Michaël Borremans: A Knife in the Eye [english subs]

Uploaded by chromogenic on 04.04.2011

Look! The castle of King Stephan!
And there in the highest tower,
dreaming of her true love, Princess Aurora.
It happens that I make a work and I make it and it is good,
and that is very surprising, since often since often it isn't so.
Mostly I make a painting, and I make another painting, and it stands there,
and I simply see a painting and nothing more.
but that is the addiction, I wait for it to happen, you know.
At a certain moment you create something and it surprises me,
and then I think what happened? It happened.
I then don't have the feeling I've done it, I made it, it happened...
And is that exceptional? Is it mostly a niggling and a hassle?
Actually yes, mostly it's slogging, search, research, trying out things.
Sometimes you work very concentrated for the whole day and you make a horrible thing
and then at the end of the day you need to stay calm and not get inflamed.
When are you satisfied with your work?
It must move me, cut me at a certain point, 'a knife in the eye'.
According to Michaël Borremans, the spirit of Geraardsbergen,
where he was born in 1963, blows through him . blows through him .
That spirit is as indefinable as his work, or as the soul of the 'mattetaart'.
He makes painfully beautiful images, technically masterful,
and always pregnant with the absurdness of this existence.
Beauty with the charm of a razor.
Borremans plays the guitar for his own pleasure,
he studied graphics and photography and taught himself how to paint,
a late bloomer but with the career like a rocket, from Tokyo to New York,
from Ghent to Geraardsbergen.
Do you have salami?
Yes, but salami is not so good. I'll make just one with salami, okay?
They're all going to change shape a little, they'll look a bit funny.
... and your bread box
I have been told you like to wear a suit.
Yes, when I wear a suit I feel on my Sunday's best.
Every day Sunday?
Hum yes, I'll sooner not wear a suit on Sunday then, of course.
Yes, I like to wear a suit.
Earlier, when I painted, I didn't wear a suit, long ago, because I could have stained it.
But one day I was walking around in a suit in my studio and I started to paint,
unconsciously, and I felt I concentrated in a whole different way
because I couldn't get any stains on me and It felt right
and since then I always do this.
Look, I always lock myself up when i want to make a work,
it has something ritualistic.
The studio as well, everything is in the sign of concentration,
the focus of that moment.
Those are important moments, yes...
I can imagine that you paint more carefully, conscious that you are wearing a suit?
Careful is not the right word, I think, you are more focused,
but you can't be too concentrated or careful, because then you make constipated work.
You need to find a bizarre sort of equilibrium.
One way, you need to be very concentrated, on the other hand very loose...
Not restrained.
You notice when you're working, you are completely into the painting,
you're not aware of anything else.
That is also interesting, in connection with making music.
When you improvise
you can get totally captured by it.
It is actually pleasing, it is beautifully painted,
it is carefully painted,
it is painted academically.
All is perfect, it all looks perfect
and on the other hand it is defiant, also a little morbid,
a little sour,
so it is the contradiction, a conflict almost
For example, when he draws, he makes a personal world
and you can almost compare that world with the place we are standing in now,
the mismatch between... the scale ratio in the measure between man and
and the gigantic thing here.
It is almost a Borremans' work where we're standing in now.
Here you see twice the same painting, the same composition.
It happens frequently that I re-use the same theme.
I paint something and then I think, maybe it should be smaller or larger,
or it should be more so or so.
The bigger piece is stricter, harder, and more psychological,
it almost hurts.
The other is more emotional and comes forward more as such
So something can be said about both.
Is this one of those works that was made in one go?
Yes, this happened quite quickly. Nowadays I work often with models
and I had worked with a model, I think
it must have been about a year ago that I made the basic photo material for these works.
But I made the painting only two months ago.
Sometimes I need to manipulate the material for some time
before I have an idea what to do with it.
Sometimes it needs to ripen...
Time is a very important factor in the making of my works, same with my drawings.
I have never made a drawing in one session, it can take months. It is a dialogue,
you add something to the paper in the composition and then it lies there
and then you have to... it's Q&A
I like to give it time.
I prefer by far to formulate the exact answer
and when i don't know it, I prefer to wait.
And with painting, or with the materials I use to make paintings, this happens as well.
The making of the painting goes faster. That takes one or two sessions.
I would not be able to work in a studio that is separated from my living space
because I want the work to be available at all times.
That I can always look at it, at all times, day and night,
that I can think about it, that I interact with it. It is a way of living.
