, tranquillity and mystery. That mindset prepares for the relatively broad selection of video rooms that follow. From there, the exhibition again leads to a physical part, where several large and small sculptures of fictitious places, disproportioned objects and sculptures of life-sized characters confront the viewer with a world of frozen, petrified poses and objects. After that, it alternates again towards the mental space of the painting, in rooms with large watercolour paintings, depicting fictional landscapes. At the end of the exhibition, the viewer enters the Central Hall, where a new sculptural piece, massive in its appearance, evokes a life-sized landscape with two teenage characters. The sensorial aspect of the films and watercolours and the tactile appearance of the sculptural works are of great importance to me. I hope that when you leave the evoked mental space of the exhibition, you look at the world outside with different eyes for a while, like when you have read a good novel or seen a movie that moved you.


One part of your work are richly detailed sculptural interiors. In Krems, you are showing Christmas of 2006, which is a bourgeois living room on Christmas Eve. How can we imagine the creation process of such an environment?

In this work, I made a living room true to scale, depicting the very part of the house in which we in Western Europe stage our Christmas ritual. There is the Christmas tree, all the gifts are neatly arranged into a nice still life, the room is spick and span, ready to receive the family and guests for their gathering. But as sweet and innocent as the setting is, sculpted of wood and other materials such as polystyrene and metal, it is spray-painted monochromatically in metallic black car paint. By doing so, the whole scene becomes dark, gloomy, and alienating. Often the domestic setting is a place of fight, trauma, abuse, crime. The very ambiguous appearance of this scene speaks about keeping up appearances and sticking to family traditions. My assistants and I worked on it for a couple of weeks, and the decision to paint it black arrived to me during the process. In this sense, I am not a conceptual artist who can exactly define beforehand how a work will finally look like. I take most decisions with an essential impact on the contents of the work along the way. In fact, I am a studio-based artist, and by that I mean that the creation always, and at times drastically, evolves during the process of making it.


Many of your figures have their eyes closed, inward looking. Your new title-giving installation The Cliff of 2019—a world premiere here at the Kunsthalle Krems—shows a couple of lovers sitting together on a cliff. This is the first time that we can actually look into your figures’ eyes. What brought you to that decision?

It has only been for some years now that I dare to sculpture people, which is an extremely tricky thing to do, since the falseness of a sculpted human being is always very obvious; while, in my—of course highly subjective—view, it is easier for a viewer to find an authentic emotion in fictional desolate, depopulated cityscapes, natural landscapes or interiors. So after having sculpted many life-sized characters with closed eyes, I thought it would be more than interesting to make sculptures of people with their eyes open. Doing so, one comes close to the frozen moment of the photograph or a film still, where a gaze is just a matter of seconds. In The Cliff, we observe a teenage couple of 14-year-olds who are holding hands, seated on a rough rocky cliff. He looks at her, and she gazes towards the horizon, as if it were a moment in a motion picture that petrified into a sculpture. I want to invite viewers to walk physically around this frozen moment, as if their eyes are the camera in a black-and-white movie. For the characters we remain totally absent, though, since they don’t look as us at all.


All of your sculptures at the exhibition at Kunsthalle Krems are grey. What significance does colour, or the lack of it, have for your art?

At some point in my production, I discovered my own kind of grey that makes sculptured objects, interiors, or landscapes appear as if they were made of stone or pigmented plaster. This petrified aspect makes one think of Pompeii: life frozen in time, as it were. I discovered that the grey coating I almost coincidentally invented has an almost velvet-like appearance that reflects the light very tenderly. In my view, it gives a special aura to the depicted, a soft skin that abstracts the figurative forms into a kind of a parallel, silent world. The absence of colour puts the focus on the light. Throughout my work, light and how it reflects and animates, is of extreme importance, since it totally defines and articulates the mood of an image, regardless of the medium.


Since 2009, you’ve started doing large-sized watercolours, working mostly in the night time. How did it happen that you chose to work at night?

When I start painting at eight in the evening or so, when my assistants are gone and the studio building is empty, I find the silence and concentration to paint. Most of my watercolours are almost three meters wide, and you have to work on them layer by layer, with times in between where the paper has to dry. Ideally, I work on a watercolour for about twelve hours on end. So around eight in the morning, the essence of the watercolour is already there. For most paintings, I then still need one or two extra nights to get them finished to the detail. For some reason, the night helps to set the right tone of each watercolour. It is probably romantic nonsense, but to me the night seems to be the ultimate moment to create these works, that, content-wise, all have a nocturnal mood.


You also use your watercolours in your 2015 film Night Time. Where does your fascination with the dark, the gloom, the tenebrosity of night come from?

I love the notion of potential derailment, of situations that can alter into something else, the idea that something just happened somewhere or is about to happen, that places contain layers and traces of drama or conflict, yet still appear calm and peaceful as well.


What filmmakers, or movie genres, do you find interesting?

I adore the work of the Coen brothers, which is true author cinema, and contains a great tragicomic understanding of life; plot, cinematography and tempo masterfully blend in their work. I also like movies like the older ones by Hitchcock because of the fact that you feel the indoor staging that at times is theatrically calm, slow and rather static. Or the pure visual beauty of Wes Anderson’s films.


The idea of the “stage” is like as thread that runs through the various different media you work with. What do stages mean to you?

If you straightforwardly show that your image or story, be it a film, an installation, a painting or a theatre play, is staged, the staging is not an issue anymore, and you can make the spectator fully receptive for the image or narration. When you painstakingly try to hide the construction behind the image, it paradoxically becomes more artificial and falser. When you enter a large-scale immersive installation of mine or watch a film like my Staging Silence series, you know at all times that it is nothing but a construction. Yet the construction can deliver authentic experiences. It then contains both sides: a true experience of being moved or transported to a parallel universe, and the understanding that it is what it is, a construction. It then always gives you the possibility to put things in perspective and go back to the reflective distance.


How or what do you like your waffles with?

I like a Brussels waffle with fresh strawberries. In the strawberry season, of course (laughs)

credits: Hans Op de Beeck © Christophe Vander Eecken

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