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Michal Borremans Lost in the Sadomasochistic Universe

the secret charms of the enigma

FROM DRAWING TO PAINTING An innocent looking girl sticking pins into nude men (Jetlag girl, 1996/1999); '24 chopped heads pronouncing the word 'Kaas' (19992000); chopped heads adjusted to fit into sardine cans (Boxing Heads, 2000); packages Fromage aux acteurs flamands (2000) with gory pieces of flesh; a face cut off from a head with a steel wire as if it were a hump of clay or cheese (The mask of simplicity, 2000); a gory head aggressed with glass shards (Glass and Blood, 2001); hideously deformed faces of women (Slight modifications, Carnadines, Helmette and Languelette, 2001-2002); a male torso with cut off arms and four bullet holes (The Resignation,2001); horse carcasses neatly arranged in rows (Square of despair, 2005); human toy figures shut down like in computer game

(Shotgun aesthetics,2003); human corpses arranged in geometrical patterns in the series The good ingredients (2006) ... ... ... not precisely what comes first in mind when hearing the name of Michal Borremans ( 1963). Even less does one think of the rather vulgar sexual representations in Sausage Garniture 1995/1996/1999), Friendly Rivalry (2001), The Ceramic Salami (2001) and Small Virtues (2002). One is rather reminded of figures like Paul McCarthy, Odd Nerdrum, Jol-Peter Witkin, John Currin. Nevertheless, the above is a representative sample of the themes handled in the drawings of Michal Borremans. It is apparent, then, that, after the proven recipe, the sadomasochistic universe that is openly deployed in the drawings, turns out to be rather concealed in the paintings. To be sure, there are the works for queen Paola in the Royal Palace in Brussels (2010), where - albeit only on closer view - a footman is cutting himself in the finger, or piercing the eye with a finger. But, as a rule, there are only hints in the paintings. A remnant of the bullet holes is found in Terror Identified (1998), where a button of the corset is replaced with a hole. An echo of the mutilated faces resounds in the American Actress (2001), who has a glass shard in her mouth. In The preservation (2001) there are traces of scratching on the eyes and the mouth. In The pupils (2001) fingers are about to pierce the eyes. In The Hair (2002) a kind of pins are piercing the cheeks. What presents itself as a torso, appears to be the counterpart of the chopped heads: bodies severed in two in Anna (2003), Four Fairies (2003), and The apron (2009). That sheds a new light on the glassy planes on which the torsos are displayed, on the panels at middle height of the body in One at a time (2003) and The Feeding (2006), on the book equally at the middle height of the body in The storm (2006), as well as on the disks around the middle in The new corpses (2006) - apparently variants of the glass shards pointed to the gory head in Glass and Blood (2001). In The Thunder (2006), an eye is looking at and a hand is reaching to a cut in a cloth, which reminds of the incredulous Thomas. In The greatness of our loss (2006),the 'shotgun aesthetics' are softened to a paraphrase of the dead toreador of Manet. On Automat III (2008), a girl with a ponytail but without legs, seems to stop a bleeding from the wrist. And in The load III (2009), we see a girl with a cap lying on the ground - 'she is probably dead, almost wringed by the neck' (Van Canneyt) - which sheds a new light on the footmen at the Royal Palace, who wear their livery back-tofront... There is more to the transition from drawing to painting. Already in the

drawings, the traces of sharp, pointed instruments like the needle and the pencil, are washed with clouds of ink or water colours. But, in the paintings, the contrast makes place for the homogeneous application of clearly distinguishable, creamy brush strokes. The shift is thematised in The swimming Pool (2001), where a brush paints the words People must be punished, that look as if they were cut with a sharp chisel in stone - and that cannot but remind of The Penal Colony of Kafka. This exchange of the pencil for the brush is in line, hence, with the effort to conceal sadomasochism: the smooth, creamy oil paint as the ointment on the wounds afflicted by the needle or the pencil. It is no accident that, on the paintings, often soft and shiny cloth is suggested: silk, satin, porcelain - the counterparts of the invisible knives, axes, glass shards and bullets that have inflicted the wounds on the drawings.

FROM SADOMASOCHISM TO TERROR A third method of making sadomasochism socially acceptable, is a shift from the private to the societal sphere, which allows at the same time to have the terror executed by others perpetrators, and to replace pleasure at the sight of the result with indignation. Thus, referring to Trickland, Borremans is talking about 'the rulers who hold us in their grip' (Nieuwsblad), and many a commentator descries the shadows of communist (Prater) and fascist regimes (Amy), or reminds of Kafka, George Orwell (Berk) or Beckett (Coggins, 2009). In terms of academic painting, this transformation of sadomasochism to all kinds of terror comes down to a shift from genre painting - although it was not precisely commonplace to depict everyday sadomasochist practices - to history painting, where aristocracy and clergy are replaced with their contemporary counterparts - from totalitarian regimes and terrorism to capitalism and the free market. The transformation goes through various phases. On images like Jetlag girl (1996,1999) and Chopped heads pronouncing the word "Kaas" (1999-2000), undisturbed pleasure in the result makes it difficult to blame a perpetrator. But that is no longer a problem in Swimming Pool (2001), where the hand of a punishing instance appears in the image. In images like Trickland (2002) and The common world (2002), the gloomy atmosphere reminds of the conveyer belt or of forced labour imposed by some invisible hand. Forced labour still shimmers through in Terror Watch (2002), where the buildings have something of old factories or concentration camps. But it is only in drawings like Shotgun aesthetics (2003), Horse Hunting: The Game

(2003), Square of Despair (2005), The Greatness of our Loss (2006), The Good Ingredients: The Hostages had to Lay Down on the Ground in Order to Form Geometrical Figures. (2006) and Whistling a happy tune (2006), that there is a clearly discernable evildoer, although he is not always visible in the image. More ambivalent is Think or suck (1999), that, according to Christ and Haldemann would refer to child abuse (Dutroux).

FROM DOING, OVER CONTEMPLATING... Even more omnipresent than sadism or terror is the watching gaze. As if in a stubborn attempt to deny that the picture gazes at us, as Lacan would have it, the figures of Borremans never look into the eyes of the onlooker. In frontal view, they look away to the right above (The traveller, 2007) or down (The Marvel, 2001). Also in three-quarter view, they ignore the onlooker (Drawing, 2003), or lower the eyelids (Anna, 2003). The diversion of the gaze is principial when they turn their back to the onlooker (Still, 2005). In other images, the figures are lying and stare to the skies (Earthlight Room, 2008) or the ground. Sometimes, the eyes are bluntly covered: with tape, like in Various ways of avoiding visual contact with the outside world using yellow isolating tape (1998), or with a black square in Oblivion, (2002). The counterpart of the elusive or blocked gaze of the figures is the gaze of the artist - and hence the gaze of the onlooker. Their looking is not an engaging in an interaction with an equal, but rather a submission by a sovereign contemplating subject that has the figures in the image reduced into unresisting beings without a soul. Such reducing into an object is the spiritual version of bodily decapitation. The shift from doing to a seemingly more neutral watching is a further step in the masking of sadomasochism.

... TO THE SURVEILLANCE OF DOING From the Flemish Primitives onwards, the hands are often introduced as additional means of unveiling what is concealed behind the outer appearance - a move that often leads to the unfolding of the portrait into a genre painting. On many a 'portrait' of Borremans, hands are to be seen. But rather than as amplificators of the gaze, they function as their substitute, as a haven to the subjugated gaze. Rather than to the

onlooker, the eyes are looking at the doings of their own hands. The subjugating gaze follows their lead, so that the hands want to escape it in their turn. Thus, the onlooker comes to witness an action that wants itself to be undone. Hence no 'grand gestures' here, let alone speaking gestures, but rather shameful hands that would prefer to become invisible - as if they were about to do something forbidden. People should be punished. The subjugating gaze is transformed into the surveilling gaze... The wish to become invisible can take various forms. Either we see the hands at work (with instruments and objects), but it is not clear what they are doing, like in Manufacturers of constellation (2000), The pupils (2001), The German (2002 and 2005), and Blue (2005). Or we see only the instrument - needle rather than brush - like in The examination (2001), The Stick (2003). Or we see only the hands, without instruments or object, like in Four Fairies (2003), Anna (2003), Fingerwoman (2007), Crazy fingers (2007), Magnetics (2009). In all cases, the figures seem to want to justify what they are doing, by lending it the aspect of some handicraft activity, like in The Ceramic Salami (2001) Atomic (2003), The Hole, (2006). When there are more figures, they often seem to work at some conveyor belt, or to listen to the their master's voice on some conference table (The common world, 2002). The impression of some justified activity is further enhanced through the wearing of archaic working apparel - whereby the choice for the coat still reminds of the apron of the nurse or the surgeon. How much the hands are tempted by the forbidden, appears from images like The advantage (2001), where the hands are immobilised in a straitjacket . In some images, the transition from the needle to the brush seems to find its counterpart in the transition from forbidden activity to the making of art - the permitted activity par excellence. The pricking of The jetlag Girl (1996) is transformed into the making of images in L'homme frommageux (2000), The pupils (2001) and The constellation (2000). In Trickland (2002) and in The common world (2002), the images of man are replaced with the model of a landscape, like in the series The journey (2002).

FROM SADOMASOCHISTIC UNIVERSE TO RELAY OF THE SURVEIlLING GAZE In a next phase, the forbidden action is further obfuscated. In many an image, the gaze is not directed to the hands, but to other figures who are

doing nothing but gazing in their turn. Such images can be called images of the second degree, because the onlooker is looking at an image where other onlookers are looking at some spectacle. Not so much a panopticum hence, but rather a kind of optical relay race, where the object of a gaze makes another person to its object in its turn. This relay of the surveilling gaze is exemplarily embodied in N.Y.C, 24th of September 2030 (2006), where the onlooker looks at giant figures - with their hand obediently above the table -, who look in their turn at minute pedestrians on the streets below them. In these works, history painting, where the focus is on the action, evaporates into a special variant where the focus is on the gaze: the rendering of a world where everybody is an onlooker looked at by another onlooker. It catches the eye, then, that, next to these images where gazing is the only action, there are also images where there is neither action or actor to be seen, but only the result of an action: Chopped Heads Pronouncing the Word Kaas Simultaneously (1999-2000), stacks of corpses in Shotgun aesthetics (2003), Horse Hunting: The Game (2003), and the series The Good Ingredients: The Hostages had to Lay Down on the Ground in Order to Form Geometrical Figures (2006). The introduction of onlookers in the image makes it possible to condensate both: images where the onlooker looks at people who look at (a spectacle consisting of) the result of the action of an (invisible) actor, like in Terror Watching (2002) and Square of despair (2005). The result of the action can thereby be hidden in the dark, like in The Filling (2005). In the images where gazing is the only action, the criminal intention is relegated to the next potential perpetrator in the relay of surveillance. In that, eventually, the result of the action is allowed to appear in the image, surveillance is turned into a transgression itself: the onlooker before the image comes to regard the onlooker in the images as the perpetrator of a non-action: guilty neglect. The guilt of the non-intervening onlookers originates in a secret solidarity between surveillants and perpetrators: apparently, the surveillants merely projected their own transgressive desire onto the potential perpetrators in a next relay, so that it can only appear in the image as the result of the action of someone outside the image who he cannot be surveilled. But through guilty neglect, guilt comes to run the relay in reverse sense: from the finish to the start, where we find the artist who made the image and the onlooker who enjoys it. Such reverse movement unveils the accomplice in the surveillant. The relay that is installed between the onlooker before the

image and the final spectacle, turns out to be a further attempt at projecting sadism. This condensation can easily be condensed with the reinterpretation of sadism as terror performed by societal actors - the 'really existing' counterparts of Kafka and Orwell: be it communist of fascist regimes, terrorism, capitalism and the market, or rather the surveilling eye of Gestapo, KGB, Stasi, CIA, or media-tycoons and marketeers who surveil our behaviour on the internet. Only when the true function of relay and societalisation are thus revealed, can we understand why these images do not elicit revulsion or condemnation, but rather fascination...

FROM LOOKING AT A SPECTACLE TO LOOKING AT THE IMAGE OF A SPECTACLE In many images, the spectacle is as real as the onlookers who look at it. But in other images, we are dealing explicitly with toy figures - with three-dimensional images. Also these images originate in images of the first degree: in the designs for three-dimensional sculptures of often giant size, like Cerebral Office (1995) and Le sculpteur de Beurre (20002001). To give an impression of the scale, Borremans adds human figurines. Through the introduction of these figurines, the gaze of the onlooker is transferred into the image. But, this time, the onlookers in the images are no longer looking at a spectacle, but at the image of a spectacle. In a first series of works, the images are three-dimensional images: Think or Suck (1999), Proposal for a wall and ceiling decoration (1999), An unintended Proposal (1999/2000), Small Museum for Brave Art (2000), The Burden of Ideas (Inflatable monument) (2000), Cabinet of Souls (2000), Rainpillow. Inflatable monument for John Coltrane(2001) House of opportunities Faller (Kit - The conversation, 2002), A Mae West experience (2002). But this formula unfolds fully only when we are dealing with two-dimensional images, the size of which reminds of giant billboards or film screens, like in Chopped Heads Pronouncing the Word Kaas Simultaneously (1999-2000), Lhomme frommageux (2000), The swimming Pool (2001), The German part II (2002) and The German, Dreiten Teil (2003),The Greatness of our Loss, I and II (2006) and Whistling a happy tune (2006).


It is no accident that the relay of the gaze goes hand in hand with the introduction of differences in scale. Only in scarce cases like The Pupls (2002) do the figures have the same size as the image. But in a majority of cases, the figures are far larger than the (image of the) spectacle they are looking at or the image they are making, like in Spirit of Modelmaking (2001), Terror Watch (2002), Trickland (2002) The common world (2002), The Journey (2002), The Prospect (2002), Square of despair (2005). This should not come as a surprise, because, as a rule, an image is far smaller than the reality it depicts, especially with Borremans, whose drawings are often compared with miniatures. That implies that the artists looks like a giant who conjures up Lilliputians on whom he looks down from the heights. This is the key to a proper understanding of these images. It will have become clear that they are not the mirror of a world where the aforementioned subjugators or surveillants are at work: they are too indeterminate, not differentiated according to political or economical role, gender or generation. Above all, these giants are only the shackles in an relay that begins with the artist or the onlooker: the figures in Trickland manipulate, but they are manipulated themselves. No concrete political or economical regime is rendered here, but a world in which we are individuals that increasingly fold back on ourselves amidst an increasing number of other people with whom we have no other relation that being aware of their presence. Conversely, the doings of these others have no bearings on our well-being, whereas at the same time our endeavour seems futile. Since we have no real relation with them, it is not difficult to distance ourselves from them and to reduce them to Nietzsche's "much too much". That is all the more easy when these "much too much" appear as minute creatures, for instance when we look down upon them from some apartment building. From these heights we may feel as almighty, self-sufficient beings who can dispose in all sovereignty of the ants down there - not otherwise than the self-sufficient child that conjures up minuscule figures on its screen to shoot them mercilessly down, or like the wild shooter that begins to fire in the crowd, as proposed by Andr Breton and filmed in Le phantme de la Libert by Luis Buuel. This latter example shows how easily the absence of involvement where reciprocity was expected may stir destructive urges. And, since in such a world we have become purely narcissistic individuals, our interaction with the others is not a concrete subjugation, exploitation or (political) enmity, but a purely abstract sadism; the sadomasochistic universe is narcissistic in essence. Against this background, a new light is

shed on the presence of the word 'game' in the titles of these works, and on the use of a device for wireless control in Terror Watch (Amy 2008). The disguise of these abstract narcissistic/destructive urges as political or economical relations is merely a means of legitimising these in essence un-societal impulses, and is wholly in line with the projection through the relay of the gaze, that obfuscates the secret solidarity of surveillants and perpetrators as it is evident in the images of the first degree. The difference in scale between the artist and the Lilliputians in the image corresponds perfectly to the deflation of the dramatis personae to the minute "much too much" and the inflation of the atomised individual to the proportions of a giant or a God. When, with the introduction of the onlookers in the image, the relay of the gaze is installed, it unfolds to a kind of optical matryoshka doll. In such matryoshka doll, the artist, under the cover of the surveilling critic, takes the position of the almighty god who plays, not only with corpses, neatly arranged in geometrical patterns, but also with the manipulating mighty in the image - like in Trickland, where they look like puppets manipulated by the artist, or like in People must be punished, where it is the hand of the artist that 'paints' the letters on the nude chest. That is overlooked in interpretations like that of Marianne Vermeijden, who joins the move of projection, although she has a keen eye for the true nature of the forbidden activity: 'His figures are kicked around (...) by colourless office giants, men who, like generals, like to handle people like instruments or props'. Says Borremans himself: 'You start drawing on a sheet of paper, and an entire universe unfolds where you can play God. In fact, I am a kind of power-mad person. Happily, I have become an artist...' (Leenknegt/Vervaet). It could be objected that, especially in the aforementioned designs for giant sculptures and screens, the relation seems to be reversed: the onlookers are Lilliputians, and the images often overwhelming giants, like in A Mae West experience (2002), or large-scale two-dimensional images like in Swimming Pool or The German, Dreiten Teil (2003). But the reversal is only apparent: the giant artworks are merely the extensions of the even larger figure of the artist that wants the onlookers admire his work. And how much such imposition - such 'becoming famous' - partakes of sadism, appears from the following quote of Borremans himself: 'I regard the presence of a real image in public space (...) as an aggressive gesture. (Fiers). It appears also from the way in which he wants his images to be 'a knife in the eye'. Or in the image itself, where the minute figures have to protect themselves from the deafening sound of the voice

of a substitute star - the magnified Mae West. Only this approach can account for the boundless melancholy that emanates from these images, as well as for their fascination. Boundless melancholy: because there are no relations whatsoever in these images neither economical, political or religious, nor sexual or parental. And fascination: because in such relationless world the self-sufficient individual is nevertheless surrounded by the negation of its negation: the presence of countless dwarfed others, who are further devalued in that they are mere toys - pure images. Such boundless melancholy and fascination is only enhanced in that it is concealed behind a rejection of the contemporary world as dominated by 'mighty' of all kinds. Only thus do Borremans images come to embody a widespread experience of the world - and only thus is the charm of Borremans' images transformed into a secret charm...

