ESSAYS, INTERVIEWS & REVIEWS
Ronald Ophuis - 2012 - Een buitenaards wezen [NL, interview]
An Extraterrestrial Being
In conversation with Ronald Ophuis
Ronald Ophuis (°1968) is best known in the Netherlands for his hard-hitting paintings based on real-life events which he wants to turn into images that make the events tangible. At a joint lecture in The Hague, now two years ago, I heard him speak in such a nuanced and precise way about his motivation and the way he legitimizes his work that I ask him about it again today. But first let’s take a look at the paintings.
- When I look at the painting about the wager, I am struck by the realistic rendering of a concrete wall which I don’t believe you could have dreamt up. I think you must have taken it from one of your photographs. You probably constructed the horror scene yourself using extras… The magnificent tree with those many parallel trunks or downward-growing roots also looks to me as if it was staged.
Ronald Ophuis: First I had the scene enacted in a little hut in the country, but gradually I realized that it would be more interesting to have the events take place on the street, because that way the recklessness, the conviction and the arrogance of this sort of human behaviour becomes more legible. The background with the white cement sheets I did photograph myself. Technically they are interesting because they provide a good background for the darker figures and push them to the fore. It is really difficult to paint a person in front of a bush, for example. Each little leaf is an ordeal. That’s why they used drapes in the olden days. I did indeed take the thick tree from another photograph. It adds extra depth, but there is also something strange about it because of those parallel trunks: something monstrous, but also something industrial or artificial…
- As if the scene is unfolding on a set, which makes the image look as if it has been constructed, following a series of decisions to achieve a rich and deep painting?
Ophuis: Perhaps. I once told you that I want to make images which are more powerful or, at any rate, more confusing than CNN’s. That confusion is soon created because the painter really wants the image, whereas the war photographer doesn’t. An artwork has almost always been a homage to the image. A media image is more concerned with conveying information than provoking contemplation.
- You painted the knife and the T-shirt on top of the black background, they are not sections left blank. You find that sort of experimentation less important.
- Did you also paint the portrait in three layers with slightly dry oil paint, as you once told me? I don’t think so, because I can’t see a granular top layer.
Ophuis: The portrait was drawn using pastels. I just added touches of oil paint here and there to heighten the contrast.
- Tell me about your trip to Sierra Leone. How did you set about it?
Ophuis: I travelled with a fixer, as war journalists often do, but this time I was followed by a camera crew for Catherine van Campen’s documentary Painful Painting. She wanted to capture on film the genesis of some of my paintings. I contacted relief organizations who worked with child soldiers and their initial reaction was enthusiastic, but it was more curiosity I think, because as soon as they got to see the sort of work I do, they backed off. Those organizations prefer to present a positive image of their progress rather than a confrontational image of the horrors which took them there in the first place.
The boy in the portrait, he was about 22 years old, I met in 2010. The events dated from 2001. He was washing cars with other boys on pastureland alongside the road. I went past on a bicycle, accompanied by the fixer or guide who spoke the local dialect and who had also been a child soldier, so he could set their minds at rest. I took the boys with me to the beach or to an empty house and let them tell their story. I talked to them for a couple of hours. (Long silence.) They didn’t see me as a threat. In fact, they were very candid. They didn’t think I was from the police or anything like that, they saw me more as an extraterrestrial being. So as to allow them freedom of speech, I always invited them to talk about things they had seen, not about what they themselves had done, but before long they would start telling me about their own actions.
- Would you tell me once again why you make these works? How you see your motives?
Ophuis: There are several possible answers. One answer is anger with the universe; the outrage triggered by the impossibility, the inability to control life.
The second answer is that making this sort of work can help you channel the violence inside yourself.
The third answer relates to the euphoria of suffering, what you recognize when a friend has died and you walk in the funeral procession. The other people stop out of respect for your suffering and you feel the arrogance of someone who thinks he is more important than the people who in his eyes are not suffering. With my work I try to build a bridge so that I can suffer with them.
