Staging the Stage

Staging the Stage

Anna Sofie Jespersen Fine Art// Stage 2// Unit 8, Chelsea College of Arts 18-04-2016



Staging The Stage

Contemporary Belgian artists Rinus Van de Velde and Michaël Borremans both begun their oeuvre by collecting found footage and materials, and then reshape and distort the already told narratives as source material for their pieces. Later, their practices has expanded to staging and creating “scenes” which they then photograph and alternate through the actions of drawing and painting. This process raises questions about authenticity and the element of reality within representational image-making in a postmodern society that to a degree consists of appropriated imagery. The drawings and painting are a final outcome, but is the performative process what is most crucial to the work? The scenarios might be fictional, but they are build on a foundation of reality. Does this process make the art more valid in its own authenticity? And is authenticity ever a possibility when working with representation, for what is a photograph, if not the corpse of a moment that existed for a brief second, and then vanished forever? What place does painting and drawing have in a society that seems to be a constant replica of itself, eating itself and copying itself endlessly in a storm of images, where authenticity is somewhat and abstract phenomenon?

“Medieval iconography was readable to anyone who knew the stories and symbols depicted. That cannot be compared to what goes on now: in any case, art had a different function. Now, there is no longer any clear iconography. Maybe that is what my work is about: testing the possible meanings of an image.” (Rinus Van de Velde, RVdV website)

Rinus Van de Velde exists metaphysically in two parallel dimensions. The one of his own creation and ours. Through his large, two-dimensional, otherworldly charcoal doorways he creates an art fictional autobiography, and positions himself within partly made up, historical, or dreamlike scenarios where he himself is free to live out his own fears and desires.

The flirtation with parallel dimensions and self-exhibitionism positions him within the context of artist such as American photographer Cindy Sherman and Scottish drawing artist Charles Avery. Sherman, who transform herself physically and inhabits roles of stereotypical, cinematically mythical characters, and raises questions about gender, existence and personality, and Avery who creates characters and landscapes for his own fictional island, where everything that he draws and creates exist. In an interview with the Belgium online magazine Wanderkeit, Van de Velde describes himself as a lier, because “the lie is much more interesting than the truth”. (Vimeo, 2016) His obsession with myth and storytelling comes to show in a series of drawings, where, by imagining himself as the former chess world champion Bobby Fischer, manages to metaphysically inhabit Fischer’s character, and an almost complete transformation takes place. “I do not believe it is worthwhile to be honest about myself. Why should the so-called truth about myself be interesting as a subject? In any case, I would soon run out of things to say. On the other hand, I do spend all day on that fictional life, so to some extent it is also my real life.” (Rinus Van de Velde, RVdV website, 2016)

When investigating of the drawings of Rinus van de Velde, it becomes clear that they deal with the question of the real. They exist as arguably narcissistic, imaginary envisions of what his life could have become, to use a Lacanian expression they are the imaginary real. The drawings resemble movie scenes in such a way that, when studying them, one cannot help but picking out the movie references and the obvious cinematic qualities within the immense pieces. But unlike the motion picture, the characters are like stone, posing, almost. For as Van de Velde explains: a still has a much greater mythical potential. (Van de Velde website, 2016) The pieces become and art “reduced reality”, a postmodern deconstruction of the image, questioning the deceptive nature of image- making, within contemporary society. When staging his drawings he does not only use himself as a tool, he usually uses friends and family to express the detached narrative, so in some way his process becomes an collective memory, and an event which functions as a simulation of the event itself.

In Jean Baudrillard’s philosophical treatise Simulacra and Simulation: An archaeology of the human sciences from 1981, Baudrillard talks about the societal discourse he calls hyperrealism. “Simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being, or a substance. It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal.” (Baudrillard, 1981 p. 1) Society has become a simulacrum, an imitation of itself, resulting in the fact that the simulation has become the real. As an example he presents the hypothetical experiment of staging a fake holdup. Which is of course impossible, because the difference between the simulation and the authentic will not be recognizable to the hyperreal society.

“ short you will immediately find yourself once again, without wishing it, in the real, one of whose functions is precisely to devour any attempt at simulation, to reduce everything to the real – that is, to the the established order itself, well before institutions and justice come into play (…) It is necessary to see in this impossibility of isolating the process of simulation the weight of an order that cannot see and conceive of anything but the real, because it cannot function anywhere else.” (Baudrillard, 1994, p. 20)

In trying to create a near-real reality, does Van de Velde then end up just creating reality? As he said himself, the simulacrum created becomes him, the “staging of the stage” annuls itself and what he ends up with is undoubtedly the real, because his drawings are perceived as so. Especially with the use of text as a caption underneath almost all of his drawings, he is writing his own history, creating a myth around himself, like so many artist before him.