FROM PRESENT TO PAST (1) The division of space in scales finds its temporal counterpart in a regression to an ever further past. The most salient feature of Borremans works is that they are not contemporaneous. In the beginning, they used to be situated in the thirties or the forties of the past century - the era of the Nazis. In dressing up the present in the clothes of the past, Borremans wants to shed a new light on the present. But, rather than warning us for a return of the past, these images had a totally different effect: 'I heard that the work was nostalgic, and that was absolutely not the idea.' (Coggins). That is why Borremans soon resorted to other techniques of alienation decontextualising or placing the figures in artificial environments, whereby they are supposed to partake of the 'universal' (Coggins, 2009). The technique does not differ much from the way in which Odd Nerdrum has his figures appear without clothes in a mythical non-time, where they nevertheless are wearing modern weapons. It should not escape our attention, however, that, just like the concrete oppressive regimes only conceal the abstract regime of narcissistic terror in the optical matryoshka, the regression in history only conceals a regression to childhood. Borremans does not know the Nazi regime from his own experience, but only from the stories from his childhood - among

them the stories of the forced labour of his uncles in German arms factories. It is apparent, then, that there is more to those giants in Trickland than the atmosphere of the thirties or the forties. 'Those women are a kind of fairytale figures, who introduce minute changes in the world at night' says Borremans. We cannot but be reminded of the 'manipulation' of parents when they stage the parallel worlds of Santaclaus and Easter bunnies. That sheds a new light, not only on the darkness that hovers over Trickland, but also on the differences of scale: children often experience their parents as giants and themselves as dwarfs, and they enjoy reversing this relation when playing with minuscule toy cars or toy soldiers - or with ants and insects. The difference in scale between parent and child is a prelude to the even further regression, whereby the self is inflating to the dimension of a god. And this helps us to understand the nostalgia that emanates from many of Borremans' images - for it cannot possibly be a nostalgia for Nazism. After the same model, we analysed the effect of King Boudouin or Walt Disney in Luc Tuymans. This infantile undercurrent only comes to endorse the aforementioned secret charms of the images of Borremans. At the end of this text, we will have to uncover a further layer. That raises the question in how far Borremans is really interested in the past. There is no doubt that much is to be learned from the past. But that is worlds apart from understanding our time in terms of the Weimar Republic, or the assassination of the Tsar in terms of the assassination of Louis XVI: the differences are more telling than the similarities. A new relay of guilt threatens to be installed, this time in the temporal dimension. It is far more easy to condemn communist and fascist regimes and their Gestapo, KGB and Stasi, or even the CIA, than to scorn triumphant capitalism and the world encompassing free market, with the concomitant propaganda machines of figures like Rupert Murdoch and Berlusconi, and the concomitant intelligence services, those of internet marketers included. The more we approach the temporally unmediated first degree image - the here and now -, the more we risk to become an accomplice - just think, as far as Borremans is concerned, of his embroilment in the market as a 'Star des Kunstbetriebs' (Behrisch), not to mention the ' 'strategy of radical complicity' of figures like Wim Delvoye. It is far more convenient to shake one's head at the thought of the Nazi butcher who found solace in playing classical music...


There is another thread that leads to images where figures are looking at images: the aforementioned replacement of the forbidden activity with the making of an image, like in The Conducinator (2002), where the painter looks at an image that he paints after an image that is placed before him. In images like The Journey (True colours) (2003), there is no longer talk of making: the artist is merely looking at what seems to be his creation, and in In the Louvre - the house of Opportunity (2003, it is the onlooker who looks at such a creation. We are talking about 'creation', and no longer of an '(image of a) spectacle'. For, in these images, the freighted subjects are replaced with purely 'artistic' - contentually rather neutral - subjects. To be sure, the model houses have still something of concentration camps, plants or residential barracks. But, as with Piranesi, we only see the architecture, no longer people. The trend is completed in The Journey, where the artist is looking at mountains - although still called Tatra, the opposite of the inhabited world. The next step is the void canvas: on many images, the figures are doing something with empty, rectangular surfaces: The table (2001), The saddening (2001) The spell (2001), The Lucky Ones" 2002), Milk (2003), One at a time (2003). Gradually, the image of the world is thereby transformed into an image of the image. The theme is handled in various variants. In The conducinator, the landscape reminds of the fact that reality is often mediated by an image. As we have seen, Borremans does not work 'after nature': he uses models like toy figures, porcelain sculptures, and above all existing or self-made photographs. In a more refined variant, the emphasis is on the development of or the comment on existing images: 'Good artists don't just destroy the past; they're also able to develop it in various directions, into something aggressive and innovative' (Shinichi). Borremans uses the work of older masters like Manet, Velzquez, Zurburn, Goya, yes even Van Eyck, but also of masters of the twentieth century. Next to the countless references to Magritte, there are also references to the 'fat sculptures' of Beuys (cheese and butter, which also remind of his grandfather, a baker, who used to make sculpture with butter (Grove). The drawings of giant sculptures remind of the 'inflatables' of Paul McCarthy, which are in their turn echoes of the large-scale objects of Claes Oldenburg, Works like Cabinet of Souls (2000) remind of Christian Boltanski, and the series Slight modifications of the countless selfmutilations in performance art, especially of the Self-Hybridizations and

de surgery-performances of Orlan. The horses in Square of Despair (2005) refer to Berlinde De Bruyckere, the buildings in Terror Watching (2002) to the maquettes in the exhibition Mirroring Evil in the Jewish Museum, New York, the construction in Faller Kit to Zbigniew Libera and his Lego construction kits of concentration camps - just to mention a few examples. The shift from image of the world to image of the image is a further step in the neutralisation of content. Borremans himself often emphasises that the artist is merely a 'conman'. 'The reason why I want to evocate oldfashioned scenes in my work is that I want to create a kind of parallel world'. 'A parallel world is a mirror image, but I want to make it clear that the world in the image is another, mental world. (Fiers). The concept of a 'conman' implies that, although it is deforming, there is still talk of a mirror. But it is only a short step to 'Ceci n'est pas un miroir' - to the statement that art does not refer to the world at all, but rather to itself.

FROM PROPAGANDA TO ENIGMA Borremans takes a further step in that he states that his images are not narrative. Narrative and unequivocal are the images 'in the media' that want to 'make something clear' (Leenknegt/Vervaete). As opposed to these indoctrinating images, Borremans wants to make images 'that you cannot define at all': 'open images' (Van Canneyt). 'Normally, an image has to make things clear, but I want to go in the opposite direction. I want to make images that makes thing unclear' (Fiers). For there is nothing to clarify: 'I do not give answers, because there are no answers' (Vanderstraeten). 'In my opinion' truth' can best be imagined as a black hole. A void.' (Fiers). In short: no propaganda, but rather enigma... Borremans developed his own method to transform the 'narrative' into 'enigma': ' I combine elements that are anachronistic or contradictory'. 'In this manner, you get a kind of Ideological failure, and precisely that failure is the essence of the work. (Fiers). In his KASK lecture, Borremans gives an example: 'I painted a milkmaid with a cap, lying on the ground, inspired by Vermeer. Well, the way in which she is depicted - it is a though her neck is wringed - she is probably dead - and the way in which she is shown with a sharp shadow, has something of forensic photography. This combination has an enormous power and a kind of bipolarity that makes it unfathomable and poignant' (Van Canneyt).

Often, the effect is achieved through additions or omissions, like in Sausage garniture (1995/1996/1999) (Grove). Also titles contribute to the confusion: 'They are an essential part of the work.' 'A title can lead or mislead the onlooker. Take my painting of a man in a straitjacket that is called Advantage the title is an additional element that often leads to confusion, just like the work itself.' (Boel). The method of Lautramont, hence, softened already by Magritte into a way of lending a 'poetic flavour' to the 'utilitarian world', and transformed into a means escaping of socialist realism by figures like Neo Rauch, is here a means of being relieved from the task of showing something meaningful under the guise of setting the onlooker thinking. That does not prevent Borremans from wanting to tell - and effectively telling - an unequivocal, propagandistic narrative. Wanting to tell: for, on occasion of the figures that change the world during the night in Trickland, Borremans writes: 'Nobody notices, but the world changes gradually'. 'That is the way in which manipulation proceeds: subtly, surreptitiously. That is the way the mighty hold us in their grip.' (Nieuwsblad). Borremans has more messages: 'That the human being is a victim of his situation and is not free is a conviction of mine. (Coggins, 2009). Or, phrased in another - more masochistic - vein: 'people are victims of themselves' (Grove). We already pointed to the fact that this message is rather vague. More important, then, is that, precisely therefore, the images tell a quite different story, the story that we unveiled above (and will further unveil below). Borremans a 'hidden persuader', hence, albeit with a rather ambivalent and veiled message, that, judging from the success of his work, is nevertheless well understood. Borremans' enigma: - different from, but nearly kindred to the pedantic rebus of Jan de Cock, who - equally as an antidote to the indoctrination through the media - wants tot sets us thinking with his 'Denkmal' ...

FROM PAINTING ABOUT THE WORLD, OVER PAINTING ABOUT THE IMAGE, TO PAINTING ABOUT PAINTING An even further step in the installation of the enigma is the contention that painting is not about what there is - equivocally or unequivocally - to be seen on the image, but rather about painting as such: 'I make paintings because my subject matter, to a large extent, is painting' (Coggins). How much the content is thereby disregarded is apparent from

the following quote: "I placed the corks in the same room where I place my human models with the same lights. (...) All the paintings are painted with all the subjects placed in the same room under the same lights. (...) I tried to paint the humans like objects, and the objects like humans, and tried to see the result. So it's also an experiment' (Shinichi). Humans as lighted objects, that is worlds apart form humans subject to the subjugating gaze, yes, even of humans as depicted by other painters... That brings us to our next point. For the emphasis on painting sounds strange in the mouth of someone who, like Luc Tuymans, takes a rather ambivalent stance on painting. Both painters show a marked reserve towards their medium. 'I like it when people call me a painter, because that means that I succeeded in misleading hem. In fact, I am a false painter, I misuse the medium. I have become a painter, because it allows me to play tricks.' (Van Canneyt). We surmise that he refers - among other things - to the fact that, on paper, you can conjure up more than life-size images, but above all to the fact that one can maltreat bodies, give free rein to one's sadistic urges unpunished: mimesis as the refuge for sadism - for the creation of a 'mental world' as 'parallel reality'. The reserve is inbuilt from the beginning in that Borremans - it seems meanwhile to have become a pandemic - does not conceive his image in all sovereignty on the canvas, but borrows it form other images, mostly photographs. There is nothing wrong with that - painters have always relied on existing images (also when they painted 'after nature'). The problem begins only when the very concept of the image is borrowed from another medium, or when the photographic or filmic way of handling the image becomes the subject matter, like in Where is Ned? after a still from the television series Black Beauty - not so much painting about painting this time, but rather painting about photography or film... The reserve is also apparent in that Borremans sometimes would like to end up with a sculpture: 'Some of my paintings are in essence sculptures, but I do not have the know-how to execute them' (Van Canneyt). 'Four Fairies for example was initially a drawing. I would have liked to make a sculpture of it, but I am not precisely qualified. As a big painting, it approached the idea I had first in mind.' (Fiers). Which does not prevent Borremans from delivering real models like his 3-D House of Opportunities (2006), The reserve is apparent above all in the fact that he seems to have

problems with the non-moving image: 'Sometimes I have the feeling that it would be interesting when I could introduce an element of movement' (Van Canneyt). 'A painting is not an immobile image: it moves, it is a presence.' (Fiers). This desire lies at the roots of the transformation of his drawings or paintings in filmic images. Add and Remove (2002) after The evening Walk (2002); The Storm (2006) after One at a time (2003), Weight (2007) after Drawing (2002). Borremans legitimises this transformation in stating that 'film has become a medium that is not transparent - like painting. You know youre dealing with film. You know youre dealing with an artefact, with an artificial image. With a photograph you look at the image without seeing the medium.' A second legitimation sounds that his films are in essence paintings: My painterly approach as such has always been influenced by film', and, conversely, his films are made from 'a painterly point of view (Kleijn). No wonder that his introduction of the dimension of time is purely formal - rather than a 'plot', we only get the endless repetition of a looped film - for instance a torso of an immobile girl with cut-off legs and a braid turning around on a pedestal. The equation is sealed with the introduction of a frame around the LCD flat screen.

FROM IMAGE TO ORIGINAL The propensity to unfold the non-moving two-dimensional image in space in time - the unease in the non-moving two-dimensional plane demonstrates that Borremans does not primarily think as a painter. A genuine painting - also when it depicts events or actions like the Holy Lamb by Van Eyck or the The last supper by da Vinci - cannot be transformed into a tableau vivant or into a moving image, supposed it would call for such a transformation. The reason is that the original as it appears in a painterly medium - paint on a two-dimensional plane - is thoroughly thought in terms of the plane and its immobility. To Borremans, on the other hand, such thinking in terms of a medium is not a primary concern: 'Since I am primarily interested in images (read: originals), it does not matter whether I opt for drawing, filming or photographing'.' (...). The painted image is only one of the shapes that his in essence image-transcendent originals can take. That many of his originals are conceived during drawing or painting, is no objection: once conceived in terms of a given medium, the artist is out at releasing them as soon as possible from their specific embodiment - or rather: disguise. Therein, Borremans resembles the strip cartoonist who transforms his

figure into three-dimensional puppets. That is why Borremans readily exchanges his much-praised brushwork with the totally different grain of the film. What is scorned here as a shortcoming, is promoted into a 'broadening of the concept of the image' by Reust: 'Bei Michal Borremans ist in den vergangenen Jahren jedoch immer deutlicher geworden, dass die Werkentwicklung einen unsichtbaren Kern umkreist, eine metamediale Tiefenstruktur, die den Bildbegriff erweitert. Wie ein spezifisches Bild wirkt, lsst sich nicht mehr allein in den Grenzen seines Genres oder seines Formates erfassen. Das Rtsel ereignet sich ebenso im einzelnen Bild wie zwischen den Bildern in der Konstellation.' The emphasis with which Borremans repeats that his films are painterly, cannot conceal the fact that he is not so much a painter, as rather a designer of originals. That is also the reason why drawing is his 'secret weapon' indeed (Grove). The design of an original, preferably on paper, is merely the first phase in a series of metamorphoses into more respectable shapes. That painting is the chosen first metamorphosis, has to do with purely external advantages: 'That I have eventually decided to draw and pain, has to do with my closed character. You can make a painting on your own, whereas a film requires team-work and also in photography, you depend on others.' (...) Add to this the aforementioned fact that painting allows to circumvent the technical problems of sculpting, and the fact that you can maltreat the human body unpunished. It is only an overstatement, hence, when Borremans declares in his Kask lecture that a change of medium entails a change of meaning. And it is somewhat besides the question, then, when Ziba de Weck Ardelan contends that 'Where is Ned' 'is not about a portrait, but about painting' ( 2009, 71): the focus on the medium leads only to the focus on the original - and thereby to the devaluing of the media in which it is embodied. When Katrien Schreuder describes the art of Borremans as 'a film of a painting of man as a sculpture', she rather reveals that the focus is primarily on the original: for instance the torso of an innocent but immobilised girl with a braid in Drawing (2002), The skirt and the film Weight (2005)...

