“I always liked a good story”: the new mythology of Kasper Bosmans

The work of young Brussels-based artist Kasper Bosmans confronts the present with the past through minute mannerisms, reworking age-old references and adages to give them new contemporary meaning. Underpinned by strong symbolism as well as an overriding necessity to make his work as eligible as possible – as embodied in his legend paintings, which essentially are manuals to understand his wider body of work –, his practice is one which places as much emphasis on the preparatory script as it does on the ensuing experience. Here, in a candid interview conducted in Bozar’s Horta Hall late April, the artist discusses making drawing and wood sculptures from a very early age, the importance of context and why success is really such a stupid word.

All images by Philippe Degobert (c), courtesy of Kasper Bosmans and the Gladstone Gallery New York/Brussels.

Kasper, 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?

Well, it all started when I was still a little boy living at the countryside. Already back then I used to make drawings and wood sculptures. More seriously though, I graduated from the Academie of Antwerp in 2012, then went on to Hisk in Ghent where I graduated from in 2014 and then I moved to Brussels, where I’ve been for a little over two years now.

Why did you decide to move to Brussels?

I didn’t feel like staying in Antwerp somehow – I can’t really explain why. The city was bleeding, like the artistic blood was literally dripping from the city. It’s weird, everything moved to Brussels all of the sudden when Stella Lohaus closed her gallery. It all pretty much went downhill from there. Don’t get me wrong, I still think there are good initiatives in Antwerp such as Trampoline Gallery which shows amazing artists – its director Simon Delobel really makes fascinating discoveries, which is a talent you don’t see very much of in galleries anymore – but nonetheless, Brussels somehow seemed so logical. To me, it’s like a big hotel lobby that allows you to be completely anonymous – something that doesn’t happen in Ghent or Antwerp, let alone Lommel where I come from. Plus Brussels has a ton of small little specialist people, people that just do one thing, and I love that. It’s not necessarily a city you love, but you come to appreciate it, it’s a peculiar place to say the least.

Yes, it definitely has a lot of different layers.

Yes exactly, it’s like a fucked up spider web and you can feel that some ends were attached before but then somehow got loose. It’s a living city. I find it funny how the moment you move to Brussels, you are from Brussels and you care about Brussels. It’s really weird, it never happened to me.

How would you compare Antwerp and Brussels’ artistic scenes?

Apples and pears. I mean you have a really fertile scene in Antwerp. The music scene is especially strong there for instance. I really like it, you had Gunther which was a very beautiful and experimental venue for performances and art founded by Dennis Tyfus and Vaast Colson who are still running interesting projects in the city. That’s a vibe you don’t really have in Brussels. On the other hand, Brussels has the Komplot scene, it has all the people and projects that gravitate around Wiels and everyone seems to mingle more. I’d say it’s maybe more elaborate in Brussels.

You mentioned that you started painting and making wood sculptures at a young age. When did it evolve into you understanding you wanted to make a career out of it?

Oh immediately. It was clear to me very early on that I wanted to do art.

How old where you at the time?

I must have been around 10 years old. When I begun my studies I briefly toyed with the idea of going into fashion but in the end decided no to. I wanted more content and different kinds of investigations but you know fashion is still interesting.

It was clear to me very early on that I wanted to do art.

You still tell a story but in a different way.

Oh yes. I still have a lot of friends in the fashion world and I always get a long really well with them because there is some kind of directness and swiftness which is very inspiring – split second decisions are very efficient somehow and can become really visionary. I also used to help friends at the fashion academy in Antwerp and that’s where I really learned to work. I mean by helping them you understand what a deadline is.

Is art part of your family?

Yes, my mum is an educator as an art historian and my dad plays guitar.

So there is an artistic streak that runs through the family?

I think so, yes.

Ok that was for a bit of background. How do you define your work today?

Well that’s a tough one because it’s not really my job to do so, you should probably define it…

Well it’s based on what you tell me.

Yes of course, I know you have to ask. My work is basically a flow of anecdotes illustrated and represented in myriad of ways.

The ways being in paintings, installation and the likes?

Well yes. I’ll always try to make a chain of stories from different kind of disciplines and backgrounds that form a link that seemed to consciously or unconsciously make sense together. Then I always try to make a sculpture or installations with them using real specimens and references from the stories I mentioned. You could say this is the more sculptural side of my practice. Aside from that, I also represent them in these legend paintings that are a key to reading the stories, like a non-binary key or a visual key that allows me to explain or perform the content of the things I’m working on.

So the works exist individually but they work as a whole?

Yes of course. I started making paintings, which you could call explanatory paintings, because I was having difficulties and fighting with, well not fighting with, but you know you’re always relying on the interpretation of a curator or writer and the structure they use in order to talk about your work, which in turn depends on the structures that exist in their institutions or galleries and so I thought I should just make these paintings every single time because it completely changes the context of the work. They aren’t that naïve anymore and make the overall work more accessible as it undermines a certain interpretation and mythologization of it. Plus it means I don’t necessarily have to write an elaborate piece of text to accompany a piece of work, which is always good.