“You can only really understand artists like Lucian Freud or Mark Rothko if you have some idea what kind of people they are. You need to know the context in which something was made; it is not possible to understand a work purely in isolation.” (Rinus Van de Velde, RVdV website)

The myth creates itself within the real; this is a crucial point in postmodern art and literature. Poststructuralist Michel Foucault writes in his book The Order of Things: An archeology of the human sciences, from 1970, about the importance of Cervantes’ Don Quixote from the beginning of the 17th century, which by many, is considered, although in fact being pre-modern, the first postmodern piece of literature ever written.

“In the second part of the novel Don Quixote meets characters who have read the first part of his novel, and recognize him, the real man, as the hero of the book. Cervantes’s text turns back upon itself, thrusts itself back into its own narrative.” (Foucault, 1970, p. 48)
The myth of Rothko and Freud was made concurrently with their life and practice. As Don Quixote they create their own myth. Artists may create their own myth, but it is also created for them, like a snake biting its own tail. The hyperreal is a paradoxical concept, and at the end its definition depends on the somewhat solipsistic experience of each individual. What is the reality we perceive? What are the relations we create, the feelings felt, the experiences experienced? The memories of our own lives? In short, what constitutes our perception of reality. In a hyperreal society Rinus Van de Velde has attempted to address this phenomenon of existential detachment, and metaphysical replication through his work.

“The real is produced from miniaturized cells, matrices, and memory banks, models of control – and it can be reproduced and indefinite number of times from these. It no longer needs to be rational, because it no longer measures itself against either an ideal or negative instance. It is no longer anything but operational. In fact, it is no longer really the real, because no imaginary envelops it anymore. It is a hyperreal, produced from a radiating synthesis of combinatory models in a hyperspace without atmosphere.” (Baudrillard, 1981, p. 2)

Rinus Van de Velde, 2013

(Transcription from the above)

“’It’s as if someone is observing us with a sense of overview we seem to lack, some-one who knows better than us what exactly it is we’re doing here’, writes the artist in his notebook. ‘Night and day he is looking at us from a distance, seeing structures and dynamics I myself must have grown blind to because I have come accept them as my reality.’” (Rinus Van de Velde, Cabin Fever Notebooks)

Upon entering a Michaël Borremans painting, one feels an immediate confrontation with ones own deepest existential fears and desires. The dark, Lynchesque universe engulfs you, sucks you dry, and leaves you unfulfilled and questioning. The shiny life-like skin and bodies, with faces looking away as though ashamed of their own non-humanness, creeps under your skin and stay with you long after leaving the gallery. The characters lack any kind of cognitive identity, they are subject and object at the same time, which makes them abject, something that at the same time reflects/portrays/regrets and denies our own presence and existence. The ostensibly meaningless actions flirts with questions of absurd theatre, a recurring interest within Borremans’ work. The anthropomorphic beings stand there motionless, like droids or mannequins on display. In an absurd theatrical tableaux’s where nothing is really happening – and concomitantly everything is happening. Unlike Van de Velde’s drawings which are accurate, fabricated movie stills, depicting a motion picture narrative, Borremans’ paintings are more histrionic; they are pending and enigmatic. Like film stills without a plot, something is happening, or about to happen, or has just happened and we will never realize what.

Michaël Borremans, The Tape, 2010

Borremans’ work as a filmmaker references his paintings and vice versa. Both are pregnant with the memories of one another, both plotless, both motionless. The “sets”, within which Borremans paintings and drawings unfold, are like his films, nihilistically inexplicable. There is never a storyline or a context for what the actors, or “figures” are doing. E. g., in relation to Man Holding His Nose, Belgian actor and filmmaker Josse De Pauw says: “The unease is in your own ignorance of what this man is doing.” (Grove 2014, p.152 ) Many of Borremans’ paintings has an element of labor, or task. Although, the tasks performed seem meaningless and repetitive, almost Sisyphean in their quality. As a dark reminder of the absurd meaninglessness of our own existence. It becomes clear that anyone who tries to determinately analyze his painting will inevitably fail. The need to find a narrative within the figurative is so strong, and the fact that Borremans is denying us context or explanation is what creates the abrupt, uncanny nature. As former editor of Art Review Charlotte Mullins points out: ”Nothing can be relied upon; our desire to construct narratives from figurative paintings and drawings is steadfastly, purposefully, undermined.”(Grove, 2014, pp. 110 )

