Cityscapes on a (very) small scale:

Hans Op de Beeck’s video in­stal­la­tion at the Hirshhorn is un­apolo­get­i­cally am­a­teur­ish.

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS - BY JA­SON ED­WARD KAUF­MAN style@wash­ Kauf­man is a free­lance writer.

Con­cep­tual artists have a ma­jor prob­lem: They strive to get peo­ple think­ing about cer­tain ideas, but art about ideas is of­ten dry and joy­less. Who wants the vis­ual equiv­a­lent of a so­ci­ol­ogy lec­ture? We want to learn, but we also want to be daz­zled by vir­tu­os­ity, emo­tion­ally moved, or at least amused.

A Bel­gian artist’s video at the Hirshhorn Mu­seum — the lat­est in its “Black Box” ex­hi­bi­tions of new-me­dia works from around the world — seeks a mid­dle ground. It takes an in­tel­lec­tual and philo­soph­i­cal point and dra­ma­tizes it in a mildly di­vert­ing way. The con­cept has to do with how im­ages that we take for granted in movies, TV shows and other me­dia are for the most part ar­ti­fi­cial con­struc­tions, yet we treat them as if they were real. This is well-trav­eled ter­rain, not only for con­cep­tual artists but for

“It’s en­chant­ment that beck­ons the viewer’s imag­i­na­tion.”

— Kelly Gor­don, the Hirshhorn cu­ra­tor over­see­ing the “Black Box” pro­gram

ev­ery­one from French philoso­phers toHol­ly­wood. It would take some se­ri­ous tal­ent to break new ground here. “Stag­ing Si­lence” (2009) by Hans Op de Beeck doesn’t get there, but it pro­vides a pleas­ant en­ter­tain­ment.

The 22-minute black-and­white pro­jec­tion shows a se­ries of doll­house-size sets be­ing con­structed and taken apart by arms and hands that en­ter the cam­era frame from the sides. The model builders — the artist and his stu­dio as­sis­tant— take turns plac­ing ther­mos bot­tles, stacks of glass ash­trays, books and other ob­jects into the frame, then they add a row of minia­ture elec­tric street­lamps, dim the room lights and sud­denly — “mag­i­cally” — the scene re­sem­bles a city at night.

Op de Beeck, 41, is un­der­lin­ing the ar­ti­fice of it all, mak­ing fun of our ten­dency to read the set­ups as real places. In­deed, his ju­ryrigged renderings have a do-ity­our­self qual­ity rem­i­nis­cent of high school sci­ence or theater projects. (Had he wanted more pre­cise renderings of build­ings and land­scapes, he could have hired ar­chi­tec­tural model mak­ers or model-train en­thu­si­asts.) His cin­e­matog­ra­phy also is rudi­men­tary: The cam­era re­mains sta­tion­ary as the ac­tion un­folds, and the only edit­ing con­sists of dis­solves that con­nect one shot to the next.

Piece by piece, the com­po­nents come to­gether to make about a dozen sce­nar­ios, in­clud­ing a prosce­nium stage, a for­mal gar­den, an of­fice, an air­port wait­ing area, a hos­pi­tal ward and so on. Through­out there is a melo­dra­matic mood that mim­ics the lone­li­ness and fore­bod­ing of film noir and the oth­er­worldly shtick of David Lynch or Stephen King. Many of the im­ages sug­gest set­tings from clas­sic films — the gar­den scene re­minded me of “Last Year at Marien­bad,” and a bar­ren heath brought to mind “Franken­stein” or “Great Ex­pec­ta­tions.” But there are no char­ac­ters — no fig­ures or move­ment at all other than the ma­nip­u­lat­ing hands, mod­u­lat­ing light and oc­ca­sional drifts of fog­like cig­a­rette smoke.

Op de Beeck, an artist bet­ter known in Europe than in the United States, where he has shown only spo­rad­i­cally in New York gal­leries, has ex­plored this somber noc­tur­nal ter­ri­tory in var­i­ous me­dia. In ad­di­tion to videos, he makes ac­com­plished black-and-white wa­ter­col­ors mainly of bleak scenes sim­i­lar to those in “Stag­ing Si­lence.”

He also writes short sto­ries, such as one that he used as the voice-over of a darkling video, in which the nar­ra­tor em­pathizes with a friend who has com­mit­ted sui­cide.

In “Stag­ing Si­lence,” how­ever, the melan­choly is re­lieved by hu­mor. In the gar­den scene, for ex­am­ple, a foun­tain placed in the fore­ground is ac­ti­vated with wa­ter poured from a pitcher. Later what looks like a multi-story palace is re­vealed to be a cake when the artist cuts out slices and puts them on plates. The au­di­ence tit­ters with de­light.

De­spite its overt am­a­teurism— per­haps, in part, be­cause of it — there is some­thing en­gag­ing about the con­tin­u­ous trans­for­ma­tion as sets are cre­ated and dis­man­tled. It’s en­joy­able to eval­u­ate how well each im­age fools the eye, and ev­ery time a scene co­a­lesces there is a kind of “ ta-da” moment.

And a nice touch is the ac­com­pa­ny­ing elec­tronic mu­sic com­posed and per­formed by Serge Lacroix. This sound­scape, which was in­spired by the im­ages, starts with a few iso­lated tones that in­crease in num­ber, build­ing in com­plex­ity and lay­ers much as the sets come to­gether part by part. The drift­ing sound­track cre­ates an at­mos­phere of tin­ker­ing and me­an­der­ing that an­i­mates and en­hances the view­ing ex­pe­ri­ence.

But “Stag­ing Si­lence” is not a work of deeply mov­ing sen­ti­ment; nor is it a tren­chant ex­am­i­na­tion of the chang­ing na­ture of hu­man per­cep­tion and ex­pe­ri­ence in the cin­e­matic or dig­i­tal age. The video’s child-friendly dab­bling with big ideas can seem cloy­ingly cute.

“It’s en­chant­ment that beck­ons the viewer’s imag­i­na­tion,” says Kelly Gor­don, the Hirshhorn cu­ra­tor who has over­seen the “Black Box” pro­gram since it be­gan in 2005. That’s about right. Op de Beeck may have more than lowwattage en­ter­tain­ment in mind, but “Stag­ing Si­lence” still re­mains lit­tle more than a sooth­ing, in­nocu­ous di­ver­sion.


SCENES OF SI­LENCE: Hans Op de Beeck’s black-and-white video at theHir­sh­hornMu­seum shows a se­ries of doll­house-size sets be­ing con­structed by hands that en­ter the cam­era frame from the sides.

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