ESSAYS, INTERVIEWS & REVIEWS
Beatrijs Albers - 2002 - Ontmoetingen [NL, interview],
Two conversations with Beatrijs Albers and Emilio López-Menchero
1) A first interview with Beatrijs Albers and Emilio López-Menchero, dated December 19th 2001
Albers: In Strombeek we did a common installation that sprang from a chance encounter. A couple of months before, Emilio and I had, without us knowing one another’s work, participated in the group exhibition “Fantasy Javoba IV”, which was organised by Eva Gonzalez-Sancho and Luk Lambrecht in the Brussels space called CôtéKaNaL. Emilio did a sound installation with whistling men.
Menchero: They were whistle signs. There weren’t any men. The body was absent. I thought it fascinating that one couldn’t locate the whistle signs, because one couldn’t imagine a face with it. You didn’t know whether it were warning signals or attempts at calling one’s attention. It was a space with four floors. On each one of them, one could hear, at irregular intervals, someone whistling between his fingers. There were four different kinds of whistles. Sometimes it resembled an alarm signal or a greeting, but at other times, by a chance succession of the various whistle signals, one thought that people on the different floors were giving each other signals or were communicating with one another.
Albers: By the whistle signals one became conscious of the space. It was a work about space. One felt the four floors without seeing them. I experienced the whistle signals as a call.
Menchero: During the same exhibition I showed a video in which you see me sitting naked on a chair in a clinical, tiled space. The camera slowly zooms in onto a bit of my neck, until a piece of skin blown up into pixels only fills the entire screen. To me it is a kind of transition from the figurative to the abstract. It is a work about space, but also about painting. It is also important, of course, that I am filming myself. In many of my works, I am trying to locate myself in space or I am trying to explore a space or a situation by adding something to it, for instance myself.
Albers: Or the soles of your shoes.
Menchero: Yes, for another work, I put a kind of yellow soles of 18 centimetres high on 60 different locations in Berlin. I then filmed what was going on. Some people went and stood on them. Sometimes, an understanding grew between my soles and the soles of a lady passing by. The yellow colour of the soles also seemed to influence the entire environment. I later used that colour many times, for instance for my large fries in Norway. I had been asked to put a work in the vicinity of a large, round aluminium building that reminded me of a frying pan. It was in a Nordic port city where the theme of the exposition was eating and travelling. Perhaps my work also was a variation on my happening in Venice, when I was trying to sell small models of the Brussels Atomium. I was at the Biennale, in between the Belgian and the Spanish pavilion and I felt, because of my hybrid identity, I was the most propitious person to be a Belgian in Venice. I fact the same idea returns with those large fries.
Albers: The CôtéKaNaL building lies at a bend in the Brussels-Charleroi canal. One has the impression that boats that would normally be going straight ahead could ram the building. I actually frontally filmed such an approaching boat and then projected that film onto a wall that straddles that bend in the canal. The building has an obtuse corner there, so that the projection gave an exact image of the boat approaching outside. On the floor above, I pulled a stone loose from that same wall, so that you got an image of a brewery called “Belle Vue”.
Menchero: Luk Lambrecht was pleased with our approach and invited us to do an exhibition together at the Strombeek cultural centre.
Albers: I had just returned from a trip to the United States, where I had walked and filmed for four weeks in the Death Valley nature reserve. This is a place where tourists don’t spend more than one night, because it can be very hot ànd cold over there. However, I like challenging my limits, so I tried to get to know most of the area. Only after a couple of days I realised that there were a number of angular borderlines on the map of the reserve. I went to one of those border posts to have a look at the real basis of such a spot. There are little tourist centers where you can get information, but one discovers very little. Americans are great seducers. Everything looks so seductive. It does take some searching to find out that there are small Indian communities scattered all over, or that the nature reserve borders giant military domains at several spots.
One day, I saw a passing truck transporting a wooden house. I waited until another passed to film this weird apparition. I later discovered that the Indians order their homes in that way.
