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Eric de Kuyper on Bruno Vekemans print

I. Klamotte, an astonishing mash-up
 
I was sitting at the editing table in the semidarkness in the archives of the film museum watching old film material from our collection. That was my job. I had to decide whether we would save these films from the early days of film history. Whether it was worth preserving and restoring them for posterity. The selected films then had to be transferred from the transient and highly flammable nitrate to acetate, which is safer. Naturally, this was pre-digital technology.
 
In early film history many films were coloured in. This was done by hand, frame by frame, using templates. It was real drudgery. This film was also coloured in. By the looks of it, it was a comedy, a German farce. The title and maker – as so often happens – were unknown. Forgotten. Not that it did matter anyway: it seemed like a worthless farce.
 
However, what I saw now was unbelievable: the carefully coloured in images had continued to develop, rather excessively too, as a result of a solarisation process. I could still make out the contours of the (comical) characters but sometimes the characters had switched from positive to negative and, even more difficult to imagine, every stage in between. Half-positive, half-negative. And what about the colours! They bled in to each other, in a state of decomposition. They were leading a life of their own, within the photographic boundaries of positive and negative. The chemical dyes were fanning out wildly, were breaking free from their contours and from their original colour consistency.
 
It was a wonderful spectacle to behold. More insane than all the psychedelic stuff I had ever experienced in the Sixties. The film itself was negligible. But as a visual miracle, which had been created by some coincidence, somewhere in between figuration and abstraction, it was valuable. It was clear to me that this had to be preserved and restored. Admittedly there was not much to be restored. But it had to be preserved, which meant that transferring it to acetate film would be sufficient. 
 
We now know that photography and film exist by virtue of chemical processes. But in this case all these laws and processes had been deregulated.
 
It so happened that the same copy found its way back to my table a few months later. They asked me whether I really wanted this sent to the lab for conservation. Yes! I watched the film again purely for pleasure. Much to my surprise the solarisation process had continued. A completely new colour palette had been created. The decomposition process would continue now and then until all that remained of the nitrate would be a mush. Probably because that was the state of affairs for film stock that deteriorated. What was fascinating, however, was that in the meantime, during this process, such stunning changes took place. 
In effect we should have copied and preserved the film at intervals. Make a copy every month of the dissolution process that was taking place in the film can. Then we would have had different versions of the “same” film. But my mission was not to produce new works of art with old material! My role was that of curator, I was not hired as an artist.
 
It was and continued to be a film. This means “the images moved”. What originally was a jocular “Klamotte” or farce had become an experimental film. But I also thought that every single 
frame – every photogram – looked like a real painting. 
 
I think that Bruno Vekemans would have loved it.
 
 
II. Arrêt sur image, Freeze
 
I have always been struck by the fact that some sculptors – like Rodin for example – purposefully chose subjects that contradict everything that sculpture can achieve. The waves, the fire, the wind, how (in heaven’s name) can you cast this into a sculpture or model it from clay, or even release it from the marble? Usually the result is some sort of an allegory.
 
Back to the (non-digital) editing table, but now as a filmmaker. What is so paradoxical about moving film images is that you often feel the need to stop the story; to turn the film image into a photographic image again. “Verweile doch, du bist so schön” (“stay a while, you are so beautiful”), Goethe wrote. All the film directors and film editors know that feeling, the fascination that emanates from a still. The French call it “arrêt sur image”, in English it is called freeze.
 
Where does this fascination come from? Sometimes the still says so much more. Or says something different. The moving image is too fast, at times seems too superficial. It pushes the spectator into a direction unlike the still. The still of “Terminus Nord” tells me something that the moving image of the same Parisian building would not tell me. The film image would use the façade of “Terminus Nord” as a casual setting, not as an intriguing image. The film theorist Christian Metz wrote that the photographic image is more fetishistic than the film image. 
 
This working on and with images, the altering of the pictorial nature of an image, is a mysterious and fascinating occupation. Not only because the manipulation makes you feel like a master (controlling the image). The opposite is probably the case: the magic power of the image manifests itself. It becomes visible, I almost find myself wanting to write! As if imagery is not always visible!
 
But that precisely is the point: the visual artist renders images visible.
 
This impossible tension, between the still and movement, between petrifaction and dynamics is always apparent in the art of Bruno Vekemans. The complete freeze – and what can be more deathly than freezing? – is founded on movement, on energy. In two directions: what previously was there and what will probably come after it. Because the solidified movement could further develop. The frozen image may thaw out. Or won’t it?
 