Borremans previous work revolved around scavenged footage and materials: a stained piece of paper, or a thrift shop photograph. There is a dialogue taking place between the already been – the dead, and the present – the now. About photography he says: “It saddles you with a psychological problem. Only the ‘now’ exists, not the past or the future, but photography captures the past: that creates mental short-circuits. In this sense I find photos a little scary – they fill you with a mixture of fascination and disgust, like an accident, a dead body.” (Grove, 2014, p. 16)

When talking about representational image-making, Borremans has a very clear distinction about what his work constitutes. He does not try to portray nature true to its authentic form. In the 2009 documentary A Knife In the Eye, he clearly states that he paints culture and not nature, and that all representational painting is inevitably a lie.

“A human on a canvas does not simply represent a human. Painting does not show “the reality”. The detachment of a camera is an integral part of the way a twenty-first-century painter such as Borremans views the world. It is not the people of flesh and blood that figure in front of the camera, but portrayals.” (Grove, Foreword, 2014)

This statement addresses the epistemological understanding of what representation is. In relation to the painting Dead Chicken, Borremans explains that: “When you kill the chicken, it represents the chicken. But it’s dead. So it’s in a way also a representation.”(Grove, 2014, p. 110) The dead chicken is already an inanimate representation of itself. So the act of painting the chicken becomes a representation of a representation. This dualism of life and death is a continuous and imperative theme in his work.

A recurring figure, or rather, phenomenon in Borremans’ paintings and drawings is The House of Opportunity. A house which has no doors, only endless rows of black and red windows, and can change in scale in every depiction. It is called the house of opportunity, so potentially anything and nothing can happen in there. This dreamlike shapeshifter is it a metaphor, but for what? Is it a metaphor for cinema? Is it a metaphor for the real? Is it a metaphor for art? Is it a metaphor for nothing? Borremans interrogates this object throughout a series of drawings and paintings. In the piece The Filling (2005), you see four work men having opened up the house so you can see its insides, but it is completely dark, not even here will Borremans allow us anything but an amputated narrative, and in The House of Opportunity: Voodoo! (2004-5), A woman is, in an almost preindustrial manner, performing a seemingly meaningless task on the house on its side, again with no context or explanation. The figures which surround the house vary in scale, to distort the narrative even further. The house exists in many situations: a gallery, The House of Opportunity (The Chance of a Lifetime) from 2003, an idyllic landscape (although, the terror I lurking in the distance in the shape of gloomy skies) in The House of Opportunity (im Rhönlandshaft) from 2004, and as an uncanny, misunderstood dolls house in The Journey (True Colours), 2002. In short, in can function and shape-shift into anything of our fear and desire. It is as universal as it is local. As Caroline Lamarche contemplates in As sweet as it gets: “The house of life. Of my own life? Of the life of a family hidden behind those little windows like bees in their cells? Or, on the contrary, of a decimated, absent, or dead family, with the hive left empty?” (Caroline Lamarche, Grove, 2014, p.112)

Michaël Borremans, The House of Opportunity (The Chance of a Lifetime), 2003

The phenomenological idea of The House of Opportunity links closely to Borges parable about the cartographers who drew a map so detailed that it ended up covering the entire territory of state (Baudrillard, 1981, p. 1), or a more contemporary example could be the postmodern drama Synecdoche, New York, by American filmmaker Charlie Kaufman, from 2008. The film’s protagonist, the theatre director Caden Cotard decides to create a play where the actors live out their own constructed lives, within a massive construct, which, as the movie progresses resembles, and fits to the exact scale of the whole of New York City. The lines between reality and fiction are abolished within the time frame of this outrageous simulacrum, the plot of the play becomes more and more entangled, and at some point Cotard hires actors to also play himself, as the simulacrum has expanded out into his own being and sense of reality, and his now doppeltgänger ends up forming a romantic relationship with his wife, because she cannot tell the difference. This hyperreal play-within-a-play, is seen by many as the most accurate postmodern piece of culture – this very statement with its obvious meta-value is an almost satirically accurate description of the rules which defines the hyperreal society. The Borremans drawing, N. Y C. 24th of September, 2030, from 2006, seems almost like an dystopian premonition of the ultimate hyperreal society. As Charlie Kaufman’s simulacrum, Michael Borremans’ House of Opportunity might progress to fill up the entire gallery space – perhaps the entire world.

Where does Borremans position himself in the context of other representational image-makers? The kinship to the works of Spanish painter Diego Velazquez has been of great importance for Michaël Borremans since childhood. Velazquez had a strong influence on how he thought about painting, the distinctiveness of the brush strokes, the immense detail, the ever present dark undertones and hidden fatal narrative, was in many ways a stepping stone for Borremans style of painting.

