Hans Theys is a twentieth-century philosopher and art historian. He has written and designed dozens of books on the works of contemporary artists and published hundreds of essays, interviews and reviews in books, catalogues and magazines. All his publications are based on actual collaborations and conversations with artists.

This platform was developed by Evi Bert (Centrum Kunstarchieven Vlaanderen) in collaboration with the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp (Research group Archivolt), M HKA, Antwerp and Koen Van der Auwera. We also thank Idris Sevenans (HOR) and Marc Ruyters (Hart Magazine).


Koen Deprez - 2017 - Pushing yourself off the chessboard [EN, essay],
Text , 4 p.


Hans Theys

Pushing yourself off the chessboard
On the tectonic encounter between some of Koen Deprez’ early and recent work

In saying something here about the architect and artist Koen Deprez (1961) the intention is to introduce his work to people not yet familiar with it, or to continue thinking about it with people who have been looking at it for a while. This article anticipates two imminent exhibitions, one at Galerie Zwart Huis (Brussels) and another at PAK (Gistel). Old and new work will be on show in both locations.  

Yesterday evening Deprez told me several stories. None are explicitly linked, but in the night they started to converge. At ten past eight in the morning, I was awoken by an event: an unusually loud, solitary clap of thunder. A gentle drizzle was falling but there was no sign of a storm. “Lightning occurs when the earth and the air rub against each other”, I thought, “just as an earthquake is the release of a gradual build-up of tectonic tension.”  

Deprez is both artist and architect. This doesn’t mean that he produces artworks and builds houses, but rather that he has developed a way of thinking that makes use of images and techniques emanating from those areas and makes works which, while trying to surpass those images and techniques, enriches them.   

First impressions suggest that his oeuvre is prompted by a desire to engender architectural forms that are not confined by ‘functional thinking’. What this boils down to is that an object can never be purely ornamental. You might say that the more lifeless, the ‘deader’ the ornament, the more it restricts our life by keeping it on an insipid track. The livelier it is, the greater the chance it will create breathing space.

On a deeper level, however, the architectural aspect of Deprez’ oeuvre is based on a more fundamental, artistic approach which I would like to call ‘tectonic’. All of it seems to be directed at escaping an oppressive world in which indescribable tensions accumulate, the release of which is feared, but in the end also desired. With relief, the character played by Tom Waits in Altman’s Short Cuts – sheltering in the doorway of a trailer – shouts during an earthquake: “This is the big one!” In Deprez’ world the 9/11 attack is a moment of architectural release, when two modernistic forms praised by Le Corbusier unpredictably intersect. As a student he recorded the times of day when King Baudouin was driven along Rue des Palais to and from his work. After a while Deprez recognized a pattern enabling him to predict the royal commute, and he made a collage called ‘The attack on King Baudouin’ (which will be on show in Brussels). The collage shows the junction of Avenue Rogier and Rue des Palais, where Deprez’ school was located. To the crossing he affixed a cartoonish representation of an explosion, perhaps cut out of a comic. A speech balloon appears from the school building bearing the word ‘YIPPEE!’

Another image for Koen Deprez’ oeuvre is the chessboard. Viktor Shklovsky loved the way the knight moves, because the sidestep implies an unexpected manoeuvre or a change of rhythm. To Deprez it just seems that way. Nothing can ever happen on a chessboard because all the movements are determined by the rules of the game and the inexorable movements of the chess pieces. In a conversation with me last year, he compared this to the situation of a student in higher education, who is trained to solve existing problems. Unexpected sidesteps are certainly admired and encouraged, but in reality they don’t contribute anything to what already exists. What we know about the world is restricted by the possibilities of our measuring instruments. Which diseases are discovered and how they are treated depends on our assumptions about the way the body functions. “Students,” said Deprez, ‘”should be our new eyes. We should help them formulate as yet unposed problems and solutions. So something has to push them off the chessboard.” That something was conveyed in his educational project Self-Navigation.

How do you push yourself off the chessboard? How can we escape the reasoning and behaviour patterns imposed upon us?

Seen in that way, the challenge of architecture consists not in inventing environments which serve and thus endorse our practices, but in inventing and making environments which could trigger unpredictable events and insights.

For example, Deprez was recently invited to build his Woning voor niemand (1988) in Gistel. When an engineer’s calculations showed that to do so would require twice the available budget, Deprez sought an alternative solution. During that search he translated the name of the house into English – House for Nobody – and saw that the word ‘nobody’ splits very neatly into two. So he decided to build just one half of the house.  

