“A fascination for city structures.” How sculptor Elias Cafmeyer turns reality into fictional and alienating situations

The best things in life are free, and that includes the annual art festival PLAN B in the rural town of Bekegem in West Flanders. As a counterweight to the numerous expos and performances one finds in urban cities, PLAN B gives young and emerging artists the opportunity to create an artistic free space in this not-so-common scenery. Through residencies, they enter into a dialogue with this environment and its inhabitants, showcasing their results between 1st and 2nd September. During these two days, various art forms will be explored, boundaries will be crossed and the unexpected is to be expected as Belgian artists and creatives from further abroad will showcase new and existing work. We’ve selected five artists and projects you cannot miss.

Inspired by the big cities he visited during his former life as a model, sculptor Elias Cafmeyer (1990) seeks to recreate landscapes and social settings using raw materials. By including video installations alongside his artworks, he challenges audiences to question the presupposed daily normalities. He explains why humorous art is the best way to capture the viewer, how he creates non-plausible mirrorings of reality and how his work reflects his inspirations.

At its core, what is your work about? How would you describe it?

My work is dominated by elements of public structures, with the main focus being transportation: it reflects an urbanism that determines the public use of a city. With my work, I try to investigate the social aspects that are influenced by such urbanism. At the same time, my work represents the absurdity of sometimes unnecessary structures, but also shows the dramatic progress of human dominance in the landscape.

What is its starting point and statement?

I mainly work with sculptures, made from raw, industrial materials like metal, concrete and rough wood. I also have a fascination for water towers, highways, bus stops, concrete bridges… You name it. Alongside these sculptures, I add video installations to create site-specific artwork that’s mostly inspired by the public place where it’s set, and by its context. For me, the city’s landscape is often a metaphor for social construction, which is directly portrayed in the urban development of a place. My installations deal with inversion, juxtaposition and contrast to create a sense of alienation.

Can you talk to us about your approach in general?

I generally try to approach problematics through humour. I believe that it’s a more efficient way of infiltrating someone’s mind than with shock, because of the subtle way criticism is shaped through humour rather than the element of surprise. This humouristic aspect is often represented through the recreation of a situation or with a trompe l’œil in an unconventional surrounding (for example, the highway viaduct I created between two school buildings). The meaning of my work is to make people think about a certain misplacement of structures, to make people doubt the existence or reality of very common and daily objects.

What characterises your work?

I work within several “fields”, and there are different types of work I do: sculptures, video works, scale models and large-scale situational installations. The latter is what I’ve been focussing on the last year and is the most prominent of all my works in general. Those installations are actual situations that are copied from reality into non-plausible situations, creating surrealistic images. For example, I constructed a metro station entrance in a gallery in the centre of Antwerp. People, specifically tourists, actually entered, thinking they would be able to catch a metro, but soon came to the realisation that they were actually standing in an exhibition.

How do you actually work on a piece from start to finish? And how did you start making your specific piece for PLAN B?

There are several starting points. I usually see a lot when I’m on the road, inspired by the combination of shapes or elements that I see in the city’s landscape. The next step is to create a visual sketch of the situation in my sketchbook or on Photoshop. Then, I often make a scale model (in wood) to really understand how the installation will interact with a certain space. Those scale models can also be considered as a piece of work on its own. If I’m making a large-scale installation, I also make technical drawings on SketchUp to understand the structure and to be able to show my assistants how we’ll be constructing the installation.

When I’m invited to a specific location to show or produce a work, it’s really said location that gives me the insight to what I’ll be making. I usually sit on installation ideas for about a year before actually carrying them out, so once I see a location I almost immediately know what I want to do. So the work is often waiting for the right time, or rather right location, to be produced.

My work for PLAN B was created when I started to consider Bekegem as a city like Brussels, Antwerp or  Paris. What do these cities have in infrastructure that a village like Bekegem doesn’t? I thought about night shops, cathedrals, a large market square with a big gothic town hall, a royal palace, high streets, skyscrapers, … And eventually, a ring road. What would happen if a village like Bekegem were to build its own ring road? And what social implications would follow this decision? Part of this ring road idea was inspired by all the major problems Antwerp’s traffic infrastructure is currently facing.

What were your initial thoughts and expectations on Bekegem? Did they change, and how do you plan to counter them?

Coming from a small West-Flemish village myself, I already had a pretty good idea of what Bekegem would be like. I was also already familiar with PLAN B. So far, it’s been a real pleasure to visit the village and work with everyone from the organisation, so there were never any problems to encounter.

What is, in your opinion, inspiring about Bekegem’s rural context?

I usually work around cityscape contrasts, so it’s actually fun to find myself in a non-urban context when my other work is mostly urban-orientated. It gives me a range of possibilities to play around with the dichotomies of urban versus rural, city versus village.

How is making a piece in a rural environment different from working in an urban setting?

I think the biggest difference is in logistics. There’s a different mode of transportation here in Bekegem, with fewer places to buy the required hardware. So I think it’s mostly from an organisational point of view that you have to be prepared. On the other hand, we’re not in the middle of the Sahara either…

Do PLAN B and Bekegem lie outside of your comfort zone, and do you happen to have a step-by-step approach getting out of it?

