The theatre maker and artist Kris Verdonck has appeared in a previous Kunstenfestivaldesarts with a series of performances and installations. In "5" in 2003 and "II" in 2005 the spectators were led from one ‘incident' to the next. In the course of this they were taken through a sequence of situations: sitting on chairs as if at the theatre, and looking at what was shown, or being plunged into an installation environment as if they were visitors to a museum.
During Kunstenfestivaldesarts 2007, Kris Verdonck's work was presented in a completely new way. Two gigantic images were projected on two large walls above the Kunstberg (Coudenberg 3) - in the open air in other words. Despite the title, STILL I & II, which refers to a still life, we see the moving images of two very bulky naked human figures confined in a space that is far too small. Every now and then they move slightly, trying to find a more comfortable position in what is clearly a very awkward situation for them.
This work was created in September 2006, commissioned by La Notte Bianca in Rome. Here it was projected for one night on one of the megalomanic façades of the EUR, a suburb of Rome built by Mussolini. The difficult position in which these figures, who despite their large proportions are nevertheless extremely fragile, are placed, contrasts starkly with the demagogic, national socialist architecture. Although the terms large and powerful are usually associated with one another, these figures reveal the vulnerability, helplessness and awkwardness of something that has become too large and, like the dinosaurs, no longer fits in with its surroundings and is therefore doomed to die. They do still move however, and their tiny spastic jerks are a last futile attempt to escape; in fact they have already given up hope and so have become reduced to a still life, a 'nature morte'. Beyond panic. Almost resigned. A shudder occasionally passes through their bodies and they hum softly in an attempt to endure their position a little longer.
These images cannot be seen separately from the context in which they are projected. The surrounding architecture is part of the concept and the perception of this work of art. It is precisely the contrast with and resemblance to the surroundings that gives the images the many layers that confuse the spectator.
The not-unambiguous quality of the images used is a constant factor in Kris Verdonck's work and therefore links this Stills to his earlier installations and performances. They all involve images that contain many potential meanings, and it is precisely because of the fact that they are able to 'absorb' these many possible interpretations that Verdonck chooses them. This is more or less the test an image has to be able to endure when it appears in the preparatory stage of the work; an image is 'good' or 'usable' if it can stand up on its own even when conflicting meanings are combined or projected onto it.
In his piece entitled Zichtbaarheid (Visibility), which is one of his Six memos for the coming millennium, the Italian writer Italo Calvino describes the way he uses and develops images in his writing. Kris Verdonck's method closely resembles that of Calvino. As Calvino sees the imagination as a means of acquiring knowledge, he regards images as 'not only visual but also conceptual'. 'In short,' he writes, 'my method aims to unite the spontaneous formation of images and the purposiveness of rational thinking.' He also views the imagination as 'a collection of the potential, of the hypothetical, of what does not exist, of what has never been and may never be, but of what might have been' (...) 'I think that drawing from this bay of potential multiplicity is the fastest way to make a connection and choose between the infinite number of forms of the possible and the impossible. The fantasy is a sort of electronic apparatus that takes into account every possible combination and selects precisely those combinations that meet a particular goal even if it is because it is simply the most interesting, pleasant or entertaining.'
In Kris Verdonck's Stills there is an accumulation of possible meanings. The megalomanic element of the architecture in which the images are displayed refers, amongst other things, to the buildings designed and built by Albert Speer, the architect and, later on, Hitler's minister of war. These buildings were intended mainly to impress the people and resembled a mausoleum, and were therefore connected with death, rather than being based on human proportions and relating to the living, the incomplete and the imperfect. 'In fascist buildings time is never the time that has grown organically out of the past, but the non-existent time of the utopia, a utopia that expresses its lack of fantasy through its precise resemblance to a distant past and therefore can never become real time, but only an impressive space in which there is no place for man as an individual.' (Bernlef, De menselijke maat. Over Albert Speer en Kurt Schwitters).
Verdonck's projected images are also reminiscent of the idealised and therefore naive blown-up sculptures of the ‘heroes of the regime' depicted in the work of Arno Breker in the period of German fascism, or in the socio-realistic painting of Stalinist communism. By showing figures of this size in their awkwardness and helplessness Verdonck eradicates any heroic connotations they may have.
The two projected figures softly hum almost unrecognisable melodies from Wagner's operas. Wagner too searched for the monumental and the grand, for what could transcend all that was human and petty.
There are also reminders of characters from the world of Fellini in STILLS.
Either they remind us of bodybuilders or evoke images of mammograms or layers of meaning such as imprisonment, oppression, etc.
These people are literally crushed and only consist of a body, flesh or filling without a soul or will. They are characters who have fallen into the hands of Evil because of their belief in the Ideal, in absolute Good. They have been deprived of their freedom of movement. Their suffering is enlarged; they are put on show, not crucified but laid in a coffin.
The positive reactions to these Stills when they were projected in Rome gave rise to the idea of taking them on tour across Europe and to project them in various national socialist or dictatorial buildings, of which there are so many in Europe. In addition to Mussolini's Rome we also have Hitler's Berlin. Milosevich's Belgrade, Franco's Madrid, Gomulka's Warsaw, Stalin's Moscow, etc. The Stills also express an implicit and overt criticism of every right-wing society. In Brussels a search was made for an equivalent location with a character that was equally imposing and demagogic.
Our history not directly produced a dictator of the same calibre as Hitler or Mussolini or Stalin, but if we use the large number of deaths that occurred during a ruler's term of office as a criterion, then King Leopold II and his colonial policy should definitely be added to the list.
At the end of the 19th century, the location now known as the Kunstberg was a lively neighbourhood teeming with streets and alleys and shops and brothels. In 1883 Leopold II decided that this ‘unhygienic cancer' should be wiped off the map to make way for his grand urban plans. Mayor Karel Buls tried to prevent the demolition of this popular area but the king systematically bought up pieces of land through intermediaries. In the end Buls came off worst and resigned as mayor. The area was demolished and the land, covered with rubble and weeds, lay fallow for several decades. In 1910, a year after the death of Leopold II, a garden was inaugurated on this very spot by Albert I as part of the World Fair event. It is said it became a favourite spot for the citizens of Brussels, and when the park had to make way for the underground and above ground buildings of the current Kunstberg in 1955, there was a general outcry. Leopold III's 1935 plan to pay tribute to his predecessor Albert I with a new library (the Albertina) was only realised in 1969 and was inaugurated by Boudewijn I. So almost all Belgium's monarchs have therefore been involved with the Kunstberg project.
The image that remains clearest in our minds after seeing STILL I & II is probably that of man as a failing Atlas figure. The two projected figures probably once had the illusion of shoring up and keeping upright the building on which they can be seen. Atlas was a god who could carry the world. But man is not able to achieve such feats. The fame of Stakhanov - the model labourer who, in the early days of the Soviet Union, could dig up fourteen times the amount of coal the government specified for each miner, turned out to be a deliberately devised myth. His heroic example was used for many years to boost the productivity of all Soviet workers. Modern man once again believes in the impossible dream that he can ‘carry the world'. In this globalised world he imagines that he can compete with machines, that he can keep up with their rhythm and that he can deny the ‘human measure'. In the meantime he is being brought down by stress and the obligation to produce in a society based on the survival of the fittest (survival? For how long?) in which the weakest elements are mercilessly shunted off.
Text: Marianne Van Kerkhoven