Is a photograph necessary as starting point?
Well there is a tradition in it, since the origin of photography,
painters have eagerly made use of it.
In my case, earlier I used to work with materials I found and recuperated,
but I added to it or took away from it, I mean, I am never going to copy the
photograph, I always manipulate the image, as well in light, in colors,
in composition.
Even if you consciously don't manipulate, when you paint,
you always do manipulate, whether you want to or not.
Can you hold it a little lower?
When you make a painting, you know you are using a technique with a whole history.
Many things depend on it. You can't disconnect it.
I think it precisely interesting that painting has a history that you carry along.
That you communicate. I do that very consciously.
Here you have... I will put it there, and then you can see it better
Here you have a painting that refers consciously to paintings of the past.
The figure on it and the light, I mean, the angle of the light on the figure,
make me think of the Adam figure in the Lamb of God in Ghent.
The light is also a little like Caravaggio. The man clearly holds his nose.
The work is titled: 'Man holding his nose'.
It is eventually an absurd interpretation, but can also be translated psychologically.
It is then very contemporary.
I see it as a sort of mental self-portrait, the painter pretending.
It is common knowledge that people who often lie touch their nose.
I found that interesting.
That is also something typical in my work, the incision that has to do with
cinematic view, photographical view, but also and certainly in my case
with looking at art in reproductions.
I know of painting mainly from reproductions in books, often detailed, and inscisions.
and that it the way we treat it nowadays.
You don't have to make a big paintings in order to give it contents, power.
It can be made very small.
That is what I am trying with this series.
I try to make a lot of small works that need a lot of space.
That brings forward a lot, like a bomb,
Lots of little bombs on the wall. Small knifes in the eyes.
Do you sometimes make big works?
Yes, I already have when the subject calls for it.
The biggest work I made, but I don't make many,
is named 'The avoidance', and is a man, some sort of shepherd;
which I found had to be big, but you decide that intuitively.
Small, the image wouldn't have worked as painting
and it didn't feel to me that it had to be small. It had to be big.
It has been painted over there, on that wall, from the ground up to the ceiling
some three meters and some...
And it worked.
The major physical impact, a giant form, and it was a giant, and the work needed that.
Some dirt has fallen on it.
This work for instance
I got my inspiration from as small image in an old encyclopedia. A veterinary school...
And the students are standing around the cows.
There were cows here in the middle, but I left them out
and I... put copies of the figures in between. So they study themselves.
For one or the other reason I didn't continue working on it.
I must have thought I’ll work on it later but it has meanwhile been so long since
that maybe it won't happen.
Now I think it is an interesting curiosity to keep as unfinished work.
I could sell it like this, but I don't want to.
This combination is interesting.
The plate makes one think of an areola and the very demure look
but it is also very rowdy and derisive at the same time.
I find that interesting.
The hair very well painted. I'm very pleased with it...
so Velasquez almost. I'm very happy with that.
Oh it is magnificent. So senseless.
In a magnificent way senseless.
What Michaël does is, he uses film in a different way to make paintings and
I don't know of anyone who has already used this approach.
There is a major video artist, Bill Viola, who has also worked with the idea that
a video almost becomes a 'tableau vivant' but it is altogether very different.
Bill Viola is very bombastic, super emotional, super charged.
it deals with the major issues of life, death, birth, departure, while with Michaël
it is all very demure and also mysterious.
When you look at a number of films one of the aspects is: why the black actors?
He uses them as some sort of puppets, nothing is being done with their identity,
and it is only the aesthetics of being black. Black contrasts with white
and you could very much misunderstand that.
With a very simple image he questions a lot.
I'm hopeless with titles, so 'Het meisje' (the girl); I call it 'het Vlaams Blok meisje'
- which is not allowed by Michaël -; the girl with the Flemish Lion on her sweater,
and when Michaël Borremans makes a film film then it is this, a 'tableau vivant',
a film that is not a film.
There is no activity, some sort of rotation, certainly no plot but also no motion,
because the girl becomes some sort of sculpture and in first instance
you don't know whether it is a wax figure or a girl,
in some way it is perverted because he reduces the body to an object.
It looks very beautiful, emotive, innocent, nothing of a Lolita, she really is a doll
and then by putting the Flemish Lions on her breast, which I think only Belgians,
or people familiar with the Belgian history,
will know what a strange connotations this has.
What Michaël ironically commented on, saying he was sustained by the Flemish
Community; some sort of brand, a logo; that supports him financially.