FROM MEDIUM TO SIGN The question, then, is why Borremans makes so much of the painterly, and why he thereby does not opt for the 'high-definition' of the Flemish Primitives (or photography), but rather for an often juicy, suggestive

brushstroke - especially since the fine-grained film has its own potential in matters of sadism: the cutting edges appear all the more sharp, whereas the skin seems at the same time even more undamaged and the fabric all the more smooth. The unctuous potential, then, is only one facet of the choice for the juicy brushstroke, the other one being its function as a sign. Brushstrokes as such are not new in in the twentieth century. Released from every trace of figuration, they were even the very hallmark of modernity at the time of the diverse kinds of action painting. In combination with expressionistic deformation, they have been one of the first manifestations of modernism, and they became socially acceptable again with the diverse forms of neo-expressionism, the Baroque brushwork of painters like Eugne Leroy and Sam Dillemans included. But, in combination with a rather true to nature rendering, the - hence 'suggestive' - brushstroke is rather rare (think of Odd Nerdrum or Thierry De Cordier). True to nature painting uses to have a predilection for brushless paint, that is either literally 'photographic', like with the photorealists, or either made 'painterly' by wrapping it in a 'flou artistique' (Gerhard Richter) or by simplification of tone and outline (Neo Rauch). That the combination of brushstrokes with true to nature rendering - the suggestive brushstroke - is so rare, has everything to do with the fact that it inevitably reminds of the heydays of pre-Modern, but postRenaissance painting - precisely the 'academic' model that has been so scorned by modern artists. With Borremans, we are not dealing with the intently clumsy strokes of Luc Tuymans, meant to deny this kind of painterly lan, but, just like with Odd Nerdrum, with the 'the real thing', although Borremans' model is not Rembrandt or Caravaggio, but rather painters like Velzquez. The sign value of this brushwork is constitutive to the painting of Borremans. For, although the denial of sadism is its central function, the brushstroke can only play this role in that it is at the same time the embodiment of a tradition of making images with the aura of respectability and technical skill, and that precisely therefore is often scorned as 'academic'. In that the technical skill imposes itself, the attention is - again - diverted from the content. To phrase it with Grove: 'The images often circumvent a simple association with cruelty or violence through the sheer beauty of their execution' (2004,41). In the same vein, also the paintings of John

Currin are described in Wikipedia as 'provocative sexual and social themes in a technically skilful manner'. And also the photos of Jol-Peter Wikin become artistically acceptable only by being wrapped in an artsy disguise. The method is all the more efficient in that the shocking through sadomasochism is replaced with shocking through the use of an academic style. Somewhat in the vein of Odd Nerdrum, who posed as 'the king of kitsch', Borremans writes: 'I try to shock, but not through sex and violence. I just make beautiful pictures' (Doroshenko, p. 29). The formula works. The joy experienced when recognising this good old academic brushwork - this fetish of craftsmanship - often culminates in a panegyric of the technical skill and the virtuosity of Borremans - a panegyric that has to be taken with a grain of salt. It is only to his credit that Borremans is the first to be aware of that - just imagine Velazquez having painted his images.... The brushstroke not only an unction, hence, but also a flag, and hence a lightning rod in the first place. On top of that it is also a cover, because it suggests at the same time a different content. One could perhaps contend of Borremans' brushwork that it is beautiful, but certainly not of the world that it evokes. Borremans conjures up a dark universe through a beauty that is developed for the rendering of the radiant and glorious world where the 'mighty' posed as benevolent gods and good kings with the corollary shine of harmony and bliss. It becomes apparent, then, that this descent into the sadomasochistic universe goes hand in hand with a regression to former better times, of which the falling back on the thirties and forties of the past century is only the prelude and the denial. Behind the contours of the giant figures in Trickland and Four fairies loom up not only the shadows of the accomplices of Stalin and Hitler, but in the first place kings, gods and saints - the societal counterparts of parents or guardian angels who roam around the cradle of the sleeping infant somewhat like the sublime landscapes of former times loom up behind the dark, dead-end landscapes of Thierry De Cordier. Next to the denial of this glorious world in figures and props of the thirties, there are also direct references to this undercurrent: just think of the feudal footmen who turn their backs on their bosses on the paintings in the Royal Palace in Brussels. The beauty of their livery - not otherwise than the suit worn by Borremans when he paints: the Sunday version of the later working apparel - appears in full bloom in The Garment (2008) - an afterglow of the crinolines of Velzquez' infantes. Which sheds a new light on the 'still lifes' in the work of Borremans: The fruitbasket (1999), Pink shoes, (2005), Sleeves, (2003) Dragonplant (2003), to which the statement 'I

just paint beautiful paintings' may apply more aptly. The brushstroke is not only the unctuous denial of the sadistic scratching of the needle, as a lightning rod it also diverts from sadism, not only in that it pretends to measure up with the respectable feats of illustrious predecessor who were at work in churches and palaces - an idea cherished by Borremans - but above all because, as a cover, it conjures up echoes of a world that is the complete reverse of the sadomasochistic hell of his works. And therein the brushstrokes only succeed in that they do not function as a medium of sadism, but as a sign for its opposite.

FROM PRESENT TO PAST (2) The question remains in how far Borremans' painting technique is in keeping with our times. To Borremans, there seems not to be a problem: 'I wanted to make contemporary, authentic images, and execute them with old techniques and media.' (Vanderstraeten) He seems to assume that techniques are timeless. He thereby overlooks the fact that his kind of brushwork is developed in a totally different context: the self-assured glorification of heaven and court - or of the world within the canopy bed where the brush stroke resonated with the content rather than being its negation. It is only the combination with the sadism that is concealed by these brush strokes, that lends this outdated form of painting a touch of novelty. Thus does not only the brushstroke save sadism, but, conversely, sadism the brushstroke - it suffices to imagine these paintings with a nonproblematic subject-matter. To phrase it positively: Borremans should rather have developed a language that corresponds to the sadomasochistic universe, like Piranesi. But the bad conscience about the addiction to this universe, as it appears from the countless attempts at escaping described above, highlights all the more how much the descent in the sadomasochistic universe itself is a fall - the incapacity to stand upright in the face of our contemporary world, if not an attempt at debasing an societal ideal that in the past was at least kept up. Borremans' work is contemporary only in the documentary sense of 'typical of our times', not in the sense of 'zeitgemss' (in keeping with the times). And, therefore, Borreman's recycling of 'old techniques and media' is not so much the working out of a contemporary version of a technique that is in essence timeless, as rather a parasitising on outdated manifestations of it.

After the heaven storming of modernism that knew not to break much fresh ground - the epiphenomenon of the equally abandoned struggle against the world-wide triumphant capitalism with the concomitant nationalistic and religious restoration - nostalgia seems to pop up everywhere - just think of figures like Odd Nerdrum, Thierry De Cordier, Luc Tuymans and Michael Borremans, not to mention Wim Delvoye with his gothic towers. The recycling of past styles is in matters of art the counterpart of the return of religion and nationalism in matters of communal feeling. Both trends are exemplarily united in the music of Arvo Prt.

CRAFTMANSHIP As far as real craftsmanship - the conception of 'zeitgemsse Bilder' in an appropriate language - Borremans utterly fails. But how about his craftsmanship in the more narrow sense of the word: the general mastery of the medium as such? Above, we have already dealt with the brushwork as compared with Velzquez. How about the colours - the domain of the painter by excellence? The palette of Borremans is rather muted, like that of Luc Tuymans. But, otherwise than with Tuymans, with whom everything threatens to disappear in whiteness, with Borremans, everything looms up from a brown, that lends his work an additional academic flavour. But, rather than being a background, from which colour lights up, that brown is rather a marsh in which colour threatens to drown. Gloom prevails, and some recent works seem to disappear in darkness altogether. In that respect, the paintings of Borremans can rather be understood as magnified drawings - primarily conceived in black and white. As little as Tuymans, Borremans is no great colourist - but, otherwise than Tuymans, who deems himself the new Rubens, Borremans knows it: 'I am not a great colourist. Those colours have to do with a lack of expertise. But I also do not like to use outspoken colours, because they divert the attention too much.(. ..). I think that the image has to have the priority. To me, colour has only a supportive function. (Fiers). 'Overpowering colours create a language thats not useful to me. Thats why I choose unsaturated colours. I never use black. Everything is mixed out of colour but the colours dont play a starring role; they serve the painting' (Coggins, 2009).

And that brings us to the problem of size. As a rule, the drawings are so small, that they are often compared to Flemish miniatures. When the artist exchanges the pencil for the brush, the size increases accordingly. But the paintings remain small. To be sure, paintings like Trickland are large in comparison with the preparatory drawings, but we are still dealing with the rather modest size of 100 X 180 cm. Really large formats are rare. There is no problem when Borremans paints single large figures, like in The avoider (2006)- a more than life-size shepherd. But, when Borremans wants to tackle more complex compositions of figures, he fails to rise to the challenge (Dorochenko, 31). That has not so much to do with the number of figures, but rather with the fact that size obliges: history paintings used to be large, not so much because of the number of figures, as rather because of the importance of the subject. Sadistic representations tend to shun daylight, not otherwise than the forbidden intentions of the gestures of Borremans' figures. That is why Caravaggio's 'Decapitation of Joan the Baptist' is so embarrassing, just like the life-size porn of Jeff Koons - and conversely: why Goya's Desastres are so convincing. Perhaps this explains the paradox that the small drawings are far more monumental than the versions that are magnified on canvas, whereas the giant sculptures or screens in his drawings are convincing indeed. Needless to remind, finally, that the composition of Borremans is often photographic or filmic. His images are merely well-framed - as is usual in photography that by nature has to rely on pre-existing originals - not inherently conceived in terms of the logic of the frame and the rectangular surface, as it should be in painting - or in the hand-made image in general. As seen, this has everything to do with the flirting with media that unfold in space and time, and the corollary thinking in terms of originals, rather than in terms of an image-in-a-medium - a widespread phenomenon in our age of 'multimedia' and 'cross-over'. Add to this the aforementioned incapacity to embody 'eine zeitgemsse Sicht' on our contemporary world in an adequate language, and it becomes clear how inadequate the craftsmanship of Borremans is - how little we are dealing here with the continuation of the tradition in the true sense of the word, but rather with an academism, not only in the formal sense of the word - a parasitising on approved technical procedures - but foremost in the contentual sense - a handling of outdated and therefore inadequate world views. Although it must be granted that the latter is not

so much the responsibility of Borremans... Not so much the intrinsic qualities of his work, hence, but rather the way in which unction, flag, lightning rod and cover are condensed in it, explains the secret charms and constitutes the enigma unveiled of the paintings of Michael Borremans.

Stefan Beyst, September 2010, translated October 2010

from 1968 to 1994 lecturer philosophy of art and history of modern art

CONSULTED TEXTS AMY, Michael: "Whistling a happy tune', Ludion 2008. AMY, Michal. The Theater of the Absurd. Tema Celeste (July/August 2006): 42. BEHRISCH, Sven. In der Schuhschachtel. Die Zeit (May 14, 2009). BERK, Anne: 'Onzichtbare krachten' Kunst nader bekeken, 2008. BOEL, Jonas: 'Interview met Michal Borremans', CityZine Gent 2010 2011. BORREMANS, Michal and LAMBRECHTS, Jef: Kask lezing 11 May 2010. CARRIER, David. Michal Borremans. Artforum (September 2005): 308. CHRIST, Hans D.: 'Warning! This is a philosophical drawing. ber die Zeichnungen von Michal Borremans' (sine dato). COGGINS, David. Michael Borremans at David Zwirner. Art in America (June/July 2006): 194. COGGINS, David: "Interview: Michal Borremans', Art in America, 3/1/2009. CUMMING, Laura. A Belgian master of the enigmatic. The Observer (May 15, 2005). DE BRUYN, Guido: 'Michael Borremans: A knfie in the eye,' documentary from Guido de Bruyn, interview Jef Lambrecht and Anne Luyten, DOROSCHENKO, Peter: 'Interview met Michal Borremans' in 'Michael Borremans, Zeichnungen', Walter Knig, 2004. EX, Nicole. Werkruimte: Michal Borremans Hollands Diep (May/une 2010): 134-135. FIERS, Els: 'Ideologisch falen: een gesprek met Michal Borremans', Metropolis M, November 2005.

GERMANN, Martin and GRNER, Veit (Ed.): 'Michal Borremans: Automat', Hatje Cantz, 2009. GROVE, Jeffrey. D.: 'Michal Borremans: People must be punished', in 'Michael Borremans, Zeichnungen', Walter Knig, 2004. HALDEMANN, Anita: 'Modelle und Modifikationen', Zu den Zeichnungen von Michael Borremans' in 'Michael Borremans, Zeichnungen', Walter Knig, 2004 HIGGIE, Jennifer:'Enigma Variations' Frieze Magazine, Issue 89 March 2005. KASTNER, Jeffrey. Michal Borremans at David Zwirner. Artforum (May 2009): 233. KLEIJN, Koen: 'Interview Michal Borremans: Een goed schilderij beweegt', De Groene Amsterdammer, 05-09-2007. LAUREYNS, Jeroen: 'Het verbannen medium: James Sante Avati (19122005) en de schijnstrijd illustratie - kunst', Rekto:Verso, nr 16, 2006 LEENKNEGT, Simon and VERVAET, Cline: 'Michal Borremans en zijn credo's', Schamper, 3 november 2009. MICHAL BORREMANS: 'The Performance', Hatje Cantz, 2005. MACK, Joshua. Michal Borremans: Horse Hunting. Modern Painters (May 2006): 111. NIEUWSBLAD: 'Kunstenaar Michal Borremans in SMAK ', Het Nieuwsblad, zondag 27 februari 2005. PRATER, Elizabeth. Michael Borremans A Victim of His Situation. The Ember (July 1, 2010). OSTROW, Saul. Strange Days: The Drawings of Michal Borremans. Angle (September/October 2005): REUST, Hans Rudolf: 'Life in Stills - Metabilder bei Michal Borremans' in GERMANN, Martin en GRNER, Veit (Ed.): 'Michal Borremans: Automat', Hatje Cantz, 2009. SCHREUDER, Catrien: Studies van de mens als ding. SHINICHI, Uchida: 'Michal Borremans. A world of quiet mystery', interview Art It, 2009.1.27. VAN CANNEYT, Hilde: 'Interview met Borremans en Manor Grnewald' 5/02/2009. VANDERSTRAETEN, Margot: Michal Borremans, 2010. VAN HOVE, Jan: 'Ik maak alleen wat er toe doet', De Standaard, saturday, July 17, 2010. VUEGEN, Christine: 'Meesterleugenaar Michael Borremans', Kunstbeeld, nr. 05, 2008.

ADDENDUM November 2010: Borremans' current show 'Eating the Beard' in Zeno X Antwerp only confirms my analysis. The fact that a figure like Pinault is buying this work is no counter-argument, I may hope...

Portrait: Nagare Satoshi Text: Uchida Shinichi

Fixture, 2008, Oil on canvas, 40 x 50 cm

The Field, 2007, 16 mm film

The Feeding, 2006, 35 mm film transferred to DVD

Commutation, 2008, Oil on canvas, 40 x 50 cm All images Michael Borremans If there were such an activity as creating quietness, then Michal Borremans' paintings could well serve as a model. The figures in his paintings, which are depicted with a fineness bordering on hardheadedness using a palette based on beautiful dark hues, seem either to be devoted to some private ritual, or repeating - albeit unknown to themselves - some endless activity, as if a spell has suddenly been cast on them in the midst of their daily routines. Who are they and what stories are they living? It was this world, a world of what could be described as "quiet mystery", that was revealed to visitors to Earthlight Room, Borremans' first solo exhibition Japan. "It's not important who they are or what they're doing exactly. They're more universal, symbolic metaphors. I paint various kinds of people, but in each case they're important not as portraits of particular people but as general 'human beings'. I depict the act of doing, or creating. Just as many artists have done in the past, I've adopted the format of portrait

painting for my work. But what I paint aren't 'portraits' as such. I'm simply using that format." Certainly, the manner in which these anonymous individuals and their mysterious actions are depicted in an atmosphere that at times calls to mind 19th century portraits is striking. "All artists are influenced by works from the past. However, it's a question of reflecting rather than respecting, and of recuperation. Bruce Nauman is grounded in the past, but he's also contemporary. The Gallery of Horyuji Treasures (editor's note: designed by Taniguchi Yoshio), which I visited the other day, is also very old and universal, but at the same time contemporary. Good artists don't just destroy the past; they're also able to develop it in various directions, into something aggressive and innovative." The important thing is how the viewer responds to the work; this, according to Borremans, is what fascinates him the most. Speaking of which, it was fascinating to see a lone still life among the portraits in this exhibition. "I placed the corks in the same room where I place my human models with the same lights. For this show, for the first time all the paintings are painted with all the subjects placed in the same room under the same lights. That's why it's called Earthlight Room. I tried to paint the humans like objects, and the objects like humans, and tried to see the result. So it's also an experiment. I will continue to do this for my next show, too, I think, and perhaps even more in the future. But when works become too conceptual, there's no place any more for the imagination. That's not what I want to do." Many of Borremans' drawings, which the artist has exhibited from an early stage in his career, reflect a more surreal worldview. One of these, which almost resembles a sketch for a stage design, has also been displayed in the form of a scale model (The German). "A lot of my drawings are proposals for paintings or installations. You say they remind you of stage design, but I'm not interested in whether they're realized on the stage or not. I like the world of the imagination, and in a sense you can say something's already been realized once someone has imagined it. Each viewer can view it however they like. In the same way that there is a writer and a reader. A work is complete only when there has been this collaboration between both parties."