The fourth answer is about the need for an image felt by people who have experienced something terrible. I realized this for the first time when a plane crashed in the Bijlmer. Journalists asked numerous people what they had seen and it soon transpired that lots of them could not have seen anything from where they were. They simply imagined they had seen something or they concocted an image as a way of dealing with it. The same phenomenon occurred with people who survived concentration camps and claimed for example that they had seen Mengele, while the man had never been in that particular place.
- In 1998 you told me that people who had survived camps, were moved by your paintings, because they appeared to represent what they had experienced or felt. And when I spoke to you in 2008, you had just met someone who told you about the son of a lady who had been in a ‘rape hotel’ and was upset every time he saw the word ‘hotel’.
Ophuis: I feel the need to make images for people who have experienced something but cannot find the words for it. I try to identify with them and to create an image which allows us, but also the victims, to believe we are seeing a ‘rape hotel’. The painting as constructed evidence. When you go into a Catholic church and you see a figure of Christ, you know that the model for the sculpture could have been a stuntman or a body double, as happens in films, but that doesn’t affect your perception of the painting.
With some of Berlinde De Bruyckere’s images you see that her sculptures don’t literally represent human figures, but you are filled with a sense of despair about the human body, which can be comforting.
Many of my works have been purchased by medical specialists. Not only because they have the money to buy them, but also because they are so often confronted by that sudden end of life scenario, without having the poetical ability to find the words for it or to make an image about it. Consequently, they hanker after these images of pain, conscience and consolation.
Montagne de Miel, July 2nd 2012
Translated by Alison Mouthaan
Why I paint as I do.
Letter from Ronald Ophuis to Hans Theys
You asked me why I paint as I do:
- I use the works to reflect on the world
- first you need emotion, only then thought
- painful confusion or discomfort is a more exciting starting point for thought
- jan van imschoot: ‘a wound says more than 1000 angels’
- testimonies of the soul
- to come up with images that enable empathy, make the experiences of others your own
- I also want to be inspired by the history of art
- to make dramatic images even more unbearable
- not only identification with the victim
- to put the viewer and me in an unpleasant position
- the need to build a bridge to the lives of others
- how do we want to remember our history?
- to underscore the suffering, including the suffering of the perpetrators
- we create these monsters
- political decisions carry responsibility
- social punishment paintings
- forgiveness for the perpetrators
- fascination with violence in art and in life
- the moment of inspiration and the immediate desire to paint when I am moved
- victimage can be fascinating, proud, survived camp
- willingly taken away, e.g. srebrenica, men’s spirit broken, see also primo levi on the uprisings in the camp
- revenge on life, on god, throw the world back in god’s face
- represent so as to feel, see caroline nevejan’s text ‘witnessing’
- researching one’s own existence, putting it to the test talking with the people the paintings are about
- viewer an accessory, because of the fascination, passion, anger, which drive the work
- viewer as victim, because of the pain and deprivation which drive the work
- sense of superiority, euphoria on a bereavement of a friend/family. everyone must stand aside
- to feel connected
- the lies in the bijlmer statements
- the images on the death of my little brother
- body double christ, we believe his suffering
- your own anger, passion, fantasies
- seen dr mengele, inability to find words of your own
- several interpretations possible, actual sm fantasies
- need to feel, experience solidarity
- the war photographer (the journalist, CNN, etc.) didn’t want his image, the painter did
- let the images come to you without arguing
- examine the images which surface without direct ethics
- this is who I am, even without considering the content I can make this work, indeed, I am making this work, or to quote painter armando, ‘beauty is fishy, beauty isn’t worth a dime’
- the christian easter story, the feeling of superiority at a funeral
- I am speaking about the poor wretches, not about hitler, stalin, sharon, the bush family. I am speaking about the poor wretches who have to fight and suffer in the name of a political ruler. the same poor wretch as I am or could be
- you could almost say that a painting is a gift to the depicted