“My practice is one of astonishment that consists in opening images up.” How the work of Benoît Platéus makes you see what you weren’t supposed to

With an extensive solo exhibition having recently opened to the public at WIELS, we speak to the Liège-born, Brussels-based artist Benoît Platéus about his versatile artistic practice, the role accidents and imperfections play in his work and his laser-like focus on the myriads of possibilities inherent in imagery.

Photographer Joke De Wilde (c)

At the time of this interview being published, One Inch Off, your solo exhibition at WIELS—arguably a seminal moment in your career as an artist—will have been opened to the public for a little while. Can you take me through some of the works on show in the exhibition, particularly those that are being showcased for the first time?

The possibility of taking a good look at your own work with some distance is something I find exciting. For instance, there’s a series of photographs I took around the early 00s that, I realised only later, work well as a programmatic piece—a summary if you will. And, in a way, the entirety of the work I developed over these last two decades was already present in these 30 photographs. Then, there are several works that had never been shown before, either because they simply weren’t exhibited or had made their way directly to private collections. There are other works—such as the video W.o.w. that gives a different perspective on my work, or the big collages of San Francisco—which have only ever been shown abroad. Finally, there are what I call revisited works, by which I mean oeuvres that I never had the opportunity to show in this form or simply never had the chance to produce.

Can you talk to me about the way in which you approached the exhibition at WIELS? Take me through the preparatory stages, the thinking behind the exhibition and what you wished to express through it.

At the start, WIELS’ invitation was extended to show my body of work through its various different forms. I imagined doing so in an organic manner, playing the pieces off against each other, exploring the links and relationships between each of them without really lending any importance to their chronology—striving to put aside any intention to allow the work itself to shine through. In the end, I approached the exhibition as some sort of living landscape with multiple perspectives. Above all however, I put my trust in the pieces and in their capacity to occupy the space through their very essence. What’s more, my many exchanges with the exhibition’s curator, Devrim Bayar, contributed towards developing the project although, at the end of the day, a lot still happens during the installation phase.

In its text accompanying your exhibition, WIELS describes your work as “highlighting the poetic force of the accident, of the trace, of imperfection,” which implies a sense of experimentation without really knowing where these will lead. Would you agree with this and, if so, could you expand upon the idea of accident and imperfection in your work?

Yes, totally. When I work, I’m not interested in knowing where I’m heading otherwise it wouldn’t have a lot of interest for me; it would be nothing else than a repetition of a previously tried and tested formula. There is of course a certain intuition that can sometimes border on a vision depending on its intensity. This idea of accidents is important to me: I see it as something of an event that isn’t planned in the process as such. I like it when things come to me in an unexpected way and I try to allow enough room for the work to come to me. It’s about being open to surprises. Imperfections and accidents are maybe the very places where a piece of work takes on a life of its own and becomes independent.

I first discovered your work in 2014 at the group show Bande à Part which your then gallerist Albert Baronian had organised at CAB in Brussels. I vividly remember being totally mesmerised by one of the works you were showing, Page 18, which was part of a series of images you had produced that were essentially blow-ups of pictures you had taken of a catalogue’s pages, if I’m not mistaken. Can you talk to me in more detail about this series, and how it helps to understand your wider body of work?

I had taken a lot of photographs by walking around cities, and I simply told myself that I could also take a lot of photographs by walking around books. Then there was the intuition that some of the images I saw in books had strong visual potentials which, when taken out of their contexts, could come to light. The blow-up—the original page is 30 cm high whilst the work itself is 210 cm high—means that different spaces coexist simultaneously. In the case of this particular work, the viewer is taken under water, in a book, in the very matter of a printed image—the offset bleed is visible—as well as in the scanner’s flatbed scanner. Thing is, we often think of trimming as some form of subtraction that somehow takes away from the original, but you can of course trim as a form of addition too, by giving the viewer more to see: the book’s thickness, the scanner’s flatbed window… Putting these details forward as well as the play on the book’s borders allow for my interpretation of the image to come through and accentuates my vision.

Your work implies an intense observation and study of certain artistic techniques—the treatment of an image through different prisms to convey a new narrative. At its core, how would you describe and define your artistic practice?

What interests me are transitionary states that allow for all possibilities. I like it when things eschew any categorisation— it gives them more presence, more strength and gives room to singularity. I have the impression that my practice is one of astonishment that consists in opening images up.

The idea of imagery—and the representation of imagery in this digitally-enabled, oversaturated visual world we live in today—is central to your practice. You often start from an original image, distorting and repurposing it to lend it a new meaning. Where does this fascination with imagery come from?

