Hans Op de Beeck’s stark realities

Although many artists describe themselves as ’multi media artists’, few deserve the tag as much as Brussels based Hans Op de Beeck. Op de Beeck – who enjoys critical and commercial success all over the world – is mainly known for his installations, but expresses himself through sculpture, drawings, paintings, video, photographs, short stories. For his video Sea of Tranquillity (2010) – presented as part of a multi-media installation shown in Argos last year – he even composed a jazzy theme song. When Op de Beeck tells us in his Anderlecht studio that he is currently working on a black and white animation movie that will also be part of an opera in Versailles, it doesn’t even come as a surprise anymore. Op de Beeck selects the medium in function of his message. He is not interested in making a political statement or telling a story, however, but wants to immerse the viewer in a specific mood.

“Having a coffee at night in a deserted highway restaurant while looking out over the empty highway is just the same as staring at the sea. It is a kind of contemporary translation of dreaming away.”

Location (5) (2004) for example, is an accessible installation of a full-sized, nocturnal roadside restaurant with a view on an empty motorway. The entire atmosphere is dark and greyish, besides the orange halo of the high-way’s light. The work captures a sense of melancholia though Op de Beeck is quick to emphasise that he is not a nostalgic. That is also the reason why he places his work in deliberate contemporary settings like shopping malls or cruise ships, while tackling universal and timeless themes: “Having a coffee at night in a deserted highway restaurant while looking out over the empty highway is just the same as staring at the sea. It is a kind of contemporary translation of dreaming away.”

Courtesy Xavier Hufkens, Brussels

Op de Beeck’s installations are very realistically made, yet he does want to highlight their artificial nature by, for example, playing with scale and size (as with his long white festive board created in a scale of 1.5, making you feel like a six year old) or leaving out colours. His universe is subdued, often deliberately limited to white, black or grey. Extension (1) (2007) for example is an installation of an intensive care unit with a hospital bed, all in spotless white, while Extension (2) (2007) shows an office environment completely rendered in black. Both works deal with the way technology has become a body extension, the clinical colours emphasising the pronounced sense of dehumanisation: “As I pay so much attention to detail, working with monochromic colours is a way to make the image more silent. You get a process of dematerialisation, as a kind of after image of phantom image.”

“As I pay so much attention to detail, working with monochromic colours is a way to make the image more silent.”

This somewhat ghostly disposition is also the case in Location (6) (2008), a 300m2 installation. It is a kind of 3D panorama, an observatory of a vast and misty snow landscape where everything is so white you almost lose your sense of perception. The absence of colour is a pursued form of abstraction to reach a point zero. Leaving out colour can also be a way to emphasise what is underneath the surface, as in The Stewarts Have a Party (2006). In the video, a family is dressed for a party though the mood is rather more odd than festive. The fact that the entire setting lacks colour – even the balloons and cardboard party are in sterile white – contributes to the overall feeling of unease. The family members also behave like life-sized marionettes that are being manipulated by production assistants. It is a strong image, unmasking a fake sense of perfection, while revealing a feeling of emptiness and alienation the artist manages to perfectly capture.

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