Sum of its parts: The patchwork oeuvre of Ghent-based artist Kasper de Vos

Through a heady mix of historical folklore, popular artifacts and national heritage, Ghent-based artist Kasper de Vos’ oeuvre threads the fine line between nostalgia and memorabilia, his work drawing upon a tightly-curated selection of found objects to create an artistic discourse that is as disruptive as it is disconcerting. Take his series of sculpted busts depicting Belgium’s Gabbers, for instance, or his referencing of Flanders’ traditional snack bars, as proof of his uncanny ability to touch upon subcultures, movements and techniques whilst giving them a very contemporary resonance. We caught up with the Hisk Masters student to discuss everything from his recent inclusion in two of the best group shows of the past year to his bold characterisation of his approach as the new Arte Povera movement.

Kasper, you took part in 2016, in Balls & Glory, a group show at Brussels’ Rodolphe Janssen that put forward the country’s new class of emerging artists. The work you showed – a fake snack bar as well as a table made out of fake sandwiches – was intricately linked to the country’s fast food heritage. Can you discuss the work’s central premise as well as its initial aims and ambitions?

Here in Ghent you have a lot of bakeries that sell Smoskes. It’s the favourite lunchtime sandwich snack nowadays for the city’s students and working people and most of the bakeries that sell them use a plastic blow-up of a Smoske in front of their shop as advertisement. When I see these plastic objects, I start to dream about a very good Smoske, which I found very interesting. That’s basically the exhibition’s starting point. 
Eating is a culture of sharing and getting together, making time around a table. When you make sculptures you can play with the notion of ‘function.’ My initial aim was to make a table and chairs that used bread as the raw material, because in Dutch we say ‘stokbrood’ for a French baguette – ‘stok’ meaning stick and ‘brood’ meaning bread. In the end I had so much fun making the imitation bread that I was seduced to make a complete table out of imitated bread.

To me, [the gabber] movement feels like a very recent folklore and not that far removed from a party in a Breugel painting.

The work you showed at another group show you took part in in 2016 – Now Belgium Now at Antwerp’s LS387 – touched upon rave culture through a series of somewhat eerie sculptures of washed out ravers, patched together in your customary signature style. Can you talk to me about the series in detail? It is based, if I’m not mistaken, on a series of studies you made based on YouTube videos, right? Why was raving a subculture you were keen to explore?

The Gabber rave scene was active in the Low Countries in the beginning of the 90s. Back then, I was a kid playing and dreaming the whole daylong, and that scene and its people caught my interest. They had an ugly yet attractive style and clearly belonged to a bigger group of people that all dressed like this, shaved heads and all. Later on, when I started sculpture class and begun playing and dreaming again, I came in contact with the impressive series of busts, Character Heads, made by the sculptor Franz Xaver Messersmidt, who lived in the 18th century and which had a big impact on me as a sculptor. Modeling a bust in clay seems to be not that popular nowadays in the art world, which was definitely a starting point. Then when I got into Hisk last year, there was this kind of academic context to start modeling portraits again with, on one hand, these art historical references towards Messersmidt and, on the other hand, these native and ugly yet attractive raving subcultures that seem to be sleeping today. To me, this group or movement feels like a very recent folklore and not that far removed from a party in a Breugel painting.

Installation plays a big part in your oeuvre, and seems to add another layer to the work that comes out of the studio. How do you go from studio to exhibition space?

My studio is a very important place to me, it’s a place where I create my world within this world, there are new works that can stand on their own and at the same time function in a museum context. Although when you place works in a space they interact with each other in the space itself. My studio can been seen as a constant changing installation. Sometimes there is an opportunity to make a bigger installation in an exhibition space. Then its more about puzzle pieces that have to fall together in that place at that moment. Up until now, all these installations have something to do with an interaction with the audience.

You work a lot with found material – material you’ve referred to as “a ticket to another dimension” – re-contextualising it to create a new narrative. Can you discuss the process that sits in between you finding this discarded debris to actually making it all work together?

I’d define it as the new Arte Povera movement. Where the Arte Povera movement used to work with the poetry of cheap materials which were, at the time, natural materials like wood and copper, these days, wood and copper aren’t that cheap anymore but, rather, quite fancy and expensive. For me the poor materials of today are industrial leftovers. As Picasso describes his practice as finding and not searching, I am also finding things instinctively in a way that fits into a puzzle. You try to make rules for these games which you later on break again to surprise yourself.

You’ve mentioned entertaining something of a fascination with industry, folklore, food, Western art and nature. Where would you say this emanated from, and how does it fit into to your wider body of work? What exactly is it that interests you in these themes?

Food is nature, eating is living, cooking is culture, culture becomes industrial, food becomes industry, industry becomes culture and nature disappears. But food survives.

You try to make rules for these games which you later on break again to surprise yourself.

Your work takes in both high and low culture, contrasting the two in order to confuse and force upon the viewer a second, closer look. Snack culture brought to the contemporary art world, ravers elevated to the level of, to exaggerate, ancient Greek mythology. Why do you feel the need to mix and match and where would you say this fascination with popular culture comes from?

In a constantly changing world, everything repeats itself, especially when you are aware of it. I’m also slightly nostalgic. The essence lies in that sharp intersection where two or more lines come together.

Absurdity and a tendency for the comedic runs through the majority of your series, as does a very Belgian propensity to not take yourself too seriously. Why is it important for you to infuse your body of work with these humourous undertones?

For me it’s the most evident way to touch the essence. It’s not about making a joke but rather about showing the absurdity of everything and to demolish the complexity that we create around it.

In its simplest of forms, what would you say your work expresses? What do you wish the viewer to take away from it?

An open entrance with the possibility of a deeper dive.

You’re currently completing a postgraduate in Fine Arts at Hisk in Ghent and previously completed a Masters in Fine Arts at Kask also in Ghent. What have both courses taught you and how has your thinking process and work as an artist evolved since?

Every new situation opens up a new way of looking and has an impact on my way of working.

During these formative years, who – from teaching and peers to friends and family – would you say was instrumental in shaping and strengthening your artistic narrative?

Good teachers became friends and friends became good teachers!

It’s not about making a joke but rather about showing the absurdity of everything and to demolish the complexity that we create around it.

Which artists, Belgian and international, played a particular influence on your work?

Franz West, Georg Bazelitz, Guseppe Penone, Rodin, Urs Ficher, Peter Rogiers, Gillaume Bijl, Kati Heck, Gordan Mattaclarc, Thomas Huseago, Thomas Schutte, Rene Magritte, Marcel Broodaerts, Erik van Lieshout, Breugel. The list goes on.

As an artist working in Belgium today, what would you say is your role?

Be myself and deal with the art life. 
Looking, learning and playing to match as much as possible.

Kasper’s Gabbers series is currently displayed as part of the group show How To Live Together in the Kunsthalle Vienna.