Probably precisely because of their potential at being transformed, even denatured. Images interest me for their capacity to condense multiple things, sometimes even contradictory things. And I like this sensation that certain images can be transformed from within to become something else.

The idea of accidents is important to me: I see it as something of an event that isn’t planned in the process as such. I like it when things come to me in an unexpected way and I try to allow enough room for the work to come to me.

Beyond both the artistic and aesthetic value of your work, and this notion of investigating the disappearance and reappearance of an image, your approach tends to focus on reinterpretation, taking as starting point a preconceived cliché and giving it a new narrative through the different treatments you might apply—be it drawing, collages, sculpture, photography or even painting. What would you say is your intention as an artist in this quest to question the essence of imagery in itself?

For me, the very essence of the images that I find interesting lies in their capacity to condense different meanings, as I said earlier on. In this way, I think that I’m less trying to question their essence, than actually open up and reveal their essence.

I’m rather intrigued by your Jugs series. I had originally seen it a few years ago in Island’s original space, but never really got the chance to understand the thinking and process behind it. Can you talk me through it?

The series is based on urethane casts that I created based on old Kodak and Fuji cans recuperated from analog photography laboratories. I was becoming increasingly attracted to these objects that contain the chemicals necessary in the revelation of a photograph. To me, these sculptures in the form of cans hold a sort of concentrate of all images, a notion I find extremely powerful.

More recently, you’ve started working with pastels if I’m not mistaken, but also etchings, as is evidenced in your edition for artlead.net. Can you discuss how this shift in techniques fits into your wider body of work?

It’s very often the project that determines the choice of techniques. Regarding the works in question, I had for a while been intrigued by the telephone poles you find in American suburbs that are covered in staples because they often double up as signposting supports for the neighbourhood. I didn’t know at all that I’d be making etchings out of them before blowing them up using pastels—a practice which, by the way, I couldn’t really stand when I was a teenager studying at Saint-Luc. But after several tryouts I realised it was the medium that ended up being the most appropriate. Making an etching is, in its essence, an archaic photograph without a camera—all you use is paper to make an imprint. I’m already obsessed with the materiality of images, so this new series is a way for me to explore this obsession through a different medium.

Your brother Frédéric is an artist too. Can you talk to me about the kind of household you both grew up in? When did you first get into contact with the arts, and when was the decision made to become an artist?

It was indeed present in our family environment, but in a rather discreet, and even involuntary manner. We wouldn’t really visit museums, but there were reproductions of paintings at my grandparents’ place, selected rather precisely and hanging on walls: Delvaux, Magritte, Vasarely and the likes. As far as I’m concerned, after wanting to be a cosmonaut and a fireman, I very quickly settled on wanting to become a comic strip illustrator since I couldn’t stop drawing. Then, as my studies went on, it gradually morphed into being an artist, although the impetus remains the same.

Looking back, can you recollect certain people, moments and places that were instrumental in developing your artistic expression?

Yes for sure, there were definitely some essential moments and encounters. The exhibition Investigation organised by Laurent Jacob in 1985 under Liège’s Place Saint-Lambert when I was just 13 really left an impression. 20-something works exhibited in this massive underground station that was still under construction—it was really quite a peculiar space. The movies of Jean-François Stévenin, too. I remember the first time I saw them thanks to Anne Pontégnie about 20 years ago. For me it was instant; I remember telling myself, “That’s it.” Not making movies as such, but achieving in my work the same relationship to the world and certain events that he managed to encapsulate in his movies. I’m incapable of explaining what exactly it is that touched me, but it is a project of mine to write about this in more detail to explore what interests me so much in his work. After my studies, working as an assistant to Jacqueline Mesmaeker and Ann Veronica Janssens also taught me an incredible amount. Then there was the artist residency in Los Angeles—La Brea Studio—I did in 2015 on the invitation of Jean-Baptiste Bernadet and Claire Decet. This opportunity really renewed my work. More recently, the writings of François Roustang on hypnosis inspired me a lot—they seem like a study of the artistic practice, it’s magnificient.

On a more general level, how do you see your role as an artist in Belgium today and what tips, if any, would you have for the budding artist?

The only thing that really interests me as an artist is to be able to develop my work in the best possible conditions. And if I have one bit of advice to give, it’s to trust your intuition.

Benoît Platéus’ exhibition One Inch Off is on view until Monday 22nd April at WIELS, Brussels.