For the Strombeek exhibition, I decided to transfer one of those angular Death Valley borderlines in illuminating white paint onto two walls of a close-by ice factory. At night, when the walls were invisible, the corner of the building disappeared and it seemed as if the big white stripe only delimited a square. In the mean time, Emilio had decided to do a project on a nearby basket-ball pitch.
Menchero: I always work like an architect. I studied architecture. Whenever I arrive somewhere, I wonder what is missing, where something can be added. The basket-ball pitch attracted me because it was derelict. You couldn’t really play there, because there was no fence. My first idea was to ask the municipal authorities to put a fence around the pitch. Basket-ball is also connected to space. Basket-ball is looking and acting fast in space. I designed a plan of the pitch and widened the pavement a little, since it wasn’t wide enough for the regular sidelines. I also immediately decided to refurbish the pitch and to repaint the existing sidelines.
Albers: Without knowing it, we were both painting borderlines with the same illuminating paint.
Menchero: I later painted with the same paint the sidelines of a basketball pitch on the roof of the cultural centre, which was covered with red roofing and reminded me of the covering of the basket-ball pitch.
Albers: We thus discovered more and more resemblances in our work, even though it remains very different.
Menchero: We are both working with myths, our work is often autobiographical, albeit in a different way, and we both try to incorporate social aspects into our work. That by Beatrijs about Death Valley is about her desire to explore places walking through them, the myth of the American pioneers, the history and the contemporary situation of the Indians, the presence of military camps, nature, the making of videos and what it means to exhibit art at the Strombeek Cultural Centre.
Albers: Emilio’s work is autobiographical too, but differently. The basket-ball pitch reminded him of his own father, who had been a famous basket-ball player in Spain in the 1950s. In Strombeek, he also did a video featuring himself, playing on the small playing field.
Menchero: I always had the impression that my father wanted me to be a basket-ball player, but I didn’t become tall enough. I sometimes think I remained small on purpose.
Albers: That’s why you don’t see him scoring points. It is a film about a failing, awkward basket-ball player. At the same time, Emilio invites two local junior teams to come and play on the freshly refurbished pitch, and the municipal authorities to better maintain the square. On the other hand, Emilio is also concerned with myths. For other exhibitions, he had himself photographed as Picasso and Che Guevara, two Hispanic heroes.
Menchero: We finally decided to do a common installation in the exhibition space of the Cultural Centre. We built a box, the front was a fence, which I thought had to surround the pitch.
Albers: The left-hand side was made of orange "ribstop" nylon commonly used for tents. This material for me expressed a form of physical and mental protection.
Menchero: Through the fence, at the back of the box, you could see a black-and-white painting of an aerial photograph of the surroundings of the Cultural Centre.
Albers: With the two freshly painted basket-ball pitches.
Menchero: To the rear of the box, there was a water-colour painting by Beatrijs, in the tradition of American naturalism – a little kitschy, but very fascinating. Thanks to very precise lighting of this painting and by colouring the space around it in violet, the work resembled a large didactic slide. In another space, she showed the film “Live on the edge" radio line, in which she combines marvellous images of nature with quotations from a religious radio program.
Albers: On three monitors in another space, you could watch a film in which I have cut my own images with fragments from the film “Zabriskie Point” by Antonioni. I only took from that film the images where you see a couple making love on the beach. They are nearly abstract images, for instance because of the sand that sticks to their bodies. However, what fascinated me most was the fact that the spot where the images were recorded now belongs to a military domain. In fact, the entire area is divided up into various territories. There are Indian reserves, parks for tourists and military domains. That is why I had the names of the various territories appear, such as “Nelis Air Force Bombing Range” or “ Fort Mojave Indian Reservation.”
Menchero: Beatrijs is very concerned with the idea of territory. What belongs to us? What belongs to others?
