With a narrative underlined by a necessity to question and challenge, the practice of Brussels-based artist Emmanuel Van der Auwera (1982) draws on his fascination with the production of contemporary imagery, and its subsequent filtering, to produce a damning commentary on modern society’s many contradictions. Indeed, his is a world of chaos, conflicts and crowd-control, with a tendency to make sense of it all through the prism of scientific research and technological advances, the combination of which makes for an often explosive, if sometimes unsettling, body of work. Here, Van der Auwera discusses the genesis of his artistic practice, the inflection point that was 9/11 and how society at large processes trauma.
Visuals by Harlan Levey Projects and Emmanuel Van der Auwera (c).
I’d like to begin by talking about your artistic background. Where did it all start for you, and what would you say were the key stages in your artistic trajectory up to now?
Where does it start for any artist? An actual beginning is difficult to pinpoint. From literature to comic books, philosophy, music, films or paintings, art has always informed my life and paintings, art has always informed my life and appeared as a domain of liberty and exploration.
Can you recollect the first time you told yourself art is what you wanted to do?
I’ve always wanted to do art, although I did try my hand at economics for one year at school. During the course of that year, it became clear what I wanted to do. Being on track for a future in management, even though I never pictured myself in that role, actually helped me reach a decision.
How would you describe your practice as an artist today? As its core, what do you think your work says and expresses? What are the central notions it touches upon?
My work deals with the nature of image production and filtering during its appearance, dissemination and consumption. I focus on times that deal with the human condition – life and death, sovereignty and suffering – as well as significant events whose echoes influence the future.
It’d be easy to simplify your work as being a mere mirror vision of contemporary society, yet again the parallels are there to be made. Protest movements, wartime operations, crowd control, image manipulation are all aspects touched upon throughout your work. What informs this direction you’ve chosen to take as an artist?
What informs the directions I choose to take is the world and time I live in, as well as some genetic influences and all the choices I’ve made and feelings I’ve had. I’m not sure I can easily simplify my work, but I’m very happy if somebody else can.
A lot of your work is based on interventions, taking as source material things that already exist – data, found footage, printing frames – and reinterpreting them to acquire new meaning. To what extent is working with found material a central part of your practice? What does the act of researching, recuperating and reinterpreting suggest?
I wouldn’t say it’s a central part of my practice though I am interested in orphan images, their biological roots and vulnerability and spend a lot of time looking at and collecting found images as future material. The ethical questions this activity brings up are key to my research.
Whilst you do intervene, most of your incursions remain subtle, leaving ample room for the viewer’s imagination to run free. You set a context, determine a tone, and the viewer takes it where he or she wants to. Why was it important to you to remain suggestive without outright imposing a point of view?
I’m not here to tell people how to feel or to try and manipulate their feelings. That is not my missions as an artist. My work implies that the viewer has to position him or herself, he or she is not guided on what stance is the right one.
I focus on themes that deal with the human condition – life and death, sovereignty and suffering – as well as significant events whose echoes influence the future.
The cataloguing of catastrophes, and how society chooses to remember them, is also omnipresent throughout your work, with a particular focus on the visual expression, and subsequent manipulation of, facts. How do you think our depiction of, in most cases, traumatic events informs society at large, and why was it an important area of interest to you as an artist?
Trauma is an important, complex and universal human topic. The feeling of being part of a society, the contracts, norms and taboos this constitutes, well, it’s all about how we try to be human and live as we prevent and cope with trauma.
More than other, more figurative or abstract artists, your narrative and entire practice seem rooted in the need to say something, to make a statement. There’s an undeniable dark undercurrent that also comes through, one which takes a sombre view of the world’s current events. Is there a particular person or moment that played an important role in shaping your language as an artist?
I think 9/11’s aftermath was a defining moment for me. It was a truly chaotic event in its sudden appearance, but also a truly orchestrated on. From that time on, the war of image and the obsessions for control has slowly intoxicated many aspects of our daily life. During the same period, I discovered Dial History from Johan Grimonprez. The cryptic, poetic and unrelenting way the film raised awareness of our fabricated historical consciousness really had a strong impact on me.
The approach to your work – painstaking research and critical observation – is akin to that of an investigative journalist. What is it in the research phase of your practice that most appeals to you?
The part that transforms philosophy into something that is acted upon and not just thought.
Media, and your analysis of it, also is integral to your work. Where does this fascination with the video medium and newsgathering come from?