So a painting is always part of a bigger story?

Exactly. For example, if I mention a mythological creature in order to make, let’s say, skin colour for an animal, I won’t exactly be able to find a specimen for it so I’ll simply make a painting referring a virtual sculpture or something. I really try to make my work as eligible as possible, that’s very important to me. There’s no game or fiddling around, I really want to make it sensible by giving the same status to a painting as I would to a press release or instructional manual. I’d say that really is the primary function of the painting which then becomes a document or contract in some cases but I really see them as something functional.

When did these legend paintings started appearing in your work?

I’d say that the idea first started taking shape in Ghent, during my first year at HISK. I was starting to struggle with a painting, and painting itself in general. Painting is always looked at or thought of in a very formalistic way which seemed to always result in it basically being attached or linked to the life and attitude of the artist and his philosophical upbringing. It’s as if all these paintings had to be so essentialist – it’s a really 50s idea. So I always struggled with making paintings and thought about making them somehow functional.

Split second decisions are very efficient somehow and can become really visionary.

You did an interview with Mousse magazine where you describe your work as more of  “a Grand Opera than a group of forcedly autonomous.” Can you expend a bit on this notion?

Well to be honest I can’t really remember what I was thinking when I said that. It’s like in this interview, you just asked me about the structure of my work and I feel obliged to give you some kind of summary and try to explain what I do. Put it this way, you have Wagner who is more of a programmatic composer that makes music to embellish an anecdote, a whole storyline. Then, in the same period, you have Brams who is more abstract, there isn’t really any story, the titles are symphony numbers. And, in the middle, you have Mahler, who is more nuanced, works more with illusive titles and combines elements of both – he goes from funeral marches to more jubilant themes that are all sewn together by abstract little treats. And that’s what I prefer, the person in the middle, of speaking about someone’s practice in these terms and keeping an open view on his entire body of work – it remains more fluid as an interpretation. Talking about my work as a grand opera allows it to encapsulate more disciplines. And it also allows me to refuse to be part of this tradition of art history writing – which is far too big, very capitalistic and focused on the West and the American market to be honest – that concerns itself too much on biography.

By biographical you mean about the artist himself?

Yes and I don’t know if that’s always so sensible. Of course you influence your own work but in the same way as a politician does, and we don’t make such a big deal about it.

What would you consider to be more pertinent points to be focused on then in evaluating or presenting an artist?

Well I mean OK, biography plays a big role in it but when I was on the way here I was thinking about it because it’s a good question and to me it’s more about being a specimen. Not representing a group, not talking about biography but living in certain circumstances, being a product of your environment, your time and your history.

In this same interview in Mousse you also talked about having some sort of a fascination for domestic activism, which I found an interesting notion. What do you mean by domestic activism?

When this interview took place in 2016 I was really into folk art and American art history and I think we could rewrite American art history. I was also referring to Asger Jorn and his project the Scandinavian Institute of Comparative Vandalism in which he basically suggested an alternative history based on mapping out Nordic medieval art and, starting from the premise that Greece is the start of our civilisation, he wanted to propose the opposite. And so I thought domestic activism is being this anonymous artist and trying to go for this anonymous quality and not being biographical – a specimen basically.

I think it’s a good point because what I hear is a willingness to remove the artist from the art, not necessarily making him or her the focus.

Yes I mean I’m still so feeble, I still make works in my name because I’m economically reliant on it, so a play into it too. But it’s just like that, I can’t survive on public funding because the climate isn’t like that in Belgium – it’s impossible, there’s no way.

Coming back to your work, there’s an undeniably strong use of symbolism and references in it.  Where and when would you say your interest in historical folklore first emenated?

It’s always been there, I always liked a good story. I can use anything later… you know that expression “parate kennis?” It means “the knowledge that you have at hand,” which, put simply, means that any way I can use knowledge in order to take aesthetic decisions that are not just based on intuition but intuition and cognition at the same time, makes the decision stronger. And I always get excited when this happen.

Your knowledge seems to come from a very deep understanding or at least passion of history.

Well sometimes I’m very superficial and understanding at the same time, as long as a story sticks it sticks and that’s more important to me. Lots of things are based on oral traditions and gossip rather than on historical facts but if it makes the world go round I don’t give a damn. As long as I can make a work with it.

So it might be an urban legend you heard in a bar or it might be a fact you have read in a book? As long as you can use it?

Yes. I mean if we accept certain dogma’s like in science, stating that 1 + 1 = 2, so why not includes those esoteric rules and superstitions and what if we use rules like that in order to make aesthetic decisions? You get further and your brain keeps on rolling. And that’s when the magic happens.

I’d like to discuss your sources of references a bit more. Can you take me through your research process, is it an everyday thing or do you dedicate some time, specific time to researching certain notions?

