Hilde Van Gelder and Mieke Bleyen: Since the film ‘All together now …’ (2005) which you have shown in the Warande in Turnhout, a new kind of motif has appeared in your work: the table as a site for social conduct. The environment radiates social obligation and subdued tension rather than the atmosphere of a cosy place where people meet, which could be just as good. Is this direct focus in your work on the psychological aspects of human interaction a rather recent approach?
Hans Op de Beeck: Since the early developments of my oeuvre, the psychological aspects of human interaction have been given my attention, one time even literally with the ‘setting’ at a table. In the video Coffee (1999) you see an old couple sitting in front of each other in a transport cafe, sipping a cup of coffee without saying a word. The facial expressions and the tense atmosphere between those two protagonists tell us a great deal about their relationship.
I am also thinking of one of my first video films, a life-sized, real-time video image of a young family endlessly running in a great hurry. Between the lines it sketches the psychological relationships of this family being filmed (Determination (4), 1998).
Except for one (the narrative film My brother’s gardens which I realized in New York 2003), my video films do not tend to be narrative in the classical sense of the word. I usually show a decorum represented in detail, which sets a certain mood and where sort of walkon characters perform small acts. These stories are not literally there, but they can be read between the lines. You will often get the feeling that what I am showing you, are scenes taking place right before or after a probable event. This is also tangible in my big, spatial installations. They can be up to 300 square metres high and do not show more or less than a non-event, an apparently empty and abandoned place breeding possible stories it will not easily reveal.
All together now... (2005) (still)
HvG/MB: ‘All together now …’ also reminds us of Margaret A. Sullivan’s interpretation of ‘the Peasant Wedding’ (1566) of Pieter Breugel. She reads the painting as a satire where Breugel exposes underlying social problems; the couple lives in a style which is too grand and there clearly is an age difference between the bride and the groom, the girl might even be pregnant. How important are those historical examples in the design process of your work exactly?
HOdB: That is an interesting comparison. In my film, the camera glides in slow-motion passing three totally different table moments and companies: a coffee-and-cake dinner after a funeral in an interior that looks a lot like an uninviting parish room, a chill birthday meal of a wealthy pater familias in an expensive, minimalistic concrete interior and fi nally, a wedding dinner in a kitsch environment. Just like in Breugel’s Peasant Wedding, I also put sufficient, half disguised information in every scene, this way adding even more complexity to the image.
The bridal couple I pictured, clearly shows that there is already something going on: the couple is staring vacantly. Maybe the groom has been unfaithful the night before or maybe she caught him in the act. Maybe the marriage has been ‘arranged’ by other people. It is also a parade of bad taste: all the details indicate that the parents of both the bride and the groom tried everything to give the party a certain nostalgic glamour, although both lack the social background and the money to do the job. The scenery and the clothing are completely elaborated in cream, champagne, Dutch gold and silver tints. This is a naive image of how wealth looks like in old soap series on television, but it has nothing to do with ‘true’ wealth. This is why I fi nd the parents’ efforts very touching, moving and funny at the same time: I do not look down on them at all.
HvG/MB: images invite people to reflect on everyday reality. This we also find at Breugel, for example in his Olympian perspective on reality, the ‘downward view’. Which (critical) attitude does your work adopt towards the social reality and how do you try to picture it?
HOdB: An expressive oeuvre with a somewhat complex, charged mood is often misjudged as an evidence of a dark attitude to life, a gloominess towards social society. If you simply observe man’s clumsy efforts from a distance trying to entertain himself or to lead himself in the right direction, life gives a very relative impression. This relativeness, this exchangeability of the small, clumsy individual can easily be taken amiss; in that case life is tragic, a cheerless one way ticket to death. I could not think of life in such a deterministic, dark way, because I believe man is not able to know any kind of truth. I take up a socially critical and reflective position, but consider life to be neither a positive nor a negative condition.
Metaphilosophically, I experience life as something absurd: it makes no sense whatsoever and is therefore to be read neither positively nor negatively. It is its incomprehensible self. From that point of view you can understand the terrible beauty of a deeply tragic event or the dull inanity of something which is considered as very formal. It constantly reverses things. Actually, the people and the places I picture or stage are in fact critical self portraits, because I always feel as if I were ‘one of them’.
(Hilde Van Gelder and Mieke Bleyen, catalogue Brueghel Revisited, April 2006)