The world today, and the perspectives surrounding it, are generated from carefully crafted simulations as much, if not more, than by actual experience. Lately the topic of post-truth is addressed, but post-reality might be more accurate. If real is no longer real how can anything be true? If these questions sound like nonsense it’s perhaps because different questions should be asked. What is the status of an image in the age of the post-real?
What role do you think politics should occupy in contemporary art?
Being an artist is already a political act. I hope art embodies diverse views, passions, and political sentiments.
Installations have, it seems, taken a more prominent position in your work over the last two years. Would you agree with that and, if so, how would you explain it?
It’s not completely true. I also always have a film or a video in the making in parallel. Just like films, installations take time, space, and money. They need more attention and support than, for example, a painting or a photograph. At the start of the interview you asked about my trajectory. Like anything else, the longer you practice, the more you lean, the more people you meet and organisations who supported my vision. It’s been gradual though, small ideas expanding over time into bigger constellations.
I’d like to discuss your source material a bit more. Can you take me through your research process, is it an everyday thing or do you dedicate some specific time to research?
Both. I dedicate some time almost every day to research. But it is difficult to go into the specifics on just how an interest grows from a particular element of research to an idea, a form. Art is about making non-existent connexion between unrelated subjects. I take an extensive amount of time manipulating notions and concepts in my mind, sometimes while scrolling through my material or just the internet. I sometimes think that the most defining part of my work are these time spaces, where it’s not obvious if I’m actually working or not.
I’m not here to tell people how to feel or try and manipulate their feelings. That is not my mission as an artist.
Your video installation Videosculpture XIII (2016) is both intimidating and intense, the setting alone imposing some dark context onto the viewer even before he or she’s looked at the found footage of a US military operation seen from a drone through the polarising glass frames. Can you talk to me about the idea behind the piece of work and how you went about making it?
There are many ideas in this work. For example: Viewing is an active responsibility, most images are operative and perceived distance and proximity to physical events are changing. This was a work built up through a series of other works over the course of three years. BIP Liege and Anne-Francoise Le Suisse made it possible, my gallerist Harlan Levey and the Brussels-based collector Alain Servais helped the work travel. At the very beginning of the process were a set of questions and the beginning of the process were a set of questions and the beginning of an answer in starting to slice up LCD screens with a razor blade.
I saw that you recently took up a residency at GLUON in Maastricht entitled Brain & Emotion Laboratory. Can you talk to me about your time spent there, and what you hope to get out of it?
I’m fascinated by the mind and research of Beatrice de Gelder. We deal with similar topics, but from different angles. Often we meet at the point of the image. The opportunity to work with Beatrice is also a chance to learn about new imaging tools and neural techniques. Behavioural assessment research need to mediation of images and stimulus to trigger response to their test subjects and virtual reality as well as avatars are increasingly used in the testing. I’m fascinated by these bits of operative image crafted by scientists as tools to hack the human computer. The relationship between artist and scientist, who are often more similar than people think, provides an extremely interesting seed pool for future development.
To you, what role should contemporary art occupy in today’s society?
It should provide critical input, fantasy, and reinforce the view that another world is not just possible, but already exists. Art should protect vulnerable histories and project future hypothesis, repositioning perspective and unravelling potentiality.
Art should protect vulnerable histories and project future hypothesis, repositioning perspective and unravelling potentiality.
Can you discuss your relationship with your gallerist, Harlan Levey? To what extent has working with him given the right context and platform for your work?
Harlan and Winnie’s approach to their gallery is more institutional than most people give galleries credit for. The context of being presented with the artists they show inspires me. The Brussels-based artists like Marcin Dudek, Amelie Bouvier and Haseeb Ahmed have become good friends and there’s a community vibe attached to their entire programme. From consultation in the studio, to promoting the work, finding new opportunities and dealing with production and logistical issues, the gallery has been a tremendous support and helped my work and audience develop over the last few years.
On a more existential level, what does success as an artist look like to you?
Superficially we tend to equalise success with fame. It’s well rooted in out way of thinking, but there is something more. We evolve and change during the course of life and so is our necessity and dedication to Art and it’s always possible to lose it, or reinvent it. Success as an artist would be to build a work that is not immovable, but that organically reacts and evolved with changing circumstances. You should always be able to bring it some place else and remain relevant.Thursday January 12th – Saturday March 4th
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