On the other hand it gets some 'brown' associations
and in a work that is so delicate, it is very strange.
There is truly a great demand for the work of Michaël,
which we absolutely cannot satisfy;
there is just too much interest. He doesn't make so many works,
so mostly we have to disappoint the potential buyers. It is incredible...
'Wait' has been sold to three museums and there is a very important American
collector, who is the director of a major museum, who has begged us to please let
to please let them have the AP (Artist proof) of video.
There is so much demand for his work. One can't keep up with it.
When you have a representation on a painting,
there is no doubt that it is imaginary,
that it is a lie, it has no documentary value.
That is interesting.
It is one of the main reasons that I paint and filmmaking has that as well.
I also find early cinema...
I also want to return to that perspective, the archaic,
I also work very archaically, with a fixed camera, like an amateur,
I consciously look for it.
It is a clear reference to early cinema, the way I work with it.
This is also the result of my ignorance, making a virtue out of necessity.
But it is also very difficult and hard.
In fact I hate it, but I have to do it, I can't do otherwise.
It is very tiresome, other people... I am not very social...
You have to.. other people... It's not your own merit anymore.
You have to work with people and they have a certain input as well.
It is absolutely a fact and I owe a number of people.
For instance Nicolas Karakatsanis, the cameraman,
sometimes he has an idea that puts the film in another perspective,
that changes the approach just a little. film in another perspective,
Sometimes it is only an accent, a detail, but it can make quite a difference.
I forgot to read the text of Magnus Petersen yesterday.
Michaël is a difficult, strict man, for himself and for his work.
How difficult is he to work with?
Not too bad, sometimes he is... it depends how the painting develops.
When it goes well he is a fantastic person to work with, when it is difficult,
when he doesn't know which direction he wants to go, it can be very hard.
He can get significantly angry, react really cholerically.
When something doesn't work like he has it in his head, he can get really mad.
But that passes rather quickly, by the evening it is mostly over.
You are an artist yourself, is that an advantage in such a relationship?
Yes I think so, we talk often about images, imaging and such,
and we understand each other very well on that point.
He knows what he's got in me.
I ask him what he thinks of my photographs.
I think it is an advantage, absolutely.
A certain form of pollination? Yes, yes.
He has used you regularly as model? Yes, once in a while, yes.
Sometimes I look for models because I know which types he is looking for.
Can that be people off the street?
Yes, yes, the son of the baker around the corner has modeled here as well.
'Wait', the rotating girl with the pleated skirt, is originally a drawing,
for which we then went looking for a girl.
Drawing is in fact your first passion? You can say that, yes.
Since childhood? Passion? I don't know.
It's always been something very evident. I consider painting more as a passion.
It is passionate, in the sense of intense moments of attraction, but just as well
intense moments of hatred. Drawing, to me is more balance.
Something like writing? Something commonplace?
Yes, it almost has a literary function to me, like a diary.
It has always been present in my life. It is something evident.
I've drawn for much longer than I paint. In this I have, technically, more maturity.
Hopefully this will be the same with painting,
that in 20 years I will be able to say that I have to throw away less.
It would surprise me, but one never knows.
Are you never afraid of the white sheet?
I never work on a white sheet. I have never bought paper to draw on.
Earlier at school, maybe a sketchbook or so.
I always work on a piece of paper that I find.
Recycling in fact? Actually yes, recycling.
As for this work for instance?
Yes, look; this is the backside of a book, a worthless book, but it is nice to draw on.
I remember in art school there was a boy who threw his sheet in the bin,
that's when it started. There was a stain on the sheet and
I thought it much more interesting with the stain on it.
Often when there already is a trace...
Look this paper is beautiful, it is old, there are grease stains on it.
A lot was already on it before I started to draw so I had to add only a little.
It is a very suggestive drawing. I don't like to draw on something white.
Also when I paint, look at this canvas for instance, beige/grey,
I always give it a colored coating, based on what is going to be painted on it.
Sometimes I use reddish hues, depending on the background.
It is a way of working that originated in the baroque.
When you paint a human figure, the skin tone and the background are already in those
hues, because it shines through, or when you omit to paint some part,
it doesn't impede.
You can see that clearly in the works of Velasquez
that sometimes the primer comes through.
Just a little hand on the background which was left out.
It is just an efficient way of working.
Working on a white canvas is pure horror.
You put something on it and you have a dialogue with all that white,
you can't work that way, I think.
