Michaël Borremans: as sweet as it gets
(© Heleen Rodiers)
If the stunning yet disturbing work of the Ghent-based artist Michaël Borremans is an acquired taste, you will have plenty of opportunity to tickle your taste buds at Bozar’s retrospective exhibition, which contains a hundred paintings, drawings, and videos calculated to leave your senses reeling. This is "As Sweet as It Gets".
"Come in, but mind the bunnies!" buzzes the intercom when we ring the bell one chilly winter’s evening in the Sint-Amandsberg district of Ghent. Easier said than done. On the opposite side of an inner courtyard, just one candle is burning behind a large window: as our eyes slowly get used to the darkness, our unsteady legs have trouble avoiding William and Gordon as they hop around merrily. It is as if, there in the courtyard, in between the outside and the interior, we are already spectators of the dizzying visual theatre of Michaël Borremans, which is now being given a platform by Bozar, starting on Saturday. Groping, with eyes that get bogged down at first and then lose their grip on things thanks to little holes subtly burnt into logic, viewers find themselves wandering in the disquieting twilight zone between recognition and astonishment that constitutes this artist’s idiosyncratic world. The unconnected flesh of The False Head (2013), the wind-up girl chronicle of Automat (2008), the vacuum packing of The Preservation (2001), the jet-black face of The Angel (2013), the one-size-fits-all of The Devil’s Dress (2011), the telekinetic energy of The German (2002), and the awe-inspiring monotony of The House of Opportunity (2003–2005)... There is an air of menace about every canvas, every drawing: recognisability is undermined playfully, almost casually; emptiness invites manipulation, tranquility rubs shoulders with lifelessness. Simplicity is deceptive; resistance is total. A glitch in the space-time continuum and you finish up on the ropes, consumed by a dazzling discomfort.
(Michaël Borremans, The Devil’s Dress, 2011 - Dallas Museum of Art, DMA/amfAR Benefit Auction Fund, Courtesy Zeno X Gallery Antwerp and David Zwirner New York/London - Photo © Ron Amstutz)
In the world of Michaël Borremans, “As Sweet as It Gets” is the harbinger of something indescribable that consigns that sweetness to history. His “characters” are at the mercy of their maker, who is deeply engaged with material and draws on the rich tradition of painting, while at the same time fiercely, clearly present in the here and now. It is contemplation, not life, that we see on the canvas. “Think or suck,” says the drawing of the same name (1999), while offering a disproportionate display of just how, quite literally, non-thinkers occupy their time. A touch of humour injects some lightness. “My work has to be very lavish, very charged and, at the same time, light, nothing,” says Borremans. “A work of art is like a field that is waiting for your input. That balance is essential. Intuition is important in that context. Sometimes I work quite conceptually, but other things happen in a totally unconscious way. At that moment, chance plays a major role and you see stuff happening while you work. Then it’s about recognising those things that are interesting.”
You enter into a dialogue with the work?
Michaël Borremans: Yes, and that is the most exciting thing. Sometimes you work with a clear goal: you have an idea and you want to carry it out. That is “really” working. But sometimes something happens that takes you to a place you didn’t know before. I find it important to let chance play its role. It can take your work to places where you can’t get to yourself and make the work transcend the artist. Now, chance can make your work more beautiful, but it can make it worse too. You have to be able to see that as an artist. That intuition that allows you to judge where the balance lies, is what makes the difference. If a work of art goes too far in one direction and is purely political or is too funny or too sexual, then it is boring and out of balance.
The result of that interaction between intuition and examination is something that is at once very familiar and strange. As a viewer, one experiences an almost unbridgeable distance. Do you create that deliberately?
Borremans: I realise that my work both attracts and repels, but no, I don’t do that deliberately. If I were to paint those biscuits, then that distance would be in that painting too. Lovely biscuits, but peculiar. [Laughs] That is my character. I subscribe to the idea that the painter depicts nature and in so doing shows his own soul; but I don’t depict nature, I just paint culture. So, actually, I’m a bit of a no-romantic as well. I paint in the way that is the right way for me to present a particular image. Why, I don’t know. Intuition, instinct, necessity... Why does a dog piss against a wall? An instinct, that’s all it is. It is part of my identity. Without it, I wouldn’t know who I am.
Is that need there at the moment when you decide to start a painting?
Borremans: Each painting comes into being in a different way. I don’t work systematically: I must always have a reason to paint something. A work of art must always arise from a sort of necessity. And each work must be special.
That means, too, that I can’t make more works than I do and that my works become expensive, but I can’t concern myself with that. I don’t want to become a factory; I don’t work to do people a favour – and I’ve no interest in a yacht in Saint Tropez. I just try to keep my work authentic. Fortunately, I have a fine platform on which I can show my work. A career is a tool. And I am probably an... artist by nature.
(Michaël Borremans, Sleeper, 2007-2008 - Private Collection, Courtesy Zeno X Gallery Antwerp - Photo © Peter Cox)
Why the frown?
Borremans: If I lived in prehistoric times, I would probably be the one who painted animals on the rocks. Things were going well for humanity back then: there was still a certain harmony with nature then. Everything started to go wrong when we became sedentary. Then we started growing in numbers and now we are the planet’s cancer. We are a strange organism.