Galerie Zwart Huis will be showing drawings produced in 1983 which are part of Agressiepark (Aggression Park) ‘Brussels’. All kinds of architectural programmes and functions collide in that work (e.g., there are playing fields, one half of which is intended for one sport and the other half for another). It was inspired by a film about an amusement park in which candidates fought with combatants from different eras until something went wrong and all the eras merged.

If we link that image to chess, we realize that a game of chess is played not only in space, but also in time: every great chess player knows all the major chess games which have taken place in the past. A showdown among chess players is tectonic: with every unexpected move, the chessboard seems to split open and allow old and new layers of earth to slide into each other in a new way. The seemingly impenetrable surface of the board hides a transparent, unfathomably deep accumulation of chess problems, which like architectural layers can be laid over each other in ever- different ways.

In the interior of Brodskyhuis where Deprez lives, yesterday I came across scores of artefacts, including a sixteenth-century painting on panel by Ambrosius Francken (a crucifixion), a plaster cast made in the Louvre of Claude Poirier’s sculpture Nymphe dite Aréthuse (Nymph, also known as Arethusa), a diptych by Pieter Coecke van Aelst representing the adoration of the Christ Child and the flight into Egypt, an accidentally badly damaged maquette of Deprez’ Strandcabine (Beach Hut, 1987) and a small painting by Gery De Smet depicting two streakers.

It is not hard to understand why the streaker appeals to Deprez as a subject: in a clash of two programmes, the naked saboteur of the oiled and predictable football match provides a brief glimpse of the plurality of our reality. The older artworks are not expressions of a traditionalist or sentimental nostalgia, but images bobbing around like ice floes which one day might plough into each other like an aeroplane and a skyscraper. Programmes can collide not only in space, but also in time.

And there we have the underlying motivation for the Nucleaire terrassen (Nuclear Terraces) and other collages in which Deprez combines old engravings with illustrations of more contemporary events such as exploding atomic bombs, rocket launches and a Sputnik landing. They are all images which express a desire for release, relief and breathing space, but at the same time they are evocative machines which perhaps really could trigger a new idea or event. 

It is now clear why Deprez is combining old and new work: not only is the chronology unimportant (there is no progress in art), but the removal of the time factor creates new clashes and links which lead him to new ideas and events.   

Hopefully, I have gone some way towards clarifying why I believe that Deprez thinks architecturally. Not because he combines stylistic elements from different epochs when designing a building, but because he is looking for architectural forms which could make the world less rigid by means of clashing programmes, functions, images, texts and the like.

But why do I also regard Deprez as an artist? And how can I make this clear without giving scores of examples? Perhaps it is sufficient to refer to a ‘renovation project’ carried out by Deprez (at the request of an older lady’s children who wanted to ‘surprise’ their mother with a new interior that would be installed during a holiday), which entailed replacing all the objects he found in that lady’s house with existing copies. When the lady returned home, everything seemed to be the same, yet different in an eerie sort of way. Because the furniture and objects were now scratched and discoloured in a different way, not only did they look unfamiliar, but gradually their new way of being also started to conjure up ostensibly lost images from the past. What makes this work ‘artistic’, I think, lies in the underground way unspoken things are made to speak, disguised in the new form of the intervention.

Yesterday inside Brodskyhuis I also found the made-up, conjugal bed that belonged to Deprez’ parents. Deprez told me he was expecting a visit from his mother and that he wanted her to sleep in the middle of his house in her old bed which she hadn’t seen for twenty years. He also told me that he wanted to make a ‘memory room’ in the definitive version of the Brodskyhuis, in which he would house the furniture from his parents’ bedroom, but then dismantled, so that their parts, suspended like the components of a car in an exploded technical drawing, would embody a new sort of breathing space. “The space where I want to do this gets the most sunlight”, he told me. “I would like to see how the light reflects to and fro through that exploded bedroom, for example round the drawer which has left the body of the bedside cupboard.” He also told me that the two bedrooms for his daughters will be replaced by folding beds in two corridors opposite each other - “very functional, like in a submarine” - and that he plans to arrange the kitchen around a ‘Leuven stove’ which he wants to use as the engine to slow down his life.   

“On a Leuven stove the dishes are prepared one after the other,” he told me, “because there isn’t room for different pots and pans. And it has to be a real Leuven stove because it is the only stove with round leg supports, which are conducive to sociability. “What is more”, he continued, “I find it fascinating that while the stove gives out so much heat, the rest of the house is icy-cold. It’s a way of preventing warmth from circulating because warmth stops things happening. Allow those temperatures to clash and you keep moving.”

Montagne de Miel, August 15th 2017

Translated by Alison Mouthaan