The exhibition also included a number of film works, which Borremans began to incorporate into his shows several years ago. However, as far as the artist is concerned, these, too, are "paintings". "What I do in film, it's painting, really. I present it like painting. You don't have to watch it from beginning to end. You can walk by it if you want. What I don't want to do is have people go into a dark room, and you have to watch it and it's very boring. I also want to make it beautiful. I'm not afraid to use beauty." One of these films, The Field, consists of languid shots of a young woman whose body abruptly turns into a flat surface resembling a table from the waist down (a painting with the same motif was also displayed). There's an almost sculptural quality to the figure, which turns its body while staring into space with eyes that appear to be drained of all emotion. "I tried to depict it as if it's a moving sculpture. But it's just an image, and an image is like a ghost. It's not physically there. Once I did try to make a sculpture like in this film, and it was too real, too physical. It didn't correspond to the picture in my head." Finally, I asked Borremans if all the traveling to different cities around the world that's resulted from the steady increase in his popularity as an artist has also affected his creative activities. "There's probably some influence. But that reminds me - although it's not really an influence - of something that occurred to me the other day. As with all the works in this show, The Feeding was created with no reference whatsoever to Japanese culture, yet I was surprised after coming to Japan to discover that the scene inside the kitchen of a tempura restaurant resembled very closely the scene in this work. It's incredible, isnt it? With regard to becoming busy and that affecting my workI don't want to work for a show. Contemporary artists who are successful today have a show here and a show there and they have to tell people all kinds of things, like the kind of works they'll show and the titles of the works. When I think about that I cannot work. I like to work without being dominated by anything." Fitting words from an artist whose paintings manage to draw out such an abundant world from "quietness". 2009.1.27

A Belgian master of the enigmatic

Laura Cumming The Observer, Sunday 15 May 2005 Michael Borremans Parasol Unit Foundation for Contemporary Art, 14 Wharf Road, London N1; until 30 June It could hardly be simpler - and yet more charged. The picture shows only a box. The size of this box is not apparent, since there is nothing to measure it against. Its context is also unclear, although it stands in an empty room with putty-coloured walls, its surfaces reflected in a highly polished floor. Which in itself gives a strangely spectral quality to the scene, an atmosphere intensified by the singular fact that the box is hidden beneath a cloth. What is in it? Jewellery, money, letters, a body? The image presses you to guess. And yet the cloth, with its pearly satin drapes, also suggests that some sort of magic might be about to take place, as if a conjuror were about to whip the cloth away or something were about to spring from the box. The painting holds you in suspense, keeps you waiting there as if there was the slightest chance of seeing what might happen next. An ordinary object transformed into something thrilling, pictorial magic in itself. The Performance, as it is called, is also the title of the first show held at Parasol Unit, London's newest centre for contemporary art. Founded by Ziba de Weck as a non-profit organisation, housed in high, white galleries designed by Claudio Silvestrin, Parasol is devoted to bringing leading international artists to new audiences in Britain. It could hardly have chosen a better subject for its inauguration than Belgian painter Michael Borremans, who has long deserved a solo show in this country. The Performance is en route from Ghent to Ireland via London at the same time as a show of his drawings goes to the US. Born in 1963, he trained as a draughtsman and this underpins all his art; there is a tremendous technical foundation to the paintings. But they are in almost every other way bizarrely ambiguous, open-ended. It is nearly impossible to work out exactly what is going on in each image, despite the fact that what is presented is made to look so solidly everyday and permanent.

Take The German, in which a man with a crew-cut wearing a Thirties suit sits before a table holding what appears to be a red-beaded rosary. But is it a rosary or a clutch of cherries? Some of them even seem to have escaped and become attached like burrs to his cuffs, as red as bloody thumbprints. He looks down at them with a knowing self-consciousness, as if perfectly aware of your presence and bewilderment, but not about to give anything away. It is both more and less than a portrait, a recognisable likeness, but of a man whose character and occupation have been subtly occluded in the final painting. What was he actually doing, you wonder, as with so many of these pictures. Borremans's figures are almost always engaged in some apparently ordinary yet inscrutable action. Two figures take a scalpel to something offstage. A woman raises her hands as if to type, yet there is no machine. Two men attend to a pile of white... white what exactly? Could they be sizing some canvases? Small but mysterious gestures: that is partly Borremans's subject. A finger stretches into a painting to touch a fragment of something glassy or reaches out to pick a miniature tree from a shelf of identical trees (which puts you in mind of the artist himself, picking and choosing motifs). Hands point, touch, write, select, yet the exact nature of each operation is not disclosed. And the tremendous absorption of these figures in what they do lends conflicting moods sometimes darkly comic, sometimes disturbing - to the paintings. Just as striking is the period look of these scenes, which seem to be set in the low-watt Thirties or Forties. French plaits, razor crops, pre-perm coiffures, puffed sleeves, dark suits with wide lapels; men in duster coats, women in kerchiefs; studies and wood-lined laboratories. Borremans works with a twilight palette as well, shifting shadows, odd reflections, porcelain lustre: it's all a brown study with variations in grey and pearl. Which enhances the strange air of dated detachment and instils a certain nostalgia. It feels as though you are looking back at history, not the long past but something still familiar from black-and-white movies and, sure enough, like film stills, these images all seem to come with a backstory. But what that story might be remains a puzzle. Are these images extracted from real narratives (perhaps documentaries about the war effort, feature films or tales of prewar science)? Are they partly true or purely imaginary? I stared for a long time at what appeared to be a group of people enacting a scene from a 17th-century Dutch painting, reflected in a window pane burnished with a reflective glint (itself a play on those domestic interiors with their perfect housekeeping) without realising that

this might be the representation of an art book open to show an illustration, incidentally struck by the light of the present. What painting is, has been and can be is always brought to mind. Take the four girls trying to keep poker-faced as we look at them in their wellpressed frocks. At waist height, they simply disappear altogether in a kind of Richard Wilson oil slick; in this case, the very paint from which they are created. Borremans keeps these discontinuities in check so that they tease the mind without undermining the image. He might have shadows that aren't soft and secondary but active and primary, real as the object silhouetted. The effect is to remind you that these are images, not people, that you cannot really know their inner thoughts. Yet Borremans's gift is for snaring you, enthralling you with all sorts of characters, strange scenarios and possibilities. The three students in their lab coats looking down at what appear to be three dummy or decapitated heads on a counter seem to be at work until you notice that the heads are identical to their own. And running between each boy and head, eye to eye, is a fine thread of white paint, a sight line, if you like. Self-regard, self-doubt, self-consciousness: all are touched on in this complex riddle, which plays on the act of looking into, but being unable to enter, the illusions of a painted world.

Michael Borremans 05/07/2010 (tr. From Dutch) (Interview: Jonas Boel, appeared in CityZine Ghent 2010-2011)

We have had the pleasure of interviewing some great people over the years; legendary punk rockers who retired early, a notoriously eccentric film director, an ex-boys band member with loads of ambition. But still we're a little nervous when we ring at Michal Borremans' door in St. Amandsberg. Not only is the man one of our favourite artists, he is also an internationally respected and successful painter. He welcomes us in his house / studio, a beautifully renovated carpenters workshop. In the middle of the living area is a drum set, we count about four guitars and a black grand piano. The creative outpouring here is not just paint and brush work. A bottle of whiskey and an ashtray appear on the table, even though anti-smoking guru Allen Carr's book is within reach. Well yes, one moment I stop, the next I start again. How did you find this beautiful building? Borremans: I bought the building in 1994 with my girl-friend at the time. It was in ruins, we renovated it from top to bottom. I don't like the feeling of having to go outdoors to feel space, that is why this is a good building for me. But I have to be able to work at any moment, that's why it's essential my studio and house are one. You never know when you might be inspired. Borremans: Exactly. I am quite chaotic when I work, I need to have everything within reach. I don't need that much room for my paintings, I usually work small. In principle I could work in the kitchen of a small house. Art is created by necessity, the artist's studio is here (taps his head). Not having a studio is a bad excuse to not work, even if I were homeless I'd keep on working. Every limitation can be a blessing. You're originally from Dendermonde, how did you end up in Ghent? Borremans: I went to school here; 'Vrije Grafiek' at Sint Lucas. Afterwards I lived in Brussels with my girl-friend. I taught evening classes in Ghent and she worked during the day, we hardly saw each other and needed two cars. It wasn't easy for a young couple, so out of pure misery we moved back to Ghent. (quickly) Oops, I shouldn't have said that I guess? (laughs). You stayed here, I assume you didn't mind. Borremans: Not at all! Its just that at the time I was really enjoying living in the cosmopolitan city of Brussels. Actually it doesn't really matter where I live, but here in St. Amandsberg I

feel very much at ease as an artist. For my exhibitions I regularly have to be in New York or Tokyo where you are driven around in limousines and invited to exclusive parties. When I come home from one of these trips and am able to ride my bicycle over Ghent's cobblestones I am a very happy man (laughs). Have you ever considered living abroad? Borremans: My daughter goes to school here, I am tied to Ghent for a while still. Soon I'll have a country house in Wallonia in the middle of nowhere I'm looking forward to retreating there from time to time. Wallonia is kind of like being abroad as well. Borremans: To be quite honest, I like the climate and the light in Belgium. I like bad weather. I even considered naming my company Bad Weather Production. What name did you choose? Borremans: Michal Borremans (laughs). Currently there is a Borremans exposition in Denver with the great title Looking at the face I had before the world was made it seems to describe you perfectly. Borremans: Be that as it may but I didn't come up with it, the exposition fits in a series of six different expositions around the same theme. But I agree, it's a great title. The sentence is from a poem of John Keats. Borremans: A good trick. In my spare time I write songs and nowadays I am not averse to using fragments from literature. Plenty of inspiration. How important are the titles of your paintings? Borremans: Very important, they are an essential part of the work. Nowadays, we look at art with the title, it's a conceptual given. A title can lead or mislead you, it makes you think. Take my painting of a man in a straitjacket with the title Advantage the title is an extra element you provide. Sometimes it leads to confusion, as does the piece itself. The objective is that you question your point of view as a spectator. You play guitar and write songs. Do you know of any musician who is a good painter or vice versa?

Borremans: I think Bent Van Looy of Das Pop is a decent painter, although I don't know whether he still does it. Don Vliet, alias Captain Beefheart, was already a good painter before he became known as a musician. Why do you ask? Because good musicians rarely make good painters and vice versa. Borremans: I'm not a technically gifted guitarist and I'm a bad musician. It's a hobby. A way to let off steam. My group The Singing Painters regularly meets up to improvise, our repertoire ranges from very modest to pure, freewheeling rockn roll. The songs I write I write for myself, I don't feel the slightest need to tell the world. You have to choose, I find. My paintwork also contains a lot of rockn roll. Do you have music on when you paint? Borremans: Never. I don't hear it anyway, and when I do hear it it works on my nerves (laughs). I am extremely concentrated in a kind of Medieval atmosphere: daylight and complete silence. Do you still paint in your suit? Borremans: That's a ritual, yes. I can't produce nice work if I wear dirty clothes - the nicer the suit, the better the painting. The ritual has to do with respect, respect for what you do. When people used to go to church, they wore suits as well, didn't they? Well, painting is my church! I have about twenty suits but some of my suits seem to have bad vibes because I produce bad work if I wear them. I really must give them away (laughs). Part of it is superstition of course, just like footballers who always wear the same underpants for an important match. Sometimes I paint on my bare feet and in the summer I sometimes paint in the nude. That's when I'm the painting nudist. You're just a hippie, Michal! Borremans: Exactly! I'm a hippie, and there's nothing you can do about that (laughs). Are you a born painter? Borremans: I only started painting at the age of thirty but I have always worked with images. It was simply the way it was, I never asked any questions. Everything starts with the imagination. I could also have been a writer, I can also work with language, but I never applied myself. I drew. With a pencil and a sheet of paper you can evoke a suggestion you

could not express in language. In a drawing everything is possible, not in a painting. Why not? Borremans: Because the impact of a painting is much greater. A drawing is like literature, more fleeting. A painting is a presence. Painting has been around for as long as people have. There are so many paintings we have in our collective memory, as a stage it's sacred. When you make a mistake in a painting it's a big mistake! Look at Breughel. His paintings depict more than just a scene, sometimes they're an entire world view. A complete reality. With a thick frame around it, very condensed. I find it very fascinating. Do you prefer compliments about the content or the aesthetic aspect of your work? Borremans: For me the content prevails. Aesthetics is a tool, a lubricant. Although of course I'm happy it's there. Compliments go in one ear, out the other. I am always thinking about the next piece, the next problem. But when I make a good painting I drink champagne, invite some friends over and take them out to a restaurant! When is a painting good? Borremans: When I surprise myself with what I made. Then it's party time. That's when I want journalists to come knocking at the door, not when some piece was sold for a lot of money at an auction. categories: interviews *

One at the Time, 2003, Oil on canvas, 85 x 100 cm (33 1/2 x 39 3/8 in.) Michal Borremanss mysterious, often discomfiting images of selfabsorbed subjects in indeterminate settings are inspired by photographs, film, magazines, and illustrated books. Although the aesthetics of these pictorial sources seep into his workthe coloration, hairstyles, and clothing recall the 1930s and 1940sBorremanss paintings ultimately lack a clear narrative. While his characters appear engaged in actions that require meticulous attention, more often than not the paintings offer little indication of what preoccupies them. Borremans explained, A painting is not just an image: it is an object with a multi-layered character." One at the Time is one of several works in which figures in white lab coats attend to flat surfaces. Rife with psychological overtones and ambiguity, two men and a woman stare at a cloth-covered table on which three white shelves seem to be floating.

The Box, 2002, oil on canvas, 42 x 50 cm

The Angel, 2013

The Virgin 2013 240 x 130 cm oil on canvas

The Storm, 2006, 65 x 50 cm, oil on canvas

Dragonplant, 2003, 31 x 49 cm, oil on canvas

The Barn, 2003, 60 x 70 cm, oil on canvas

The Pendant, 2010, 300 x 200 cm, oil on canvas

Colombine, 2008, 52 x 38 cm, oil on canvas

Michal Borremans: as sweet as it gets

20/02/14, KURT SNOEKX

( Heleen Rodiers) If the stunning yet disturbing work of the Ghent-based artist Michal Borremans is an acquired taste, you will have plenty of opportunity to tickle your taste buds at Bozars 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 winters 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 Michal 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 artists 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 Devils Dress (2011), the telekinetic energy of The German (2002), and the awe-inspiring

monotony of The House of Opportunity(20032005)... 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.

The German 2002, Oil on canvas 50,0 x 42,0cm, (right) The German (part two) 2002, pencil, watercolor, white and black ink, mica foil and transparent tape on cardboard 24,8 x 31,0 cm

The Devils Dress, 2011

In the world of Michal 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 its about recognising those things that are interesting. You enter into a dialogue with the work? Michal 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 didnt know before. I find it important to let chance play its role. It can take your work to places where you cant 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 dont 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 dont depict nature, I just paint culture. So, actually, Im 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 dont know. Intuition, instinct, necessity... Why does a dog piss against a wall? An instinct, thats all it is. It is part of my identity.

Without it, I wouldnt 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 dont 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 cant make more works than I do and that my works become expensive, but I cant concern myself with that. I dont want to become a factory; I dont work to do people a favour and Ive 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.

Sleeper, 2007-2008 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 planets 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 arent clear. We dont understand anything. Lots of people give the impression that they understand everything. How do they manage that? But Im not a misanthrope. Sometimes its not easy, but Im 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 couldnt help it. [Laughs] I wasnt exceptionally good, but I really enjoyed it.

The House of Opportunity (Im Rhnlandshaft), 2004

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 cant 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 Buuel, 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.

(Michal Borremans, Automat (I), 2008 - Private Collection, Courtesy Zeno X Gallery Antwerp - Photo Peter Cox / Michal 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 dont see the medium: it is transparent. With a painting, its 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, Im very focused. Especially when larger formats are involved, I shut myself away and dont go out at all. Then I make sure that I have supplies in and I keep at work until its finished. That is one on one; then I even sleep in my studio. It completely absorbs me. Its difficult to maintain that tension. You dont want to break the concentration; you dont want to ruin anything. I have periods when I make things very difficult for myself. I

dont 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.