Up to a point, my work is a way of dealing with that, yes. If I were a writer, then I would write a book about it. But I have a visual way of communicating. I find the implicit nature of imagery more truthful: things aren’t clear. We don’t understand anything. Lots of people give the impression that they understand everything. How do they manage that? But I’m not a misanthrope. Sometimes it’s not easy, but I’m very philanthropic too. [Smiles]
You came to painting late, but how long have you been drawing for?
Borremans: All my life. I started as a toddler and I have never stopped. My copybooks were full of little drawings in the margins. I got punished for that, but I couldn’t help it. [Laughs] I wasn’t exceptionally good, but I really enjoyed it.
(Michaël Borremans, The House of Opportunity (Im Rhönlandshaft), 2004 - S.M.A.K., Ghent, Courtesy Zeno X Gallery Antwerp)
How did you finally come to venture the switch to painting?
Borremans: The realisation that with a painting you are playing on a completely different stage. A painting generates much more attention, makes more noise. And I wanted to communicate. Very rational considerations, in other words. But also for the love of painting. But I thought that my ambitions were too lofty, from a technical point of view. I still do, but I keep on trying to improve. Making paintings is still experimental for me. In sculpture, I have been experimenting for ten years now, purely out of interest. And my films, which are really suggestions for sculptures or paintings, are equally trial and error. I could devote my life to it!
Cinematek has given you carte blanche for a film programme. Does film also provide you with inspiration for your paintings?
Borremans: Of course. These days, you can’t help being influenced by film and photography. Those disciplines have had such a far-reaching effect on the way we look at nature and reality. We have become used to seeing within frames. In the past, people had a larger periphery to their gaze. The number of images that they saw was smaller, but, on the other hand, what they saw was more intense, larger, and more detailed. But, actually, the entire visual culture is an influence. As well as Tati, Hitchcock, and Buñuel, you have Man Ray, Van Eyck, Donald Judd, Mr Duchamp... The whole twentieth century was an analysis of the arts. Now the -isms are finished and everything is possible at the same time. That is unique! I think it is really positive that you see all those different things coexisting in art.
(Michaël Borremans, Automat (I), 2008 - Private Collection, Courtesy Zeno X Gallery Antwerp - Photo © Peter Cox / Michaël Borremans, Weight, 2005 - Courtesy Zeno X Gallery Antwerp, David Zwirner New York/London and Gallery Koyanagi Tokyo)
For your paintings, you take photographs as your starting point.
Borremans: Yes, but I use photography in an unconventional way: the photographs are not an objective, but an intermediate stage. I see them as embryonic pictures, because I know that they are really paintings. In a photograph, you don’t see the medium: it is transparent. With a painting, it’s different: you see the image, but also the medium. That aspect of painting, that history and the mystification that takes place in painting, are important.
Do you work on your drawings and paintings at the same time?
Borremans: A drawing is always a lengthy dialogue. Sometimes I work on one for three to six months, sometimes a year, during which I come back to it now and then. My paintings happen over a shorter time span. That is concentrated energy. I always try to finish off a painting over a number of days, preferably in two or three sessions. At those times, I’m very focused. Especially when larger formats are involved, I shut myself away and don’t go out at all. Then I make sure that I have supplies in and I keep at work until it’s finished. That is one on one; then I even sleep in my studio. It completely absorbs me. It’s difficult to maintain that tension. You don’t want to break the concentration; you don’t want to ruin anything. I have periods when I make things very difficult for myself. I don’t want to indulge in self-pity, but sometimes it is really rough. What I do, is not for softies. This is top-level sport. You have to be on the ball.
(Michaël Borremans, 10 and 11, 2006 - Private Collection, Courtesy Zeno X Gallery Antwerp - Photo © Peter Cox)
Enter the costumes.
Borremans: I like being sharp dressed while I’m working, yeah. Like when you’re going out or, in the past, going to mass. Out of respect for the work. I have noticed that my attitude and concentration improved as a result... You don’t want to get dirty, so you paint a bit like a peintre seigneur.
It has really brought about a change of style in my work and technique. Suddenly, you feel like an aristocrat who is doing some painting, whereas previously you rooted around in the paint like a Jackson Pollock.
Do you find painting a difficult medium?
Borremans: [Earnestly] It’s a very difficult medium. It is especially hard to find the right balance. That has a lot to do with your own character and temperament, how you make use of them. For example, I could never paint like Chardin, one of my favourite painters. He is much more patient; he paints very neatly – you can hardly see any brushstrokes. For me, the stroke also has to find expression. In that sense, I feel closer to Rubens or Velázquez, who painted with a lot of panache, with an energy that gives the canvas a different life.
It only happens rarely, but when everything has gone perfectly in a painting, that really gives a kick. But that is very fragile, as if you were building a house of cards. [Surprised] Maybe that’s why Chardin’s The House of Cards is my favourite painting, come to think of it. Yes! That’s a really good metaphor: making a painting is like building a house of cards: it can collapse at any second.
Photos © Heleen Rodiers
MICHAËL BORREMANS: AS SWEET AS IT GETS • 22/2 > 3/8, di/ma/Tu, wo/me/We, vr/ve/Fr > zo/di/Su 10 > 18.00, do/je/Th 10 > 21.00, €2/6/10/12, Bozar, rue Ravensteinstraat 23, Brussel/Bruxelles, www.bozar.be
> Home Sweet Home: visit Michaël Borremans's Wunderkammer