Studio visit: Sarah & Charles

Kurt Snoekx
© Agenda Magazine

We (and Axl Rose) have one bit of good advice for you: use your illusion! We gladly suspended our disbelief for a trip around the Brussels-based artist duo Sarah & Charles’ universe. Through vacuum-packed doors, across engine rooms, behind the scenes, and in front of the camera... AGENDA caught in the act!
We’ve experienced it before, but it still surprises us every time. How those typical façades in Brussels conceal interiors that happily defy spatial logic and look far bigger than you would expect from their exteriors. Appropriately, it is behind just such a façade, on the border between the Brussels Pentagon and Anderlecht, very near South Station, that we found the studio of Sarah & Charles (1981 and 1979). This inseparable pair of artists has, “officially for ten years” been creating work that tends to ignore categories and delineations – between fiction and reality, between theatre, film, and the visual arts. By constantly exploring those boundaries and making them explicit.

They are currently continuing their exploration in their first major solo exhibition, “The Suspension of Disbelief”, at Z33, the house for contemporary art in Hasselt. On display: everything! From the stage to the wings, from the engine room to the film set. From the creation of fantasy to the fantasy of creation, in a scenographically refined yet scintillatingly playful comprehensive experience that tackles all its thematic layers surprisingly lightly. And with a musical short for a finale. Charles: “We were very frightened of that. Musical is a very accessible genre, and it gets a lot of attention in times of crisis: it is very accessible and light. At the same time, that lightness is a great taboo in the world of the visual arts. In “The Suspension of Disbelief” we talk about enjoying that lightness. That that is alright too. But I think that personally...” Sarah: “... we are actually more weighty. Our work has always been rather dark. On the other hand, we also enjoy escaping into the world of cinema and stories. It is cinema that made our resistance diminish. We used to be very reluctant towards musical: as soon as anyone started singing, we would usually switch the film off. But when we started exploring further, we found really cool musicals by great directors. Chantal Akerman, Alain Resnais, the most intelligent directors that you would normally associate with artistic films have made light, happy-happy-joy-joy musicals. We shared that inherent critique and the desire to be able to make something like that.”

“The Suspension of Disbelief” drags the viewer in and out of that wondrous state of abandonment to the imagination, by repeatedly making the elements that create and sustain fantasy visible, even tangible. That continuous interplay between reality and fiction, between illusion and revelation, doesn’t that make the transitions difficult? Charles: “According to me we don’t actually ever transition.” [Laugh] Sarah: “We are constantly in that bubble.” Charles: “And it goes pretty far. Do you know Charlie Kaufman’s film Synecdoche, New York? We sometimes go through something like that. It’s great fun! A tad schizophrenic, but great fun.” Sarah: “But well, who doesn’t create a bubble for themselves? For some people, it’s a challenging job, a child, or a beautiful house. Everyone creates their own perfect world.”
The perfect world of Sarah & Charles lies just across the border with Anderlecht, where they can let their fascination for fiction run wild in an old Brussels townhouse. Charles: “That is one of our fascinations, the curiosity to know how something works, how something fits together, so we can understand it.” Sarah: “We live in an old house that was built in 1890, it has visibly undergone the many transformations of all the people who have lived there. That has been an enormous inspiration for our Props for Drama series. We once tore up part of the parquet floor and moved a section of the mantelpiece because we were convinced there was something behind it. One of the installations at the exhibition, the banister with the trapdoor, came straight out of our house. We once opened that too, but it was much less spectacular than we had thought.” Charles: “Those typical Brussels townhouses… Sarah grew up in them, and I did too, so that is our common ground, the place we are in our bubble.”
Imagination running away with you. It is something Sarah & Charles skilfully integrate in the exhibition. The visitor gets taken seriously and is stimulated not only to follow along with the story, but also to start creating independently – via scenarios of sounds presented in short descriptions. Charles: “Everybody possesses that grey matter. It's amazing, all the things it can project. There are no limits to what you can do in your dreams.” Sarah: “In films or art everything always gets reinterpreted, repeated, linked. Together, this forms a whole network of references, a frame of reference from which we simply select things. You can provide all the content yourself, and we think that is exciting: that enormous database of images that is simply floating around in our head.”
You take that database everywhere with you, and it works two-directionally. Charles: “For some reason or another, I sometimes start looking at the world through a hovering camera, as though I was watching a scene from a film. We often experience the opposite when we watch films. Actually, we sort of fucked things up for ourselves by reading too much about film analysis.” Sarah: “In a film, we constantly see reality seeping in. The reality behind established reality intrigues us enormously.”
Cinema as a production machine for fictitious realities is a discipline to which Sarah & Charles refer constantly, a fascination they have now been able to indulge in on an actual film set. For their short musical film, The Suspension of Disbelief – the fourth part of their Props for Drama series, which also contains Foreshadowing, Plot Twist, and Plot Hole and will conclude with Dénouement – they went to Tour & Taxis. Sarah: “It was the complete reverse of our experiences at STUK in Leuven, where we made Plot Hole and had to do absolutely everything from A to Z with actor Diederik Peeters and director of photography Hans Bruch Jr. We had a different person, and sometimes even two, for every single job. Though of course all sorts of things went wrong.” Charles: “It was February! It was so cold that we had to remove the steam from people’s breath in post-production. The [PIAS] Nites were going on next door at exactly the same time. So there was music until six in the morning, while we were trying to film... At one point they started spraying smoke next door, and it filled our hangar completely, ten minutes before we were supposed to start filming. We couldn’t see anything. ‘Fuck!’ So we opened all the doors and windows, Heras fencing kept people out of our hangar... In other words, it was complete chaos! Yeah, it was cool. Totally rock ‘n’ roll!”
After ten years, collaborative projects have become part of Sarah & Charles’ regular artistic routine. That is partly from necessity, due to the multidisciplinarity of what they do. Charles: “I think we just like surprises. We both very much enjoy drawing, but I would get really sick of it really fast if I devoted all my time to drawing.” Sarah: “Our journey took us to scenography, the performing arts, and film very organically.” Charles: “We do also consciously choose to collaborate with people from different fields. Because we love something in their field but aren’t so arrogant as to think that we could do it better.” Their relationship with Diederik Peeters, the actor who plays a fantastic double role in Plot Hole (the impressive short film on three enormous screens with which the exhibition at Z33 opens), goes back about six years. Charles: “We cast him in 2007, well typecast actually, and after that we started penetrating into his work, into his world.”
Diederik Peeters again put his trust in Sarah & Charles for the scenography of Hulk, a performance about rage and the last part of a trilogy after Thriller and Red Herring. There are already a number of pieces in their studio that dialogue with the plot of Hulk through the scenography. There are (neatly arranged) vacuum-packed doors on the floor, a ladder leans against the wall, bright, upright striplights light the space, and a section of the patinated wall from the garden scene with which their musical film opens, stands in a corner of the studio, looking inconspicuously real. Beside the large central space, there are two other, smaller spaces used for (again, neatly arranged) storage, and for creating their wooden constructions. And there is a security camera on one of the walls. It takes a photo of the studio every ten minutes. 144 photos per day, for over two years already. A picture of the work process, the backstage, a continuous series of stills into which time can nestle. And where AGENDA gets caught in the act.

BOROUGH: Brussels
EXHIBITION: > 13/10, "The Suspension of Disbelief", Z33, Hasselt,
PROJECT: > 29/9, Route N16 (project in collaboration with architecten de vylder vinck taillieu), Fort van Breendonk, Willebroek,
THEATRE: Hulk: 11 & 12/10, Beursschouwburg,

Photos © Heleen Rodiers

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