(Michal 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 Im working, yeah. Like when youre 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 dont 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] Its 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 Velzquez, 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 thats why Chardins The House of Cards is my favourite painting, come to think of it. Yes! Thats a really good metaphor: making a painting is like building a house of cards: it can collapse at any second. Photos Heleen Rodiers

The Quest, 2006, oil on wood 22.3 x 30 cm As an artist who worked with photographic expression, Michal Borremans turned to painting during the mid-1990s. He has since skyrocketed to fame for work that has been compared in style to early-modern and modern-era artists such as Diego Vlasquez and douard Manet, and in spirit to the Surrealistic tradition of his native Belgium. In his paintings, a vague dis-ease permeating the stillness of his images draws the viewer into a deep contemplation. His main motifs are people divorced from reality in a temporal and spatial sense, mindlessly engaged in some private ritual or task.

"It's not important who they are or what they're doing exactly. They're more universal, symbolic metaphors. I paint various kinds of people, but in each case they're important not as portraits of particular people but as general 'human beings'. "*1 In most cases, his images deftly defy theorization, making interpretation difficult. One thing that can be said, however, is that Borremans conveys the feeling of another era with a style rooted in the history of painting, at times using old photographs as the basis of his work, at times preserving the individuality of his subjects by capturing the uniqueness of their faces. And yet his subjects appear as creatures with a common universal existence, saddled with a fate that comes from being human. Such images mirror the difficult lives that many in Japan face today, and are sure to strike a chord that transcends national boundaries. Several years ago, during a visit to the Hara Museum, Borremans was struck by the museum's architectural history and appearance. The desire to hold a solo exhibition there took hold of him from that moment on. As the former home of the Hara family, it was originally a place of rest. It would go on to survive the war and then continue its quiet existence as an art museum. In this place, Borremans discovered an atmosphere that resembled his own work. Applying the strictest standards, the artist has limited the output of paintings that he considers finished. He has described his attitude as follows: "It must move me, cut me at a certain point, 'a knife in the eye'."*2 This exhibition of 30-some pieces selected by the Borremans himself thus represents a rare opportunity to become acquainted with the work of this very special artist. Also introduced are video pieces which Borremans began producing in recent years. *1. From an interview of the artist. ART iT, *2. Michal Borremans - A Knife in the Eye, VRT CULTUUR voor CANVAS, 2009.

Gone, 2003, oil on wood 20.9 x 26.5 cm

Portrait of the Artist (already read)

After a couple of career detours and false starts, Flemish painter Michal Borremans has found his voice, and critical acclaim in the process. Christophe Verbiest Flemish painter Michal Borremans was resigned to making art for arts sake when, unexpectedly, success came knocking at his door and made him a darling of the international art scene just when it dawned on him that making it maybe wasnt that important. We visited the artist in his Ghent home to talk art, success and the daily grind. Michal Borremans has become one of Flanders best-known contemporary painters, acclaimed around the world. But a fear of failure and the prevailing 1980s art mood almost led the Ghent-based artist not to take up painting at all. When Borremans was contemplating his next move after graduating from secondary art school, both the art world and art schools were under the spell of the German-dubbed Neue Wilde (New Wilds), a post-war neoexpressionist art movement. But Borremans wasnt interested in that. I wanted to learn how to paint like Titian, he says, not how to paint with tar or shit. I didnt think I had to go to school to learn that. Instead, he was determined to absolutely master drawing before doing anything with painting. I wanted to continue in that direction. Influenced by American underground comics, I hoped to become a graphic novelist.

In the end, Borremans opted to study printmaking because it included a technical aspect. In the following years, he practised and practised to become a good illustrator. He was in his early 30s when he eventually began devoting most of his time to the brush and canvas. I gave it a few tries before that, he says, first as an adolescent, then again in my 20s. But I found it extremely difficult. When I looked at works by others, I was convinced I would never grasp the art of painting. Still, the itch persisted, and Borremans decided to give it one last try. I forced myself to focus only on painting. After four or five years, I finally exhibited a few paintings. And the rest is history, as they say. Instead, he was determined to absolutely master drawing before doing anything with painting. I wanted to continue in that direction. Influenced by Now Borremans is everywhere. At the moment, he has two exhibitions in Japan, with a third one opening soon. And from this weekend, you can visit As Sweet As It Gets at Bozar in Brussels, a retrospective that will later travel to the US and Israel. Its been almost nine years since a major exhibition was devoted to Borremans in Belgium. The artist turned 50 last year, but that wasnt the reason for As Sweet As It Gets. Instead, he says, Bozar director Paul Dujardin suggested he prepare a solo exhibition for them. And it just so happened that the Dallas Museum of Art approached him about the same thing. One plus one became three, says Borremans, explaining that between hitting Brussels and Dallas (in 2015), the exhibition will travel to the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. The artist serves me a cup of jasmine tea in his home in Ghent, where he also has his studio. Even his vast living room has sometimes doubled as his workshop. Ive been working here since the mid-1990s, and I do so with great zest. Change of scenery In 2012 Borremans suddenly lost his focus and struggled to regain it. I still had ideas, but I couldnt concentrate on the painting itself. I wasnt worried at first, since this had happened before. Art is born from a need, and you shouldnt force it. But when it persisted, I started to wonder and decided to look for a new space. His quest led him to an empty chapel owned by one of his friends. The moment I stepped over the threshold, I knew I would be able to paint

again. For a year, I worked very intensively there, and now Im working here again. Until a few years ago, the majority of Borremans pieces were relatively small paintings, often of less than 50 x 50 centimetres. Lately, he has surprised audiences with much larger canvasses of up to 3 x 2 metres. The explanation for this evolution proves to be surprisingly mundane. My eyesight has deteriorated in the past years. By using larger canvasses and bigger brushes, I have a better view of what Im doing. Hes candid about this but adds that theres also a more important, fundamental reason. Ive been working on compositions that ask for larger canvasses, that physically need those bigger dimensions. Whereas before, my themes often needed intimacy. Borremans stresses that the situation isnt as unequivocal as it sounds. Sometimes I misjudge and paint too small, or vice versa. Errors of judgement are part of the work, the artist says. It often happens that I work on a painting for a full day and, by the evening, realise that its not good. Then I clean the paint from the canvas and, the next day, start all over again. I learned from experience that trying to correct errors generally leads to an even worse painting. Its like running a race: The more mistakes you make, the smaller the chance youll win. Its as simple as that. Borremans says that, unlike some of his colleagues, hes not the kind of artist who assiduously works every day and follows a regular schedule. I envy artists who are able to do this, but I have to wait for the singular moment that my energy and focus culminate. To get there, I need to prepare myself mentally. For instance, when Ive made up my mind about a painting, I sometimes force myself to wait a few days before realising it until I have to paint. In such moments, I can surpass myself. While imperative for the artist, this kind of approach carries consequences. Art dominates Borremans life. Im like a firefighter always on standby, and when the fire breaks out, I have to be here, in my studio. He says he enjoys travelling because it gives him ideas, but he worries when hes away from home for more than a week. I cant paint when Im lying on a beach.

Almost all the works on view in the Bozar show were created after 2000. I dont see this as a retrospective of my whole career, he explains. Ive tried to make a best of , and Im more enthusiastic about my recent work. Thats normal, no? Laughing, he adds: Can you imagine me saying: I used to make great works, but thats not the case anymore? Becoming serious again, he adds: I think you can already see the essence of my oeuvre in the early works, but, stylistically, theyre more primitive. I think that as a painter I have evolved and keep evolving in an interesting way. Borremans works almost always begin with a photograph. Its an essential tool. I live in this day and age and use the means that are available. Using models, props, decors and costumes, he stages a scene and subsequently takes multiple pictures of it. In my mind, Im already painting at that point. The photos dont look like photos but more like paintings. And Borremans sees art-historical precedent for this. Where painters before used to make sketches as preliminary studies, Im taking photos. When he ultimately begins painting, he looks at his computer screen. Its really positioned where a model would be, a couple metres away from my easel. With a remote control, I can zoom in on details. Borremans worked as a teacher at the Secondary School for the Arts in Ghent for more than a decade before his work began to make waves. Last year, painter Luc Dondeyne, a colleague of his at the school, told Flanders Today: I remember the moment he became a star in the international art world. For him, it was quite a surrealistic experience. He didnt expect it anymore. Thats true, Borremans admits, explaining that as a young student he was very ambitious, to the point of arrogance, and convinced that he had a great career before him. But it didnt happen, and I realised after a while that its not the most significant goal. Being able to create the work you want to is much, much more important. Its only when that knowledge dawned on him that, he says, he started to create good work. First drawings that spread his name in small but important art circles, and later paintings that built his international reputation. Making those drawings gave me great satisfaction, he says. And I was thinking: If I cant share them with the world, it might be the worlds error. I had already accepted my fate when success, unexpectedly, knocked at my door.

His laughter fills the room. Its like with a woman. If you go after her too aggressively, she wont fall for you. *


Questioning the nature of reality with Belgian artist Michal Borremans by LYZ BLY Wednesday, June 02, 2005

Throughout the history of the art of Northern Europe, there has been a tendency toward earthly realism; however, it is frequently realism with a twist. Sixteenth-century Flemish artist Pieter Bruegel painted highly detailed, mundane scenes of peasant life, often depicting debauchery and corporal excess. One of his best-known paintings, The Peasant Wedding (1567), features a humble wedding feast where food and wine are abundant; the guests and the bride and groom are clearly enjoying themselves. However, underlying the joyous scene of fun and revelry is a message about self-control, responsibility and moderation. For while the adults obliviously indulge in food and drink, a child in the foreground sneaks a gulp or two of spirits. In the European North, there is always more to a work of art than meets the eye.

EVOCATIVE IMAGERY A detail from Borremans' The Swimming Pool (2001). Such is the case with Michal Borremans' drawings, currently on view at the Cleveland Museum of Art. Borremans, a prolific 42-year-old artist from Belgium, creates fastidious drawings in subtle tones, using

watercolor, gouache, pen and ink as his media of choice. Like the work of his predecessors, his drawings have layers of personal and cultural meaning and symbolism. And, while the human subjects of his works are reminiscent of Western white men and women from the 1940s and '50s, the subject matter frequently relates to current events. Borremans frequently distorts the sense of scale in his drawings, causing the viewer to question which of the humans is real, and which are contrived elements of architectural models. In The Journey (True Colors), a white male figure is seated before of large-scale model of a simple architectural structure, as miniature human forms pepper the tabletop around the model. The scale of the human figures shifts as the drawing series progresses. In The House of Opportunity (The Chance of a Lifetime), there is a range of human figures of all different sizes, and the architectural model is displayed in a large, nondescript building. The effect created by the sundry-sized people is interestingly disconcerting. Borremans recognizes that as viewers, we are used to identifying with human figures in works of art, and he undermines this by making it unclear to us which of the figures in the drawing are human, and which are models. The artist's droll, ironic wit is ultimately apparent; clearly, all drawings are simply representational, far removed from reality. Borremans also toys with the idea of artistic illusion by truncating highly detailed figures so that they take on the form of portrait busts or legless portrait sculptures. Conman is a drawing of a well-groomed white man straight out of a 1950s magazine advertisement. But his trim, welltailored jacket is rendered in camouflage, and the man peers intently through binoculars. The man's flesh appears lifelike, yet his legs have been cut off at the hip. Beneath the drawing of the camouflaged everyman is the word conman. And below the word, the artist wrote in script, You are one yourself. The ambiguity of the term you makes it unclear whom Borremans is labeling a con man himself? The viewer? Or is he underscoring the treachery of the man in the drawing? The interaction between viewers and Borremans' drawings is never straightforward; this is the brilliance of his work. Borremans' imagery is evocative of contemporary events, which have recently often been tied to the body. The Swimming Pool depicts a young white man's face and naked torso being painted with the statement, People must be punished. Beneath the phrase are four holes in the young man's chest, which appear to be bullet holes, yet no blood seeps

from them. The scene is made even stranger by a swimming pool full of miniature people who stare at the young man as if watching a movie at a drive-in theater. His suffering becomes spectacle; unfortunately, this scenario is all too familiar. Created in 2001, the drawing is eerily prescient in light of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, and the constant flow videotapes of hostages in Iraq begging for their lives at the feet of their captors. Borremans' drawings are not only smart, they are also stunningly beautiful. He is a master of watercolor and ink, as he creates rich scenes with subtle gray-and-black hues, interspersed with the occasional ruddy red or cool blue. At times, the drawings have a photographic quality, as with Friendly Rivalry, which depicts two white men engaged in a sort of game or competition with an unidentified phallic object or weapon. From a distance, the image of the men, who wear starched, formal suits and rapt expressions, appears to be a photo clipped from an old newspaper. While the work is stunning, it is also sobering and at times disturbing; the dimly lit galleries in which the exhibition is mounted exacerbate this effect. The mood evoked by the work is apt, given the contemporary global political milieu. And, like Borremans' drawings, the world we inhabit is multilayered, complex and unfathomable. While it is difficult to examine the things that cause anguish and anxiety, it is also imperative that we do so. Michal Borremans, 10 November 2011

Various ways of avoiding visual contact with the Outside World using yellow isolating tape, 1998, Courtesy Tim Van Laere Gallery, Antwerp

Carnadines (details), 2011, Inv. 2002-5

Four Fairies, 2003, Private collection, Los Angeles

The Present, 2001, Courtesy Zeno X, Antwerp

Drawing, 2002

Kit-The Conversation, 2002 Private collection

Twenty-Thee Metaphors, 2001 Courtesy Hauser und Wirth, St Gallen

Proposal for a wall and ceiling decoration, 1999 Courtesy J.Morrens, Bonheiden, Belgium

In the Louvre The House of Opportunity, 2003 Courtesy The Judith Rothschild Foundation

The House of Opportunity (The Chance of a Lifetime), 2003 Courtesy Zeno X, Antwerp

The Swimming Pool, 2001 Courtesy Zeno X, Antwerp Michal Borremans is a Belgian painter who has always made drawings. In fact, they are a way for Borremans to reflect, to set the imagination in motion, and to elaborate ideas or projects which will probably never be implemented. Like his painting, Borremans drawings introduce the viewer to a sombre universe in which solemn-looking characters, unusual close-ups, and unsettling still lifes cohabit. In addition, time and history themselves also play a crucial part: he often derives inspiration from newspapers, books, magazines and photographic archives from the first half of the twentieth century. Borremans thus very consistently keeps to the very thin line between reality and historical illusions that is so characteristic of his work. *

Enigma Variations
Michal Borremans explores the potent significance of painting and drawing with grim humour and surreal clarity

Michal Borremans, The Pupils (2001), oil on canvas, 70x60cm Like a cryptic murderer with a hearty appetite, the Belgian artist Michal Borremans preoccupations include sausages, decapitation and severed hands; shelves, cheese and modified mouths; hair, torsos and butter; laboratories, skin and milk. He also has a lighter side, one that enjoys a well-shaped bow on a well-cut dress, porcelain figurines and telescopes. The time of year in his paintings and drawings appears to be winter; his fleshy, sunless palette is both lush and weirdly austere, full of oily, shadowed browns and exhausted greys. Blank-faced men and women stilled forever in a state of inscrutable self-absorption inhabit skewed environments where a beautiful lack of logic is rendered with the precision of a bureaucrat with a penchant for poetry and punishment. Nothing is consistent in these meticulous hallucinations: even time is confused, permanently stuck in what could only loosely be described as a futuristic 1930s or 40s. In other words, clarity and simplicity live alongside extreme confusion in Borremans pictures, a place where a dark humour tugs at a melancholy upper register. Which, as descriptions go, isnt so unlike everyday life. For

example: on a recent trip to Basel to see an exhibition of works on paper by the artist I visited the local Kunsthistorisches Museum, where I discovered that in 1955 a reliquary bust of St Ursula (who died in Cologne in the 4th-century, supposedly alongside 11,000 virgins) was returned to the city after a long exile in Russia. To commemorate the occasion the bust was paraded through the streets, followed by 364 local girls called Ursula. This would, perhaps, have seemed more remarkable had I not spent the previous few hours looking at drawings with titles such as 24 Chopped Heads Pronouncing the Word Kaas Simultaneously (1999 2000) or Various Ways of Avoiding Visual Contact with the Outside World Using Yellow Isolating Tape (1998). Walking back to my hotel through the reasonable Swiss lanes, an obvious, if appropriate, thought struck me: that a measured approach to lunacy isnt simply the prerogative of art; art, in fact, can be very good at simply reflecting back what is, in degrees and variations, the resounding lack of reason that daily permeates our seemingly ordered lives. Even so, Borremans take on the absurd is very particular. He was born 18 years after the end of World War II, in Geraardsbergen in Belgium, and now lives in nearby Ghent, a rainy medieval town with a dark past and a difficult present: it was occupied by the Germans, bombed by the Allies and accused of collaboration. Since the war this small kingdom has had to deal with the repercussions of post-colonialism and, more recently, with the growth of right-wing political parties and xenophobia. Although Borremans is reticent about ascribing precise meanings or readings to his work he has said a painting is not just an image: it is an object, with a multi-layered character1 it is difficult not to conclude that the recent history of both Ghent and Belgium has influenced his perception of the human condition as being shaped as much by illusion, illogic and cruelty as by fair-minded reason. However, although many of Borremans images portray chillingly dehumanized scenarios, they can also be gruesomely funny: rendered with the matter-of-fact precision of drawings from a Boys Own adventure magazine from 60 years ago, a woman examines a ceramic salami with forensic care (The Ceramic Salami, 2001); the busts of three orphans are delicately arranged on a shelf (Three Orphans on a Shelf, 1995); young men in neat haircuts and uniform coats examine the faces of a row of decapitated heads (The Pupils, 2001); a sketch for an enormous public monument includes severed penises being sucked by severed heads (Think or Suck, 1999). The tragicomic mood of such odd couplings is both tempered and exacerbated by the sense of indifference that emanates from perpetrators and victims alike which only serves to emphasize the