Albers: Walking is also a form of marking off one’s territory. I am concerned with trajectories, migration. I am trying to record my experiences on video. In a certain sense, there often is a physical basis for my work. With Emilio, form is often physical.
Menchero: I mainly travel in myths. I am trying to work with myths that have betrayed me. A myth is a lie that at the same time hides and reveals a truth.
Albers: I also showed images from Zabriskie Point itself. Zabriskie Point is a rocky desert that is really popular with tourists. I tried to combine various kinds of images of this place, so that you get, amongst other things, a overlap of personal and historical reflection. I am fascinated by the way in which history is romanticised in its United States presentation. First, there was a large water-colour painting of a landscape in the style of Russel and Turner. Next, I showed a series of slides through electrically illuminated projectors that I had hung to a wall. Each slide showed a round image with a black frame, like the classical image of someone looking through binoculars. My own images of the landscape were interchanged with detailed recordings of a model on which the history of pioneers is depicted.
Apart from that, you could look through a view-master to three-dimensional, idealised images of the area, commercial images that were sold to tourists. The more I was involved with all these various images of the same territory, the more I realised that each type of image fabricates an other reality.
Menchero: The film “Zabriskie Point” was a critique on the student revolt of 1968.
Albers: The film was made in 1970.
Menchero: Antonioni probably chose that landscape to project onto it the vain ideals of nature, body and peace.
Albers: And those ideals he contrasted with the revolt of the Black Americans.
Menchero: I don’t remember that.
Albers: The image of that landscape is quite heavy and is appropriated by various groups of people. I intended to juxtapose those various approaches as a kind of archivist or archaeologist of the image.
2) Middle Piece
Nobody knows when our brain gets its first shocks, during the first, wordless months or during the years suffocated by words that follow, but it is clear that we will never know for sure why we have done or not done a certain act. We are blind machines that obey hidden drives, that are always both removed from flesh and mind and from place and time and that will never walk in light where everything becomes clear and soft.
Meanwhile they have found the funding, so that people who, waiting for the last judgment, have decided they don’t want to work like the others, can still survive in a relatively free, albeit impoverished way. These people struggle with images of slowness and speed, with forms and colours, with materials and meanings, with the tax man, their spouses and their neighbours. Because nothing is clear in their world. The art of the Egyptians is raggedy, the art of the Flemish Primitives doesn’t sell anymore and Dubuffet is dead too. Artists of today are trying to draw meaning, sense, colour and form from other materials, other situations and other experiences. They are trying to involve ordinary working people with their work, they are trying to formulate utterances about politics and science, they are trying to tell things about themselves and they are trying to sell something. The craft of the artist is a heavy one indeed.
Never before in history have so many techniques existed to create and reproduce images. Yet, not more powerful images are produced than before. If you interpret an image as a roughly stable form that evokes emotions or ideas, anything can be an image, but only few will really move us or set us thinking. There are very many artists. Only in Belgium, there are fifty thousand people who call themselves artists. Each year, the numerous art schools spew out new aspiring artists.
Many works of art are being produced. Only few of them will survive our generation. Within one hundred years, if our civilisation still exists, probably nothing will remain of all this. But that doesn’t matter really. The important thing is to be busy sensibly today. How can we read the paper in the morning and then be able to make art? How can we learn about so many atrocities on television and in the papers and still continue de busy ourselves in our decadent, well-protected little garden? I think that people like Flaubert and Cassavetes were concerned with the same questions, but just decided to continue working as always. Some people have to cover their eyes and continue to cultivate their own illusions. At the end, from all those horrors, only dust remains – pain can’t be preserved – and we can only live on the few square metres that have been allocated to us.
“Art is the conquest of space,” wrote Marcel Broothaers. He wrote this at the end of the 1960s, so as to make fun a little of the moonwalkers, but also of his artist-colleagues, who were trying to conquer as many square metres as possible in museums, if only to be able to exhibit non-saleable murals. That is why in Kassel he painted a black square on the floor that he cordoned off with museum rope and called “Private Property”.