At first, I thought they would, but in the end, the working process has proven to be really very similar to that in other places. When doing an exhibition, you have to ensure that your work functions not only with the space it’s located in, but also with the concept of that space or organisation. In this case, the space is a rural village, so the project must match the work you’re presenting. Some things aren’t possible in white cubes; other things aren’t possible in rural villages. That’s the fun thing about the way I’m working: I’m never tied down by the pre-made works that I have to place somewhere. It’s the situation and the place that truly co-creates the work.

What series and/or project are you currently working on?

Right now I’m part of a group show named Coming People in S.M.A.K. until 2nd September. For this project, I made an in situ installation. I’m also working on a solo show at Marion De Cannière in Antwerp for January 2019, for which I am focussing on smaller sculptures again. Then, I’ll be installing an in situ installation in collaboration with Ria Pacquée in Extra City in the spring of 2019, followed by a group show in Cologne, curated by Guillaume Bijl.

Who would you say was instrumental in shaping your artistic practice?

There are many things that are instrumental, even up until this point. The people around me, my teachers at school, assisting other artists and curators, working in museums like M-Museum in Leuven. All these people and experiences gave me a decent understanding of what art could be like. The people around me gave me the liberty and possibility to make mistakes. It made me less afraid, helped me to not overthink every step I made, encouraging me to just make instead, and think whilst or after I was creating my art.

Secondly, I had the opportunity to travel to many major cities in the world before I started studying at the art school. I used to be a fashion model and have worked in New York, Paris, London, Milan, Tokyo, … This gave me the opportunity to see lots of shows on the one hand, but (more importantly for my work), it instigated a fascination for city structures. I think it was back then that I set my mind on doing the sort of work I make now, without really realising it.

What are the challenges you face as an artist working in Belgium today?

I’m not sure if this is a problem limited to Belgium or not, but I think the lack of funding is always a major setback. I sometimes hear that there are more opportunities to be found abroad, especially in the Netherlands, but I think this is, in general, a difficult point for any starting young artist. Especially with the sort of work I’m making.

A second challenge is that you have to make yourself open to discovery by doing shows. Again, not a problem that only affects artists in Belgium I guess, although I think that education has a lot to do with that. In my eyes, the Belgian education system is too protective and enclosed. It’s difficult to get in contact with the “real world” outside of school.

Thirdly, but very similar to the previous point, I think that Belgium (though it could actually just be limited to Antwerp) has a very closed community when it comes to art and its industry. It’s quite difficult to start working internationally if you’re based here. It’s even visible on a more local level, between Belgium’s three major cities: Antwerp, Ghent and Brussels. There’s almost no interaction between the artists, art schools and galleries in these cities.

Finally, I really believe there’s not enough national interest to support art and artists. Museums, for example, don’t have enough funds to buy new work for their collections and there’s not enough help or support for young artists.

Talk to us about the people around you, your local scene. To what extent does it inspire and influence you?

It’s one of the most important things about an artistic practice, and basically the main reason why I’m still doing this. I was very lucky because I quickly became part of a large group of amazing people who are very active in the Antwerp art scene, all helping me to launchmy career. Some of them are curators who’ve asked me to do shows, others are fellow artists who give feedback on my work. Other people are just very handy and help me build my exhibitions and installations. But the most important person here is my partner, who supports me non-stop in what I do, both production-wise and motivationally.

Which Belgian artists do you follow, look at for inspiration? Either from the past or the present.

Adrien Tirtiaux, Koen Theys, Bram Van Meervelde, Luc Deleu, Ria Pacquée, Patrick Van Caeckenbergh, Hans Wuyts, Panamarenko, Marcel Broodthaers, Jonas Vansteenkiste, Karl Philips, Guillaume Bijl and Leon Vranken.

And what do your parents, your family, think of what you do?

They are my first row fans, doing their best to come to any exhibition I’m part of. They don’t really come from a contemporary art background, but they do try to “experience” as much as possible. I also think that they’re warming up to my work and are beginning to understand my work better the more shows they attend.

What does success look like to you?

Creating an exhibition or work that leaves a long-lasting impression on people.

To you, what role should contemporary art occupy in the community?

First of all, that really depends on the contemporary art itself. There’s a lot of non-accessible contemporary art, which is not meant for the community. The ideal situation would be that contemporary art does something to move or inspire people, regardless of whether they have an artistic background or not. I don’t really believe that art should be exclusively for “the artsy”. That’s not how art was created in the past, and it’s not the way art should be right now. It should enlighten, progress, inspire, move, delight, anger, and entertain people from all kinds of backgrounds. I believe there should be more initiative from the government to make art more accessible to the public. Abandon those sky-high museum prices (exhibition prices in Brussels can easily amount to €25), extend opening hours and fill those empty museums, please! When you look at museums in our neighbouring countries, they’re always packed.

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Art festival PLAN B will be taking place on the 1st and 2nd of September, in and around Bekegem. Additionally, an extra exhibition in which the works are reinvented will take place from 20 to 23 September at Gouvernement in Ghent.