pictures bewildering atmosphere; after all, what could be more nightmarish than a populace oblivious to either its own pain or the pain it inflicts on others? In Borremans painting The Constell-ation (2000), for example, elegiac washes of brown, pale yellow and creamy white paint depict a sober room of men in suits standing to attention beside a table, on which are arranged the deadpan torsos of other men and a single faint outline of the bust of a schoolgirl reading a book; some of the figures are painted in loose, ghost-like strokes and are less tangible than others. The scene is unfathomable, the period evoked a time in Europe when the most unimaginable of crimes were planned in elegant rooms over tea. The title of the painting points its meaning into a more particular direction: for centuries it was commonly believed that constellations of stars influenced events, yet here the heavenly canopy has been made redundant by the ambiguous, and possibly sinister, intentions of well-dressed men men whose hearts are possibly as dead and as difficult to read as a stars. Similar in mood is the painting Four Fairies (2003), which portrays three women and one young girl, dressed and coiffed in the fashion of the 1940s, contemplating the empty space in front of them. They see something, obviously, that we are not privy to. Their patient faces are painted with near-reverent delicacy; their clothes executed with a concentrated, tactile softness. So far, so real; one thing, however, overwhelms the almost photographic realism of their depiction like Surrealist monuments, the women are oblivious to the fact that they are severed in two and are arranged on a simple dark surface like sick trophies. But of what? Of war? Of our all too human failing to see each other as complete? Or is the painting simply a reiteration of what painting can do raise fictions from oil paint, which in this case have sprung not yet whole from the medium of their own making? The title of the painting again adds another dimension to its reading. Before the 20th-century fairies were variously perceived as the symbolic leftovers of a displaced people, fallen angels, heathen dead or the unconscious made flesh. In the 19th-century photography propelled them from the imagination of folklorists, dramatists and artists into sciences cold laboratory, where their existence was disproved and so infantilized. In Four Fairies Borremans has, in a sense, resurrected a debilitated symbol to serve its original purpose as a hybrid indicator of dispossession or dislocation. Painted in the manner of an exquisite, antiquated Photorealism, these passive, incomplete women/fairies allude not only to the 20th-centurys state-condoned cruelties but also to the unresolved tension that still

exists between photographys will to truth and the potentially mythic and imaginary dimensions that painting might still explore. One of paintings attractions for Borre-mans is that its descriptions are illusory, its relationship to history at best suggestive. He is, however, dismissive of its present state, declaring I dont like most contemporary painting. A large proportion of what is currently being produced is quite bad.2 His influences are obscure church pictures, various artists from the Renaissance to the mid-20th century, and Surrealism (I suspect he admires its followers ability to reflect on reality while remaining clear about their own confused status within it). He is fascinated by the fact that, even when a painting was made a long time ago, it is constantly reinvented in the mind of the viewer, and thus the experience of looking at it is nailed to the present. Which is not to say that the artist rejects photography outright (in fact, Borremans trained as an etcher and photographer). A photograph one he has taken himself or found on the Internet, a magazine or a second-hand shop often prompts the composition of a painting or drawing, which he then manipulates to his own ends. Cinema has also been for Borremans what he describes as a suggestive element3 especially the work of directors who explore the vagaries of expressive potential and human contradiction, such as Luis Buuel, Andrei Tarkovsky and Alfred Hitchcock. The difference between the way he employs his source material and the finished product obviously lies in paintings rejection of narrative. Like stills from a nonexistent film, Borremans images free-float in an endlessly deferred imaginary space in which nothing is resolved, but much especially a horror of didacticism, the manipulations of power and the inviolable enigma of painting is expressed. Not all of Borremans pictures describe cruel scenarios: many combine a benign thoughtfulness with descriptions of bizarre and seemingly meaningless responsibility, a Sisyphean world of endless, apparently futile endeavour in which the enigmatic gesture of, say, a hand might echo the enigmatic nature of painting. Again and again people dressed like lab technicians examine blank surfaces: two women in white coats scrutinize an empty table-top in The Table (2001). In The Saddening (2001) three women, again in white coats, sit writing on what appears to be a large blackboard; the only words visible are the time of . In One at the Time (2003), a particularly impenetrable painting, two men and a woman who, unusually for the characters in Borremans paintings, are black are again dressed in white coats and stare impassively at a cloth-covered table on which seem to be floating three white shelves; the woman holds

a small, flat white shape in her hand. Similarly, in the series of paintings and drawings Trickland (2002) figures kneel in a gloomy model landscape, their gazes focused on their hands, which are busy, once again, with a job we know nothing about. Apparently this series was based on a photograph from an illustrated magazine published by the US military forces after World War II.4 The commingling of ideas of power and perception here (of armies, of artists, of viewers, of history) becomes dizzyingly complex and unstable, the painting itself as much a land of tricks as a military map. Borremans has stated: When I draw, I have no systematic plan; that is different when I paint. I consider drawings mostly as autonomous works of art I cant live without drawing. It is my way of dealing with reality. It is a kind of escape: when I feel uncomfortable in certain situations, I create my own reality.5 The multi-layered character of his images is perhaps even more complex in these ferociously delicate, often tiny images, which, like elaborate doodles, are made with watercolour, gouache, ink, pencil and occasionally coffee stains, on envelopes, old book covers, photographs and pages from notebooks and calendars. They tend to describe proposals for crazy monuments, aspects of modelmaking, journeys, doppelgngers, torture and overwhelmingly the indifference of crowds. Many of them reveal a technical skill accomplished enough to evoke a wrinkled lip or a faint blush in a face smaller than a childs fingernail; their sensitivity and subtlety verge on the beautiful, but its a beauty that appears suspicious of its own good looks. In this sense the artist divulges a great sense of play; in A Mae West Experience (2002), for example, a giant model of Mae West overwhelms a tiny crowd deafened by the loudspeakers embedded in her body; in Conman (2003) a man with binoculars wearing a camouflaged cardigan gazes off into the distance beneath the inscription Conman. You are one yourself; in The Swimming-Pool (2001) people frolic in a swimming-pool oblivious to the giant blank-faced man above them, who is having his chest inscribed with the words people must be punished; in The Present (2001) a woman tenderly dribbles into the open mouth of a severed head in box. However grim or ridiculous the scenario, each of Borremans pictures celebrates the still potent and complicated cultural significance of painting and drawing, which, at its best, resists the platitudes and quick conclusions so familiar to a society spoon-fed on what the artist describes as the deformed picture of reality inflicted on it by the mass media.6 The hushed sepia-saturated universe he so unnervingly describes may be made up of illusions that mirror our own back on ourselves, yet with his

evident horror of authority Borremans offers no concrete alternative save, of course, the implication that alternatives are as much the responsibility of the viewer (of art or of history, or of the scene outside their own window) as they are of the artist. 1 Peter Doroshenko, Interview with Michal Borremans, in Michal Borremans Drawings, Walther Knig, Cologne, 2004, p. 93 2 Ibid. 3 Ibid. 4 Hans Rudolf Reust, Opaque Gestures: Michal Borremans SelfForgotten Painting, in Michal Borremans: The Performance, Hatje Cantz, Ostfildern, 2005, p. 53 5 Doroshenko, p. 93 6 Jeffrey D. Grove, Michal Borremans: People Must Be Punished, in Michal Borremans: The Performance, Hatje Cantz, Ostfildern, 2005, p. 35 Jennifer Higgie, co-editor of frieze.

THE TYMPANON PLAYER (2), 2000, oil on canvas, 14 x 11in

TERROR IDENTIFIED (LOVE UNLIMITED): COLUMBINE, 1998, oil on masonite, 11 3/8 x 11 1/8in

SAD GIRL, 1996, olieverf op hardboard, glas, hout, enamel, stof, 52 x 45,6 x 9 cm


"Terror Watch" (2002), Pencil and watercolor on paper, 23 x 30 cm.

Michal Borremans. Eating The Beard

Introduction From February 20 to May 1, 2011 the Wrttembergischer Kunstverein Stuttgart is presenting a comprehensive solo exhibition with over one hundred works by Belgian artist Michal Borremans. Alongside paintings, drawings, and filmic works from the past ten years, there will be a series of new works that are being exhibited in Germany for the first time. The scenarios composed by Borremans in his pictures, which are frequently small-format and intimate, hark back to positions and genres from art history as well as to the pictorial languages of photography, theater, or cinema. They are teeming with contrary references and allusions that offer the viewer a multitude of possible interpretations while avoiding any manner of consolidation into a coherent whole. Realism and the fantastic the transient and the manifest, irony and disturbance are all closely interwoven within his visual worlds while simultaneously precluding one another. In his works, Borremans traces the contradictions and conflicts of human existence: between self-assertion and dissolution, the individual and the collective, desire and angst, control and loss, the moral and the abysmal. Being shown are illusions of identity, freedom, and the controllability of the world, which the artist presents to us with its wealth of instability. The paradoxical pictorial spaces of his drawings are permeated by contrary perspectives and proportions, by formations and deformations, reality and scenery. They show model worlds which emerge as an image within the image while being observed by giant spectators or depict people who are immersed in the acts modeling and constructing or in peculiar experiments. Museum, theater, or public spaces are negotiated as showplaces in which the positions of the observer and the observed are continually shifting, in which exhibitions, performances, or monuments are much too large to be adequately viewed by the miniscule onlookers. Again and again things end up bypassing each other. Other drawings in turn seem to reflect storyboards for films, drafts of stage design or projects for public space, addressing rather the conceivable than the realizable. In contrast with the frequently busy scenarios found in his drawings,

Borremans paintings all resemble still lifes, though they in fact are showing, in most cases, human figures from varying angles: isolated beings who establish a relationship neither to their pictorial surroundings nor to the viewer; body fragments or their shells; strange hybrids between people and furniture or other objects. The characters appear disengaged from all temporal or spatial contexts. At the same time, they execute gestures or actionsat times banal, meaningful, or absurdthe backgrounds and consequences of which remaining completely ambiguous. Others, in turn, allude to corpses laid out for view, appearing as objects in vitrines, their veiled faces reminiscent of death masks. Repeatedly, Borremans focuses on the body immobilized by the image, thereby referencing the foundation for the Western body image starting in Renaissance times: anatomy. In The Nude (2010), one of his recent large-format paintings, this reference is explicitly clear. Borremans drawings, paintings, and filmic works are strongly interlinked, but without dealing merely with formal translations between the mediums, or with geneses among draft, preliminary study, and finished work. Instead, he probes the margins of the various mediums. In fact, his filmic works also emanate a feel of the still life, in which there seldom seems to be any activity going onat least if we encounter them with the customary expectations of film images and filmic narration. The minimal actions of the protagonists seem to be mechanical, almost as a reference to the filmic apparatus itself, whose illusionary effects are concurrently reversed. The exhibition is to be accompanied by a catalogue published by Hatje Cantz Verlag. Following the presentation at the Wrttembergischer Kunstverein, the it will travel to the Kunsthalle Budapest (Mcsarnok). Got Lost A piece by Helmut Lachenmann With costumes by Michal Borremans Staatsoper Stuttgart (zeitoper spezial) in cooperation with the Wrttembergischer Kunstverein Stuttgart Venue: Wrttembergischer Kunstverein Stuttgart Michal Borremans work is posited between mediums in visual arts and neighboring disciplines. Against this backdrop, his exhibition in Stuttgart has lent an occasion for unique collaboration between Borremans and composer Helmut Lachenmann, having come to fruition thanks to the

initiative of Xavier Zuber, head dramaturge at the Staatsoper Stuttgart. Three evenings will see a special performance of Lachenmanns piece lost.... This event will not only be taking place in the exhibition and in dialogue with works by Borremans; the artist has also designed the costumes for the performance.

"The spirit of modelmaking" (2001), Pencil and watercolor on cardboard, 27,4 x 30,2 cm.

"The Reference" (2007), Pencil and watercolor on paper, 12,5 x 9,0 cm.

"Pony" (2009), Oil on canvas, 50 x 40 cm,

The Shirt, 2002, oil on canvas, 16 1/2 x 19 5/8 in

Whereas in his small-scale drawings, his tekeningen, he often creates larger scenarios, clinical and uncanny situations charged with deformity, unequal power relations and oppression, his paintings and more recent minimalist film works mostly focus on human beings devoid of individuality, free will or clear missions in life. The futile tasks carried out by the generic, universal types he initially found and borrowed from old magazines and other media have by now made way for intricately planned and highly detailed scenarios the trained photographer shoots first with actual models and then translates into the unique figurative language he employs as a painter. Charged with the same surreal, unsettling and almost Lynchian quality (Borremans Trickland is especially reminiscent of Benjamin Hornes futile endeavors), his source materials, whether found or not, are the starting point for an open-ended dialogue with his artistic forbears, a reflection on the various traditions of his media, and an ongoing quest to find new ways to create illusions. Forcing the viewer to deal with philosophical questions about rituals of interpretation and meaning, the more layers and dimensions he adds, the more things become unclear, and painfully so. It is this lack of clarity, this perpetual state of suspense that makes his work endlessly captivating. Self-taught although he calls Baroque portrait master Diego Velzquez his teacher he keeps returning to the human figure and the sometimes unbearable weight attached to human existence: the fears, the flaws, the futility, the terror, the turmoil, and the tragedy. Luckily, all of this weight is ultimately counterbalanced by a heavy, bittersweet chuckle and a thick puff of smoke and when it lifts, this cloud of smoke, Borremans is already gone, off to create the next set of illusions, in his free hand, ideally, a glass of champagne.

Coat, oil on canvas, 19.62 X 15.75 in (49.83 X 40.01 cm)

people must be punished

Borremans Michal, 'The swimming pool' 34,0 x28,2 cm, pencil, watercolour on cardboard, 2001

INNOCENT Our eye is attracted as if by a magnet to that enigmatic brush that seems to be delicately writing letters on the bare skin, though on closer inspection they appear rather to be carved out of marble with a sharp chisel. It is only when we realize that this aggressive act is obscured by the replacement of the chisel with a brush that we are struck by the fact that there are holes in the chest too. They look like bullet holes, but their positions at the corners of a square remind us of the screws with which a marble or copper memorial plaque might be attached. Our attention is diverted from the horrific act that goes with this because we only see the scars, while the perforation of the chest is replaced by the carving into

the flesh, itself now disguised as painting on the skin which the victim can now undergo without complaint. This painting hand in its turn diverts our attention from the painter who, hidden from view outside the picture, chisels onto his victim the verdict that is surely more applicable to the painter himself. The fact that the culprit vanishes outside the frame points out to us that this event is drawn on a screen in a picture, and this by the real artist who looks down on the closed space beneath him from a higher vantage point - note the box he has sketched in the border above the drawing:

In this space, the guilty hand - though life-sized - remains as an image on the rear wall of a swimming pool, while the gaze, now freed from its guilty hand, raises itself with superiority above what is occurring. This whitewash is accomplished in that the gaze that looks down from this heights unexpectedly descends into the body of the spectator on the swimming pool down below, to watch, through the eyes and with inactive arms, the innocent activity of the swimmers.

So the rejection of the guilty hand is accompanied by a telescopic outward surge of the space: the isolated hand remains on a giant screen in the background of a swimming pool down below, on which the gaze, liberated from its guilty act, ultimately looks down from a gigantic body. The sense of this inflation only becomes clear to us when we understand that the transition from doing to looking does not remove the guilt. On the contrary: the piercing and chiselling under the cover of painting

celebrates its triumph in the optical dimension, in the reduction and multiplication of that one victim on the giant screen to wriggling ants in the swimming pool: the deflation of the countless masses - Nietzsche's Vielzuvielen - into insignificant earthworms, the counterpart to the inflation of the artist to the almost cosmic proportions of a supreme observing god. Only then do we realise how unfounded it is to legitimize the act of punishment by the behavior of those being punished - "people must be punished". After all, their misdeed is limited to their sheer existence. So the words chiselled in red letters on the chest verbally belie what is visually presented. Stefan Beyst, September 2013


Girl with Hands 2, 2013, oil on canvas 36.3x30.5cm Michal Borremans takes on an ambitious challenge in the form an exhibition devoted to a singular subject, with 8 paintings of girls attending to their handiwork. Each work is a distillation of the flow of time and light, inducing a sensitive relation between the viewer and the depicted figure. This is also accompanied by a new moving image work upon the same theme.