In the past when I was still teaching, I often had a small sketchbook with me
for when you have to wait between classes, or during lunchbreak.
Sometimes I drew a little, sometimes during classes as well.
Students find that interesting. Here, this was an assignment,
a fox holding a pitcher. I drew it as well, it motivated the students,
it makes the assignment credible, when they see that you are involved.
Very strange but... Or figurative drawing.
This is a little imaginative, it's some sort of...
Cartoon? It is a cartoon, a story based on a text of
Hans Van Heirsele, texts he sings in our band, 'The Singing Painters';
the song is called 'Brain dust' and I sort of made a cartoon of it.
Would you call Michaël Borremans a maverick?
Nonconformist purebred even. It is also in his work.
The power in Michaël is that you are compelled to look at the work.
The image holds you in its grip.
As with a fabulous poem by Rilke, you don't need to understand every sentence.
Why is it that for contemporary art it is expected that a theoretical discourse
should be held, while precisely Michaël, more than any other artist, escapes this?
He produced such sort of imagery that that precisely prohibits theorization.
Michaël and I have been in the same class together. We were friends from the start.
Thanks to Michaël I came in the building where 'Crox' started later on.
In fact it is in his studio, that was left empty, that that everything started, in a squat.
End of the 80's, there weren't so many opportunities in Ghent for a young artist.
The squat of those days has meanwhile become a real art center.
This is also where he started, isn't it?
The very first exhibition in '95, yes.
I presume his first solo-project.
The project before that was still in a furniture shop, which says a lot about the career
that Michaël had at the time.
Then in '99 he had a second solo.
That was the threshold of his big breakthrough?
Yes, in the sense that the 'Provincie' and the ‘SMAK’ came to see it.
Subsequently things happened.
You bring us here to Velasquez.
In this same museum is the most fabulous collection of Breughel’s in the world.
Why Velasquez?
I have a lot of admiration for Breughel, it is fantastic work, but in my perspective,
what I often saw as a young man, what has strongly inspired me to paint are the works of
Velasquez. I've known all these works since a long time, from reproductions
and they have strongly influenced my way of thinking about painting.
Is it then the 'métier' of Velasquez that you admire?
Yes, in fact it is especially that with him... Look, I enter like this...
yesterday was the first time, I entered,
I had seen a lot of other rooms with paintings, all very interesting.
I enter here and I think, Ah Velasquez... and it is sort of a reprieve,
because of that sparkle, freshness, that stays. That is unique.
That is a totally distinct feeling. And I look at it
and I see this for instance, this magnificent little portrait,
and we see this... and then I see,
and then I can just as well enter and say: 'ha-ha, Charlie Parker'.
You know it is just as light, the structure and and the accents which are being laid are
almost music notes. How it is constructed. That is really 'kicking' for me.
Therefore, once I am in a room with this kind of works, I can hardly leave,
I keep looking, I enjoy it enormously. It is a very sensual pleasure.
And Velasquez, it is well known, had brushes made with very long handles.
That is why he has this spontaneous touch.
You can't do that when you are this close.
You'll never get that spontaneity, that directness.
He knew very well what he was doing. He put those accents with a long brush.
One meter long. Maybe longer.
This is a modest painting, but has affected me the most in fact.
Not in the least because of the tragic of the work.
We see a very classic portrait of a crown prince, a young crown prince.
Yes, he is two here, but he died when he was four.
Yes, yes, he already was... It was already ominous...
He was covered in amulets, which were to make him better, to protect him,
because he was a sickly child and Velasquez felt that intuitively
and portrayed it as such.
The background is already very dark, the premonition is there, it is also very 'gloomy'
and that little dog looks like it's asking what is going to happen here, which way will it go?
I find it technically unequalled.
It affects me each time.
For someone like me it is also a little discouraging.
A few Velasquez I can handle, but when I visit the Prado, I can't paint for six months.
It has also been your destiny, an an artist almost overnight,
coming from 'scratch to riches’...
Yes, yes, it took some adapting.
It is better for an artist to be poor and have difficulties, of course. I won't deny that, but
for me it is essential to be professional and be focused enough on my original objective.
I do my thing. If the market is satisfied with that, it is a bonus.
I'm not sorry about it, absolutely not, but should the market bail out,
also that will be my destiny.
I think I must work with integrity, stay true to what I want from it. That is sacred.
In that I am very determined, also towards myself.
It are two circles and those people lie there.
I did ask people, do you see corpses in this and nobody saw that.
