With Hans Op de Beeck it’s all about feelings. The Flemish artist’s main aim in life is to evoke a smile, a tear, relief, elation, anger, anything but emotional dullness. In his construction of mood-inducing stages, his chosen medium, he knows almost no restrictions, except for his own perfectionism. His eye for detail and love for craftsmanship are just as present in his small black-and-white watercolors as in the eighty square-meter installation Merry-go-round (2005), which features a carousel and hauntingly squeaking swings in a snow-filled backyard. He constructs large, three-dimensional still lives in plaster and paints them to lend them an alienating zinc look. In his films he brings to life the air of expectation present on a cruise liner, the sterile promise of death in a hospital, or – as in All Together Now (2005), which portrays a birthday celebration just as uneasy as the one in Thomas Vinterberg’s Festen – the suffocating claustrophobia of social conventions.
Op de Beeck is internationally successful. His work is presented at art fairs, he participated in the latest edition of documentary festival IDFA, and his Amsterdam gallery, Ron Mandos, regularly showcases him. But personally the artist strongly prefers showing in museums. To him they are the ultimate places for contemplation, comparable to churches in earlier times.
The presentation of three of his films in Museum Arnhem – on large screens in three consecutive semi-dark rooms – fits with this notion. Metropolitan scenes doubles with a thematic presentation in the museum’s other wing, De Melancholieke Metropool (The Melancholic Metropol), about artistic depiction of the city and urban life from the 1920s to 1940s. Although the exhibition is a bit dry and methodical in set-up, it’s worth taking a short look at it before entering Op de Beeck’s world. It provides some sort of context.
Hans op de Beeck, Staging silence 2, 2013, video still; Courtesy of the artist and Museum Arnhem
Like the surrealists in De Melancholieke Metropool, Op de Beeck has a penchant for transforming everyday materials beyond their banal use. Staging Silence (2) (2013) is the best example of this. In this film two hands use sugar cubes, potatoes, plastic bottles and white sand to construct a wintery landscape, a fair ground, an urban skyline. The results are poetic and very realistic. The work brings to mind the photography of Edwin Zwakman or Thomas Demand, who also create worlds using nothing but paper, scissors and glue.
But unlike Zwakman and Demand – or the surrealists for that matter – Op de Beeck has no underlying political or philosophical agenda. First and foremost he’s a romantic, and his DIY-settings do not go beyond inciting a sense of melancholy or happy excitement. In Extensions (2009) he ups the ante, though. This film is about the way technological evolution impacts our lives. A series of watercolors, mostly portraits, morphs into each other, from heavily tattooed men to a girl with prosthetic limbs and a dominatrix wearing rubber. Op de Beeck once again proves himself to be a master draughtsman, but as a film Extensions is unconvincing.
Hans op de Beeck, Extensions, 2009, video still; Courtesy of the artist and Museum Arnhem.
Far better is Dance (2013), which was created for the Red Star Line Museum in Antwerp and is being shown outside of Belgium for the very first time. It tells the story of immigration, which is the story of the cosmopolitan world. In a slow-paced choreography we see travelers saying goodbye to loved ones, embarking, being processed by bureaucrats and deloused. Dance is aesthetically very pleasing, the production design is topnotch and the rhythmic succession of top shots, pans, close-ups and wide-angle shots is beautifully balanced. Some scenes are quite intense. The immigrants being showered brings to mind images of WWII-concentration camps and gas chambers, the blankets they sleep under are the same blue as those used by international relief aid agency UNHCR, and the way they are moved as if on an assembly line points towards Fordism. But for some reason Op de Beeck has framed the entire performance in a short and unnecessary tale about a young boy and his father. And in the immigrants’ final act they all wave dramatically while the music ascends. As unfortunately happens more often with Op de Beeck, his search for emotion crosses over into sentimentality.
(Image on top: Hans op de Beeck, Dance, 2013, video still; Courtesy of the artist and Museum Arnhem.)