Art and money have always been inseparable. As Andy Warhol declared almost four decades ago, Business art is the step that comes after Art. During the past several decades, however, this relationship has been transformed by the appearance of a new form of capitalism: finance capitalism. In previous forms of capitalism -- agricultural, industrial and consumer -people made money by buying and selling labor and material goods; in finance capitalism, by contrast, wealth is created by circulating signs backed by nothing other than other signs. When investment becomes more speculative, the rate of circulation accelerates and the floating signifiers, which now constitute wealth, proliferate. The structure and development of financial markets and the art market mirror each other. As art becomes a progressively abstract play of nonreferential signs, so increasingly abstract financial instruments become an autonomous sphere of circulation whose end is nothing other than itself. When the overall economy moves from industrial and consumer

capitalism to finance capitalism, art undergoes parallel changes. There are three stages in this process: the commodification of art, the corporatization of art, and the financialization of art. Virtual Versus Real At the end of these interrelated trajectories, the real seems to have become virtual and the virtual appears to be real. But just when the circuit seems to be complete, the system implodes and the real returns. When Warhol proclaimed art to be business and business to be art, he was acknowledging the overwhelming importance of postwar consumer culture. Not only had the center of the art world shifted from Europe to New York, but the U.S. had become the worlds dominant economic and military power. The work of many of the most influential artists of the era both reflected and promoted American values and power at home and abroad. Warhols artistic appropriation of the images and icons of consumer culture put on display both the machinations of consumer capitalism and commodification of art that was so vigorously promoted by the burgeoning gallery system. With increasing economic prosperity, art, whose collection and exhibition had long been limited to the church and aristocracy, became the social marker for individuals aspiring to rise above the middle class. But even Warhol could not have anticipated the explosion of the art market by the turn of the millennium. According to reliable estimates, by 2006, the private art market had reached $25 billion to $30 billion. Christies International and Sothebys, the two leading auction houses, reported combined sales of $12 billion, and more than two dozen galleries were doing $100 million in sales annually. This phenomenal growth in the art market was not limited to the U.S. Global capitalism created a global art market. From 2002 to 2006, this market more than doubled, from $25.3 billion to $54.9 billion. This astonishing growth was fueled by emerging markets in Russia, China, India and the Middle East. The price of individual works escalated as quickly as the purported value of the financial securities with which they were being purchased. In 2006, Ronald Lauder, honorary chairman of the board of the Museum of Modern Art, purchased Gustav Klimts Portrait of

Adele Bloch-Bauer I for $135 million, which at the time was the highest price ever paid for a single painting. One year later, Jeff Koonss Hanging Heart sold at auction for $23.6 million, which was the highest price ever paid for a work by a living artist. Flower Puppies Koons is the poster boy for this frenzied commodification of art. What began in Warhols Factory in the 1960s ends in Koonss factory, where his cast of assistants fabricates whatever he imagines. Whether pornographic figurines or cute flower puppies, remarkable craftsmanship characterizes Koonss art. Just as Warhol, reacting to abstract expressionists, removed hand from work, so Koons further mechanizes the means of production. There is, however, a critical difference between Warhol and Koons. Neither Koons nor his art gives any hint of the irony and parody that lend Warhols art its edge. While Warhols work unsettles, Koonss art is crafted to reassure. Unapologetically embracing banality and freely admitting his ignorance of art history, Koons sounds more like Joel Osteen than Marcel Duchamp: I realized you dont have to know anything and I think my work always lets the viewer know that, he once told a reporter. I just try to do work that makes people feel good about themselves, their history, and their potential. What is surprising is how many seemingly intelligent and sophisticated people have been taken in by this erstwhile stockbroker. Having learned his trade on the floor of commodity exchanges, Koons does not move beyond the commodification of art. His exquisitely crafted works have become precious objects whose worth is measured by their rapidly rising exchange value. The next stage in the development of the art market -- the corporatization of art -- can be understood in two ways. First, in the past two decades, many major corporations have appropriated the age-old practice of attempting to increase their prestige by purchasing and displaying art. In many cases, companies hire full- or part-time advisers and consultants to develop their collections. Second, and more interesting, a few enterprising artists have transformed the corporation itself into a work of art. High and Low

The most interesting example of the corporatization of art is the work of the Japanese artist Takashi Murakami. Like Warhol and Koons, Murakami collapses high and low by appropriating images from popular culture to create oversized sculptures and his signature Superflat paintings. But he has also expanded his artistic practice to create a commercial conglomerate that is functionally indistinguishable from many of todays media companies, advertising agencies and leading corporations. In 2001, he created Kaikai Kiki Co., which currently employs some 70 people. According to the company website, the goals of this enterprise include the production and promotion of artwork, the management and support of select young artists, general management of events and projects, and the production and promotion of merchandise. The products marketed range from more-or-less traditional paintings, sculptures and videos to T-shirts, key chains, mouse pads, cell-phone holders and even $5,000 limitededition Louis Vuitton handbags. His 2007-2008 exhibition, Murakami, at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art included a fully operational Louis Vuitton boutique. Having formed a hybrid of a media corporation, advertising company and a talent agency, Murakami dubbed his for-profit corporation a work of art. One of the primary functions of this novel entity is the organization of a biannual art fair in Tokyo, GEISAI, which allows clients (young artists) to exhibit their work for a fee. As the artist and photographer Walead Beshty has observed, the delirious intricacy of Murakamis unrepentant entrepreneurialism is hard not to appreciate. Kaikai Kikis tentacles extend into a network of alliances spanning the entertainment industry, corporate image consultation, toy manufacturing and high fashion -- this aside from the production of art objects. His ability to mold productions (and services) to varying scale into an ornate constellation is as mesmerizing as his willingness to almost selflessly dissolve his own business complex. Yet Murakamis corporatization of art does not express the fundamental economic transformation that has taken place since the late 1960s. As financial capitalism expands, the production of tangible goods is increasingly displaced by the invention of intangible products. This is as true in the art market as it is in the stock market. In ways that are not immediately obvious, todays overheated art market can help us understand the recent collapse of the overleveraged global

economy. Though few have made the connection, developments in the art market have been following the changing investment strategies in financial markets. The global growth in the art market parallels the worldwide spread of finance capitalism. In recent years, the value of art assets has often risen faster than the value of real estate or financial assets. This growth has, of course, been driven by the exponential increase in wealth among those who benefit most from the new financial system. Each week brings another account of a newly rich hedge-fund manager buying art at a ridiculously inflated price. This preoccupation with celebrity collectors, however, obscures a more interesting and important development: The titans of finance capitalism are also transforming the art market through the financialization of art. They manage their art collections in much the same way they manage their portfolios. Speculative History Speculating in art is not, of course, new. In one of the most intriguing investment schemes in recent history, Japanese industrialist Ryoei Saito purchased van Goghs Portrait of Dr. Gachet in 1990 for the then-record price of $82.5 million. Immediately after taking possession of the painting, he secured it in a climate-controlled vault where it remained for seven years. By 1993, Saitos financial empire had fallen apart. Since his death in 1996, the location and ownership of the painting have remained a mystery. This investment strategy treats art like any other commodity purchased for speculative purposes. The investment game changes significantly when art is regarded as a financial asset, rather than as a consumer good. Speculators in the art market have recently established hedge funds and private equity funds for the purchase and sale of art. These funds extend the principles of finance capitalism to art. Take the example of mortgages. As we have seen, since the early 1980s, mortgages have been securitized as collateralized mortgage obligations (CMOs) so that they could be bought and resold in secondary and tertiary markets. While the value of these derivatives is supposed to be determined by the value of the underlying asset (the price of the real estate), in a rising market the value of the derivative increases relative to the collateral on which it is based.

With the growing volatility of financial markets, investors attempt to hedge their bets by trading derivatives using different variations of portfolio theory. When mortgages are bundled and tranched, the evaluation of risk has nothing to do with the value of a particular asset but is calculated using mathematical formulae to determine the statistical probability of defaults of the underlying mortgages. With this practice, the derivative drifts farther and farther from its underlying asset until the virtual and the real seem to be completely decoupled. Some enterprising investors are applying this model to the art market. London financier Philip Hoffman, for example, has established Fine Art Management Services Ltd., which speculates in art rather than stocks. Bloombergs Deepak Gopinath explains Hoffmans strategy: Melding art and finance, art funds aim to trade Picassos and Rembrandts the way hedge funds trade U.S. Treasuries or gold -- and collect hedge-fund-like fees in the process. Hoffmans Fine Art Fund, for example, charges an annual management fee equal to 2 percent of its assets and takes a 20 percent cut of profits once the fund clears a minimum hurdle. Bundling Artworks This strategy securitizes works of art in the same way that CMOs securitize mortgages. Just as mortgages are bundled and sold as bonds, so works of art are bundled and sold as shares of a hedge fund. In other words, rather than owning an individual work of art, or several works of art, an investor owns an undivided interest in a group of art works. In these schemes, what is important is not the real value of the company, commodity or artwork; what matters is the statistical probability of its price performance within a specified time frame relative to other portfolio holdings. Furthermore, insofar as investors hedge bets by using portfolio theory, the value of any particular work of art is determined by its risk quotient relative to other works of art held by the fund. Like investors in CMOs, who know nothing about the actual real-estate holdings whose mortgages they own, investors in art hedge and privateequity funds know nothing about the actual artworks in which they are investing. Investors in art funds could conceivably sell their shares, thereby creating secondary and tertiary markets. As trading accelerates, derivatives (fund shares) and underlying assets (works of art) are once again decoupled, creating a quasi-autonomous sphere of circulating signs in which value constantly fluctuates.

This financialization of art is a genuinely new phenomenon that even Andy Warhol could not have predicted. The most prominent representative of the financialization of art is Damien Hirst, who is notable for his creation of works of art specifically designed for new financial markets. A newspaper editorial in 2007 observed that Hirst has gone from being an artist to being what you might call the manager of the hedge fund of Damien Hirsts art. The most ostentatious example of his strategy was the production and marketing of his $100 million diamond-studded skull ironically titled For the Love of God. The financial machinations surrounding the sale of this work were as complex and mysterious as a high-stakes private- equity deal. One year later, Hirst mounted his own sale at Sothebys in London at the precise moment that global financial markets were collapsing. Though the sale was an enormous financial success, it is clear that this unlikely event marked the end of a trajectory that had been unfolding since the end of World War II. Critical Edge There are, predictably, some critics who argue that Hirst, like Jeff Koons, is, in fact, satirizing or criticizing the market from which he nonetheless profits so handsomely. While this argument is plausible in the case of Warhol, the art of Koons and Hirst, like the critics who promote it, has lost its critical edge. If each era gets the art it deserves, then the age of finance capitalism deserves the carcass of a rotting shark that no amount of formaldehyde can preserve. The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living harbors a lesson worth noting: Reality might not be completely virtual after all, and far from impossible, death is unavoidable. The commodification, corporatization and financialization of art represent the betrayal of principles and values that have guided artists for more than two centuries. The notion of modern art and related ideas of the avant-garde emerged in Germany during the last decade of the 18th century. In the wake of the failure of the French Revolution, idealistic philosophers and romantic poets were forced to reconsider the interrelation of religion, art and politics. When religion and politics failed to realize what many imagined as the kingdom of God on Earth, artists

and philosophers fashioned new strategies, which more than two centuries later continue to shape our world. The commodification, corporatization and financialization of art subvert the artistic mission that the 18th-century German critic Friedrich Schiller memorably described as the desire to transform the world into a work of art. When the artist becomes a commodities trader, corporate executive or hedge-fund manager, criticism gives way to complicity in an economy that absorbs everything designed to resist it. With asset values rising at an unprecedented rate, the market seems to be omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent. But just at this moment of apparent triumph, the bubble bursts and everything must be re-evaluated. Though profoundly unsettling, the collapse of finance capitalism creates the opportunity for a reassessment of values that extend far beyond money and art. The crisis of confidence plaguing individuals and institutions is a crisis of faith. We no longer know what to believe or whom to trust. At such a moment, art might seem an unlikely resource to guide reflection and shape action. If, however, God and the imagination are -- as Wallace Stevens insisted -- one, then perhaps art can create an opening that is the space of hope. Perhaps, by refiguring the spiritual, art can redeem the world. (Mark C. Taylor is the chair of the Department of Religion at Columbia University. This is the second of two excerpts from his new book Refiguring the Spiritual: Beuys, Barney, Turrell, Goldsworthy, to be published March 20 by Columbia University Press. The opinions expressed are his own.) Originally published by Bloomberg Media *


by David Coggins In his current exhibition at David Zwirner gallery in New York, the Belgian artist Michal Borremans is showing films that unfold at a radically slow pace. Their tableau-vivant images could be mistaken for stills but for a flickering light or a figures discreet breathing. Borremans, born in 1963, is best known for paintings that engage past masters like Manet and Goyabut the haunted characters who inhabit them display a distinctly

contemporary unease, as if they were prey to an uncertain fate. That an artist lauded for his skill in painting and drawing should turn to the more impersonal surface of the cinematic image is a noteworthy shiftone that we addressed during my visit to his expansive studio in Ghent in January 2009, as he was preparing for the Zwirner show, his first there since 2006. David Coggins Your new exhibition features a number of recent films. What can people who only know your paintings expect to see? Michal Borremans Im showing a couple of older films. Add and Remove [2002] is based on a painting from my first show at Davids gallery. What I try to do with films comes out of the paintings. While painting, I had the feeling that I needed a different element of light or movement. My interest in film has always been there since I was young, so I started experimenting. The Storm [2006] is a 35mm projection of a live image. But the work is still more painting than filmthe medium is film, but the way I approach it is like painting. Thats why the films are so unusual. When people ask me if they can screen the films publicly, I cant agree to it because theyre really not meant for that. DC Because the films are very slow. Mb Yes. The rhythm is very importantthey have to be as slow as breathing. Im experimenting in the way I show themmostly on an LCD flat screen which is framed, and this frame is wooden, so the film is like a framed work. DC Your paintings have such a physical quality. Was it hard to give up that painterly surface? MB Not really. A filmed image has another qualityyou use lenses, you use lights. I use actual film [not video], so the images are grainy. You can get some painterly qualities even though its another language; it has its own poetry. Im interested in cinematic esthetics, like going in and out of focus. DC So you can manipulate the cinematic qualities the same way you can manipulate the surface of a canvas or of paper? MB Yes. DC In your paintings, you make references to the history of the mediumto Manet and Goya, for example. Do your films likewise refer to a cinematic history with its own traditions and allusions? MB I dont refer to these things intentionallythe references are there in all my work. There are references to the history of art that are not specific. They appeal to your consciousness in a very open way. Its something I think about. All the imagery of the 20th century and earlier is baggage we have to deal with. My work is an answer to that, a dialogue with that.