Each form of art aims at conquering time and space. Each artist is trying to make a statement about his time, about his experience. Each reflection about a form implies reflection about space. During the renaissance, art made progress with the principles of shortening and perspective, at the beginning of the last century with the invention of the ready-made and in the 1960s with the commercialising of the concept.
When Beatrijs Albers and Emilio Lopez-Menchero asked me a year ago whether I wanted to collaborate on their common exhibition in Strombeek, I was immediately struck by their enthusiasm. It was the first time that I had seen two artists struggle for a common project. I immediately felt that something had happened here, something special, that they couldn’t put into words as yet, but that they didn’t want to let fade away. Yesterday – more than one year later – I met them again. Their drive was still as fiery. Not only because of the mutual attention they paid to one another or because of the way they complement each other when they are talking, but also because of the various unspoken feelings and thoughts that are to be felt throughout, are touched by their work, but are never really completely narrated.
Beatrijs Albers traverses the United States West Coast, Arizona and Nevada, and goes walking in the Death Valley national Park. She tells that she gets a kick from those walks and from the materialistic culture that goes together with it: full preparation, quality materials, map reading, etc. At the same time, she consiously takes is trying to take distance from it. Beatrijs Albers often talks about seduction. It seems she is trying to resist seduction, without wishing to ignore its value. She admits that the United States is a marvellous country, but she is searching for traces of the history that have given this country its eventual shape.
Emilio Lopez-Menchero is a bastard. His father arrived in Mol in 1958 as a chemist. Menchero has Flemish friends, but is educated in French. His family still lives in Spain. He loves Belgium and Belgian clichés like the Atomium, the packet of fries, but parts of his brain live in Spain and everywhere. Menchero is trying to get to grips with the world by redrawing it. He became an architect. He rethinks art according to architecture. He uses architecture by decomposing space. He is striving for an identity change. He thinks he will be able to tinker on his own identity by perverting and by saving space. He is trying to escape space by dissolving into myth. He would like to be able to fly, but he is struggling to find a way through an endless and difficult to disentangle labyrinth.
Menchero is trying to compress space, while Albers wants to make it transparent. Menchero wants to clarify, while Albers wants to examin. Unnoticeably their work has met and has become momentarily entangled. When they talk, they are stumbling upon resemblances continuously, whereupon their stories separate again in the differences that have made this encounter possible. Encounter is impossible without difference.
We are blind machines that obey hidden drives, but during an encounter we seem to momentarily grasp our activities and environment. The differences, which usually generate distance, become our value, even if they remain intangibly linked to the dark, unclear background of the non-translated images from which they originated.
3) A second interview with Beatrijs Albers and Emilio Lopez-Menchero accompanied by Reggy Timmermans, dated March 22nd 2002.
Albers: The Strombeek-project is two years old by now. I have since produced new work that I would like to incorporate in the book. I have recently collaborated a lot with Reggy Timmermans.
Timmermans: We worked together on a 45-minute film about Ireland, which we have called “Construction ”. It is a film in which we combine images of a trip to Ireland with other images. The film tells the story of a trajectory. Beatrijs talked about her film “Life on the edge" radio line, in which the images are combined with a religious radio program. The sound confiscates the landscape. In our film "Construction", there is a fragment where you hear a radio program in Gaelic.
Albers: The sound gives the images their form. The radio program creates distance, especially because it is about a foreign language we only understand some words of.
Timmermans: The film mainly shows images that have been shot from a car or a bus. The Irish sound imposes a social construct over the landscape. The sound tells us that the landscape shown belongs to the Irish. We are in their homes. Language functions as a coup d’état over the landscape and turns it into a territory.
Albers: Those radio programs have their own colour. They pour you into culture and history.
Timmermans: It’s funny actually. When you are travelling through such a landscape listening to the radio, you get the impression that you are in a film. The landscape becomes a moving image and the radio takes care of the sound.