“I find it technically unequalled. It affects me each time. For someone like me it is also a little discouraging. A few Velazquez I can handle, but when I visit the Prado, I can’t paint for six months. “ (Michaël Borremans, Guido, 2009)
The similarities are trenchant, not only in the shiny and dark, otherworldly quality of the paintings, but the interest in playing with the dogmes of representation, each in their own time era. In the beginning chapter of The order of Things, Foucault makes a rather magnificent analyzes of the Velazquez painting Las Meninas, which functions as an analogy for explaining the play with representation of representation that Velazquez conducts within the Classical era. Foucault refers to the various eras as epistemes – an unconscious stratum which underlies as a precondition for the discursive epistemology regarding science and culture within a certain historical period. He sees Las Meninas as a progressive nod towards the next episteme, therefore the piece is of huge importance, especially in relation the ordinary understanding of representation at the time.

“And let us, if we may, look for the previously existing law of that interplay in the painting of Las Meninas, in which representation is represented at every point: the painter, the palette, the broad dark surface of the canvas with its back to us, the paintings hanging on the wall, the spectators watching, who are framed, in turn, by those who are watching them; and lastly, in the centre, in the very heart of the representation, nearest to what is essential, the mirror, showing us what is represented, but as a reflection so distant, so deeply buried in an unreal space, so foreign to all the gazes being directed elsewhere, that it is no more than the frailest duplication of representation.” (Foucault, 1970, p. 308)

Representational image-making has changed a lot since the time of Velazquez, it is no longer a question of depicting nature, but a question of examining, and in a way manipulating the viewers idea of nature. In a hyperreal age of virtual reality, Facebook and simulation spectacles, the understanding of the real has expanded immensely, and keeps expanding, and physicality and materiality seems a rarity. The notion of the real must be found, perhaps not in the hyperreal that surrounds us, but possibly somewhere in the interaction that takes place between us, and in the cultural food with which we engage. The need to depict reality persists within art and literature, as a continuous need of self examination within human nature – and consequently the heavy realization that we cannot grasp the real, and that reality will forever carry a sense of ambiguity and relativity which we can never fully address.

“What is language? What is a sign? What is unspoken in the world, in our gestures, in the whole enigmatic heraldry of our behavior, our dreams, our sickness – does all that speak, and if so in what language and in obedience to what grammar? Is everything significant, and, if not, what is, and for whom, and in accordance with what rules? What relation is there between language and being, and is it really to being that language is always addressed – at least language that speaks truly?” (Foucault, 1970, p. 306)

Michaël Borremans, Dead Chicken, 2013


Michaël Borremans, Man Holding His Nose, 2007


  • –  Baudrillard, Jean: Simulacra and Simulation, 1981, Ann Arbor The University of Michigan Press
  • –  Cervantes: Don Quixote, 1950, Penguin Books
  • –  De Bruyn, Guido: Michaël Borremans – A Knife in the Eye, 2009, Canvas
  • –  Foucault, Michel: The order of Things: An archaeology of the human sciences, 1970, Travistock Publications Limited
  • –  Garbus, Liz: Bobby Fischer Against The World, 2011, Sundance
  • –  Grove, Jeffrey: Micheal Borremans: As sweet as it gets, 2014, Hatje Cantz, BOZAR
  • –  Lechte, John, Fifty Key Contemporary Thinkers – From structuralism to postmodernism, 1994, Routledge
  • –  Kaufman, Charlie: Synecdoche New York, 2008, Sidney Kimmel Entertainment
  • –  Read, Herbert: The Thames & Hudson Dictionary of Art and Artists, 1985, Thames &Hudson world of art

    Websites and links:

  • –  Artisanal House: Rinus Van de Velde, Vimeo,
  • –  Wanderkeit: Rinus Van de Velde, Vimeo,
  • –  Binary/Simulacra: On Hyperreality: Baudrillard and Borges, 2009
  • –  Social democracy for the 21st century: A Post Keynesian Perspective, Foucault’s The Order of Things – A summary and critique, 2015 and.html
  • –  Fans of Flanders: Rinus Van de Velde interview, 2014,
  • –  Rinus Van de Velde artist profile, 2016
  • –  Rinus Van de Velde official website, 2016

Anna Sofie Jespersen Chelsea College of Arts Fine Art// Stage 2// Unit 8 18-04-2016

– George Konstantinidis: Las Meninas by Diego Velazquez, 2012