Do not trust reality

Michaël Borremans alters appearances

September 2015
The evocative combination of solemn characters, peculiar close-ups, and disconcerting still lifes that feature in Michaël Borremans’s paintings, drawings, and films elicits an innate reaction from all whose eyes fall upon them. Containing a theatrical dimension – at once staged and ambiguous, the works create conflicting sensations, whether nostalgic, dark, comical, disturbing, grotesque, or all of these in unison. Over the past decade, the works of Borremans have been prominently exposed, with shows in major institutions throughout Europe, as well as further afield. DAMN° spoke with the artist about why art is good if it creates reflection and poses questions.
The paintings of Michaël Borremans are populated with people in suspicious circumstances. They look beautiful but barely accessible; they appear to be rather introverted. Still, they’re attractive, which is due to the way they are painted.
Borremans uses a painting technique that we usually associate with the old masters. He calls Velázquez his great teacher. “His sensibility is unrivalled. And his technique – he almost paints in an impression-istic way. There is freedom inside; it is effective, and it feels like jazz”, Borremans effuses from his studio in Ghent, Belgium. At the same time, certain con-temporary artists interest him, like Paul McCarthy and Roman Signer, with their crazy approach to art. “For me, it’s about an attitude, not about a style or a technique”, he remarks.
His exhibition As sweet as it gets toured this past year from Brussels to Tel Aviv, and then crossed the Atlantic to Dallas. It included a large body of paintings and drawings, as well as films. Motifs were developed in all three media. The film We i g h t (2006) portrays a girl in a pleated skirt and pullover. Peculiarly, she has no legs, or at least none that are visible – they are hid-den under a table or some kind of pedestal. She turns around very slowly, as if on a carousel, so that the visitor can see her from all sides. There is an innocence and timeless beauty in her appearance, but two Flemish lions are quite prominently visible on her pullover. Are they meant to be a nationalistic symbol, tying her to the far-right Vlaams Blok movement? Now she seems less innocent. The same girl also appears in paintings such as Skirt (2005), where two hands reach out to her as if she were an object that could be picked up. In this painting, she looks more like a doll in a shop window. You cannot be sure if she is alive. And so we arrive at the heart of Borremans’s work and of his view on people: beautiful and unpleasant at the same time, and always with a question mark. What is this about? What are we looking at?“
[caption id="attachment_9365" align="alignnone" width="699"]Weight, 2005. 35mm film in a 9'44" continuous Edition of 3 35.5cm x 27.5cm Courtesy of Zeno Antwerp Weight, 2005. 35mm film in a 9'44" continuous Edition of 3 35.5cm x 27.5cm Courtesy of Zeno Antwerp[/caption]
It’s good if art creates reflection and poses questions”, Borremans states. In the documentary A Knife in the Eye (2009), he speaks about the sharpness he wants from his art. It is good if a painting works like “a knife in the eye”, or if paintings in an exhibition work like “little bombs on the wall”. Clearly, the knife is a reference to an image in Luis Buñuel’s film Un chien andalou (1929), and the connection to surrealism is certainly not lost.
In terms of imagination, Borremans seems to have a predecessor in his fellow countryman René Magritte. But he is reluctant to comment when we ask him about it. “Magritte was a good painter, in the sense that he used the right technique for the types of images he made. It’s pragmatic, but I don't look at his work to learn something about his technique. There is little to enjoy. It’s very conceptual work”, he explains. Instead, when talking about Belgian painting, he prefers to address the Flemish Primitives. “Their influence on me is enormous. The older I get, the better I understand this. It’s the same language I find in the late gothic paintings that I first saw as a child. That was a completely other world for me, a window to a universe that I could not access. The Catholic visual culture was very dominant – I’m only now starting to see just how important it was, and how it has formed me. That is basic stuff. It’s very rich and deep.”
Borremans was born in Geraardsbergen, one of the oldest cities in Belgium, a Flemish municipality near the Wallonia border. “Belgium has always been influenced by other cultures. The region was once part of Austria, France, the Netherlands, and the Spanish Empire. Belgians are a people who adapt quite easily but meanwhile keep doing their own thing. You can see this in the literature and in the paintings. The fact that I grew up in this country has contributed to the fact that I do not trust reality. There is mistrust – or, even stronger, a disdain – towards reality. In my teen-age years, I already knew that my imagination was more important, and that reality is only some form of perception. That is a basic layer in my work."
How does Borremans see his position as a contemporary painter, with his old-master technique? “As an artist, you need to have ambitions beyond cur-rent events. There is always an anachronism present in my work. I combine things that cannot really co-exist”, he remarks. And indeed, his subject mat-ter and technique seem to be from different eras, as if the pre- and post-modern live together. Also, in terms of proportions, Borremans mixes scales and creates alienation. “I want to make paintings that are autonomous. They should be able to point to all kinds of things, and not specifically address only humour, or something scary, or politics. If it addresses only one thing, then it is bad art."
In some of Borremans’s work, especially in his more detailed drawings, a kind of panoptic world appears, where individuals are watched-over or controlled by some anonymous or evil power. The people seem to lack individuality; they are just instruments in a larger plan or cogs in the machinery. Is that not the world-view of somebody growing up under an authoritarian regime instead of an artist who was raised in Belgium, in Western Europe? “In fact, we are always subject to a larger system. In our democratic societies, it might e less apparent, but we also have to deal with manipulation and the restriction of freedom”, proclaims Borremans. “We are like marionettes.”
In one of his most recent works, the series Black Mould (2015), figures in black tunics appear, their heads hidden under hoods. The only visible body parts are their hands and feet. These small paintings seem to allude to some kind of religious ritual or to fanaticism – in some, a hooded figure sets fire to human limbs. Again, there is an ambiguous sense of meaning and time. The works could refer to the era of the Spanish Inquisition, but they also bring to mind the Islamic warfare of today, and an ideology that does not want people to be seen or portrayed. And that is exactly what Borremans, as a painter, is doing. He is portraying people and questioning the reality of their appearance.