Albers: Reality becomes unreality.
Timmermans: We meant to make a fake narrative film on the basis of our impressions during a trip. In fact we did a remake of fiction that we were offered by circumstance and that we subsequently tried to project.
Albers: Another example of such a fake narrative construct is an sequence that we put together from various images we took from a television program in a hotel. It was a commercial broadcast in which the viewers were encouraged to buy houses by telephone at a public auction.
Timmermans: It was a television program in which we were taught how to handle this and how fun purchasing could be.
Albers: You see a woman buying a house and being very happy because of it. There is a child on a seat behind her. You feel how fun it is to buy a house.
Timmermans: We did a remake of that program to point out the strategies, the frozen images and the smiles. The smiles last a trifle too long. It is a slightly exaggerated remake that exposes the tricks of commercial seduction.
Albers: In “Construction ”, you see images, taken from a bus, combined with quotations from a tourist flyer.
Timmermans: In these flyers, people are explained what they have to do while travelling.
Albers: In fact we retrieve the language of a specific culture. These flyers are often full of commands.
Timmermans: For instance, “SIT for a few moments in our friendly tearoom and EAT.” Or, “YOU WILL find our Guide friendly and always willing to share a JOKE with you.”, etc.
Menchero: I have also done new work since Strombeek. I firstly started incorporating mythical heroes such as Picasso, Che Guevara and the two assassins whom I put in an urban context. I see to it that I start resembling these men physically and then I take pictures. The Che Guevara figure emerged when I was asked to put a work in an old textile workers’ quarter of the Dutch town of Tilburg. There was a large barren piece of land there that was supposed to sanitize itself. I appropriated that terrain by painting a red flag on it. On the flag you see an image of my face. I had a beard and was wearing a hat like Che Guevara on the famous photograph. At the same time, I distributed red T-shirts with the same image. What fascinated me here was the idea of a fictional revolution that is mounted by a bourgeois boy from Brussels. For my work on Picasso, I based myself on a photograph in which he is posing as a boxer in his studio with his swollen, naked chest. For my remake, I replaced the paintings that you see in the background with reversed canvases, so that you only get to see the rear side of the paintings and the figure of Picasso really comes to the foreground. My photograph thus becomes an image of the way artists ultimately become labels for their own work. The photograph itself I printed on canvas.
I also worked on the idea of the borderline. The clearest example is a work for which I exported forty tsetse-flies to Germany for an exhibition organised by Jan Hoet. To get to the German village of Borken, I had to cross the Dutch and German borders at a time when all borders were closed because of the risk of cattle contamination. In Borken, I kept the forty tsetse-flies in a terrarium with a double glass wall. In that terrarium, I had put two microphones that recorded the humming of the flies and relayed it amplified into space. The building was a former army refrigeration area that I had heated to tropical temperatures. There was also the smell of cattle piss, a smell that brings tsetse-flies to ecstasy. I was in fact trying to transpose a piece of Africa in a German village. To me, the flies were a metaphor for clandestine immigration. It suffices to cross a border to be called a criminal today or to be a renegade, this at a time when geographical borders seem to be becoming ever more fictional because of phenomena like the internet.
For Brugge 2002, I had printed the classical, architectural representation of the maximal occupation by people of a space on a carpet that is being put in the hull of a truck.
In fact, mention is often made in my work of geographical or cultural shift: models of the Atomium in Venice, Tarzan in Gent, large fries in Norway, tsetse-flies in Germany and the two assassins in Haarlem. I remember visiting churches in Spain with my son Mateo. He was fascinated by what he called the “pestacle”: bloody images from the New Testament. I stumbled upon the idea to shift the crucifixion to the protestant North, which has a more abstract and less physical culture.
Thus my work remains linked to that of Beatrijs and Reggy: we put new meanings over reality by shifting images a little or combining them with new elements.
Montagne de Miel, March 22nd 2002.