Well I work all the time, I was working at the Mukha and at the same time getting anecdotes from the curator and my fellow artists. I think I’m just lucky I can remember things.

You don’t write things down?

Well rarely. I used to scribble things down but I’ve noticed I never read my notes. I started filing them in folders but I’ve never looked at them.

Nuance is my point and that should be enough.

Well I think notes helps so far as it allows you to process and maybe even remember what was written down, no?

Exactly, it’s the act of writing. If I type it, it doesn’t work I really have to write it with my pen. I try to invest as little labour as possible in my work. I mean, I make these legend paintings in order to memorise and organize things, get fragments and nuances of anecdotes arranged and this helps me to think and to compose something but at the same time I think labour can be addictive and it shouldn’t be romanticized. I also try to take as many passive moments as possible because, for me, these are the most constructive ones.

By passive moments you mean…?

Doing nothing, it’s really important.

Looking at your work’s evolution, you could say that it’s more structured today whereas earlier on it might have been more intuitive…

Yes because now I know more so I can. It’s funny because the quantity of new works an artist produces gives it a structure that wasn’t there in the beginning so you could say it’s still intuitive, the selection procedure is very logical to me, it makes a lot of sense.

I know this is something you’ve been asked a few times but I’d like to discuss the presence of animals in your work, where does it comes from?

Well I like animals, they allow for so many meanings to be projected onto them by different cultures.

There’s always this play in your work between the past and the present. You seem to contradict facts and give them a new meaning. Where would you say this interest in the past comes from?

I’d say that by working with the past and the present at the same time I manage to stay away from the moralizing attitude of the artist, which I find very discomforting. It keeps the work fresh and projects autonomy.

What disturbs you about the moralizing aspect of the artist?

Well, I mean, now I’m excluding a lot of very good artists and artworks because I’m making a rule but at the same time it’s just like an intuitive reaction to a generation I was growing up with and which I find fascinating at the same time.

I really try to make my work as eligible as possible.

Does this interplay between the past and the present enable you to express something?

Yes totally. I want to keep everything nuanced, like nuance is my point and that should be enough.

There also seems to be this inherent willingness to remove art from the highbrowed context within which we know it to exist, which kind of comes back to this idea of domestic activism, with art being just as relevant when done by the people…

Well I wouldn’t say removing as such, I see it differently. For instance, we live in a period where information has become so democratic and that’s a very rich and fertile soil to make art in today’s society. To be honest, as artists, we couldn’t dream of living in better circumstances. To me, art should be accessible in different ways at the same time. The script as well as the experience should work and that’s a hard one to crack but, when it does happen, that’s when I get really excited.

Can you give me an example of script and experience?

Well look at Vincent Mason’s recent show at Kiosk which I think was really strong. The more you dive into the project, the more you are lured to it by its aesthetics and the more nourishment you get from all the writing or thinking that has preceded it, and not just by the few people that influenced the artist.

And that’s the relationship between script and experience?

I think so, yes. I see the experience as being the aesthetics, the visuals. The script is the score, the structure and the motivation.

What already exists versus the interpretation.

Exactly. We were talking earlier on about the inner working of research process but that’s only part of the story, it doesn’t stop there. The show’s actual execution and installation’s just as important, otherwise I could just as well get somebody to write a text and illustrate it for me.

By that you mean that when you’re constructing a show you’re still open to it evolving depending on what you learned at the time?

Yes, always. That’s important. I was driving my gallerist in LA nuts because I was still ordering stuff online the day before I was schedule to fly over. But sometimes you feel as though it’s still missing something that is making the point, binding it all together.

You did a residency at Wiels last year, can we discuss your time there a little bit? Did it had a visible impact on either your thinking, your process or your work?

Well in a way it always does. I had planned to dedicate my time there to lots of meetings with artists just simply to talk and read books but then all of the sudden things got rather busy. It was without a doubt one of the busiest periods in the past six years as well as my life and, in the end, I just used it as an atelier the majority of my time as I had three solo shows to prepare for. That’s not to say my time there didn’t have an impact, just a different kind of impact than what I had hoped for.

Three solo shows running concurrently is a pretty daunting perspective for a young artist such as yourself no?

Well if you compare it to a fashion designer that has to stick to the gruelling schedule of seasons, or to a lawyer that has to do juggle three different cases or even to a farmer that has his many harvests to handle and well, it’s just work really. In that respect I’d day that a lot of people work incredibly hard and manage to balance it all out so I’m not too worried about having too much work.

What does success mean to you? Not necessarily on career level but, for example, daily success?

Oh success is just a stupid word.

A certain fulfilment then…?

Well a good conversation can be as nice as picking a colour for my sister’s bedroom. The idea of success, per se, is all based on that progressive idea about growth but, to me, it’s not important. Everybody plays a role in society and everybody is important and I’m happy that life is more complex than being reduced to success.