We then decided to do it. It is a fairly dark cover, just quite not morbid.
Michaël has done everything, he wrote the texts, made the back, the 'inlay' for
the cd and the vinyl is also magnificent, of course the format we know.
He makes it beautifully, the strikethroughs are in fact beautiful, without strikethroughs and
errors and Tipp-ex corrections it would not have been as interesting.
It is just great and he also didn't write on lines, the text sometimes goes up a bit. It just lives.
It is just Borremans, as it must.
Who buys Michaël Borremans?
A lot of museums have bought his work, but also quite a lot of big collectors
and at this moment, the major problem are the the brokers.
They have noticed that, since a relatively short time, the works are very sought after.
So much so, that we experienced...
Okay, meanwhile two works have been put in an auction and have reached an
enormous amount and it then becomes very difficult for a young artist and a
gallery owner to maintain an accurate price. It means that if we sell a work today and
we sell it to the wrong person, this person can, within the month
make three, four times the profit of the artist and gallery owner put together.
I show my films like paintings are mostly shown, so they are in view on the wall.
It is not the intention to watch it entirely as spectator, to look for the story behind it.
It is present. It is a presence in a space, exactly like a painting can be.
You watch it as long as you want.
A painting is, like my films, a sort of suggestive construction.
In fact I always show as little information as possible.
I always extract things.
So as spectator you always have to play the role of an accomplice.
I really like to leave it all open. The image always remains undefined.
There is always a range of possibilities to deal with it.
What was I going to say?
Sorry, I lost my train of thoughts... Later maybe...
It was important, you know...
The work is very claustrophobic, very very atmospherically closed,
while the meaning is very open, very hard to understand, difficult..
Oh and this is what I was going to say…, ... I lost it again... This is incredible...
Are you looked upon, here in America, as a European artist?
Yes, I think so, I think that for an American this clearly isn't an American work.
It is very... Belgian, even.
I am from Geraardsbergen, I think the spirit of Geraardsbergen still wanders
about in my works.
I think he is one of the few who has infused the medium painting with new life,
with such abandonment, even if it is even if it is related to old masters
and to be placed in traditional painting; he saw the opportunity to make very authentic
art, with an distinct voice, a personal voice.
He pushes himself hard.
As you just said, he had twenty paintings, but thought only five were good enough.
More artists should do that.
This is more for Helmut Lotti, he would be better.
My grandfather was the first person I knew who was involved with images. He
He was a photographer.
As a little boy I was often with him in the dark room. He developed films, photos.
The magic of images that appeared in that dark little cellar,
maybe that indeed has been decisive.
Would you say that was the womb of your interest for photography and movies?
Did you know quite early ‘I will be an artist’?
Artist, I didn't know that for sure, but I wanted to do something with images,
it didn't matter what.
You are an excellent drawing artist, someone who mastered the métier in all
its aspects.
That is not totally true.
Where you always?
No, I was not particularly talented as a child. It was unremarked, I think.
But it interested me a lot.
I wanted to be skilled, draw technically and I worked hard for that.
I don't have such a talent that I... I wasn't a virtuoso, a wonder child or so.
Maybe the opposite even.
I had a period where I found painting and drawing very annoying.
For a long time I had a love-hate relationship relationship with it.
But... it improves, gradually, because I work less.
I don't do my utmost as much anymore and that is much better really.
I let paintings come when they come.
Working hard, laboring, maybe that is beneficial to some painters,
but it doesn't work for me.
Just a bunch of paintings which are almost good and that really isn't nice,
you can't do anything with them.
So I'm becoming more philosophical about this.
But you have to paint enough, of course, to continue to control the language.
It isn't so that I would not paint for six months. I will never do that.
I haven't worked now for three weeks. I I am in between two shows and
it already starts to become very difficult.
Being creative is a very big part of my identity.
When I've made a good work, I am very proud.
I have then accomplished something that surprises me sometimes.
When it exceeds your own expectations... yes, those are pleasurable moments.
I celebrate then as well, I drink champagne.
Look the castle of King Stephan, with there in the highest tower,
dreaming of her own true love, Princess Aurora.
But isn't that the same peasant child that our Prince loves with whole his heart?
Hair golden like the sun, lips as red as the reddest rose,
does she lies there, still and not breathing? Time passes by, but one hundred years
for such a committed heart pass by quickly and our prince is now again free and easy.
Away he rides on his noble steed, on his way to her that he loves
and proves with a real love kiss that true love overcomes.