DC With anyone in particular? MB Not really. But of course there are figures you pick out, like Manet, who youre so conscious about. My last show at David Zwirner [Horse Hunting, 2006] was really an intentional dialogue with Manet paintings like The Dead Toreador and The Execution of Maximilian. DC And he appeals to you as the beginning of modernist painting? MB Hes an interesting figure because hes seen that way. But at the same time hes also the last classic painter, and that aspect is just as important. DC Can you discuss the difference between narrative in painting and in film? In film we generally expect something to happen, but you seem to resist that expectation. MB You can look at the films for two seconds or watch them straight through; theyre like a presence. With the paintings, at first you expect a narrative, because the figures are familiar. But then you see that some parts of the paintings dont match, or dont make sense. The works dont come to a conclusion in the way we expect them to. The images are unfinished: they remain open. That makes them durable. DC Theres a mystery in your paintings that a viewer wants to solve, but it cant be solved. You invite people in but make an image thats ultimately unreadable. Is there a tension that youre looking for? MB Theres a dichotomythere are two poles and youre in between them. There is a tension, but its not a gameits like research. ADVERTISEMENT DC Your drawings deal with figures that are extremely small, your paintings can be very large and your films are often projected life-size. Could you address scale, and shifts in scale, in your work? MB Scale is for reference, for recognition. By playing with that and making it unclear, you provoke a kind of anarchy in the image. In the drawings I use that a lot and make references to models. In our society we use models to try things, to test things; scientists use models. The model as a metaphor for our actions is very appealing to me. Thats why you have these tiny figures. DC Like an architectural model where a figure shows the scale? MB Yes, like in architecture, but also in warfare. DC You often portray people carrying out activities that are fruitless. People have compared your work to Becketts. Do you think that your work deals with the absurd so overtly? MB The actions are often senseless. But the work switches between an aspect of the absurd and a romantic connotation, like a vanitas. That the

human being is a victim of his situation and is not free is a conviction of mine. DC Theres a feeling in your work of invisible power, of things the figures are waiting for and cant see, or something thats beyond their control. MB Thats truebut I dont do that intentionally. Its just there. InThe Storm its just three people waiting. The light is flickering. Its a completely still image of people sitting on chairs in costumes of shiny white that looks like the satin fabric in 17th-century paintings. Theyre just sitting there breathing. DC You have a very restrained palette in your films and your paintings like Dutch still-life paintings. Is that another thing that just happened, or did you set out to achieve it? MB Part of it is intentional. In an image you want to provokebut I try to balance the painting. Overpowering colors create a language thats not useful to me. Thats why I choose very unsaturated colors. I never use black. Everything is mixed out of color but the colors dont play a starring role; they serve the painting. DC You sometimes include people in costumes that refer to World War II. Elsewhere theyre in modern dress. But you still cant quite place them in a certain era. MB I try to show figuresI dont want to use the word individuals; theyre not individuals. I try to place them in a space that is familiar yet undefined. Its very strange. I used to make images that were based on photographs from the 1930s or 40s, but that was too recognizable. I heard that the work was nostalgic, and that was absolutely not the idea. So I try to avoid that, and now I usually work with models who pose for me. I have a room in my studio where I photograph them. Its a room thats anonymous, with a certain lightI call it my Earth Light Room, like in the spaceship in 2001: A Space Odyssey, where they have an Earth Light Room, whatever that might be. So its an artificial environment. I made my latest film Taking Turns [2009] there as well. DC You said that your figures are not individuals. Do you try to make them seem universal? MB Yes. Its also why I sometimes paint porcelain figures, like those based on the commedia dellarte. Theyre archetypes. I like portraying mankind that way. Now Im also having costumes made for my models so that they look more universal and more indefinable. I find them in paintingsI have a great interest in 17th-century portraitsbut I dont want to refer to a specific artist or era. They have different elements from art history. I try to enrich them by being non-specific. DC Do you think its possible today to make paintings that are not about

painting? MB Thats very hard. I make paintings because my subject matter, to a large extent, is painting. The medium is not free from thatits very loaded. DC Is it surprising that youre making films? MB To me, there are more similarities between painting and film than between painting and photography. Before film, painting was about storytelling. Now film is about storytelling, though it wasnt like that when it was invented. Today film is more like painting than ever before. Film itself is more and more rarely used for documentary purposes everything is electronic or digital. But film has a language of beauty, like painting. Its very appealing. Thats why they use it for commercials. I can use it for my own purposes. It has become a medium that is not transparentlike painting. You know youre dealing with film. You know youre dealing with an artifact, with an artificial image. With a photograph you look at the image without seeing the medium. DC So will you be making more films? MB Yes, but its a terrible process. You need to be organized, you need a crew and so many things can go wrong. Taking Turns went very smoothly, so I dont trust it [laughs]. I hate to do it, but I have to do it. DC Youre going to be working on drawings in Rome this spring. Is it difficult to shift back to making something by hand? MB I try to draw from time to time. But somehow Im losing interest in it. My sight is getting worse. I never buy paper; I work on found paper that doesnt look too artistic. I like to work on a piece of paper that has a history that I dont know. DC Youve made diptychs that at first appear to be two paintings of the same thing, like Pink Shoes (2005). Is that a form of questioning truth or how well we know what were looking at? MB Those paintings are very different. Thats why I show them together. When I have a subject I want to paint I dont succeed in painting it well enough all the time or the way I want it. So sometimes I paint the same thing two, three, four times before Im happy with the result. But I can then have two results that Im happy with. The work you refer to with the shoesthere I intentionally made the work in opposite order, like a technical experiment. In one painting I did the background first and then the trousers and then the feet, in the other I did the reverse. So one is translucentthough you really have to look carefully. The other is more opaque. DC Your show in London at Parasol [The Performance, Parasol Unit

Foundation for Contemporary Art, 2005] was hung in a very personal waydifferent things at different heights, sometimes in unexpected places. MB Its very difficult to install my paintings. Its fine to install one or two pieces or a small show. But Im putting together a book on all the paintings, and its very hard; its like an overload of sugar. Its the same when you install a big show. I always prefer to show less work than more, though even small work can dominate a wall. If I show too much, everything collapsesone work kills another. Its easier with the films. The combination of paintings and film gives you an opportunity to play, to make something more interesting. DC It was surprising to go from the show at Parasol, where the work was fairly small, to your last show at Zwirner, in 2006, which included a painting that was 20 feet tall. MB Painting is like a stage. Drawing is very differentit doesnt have the weight of painting. In drawing, you can formulate all kinds of ideas, but in painting theres a statement. Its taken more seriously and in a different way. I really wanted to use painting like a stage, like Manet did. I like to refer to popular culture. One painting [The Appearance, 2005] looks a little bit like a pop music group. So there are a multitude of references. DC The Bodies 3 [2005] is a painting of two people in bed sleeping. But it doesnt seem very restful. MB Thats a strange painting. I wanted to refer to death and playing dead. Its kind of sinister. All the actors in the paintings [in the 2006 Zwirner show] are masculine. In the history of painting, its the men who go to war, who are fighters. Women are softer. Psychologically, the whole show dealt with that. The men in the bed have pillows behind them. This creates a strange interference in the psychology of male figures. Because theyre soft again. DC What about living painters, like your compatriot Luc Tuymans? MB Im a big fan of his. Of course what we do is quite different. Hes an important painter and a very good one. His latest work got criticized, but I dont understand whyits really impressive. Hes so confident when he paints. You notice his marks. He doesnt think about ithe just paints. DC You and Gerhard Richter are both painters who deal with photography. MB One thing thats clear with Richter is that hes gotten better and better. Now his work is really sublime. His simple, intimate works, his portraits of his family, are astonishing. They give you the shivers. DC And when you think of filmmakers that you admireyou mentioned Kubrick beforedo you look at anybody in particular?

MB I look at David Lynch. We have some similaritieslike the way he tries to show something we cannot solve because its against our nature. Also, as a filmmaker hes a great painter. His latest one is great [Inland Empire,2007]. Its so raw, shot on video, and the film really needed that. His intuition is perfect. Michal Borremanss exhibition Taking Turns is on view at David Zwirner, New York [Feb. 24-Mar. 25].

Legs and hands:

The Bodies (I), 2005, 60 x 80 cm, Oil on canvas For the current show at David Zwirner, Borremans has created five new paintings and is presenting three films: The Feeding, The Storm, and Taking Turns. For this exhibition, the gallery (519 West 19th Street) has been divided into two relatively equal spaces. Upon entering the first space, a 35mm film projector shows a loop of The Storm as a large-scale projection, reaching close to 15 feet in height and 23 feet in width on the gallery wall. In the film, three black men, wearing identical cream-colored uniforms (a mix of work clothes and stage costumes), are sitting slumped in chairs in the corner of a white, empty room. The harsh light of a naked bulb alters the shot by modifying the intensity of the shadows moving imperceptibly on the surface of the wall. The second gallery space introduces an intimate presentation of two other 35mm films, The Feeding and Taking Turns, both which have been transferred to DVDs and viewed within wall-mounted wooden frames. The films are shown alongside the exhibitions five oil on canvas paintings: The Apron, Earthlight Room, The Load, The Load (II), The Load (III). In The Feeding, the three figures from The Storm reappear, standing around enormous reams of white cardboard that give the impression of levitating above a table covered with a spotless cloth in the middle of a room. In Taking Turns, a woman holds the torso of a life-sized

mannequin, and slowly moves and spins the torso on top of a horizontal surface. There is an ambiguity between what is real and what is artificial, as their two faces and figures overlap and rotate in the films frames. Once again, the theme of the double, or the doppelganger, is a device encountered throughout Borremans oeuvre. Formally and thematically, Borremans films are closely related to his twodimensional work. They are shifting tableaux vivants with poetic titles, in which the artist very gradually, with subtle camera work, creates an oppressive atmosphere. He uses a fixed camera position or deliberately zooms in on certain details of the scenery, body parts, faces, or clothing. With slight light-dark fluctuations, flowing edited shots or the repetition of certain actions, Borremans builds up a gripping but subdued suspense.

Michael Borremans: drawings

This exhibition combines two travelling shows by the Belgian artist Michael Borremans (b. 1963), one of drawings, the other of paintings. Michael Borremans (b. 1963, Geraardsbergen) is meticulous and guarded when it comes to his drawing. He meticulously creates insinuating drawings, and guardedly sees to it that no one is able to read any allembracing intention into these drawings. He has the same distaste for the

story behind the illustration as for the distortion of reality with which the mass media bombard us every day.

In his drawings, Michael Borremans regularly reflects on contemporary mass culture. In his small drawings he brings the viewer face-to-face with the historical illusions that underlie present-day society, and shows us the deceit and indifference of the world around us. His work is concerned with the illusions he perceives around him, illusions about political choices, personal freedom and the individuals ability to act in this complex world. In order to communicate the illusions to the viewer as clearly as possible, he lards his drawings with a beguiling aesthetic and a degree of provocation. Explicit references to art history and cultural tradition play a very important part in this. His drawings include a variety of genres such as the portrait, the bust, the death mask, the monument and the memorial. In addition to this he also refers to those places where works of art are

usually shown, such as the studio, the museum or public space. Lastly, he also reflects on the different ways of staging art that were developed in the course of recent art history: the diorama in the 19th century, photography before the digital era, and the large video projections that one encounters at the present time. In addition, the question of reality and illusion runs like a thread through these drawings. Borremans again and again concerns himself with the distance between what we call reality and artistic fantasy or imagination. This is clearly to be seen from the fact that in his drawings he regularly portrays the viewers themselves as small figures on pedestals, almost artificial representatives of the works real viewers.

This contrast between reality and fantasy is also expressed in Borremans own perception of his drawing. He sees them as a sort of proposal for interventions or installations in public space. The execution of these drawn preliminary studies will however never reach the stage of actual reality. Since he invariably classes public interventions as acts of aggression, he prefers to limit its execution to a model. By playing with this idea as such, Borremans thus very consistently keeps to the very thin line between reality and fantasy that is so characteristic of his work. In addition to these aspects of Borremans drawing, time and history themselves also play a crucial part. He makes regular use of early sources of images on which to base his drawings. In most cases they are 19thcentury photographs, and magazines and picture books from the thirties to the fifties, which he finds either in their original form or on the Internet. He may for example show the clothing and hairdressing fashions of the time, which makes the work seem in a way sincerely retrospective. At the same time the age and aesthetics of these sources of images seems to be transferred to his drawings by means of the colours too. Borremans uses images that are available in massive numbers, seeking

out his own pictures and thereby succeeding in bridging the gap between the awareness of an historical past, a cultural tradition, and the problems of the present day. In terms of form and style, Borremans drawings display quite explicitly the influence of his former studies in printmaking and photography: they evolve very slowly. Each drawing is meticulously composed, and the artist repeatedly allows his drawing hand to return to the surface itself, in order to continue correcting and deepening it layer by layer. Working cautiously like this, Borremans reveals his affinity for the Northern tradition of miniature painting and the drawings of the old masters. The content underlying these formal choices also demonstrates very clearly Borremans roots in the Belgian painting tradition. Like the work of his compatriots James Ensor, Flicien Rops, Ren Magritte and Thierry De Cordier, Borremans hand reveals the surrealistic tendency to avoid logical associations. In terms of material and appearance his drawings are highly suggestive and intuitive. He uses almost any sort of material as a possible support for his work. He draws on torn-open envelopes (with postage stamps still attached), covers torn off books, the backs of old photos, pages from calendars, the remains of picture mounts, and so on. In this way he is also emphasising his affinity with history. Each support has its own history and displays the pronounced external marks of it, which the artist incorporates into the drawing. The choice of this sort of material emphasises the fact that the works have not grown out of nothing, and that they can never be fully understood simply on the basis of the present context of drawing. With the exception of gouache and oil paint (to which he invariably adds a patina), Borremans usually draws with pencil, watercolour and white ink. Only a very small number of drawings are done only in pencil. His typical shades of brown and grey tints are suited to the old patina that is always inherent in the material used for the support. This sense of something past is accentuated even more by the way Borremans chooses to show his works: in modest wooden frames, sometimes set off with white mounts with a perfect diagonal cut. The initiative for this exhibition of Michael Borremans drawings came from the Kupferstichkabinett Basel, and it has already been shown at the Kunstmuseum Basel, Museum fr Gegenwartskunst. Here at the SMAK, the exhibition has been supplemented by a selection of Borremans

paintings, which are displayed on the ground floor. In autumn 2005 the exhibition of drawings will move on to the Cleveland Museum of Art in Cleveland, Ohio (USA). A catalogue will be published to accompany this exhibition, with articles by Anita Haldeman, Peter Doroshenko and Jeffrey D. Grove. The book and the exhibition are coproduced by the Kunstmuseum Basel, Museum fr Gegenwartskunst, the Cleveland Museum of Art in Cleveland, Ohio (USA) and the SMAK in Ghent, Belgium.

Michal Borremans: drawings At first sight the small paintings by Michael Borremans (b. 1963, Geraardsbergen) appear straightforward and convincingly realistic. Nothing could be less true, however. Beneath this seemingly clear imagery and unambiguous content lies an impressive, confusing and odd world which shows itself to be increasingly mixed up the longer one looks at the paintings. On a slightly closer examination of the paintings one realises that the brushstrokes, applied with great talent, not only please the eye but are also intended to provoke the viewer. What one observes here is not a purely narrative scene, but a sort of internal world in which several strange elements complement and/or contradict one another. This internal complexity is already expressed in the choice of the seemingly simple titles that Borremans gives his paintings. Such words as The Pupils, The Barn, The Performance and The Preservation seem simple, but when combined with the image they accompany, give rise to a sort of double deception, which on the one hand can work as a guide and lead to a deeper insight into the painting but on the other can actually encourage the sense of wonder. In order to understand Michael Borremans paintings better, they have to be seen in the context of the humanist tradition of painting. One of its most representative artists is Francisco de Goya (1746-1828), who tried to capture the purest state of human existence in disturbing images of the society of the time. Borremans handling of this theme is however on a more philosophical and abstract level, where he greatly accentuates the absurdity of human existence. His paintings are frequently populated by almost dehumanised figures who perform absurd minor actions in an

entirely imaginary world. This painted environment in which the characters move remains almost completely anonymous and is rarely elaborated in any detail. The only real activity in the painting is the cool grey-white light that focuses on the figures and makes them stand out more. This light, which is created by Borremans subtle and almost sensual brush strokes, is halfway between the coolly analytical and the sensitively poetic. He rarely uses white to achieve this, but more often colours ranging from cream to grey. As a result these pictures radiate a warmth that is often to be found in old paintings, but at the same time they suggest a sort of still detachment. The sober and highly distilled composition of the picture area makes it seem that the figures and objects live in a still-life world, which summons up feelings of melancholy and nostalgia, to some extent similar to the spirit of 19th-century Romantic painting. In contrast to that particular artistic tendency, which pictured the insignificant and doubting human in overwhelming landscapes, Michael Borremans focuses entirely on the human figure and human existence itself. He manipulates his characters in an artificial world which nevertheless appears realistic, thereby actually reducing them to pawns of some sort, who seem to have lost all freedom of choice. By emphasising this artificiality, Borremans also raises questions regarding the medium of painting itself. Although he paints only figuratively, he nevertheless considers painting as a purely artificial art form, in which it is impossible to get close to actual reality. Borremans takes this contrast between reality and fiction to extremes by introducing alien elements, which makes it more difficult for the viewer to project realistic or narrative associations into the works. This means that although they are in themselves aesthetic, figurative and thus accessible, as far as their themes are concerned the paintings are actually abstract. Borremans draws inspiration for his work from both older media such as dated photos from the Thirties and Forties, and more recent sources such as films, soaps and television series. Another fertile source is his fascination for kitsch, typified by the porcelain figures that adorn the windowsills of many Flemish houses. By choosing these media, combined with his extremely sensual, skilful and figurative painting style, Borremans deliberately tries to give his paintings a sort of sexy allure, which greatly increases their attraction for the viewer. The intention is to capture the viewers gaze for as long as possible, so that he will automatically start looking for the deeper abstract thematic content of the painting. The choice of subjects rarely has any specific intention but is

usually determined by chance. This exhibition of paintings by Michael Borremans runs parallel to the exhibition of his drawings on the first floor. In the course of 2005 the exhibition will move on to the Parasol Unit Foundation for Contemporary Art in London and to the Royal Hibernian Academy in Dublin. This exhibition of drawings was compiled on the initiative of the Kupferstichkabinett Basel, and has already been shown at the Kunstmuseum Basel, Museum fr Gegenwartskunst. In autumn 2005 it will also be shown at the Cleveland Museum of Art in Cleveland, Ohio (USA). The SMAK is therefore the only place where the two exhibitions can be seen at the same time.

The ConciliationII, 2002, Oil on canvas, 25 9/16 x 19 11/16 inches.