10380 - 20170129 - David Claerbout opens exhibition at De Pont - Tilburg - 03.09.2016-29.01.2017


Olympia Stadion (impression of rain), 2015. Gewassen inkt en potlood op papier.
Seven years ago David Claerbout (Kortrijk, 1969) exhibited at De Pont for the first time. The Shape of Time, comprising ten video installations, left an indelible mark. A magical twilight world of old black-and-white photographs, brought to life in a subtle manner, and decelerated film sequences showing a woman serving coffee on the veranda of an eighteenth-century French stately home and then waving farewell to the viewer as the sun sets. The visible passing of time evokes a sense of wonder and estrangement. With Claerbout’s new exhibition, FUTURE, the museum’s new wing will be inaugurated.

While FUTURE may seem to be a fitting title on such a festive occasion, its meaning proves to be rather ambiguous on further consideration. One of the most recent video works in the exhibition, Olympia (The real time disintegration into ruins of the Berlin Olympic stadium over the course of a thousand years), shows the deterioration of the structure in which the 1936 Olympics were held, a building fraught with historical significance. The work alludes to a bleak period, when Hitler was in power and was developing megalomaniacal architectural projects with his chief architect Albert Speer. When envisaging their plans, the two men already gave consideration to the ‘ruin value’ that a building would have a thousand years later. The remains of the Third Reich were then to be at least as impressive as Rome’s Colosseum is today. Because of this Speer became known as the ‘ruin builder’, a somewhat dubious nickname for an architect. With the aid of digital game technology, Claerbout shows us the course of this process in ‘real time’, in any case for the next twenty-five years. Just how this art project will continue after that depends on technological developments and on whether anyone is prepared to assume responsibility for it at that point. The idea does appeal to the imagination in a powerful way: what will the stadium look like in a half-collapsed state, overgrown by weeds and bushes? The decay occurs so slowly, however, that a museum visitor cannot possibly observe this. From this point of view, even a human lifetime would be too short. So what does FUTURE actually mean?

Since his exhibition in 2009, Claerbout has made a radical change in his approach. Having studied 3D animation, he no longer works with actors and film sequences. Now everything takes place in the studio, where he and his nine assistants digitally develop each image step by step. This is how they create a reality which does not actually exist: a virtual world in which every detail must be exactly right – otherwise the video images would instantly lose their credibility. When a photograph is taken, the decisions with regard to the location, the season and the time of day are predetermined. But with a digital image the artist himself always needs to play God.

For Olympia the entire architecture of the interior and exterior, the columns, the corridors and the stands – the ‘hardware’ – has been replaced with software. Claerbout: ‘Software, ironically, is the current carrier of ideological time. We perfectly know it needs constant updating, but it does incorporate infinity. That is why Olympia is a realtime computer program.’

Those who visit the exhibition, however, will hardly notice these technological innovations. Claerbout’s mastery of the medium remains. We discern the same phenomena such as light, shade and wind which gently, without sound, cause the surface of water, trees and architecture to move. The transformations occur in slow motion: ‘I sculpt in duration,’ he says. ‘The definition of duration is different from that of time: duration is not an independent state like time, but an in-between state.’ For the work KING (after Alfred Wertheimer’s 1956 picture of a young man named Elvis Presley), 2015-2016, a scan of an Elvis Presley look-alike was produced in Claerbout’s Antwerp studio. This scan was then ‘covered’ with the skin of the real Elvis, taken from photographs that the artist found on the Internet. Basically the same procedure was used with Oil Workers (from the Shell Company of Nigeria) Returning Home from Work, Caught in Torrential Rain from 2013. Scans of all the figures were made and then covered. Everything about them is artificial; some don’t even have eyes and look like zombies.

Both works, KING and Oil Workers, play without a soundtrack and have no beginning or end. Initially they seem to represent totally different worlds. An old black-and-white photograph of a young Elvis at home with his family: the future King of Rock ’n Roll appears at the left, almost inconspicuously, in dark bathing trunks, shirtless and holding a Pepsi Cola in his right hand. The color photograph of the Nigerian Shell workers has been taken more recently. Beneath a bridge they seek shelter from a tropical downpour with their scooters. The successive images lead the eye of the viewer across the wet, oily-looking surface of the road to, and then around, the waiting figures. With Elvis something similar occurs. As viewers we’re looking at a kind of parallel twilight world, a bygone age between past and future, between actual and imaginary perception. Elvis isn’t quite world-famous yet, and the men’s waiting will go on endlessly.

For the first time in Europe, Claerbout is showing his video installations in combination with the drawings that accompany and support his works’ creative process of many months, sometimes even years. In addition to video works, De Pont also owns a beautiful series of drawings by him. He has a gift for this and is able to set down his ideas on paper quickly. Drawing enables him to get a grip on the complicated process of developing a work, which involves numerous assistants. This function of drawing is basically no different from the sketch or preparatory study that a traditional painter uses to record his ideas. For 3D animation it is necessary to have, along with an understanding of modern computer technology, a command of traditional fields such as drawing, painting, sculpture and cinematography. The result being, to Claerbout’s own astonishment, a ‘conservative’ type of painterly realism.

But in view of his elaborate and sometimes vehement writing that appears in the margins, the drawings are also an outlet for him. The recently published drawing catalogue elicited Claerbout’s remark that it was about time for him to reveal his methods and secret formulas. (David Claerbout Drawings and Studies, 2016, Sean Kelly Gallery, New York)

Scarcely any action takes place in the video installations, and no exciting stories are told. The carefully chosen suggestive images and the slow rhythm are what keep the viewer spellbound. Most of the works are projected onto large transparent screens placed against the walls of the new space. ‘Black boxes’ are now gone, and only a few works, such as Radio Piece (Hong Kong) from 2015, have sound. The viewer determines his or her own route, and pace, through the exhibition.