In these images that have so little to do with the anecdotal or fiction you can sense that there are various fictional stories brewing subliminally, which you, as the spectator, barely dare to develop so as not to affect the purity and simplicity of that one image. What is so beautiful and powerful about it is that with these images that are anything but anecdotal a different dimension emerges in my imagination – on the edge of abstraction. A universe full of anecdotes, full of fiction. As if there are film images behind it, and whole cinematic developments are taking place.
 
These are fascinating snapshots because they constantly shuttle between realistic figurativity and pure abstraction.
 
 
III. Editing
 
As a film director I have always hated the editing process. Cutting and pasting which required a lot of time and above all a lot of patience. That was what it was like in the Eighties when we still worked on the film itself. 16 or 35 mm celluloid stock. 
 
Today’s digital editing by contrast is truly a pleasure. The editing no longer is limited to the cutting and pasting of yore. Now I, the director, can use my own editor for a whole slew of processes, which until then had to be done in a lab (and at the time only a few options were available to us). The big advantage is that I can immediately see the result too.
 
I can now do all the processing – photoshopping – which involved a lot of laborious “truca” in the past myself. What a pleasure to be able to work with, as well as on and in the images themselves.
 
The lab work was like a black box. That is where the film was developed and the images corrected. The camera operator would give instructions to the film lab and list his wishes. As the director and filmmaker you had hardly any say in this process. You knew what went into the box, but had no idea what would come out of it. Corrections or adjustments could only be made during a new – expensive and uncertain – process.
 
 
IV. The clear line, à-plat
 
The line and colourised planes in Bruno Vekemans’s work. 
 
The line is similar to the “clear line” style that we know from comics. Then the à-plat technique was used to fill in the planes. I like them both. The clear line because it expresses the graphic aspect, or recalls it. The à-plat because it unabashedly lets colour be “colour” respecting its beauty.
 
So it will come as no surprise that I have a penchant for what is called decorative art. As soon as this adjective is used however the value of an art work is depreciated. Why? Any artist who works in this way is automatically relegated to a lower category.
 
Standing in front of a painting by Spilliaert a friend said to me: “I prefer Munch”. I think I understand why she said this. In Edvard Munch’s work you sense (you see) the tension between the image and the artist. And in the works of Spilliaert, Matisse, Dufy, Vekemans, Toulouse-Lautrec or Vuillard you don’t? I have purposefully chosen examples from various registers. No, there the image is self-explanatory. But it also demonstrates a different type of tension: craftsmanship, working hard to create an image. The image says what it has to say, and the maker’s work is contained in the image. The process through which it was created is visible in the painting.
 
That is why art that is called decorative is “pleasing”. Or better yet, it does not incite the spectator to something. Instead it inspires peace of mind. It does not pretend to be anything else. Obviously, it is an aesthetic image.
 
Does it have to be more than this?
 
At times this expressiveness is so minimal that these images can be used really well to incorporate all kinds of messages in them. It is no coincidence that we often err into the realm of poster art here. Or of murals. Or several other forms of the so-called applied arts. It is strange that such a pure image can be so easily “applied”. Because it is beautiful, yet strong. Powerful and elegant. All image.
 
I often feel that art connoisseurs are troubled by this. I am not part of this group which is why I intuitively like the graphic arts, which also have, yes indeed, this decorative quality.
 
Call it my weakness.
 
 
V. Recycling, Interpretation
 
For more than a century the arts survived under the dictatorship of innovation, called “modernism”. Eyes firmly trained on the future. Until one day “post-modernism” granted artists permission to once again look back at the past. Or in any event break free from the compulsive ideology of the “novelty”, that was so characteristic of the avant-garde and the experimental. 
 
For several decades I was considered an expert on experimental film. And I would shock my colleagues because I was of the opinion that every innovation in this genre had to be taken with a pinch of salt. A big pinch of salt too. I was interested in experimental and non-experimental film for the quality. Or rather: the “experimental” criterion did not help me at all. “Marginal” on the other hand worked, but the avant-garde and the experimental are not by definition marginal.
 
These days they call it recycling. Composers like Handel and Rossini were truly masters at this. Their approach was much more valuable and meaningful than the word recycling as used today will ever be. Because present-day recycling involves a purely material transposition. Handel and Rossini reuse to use it again in a different context. Much like a collage with fragments from their own work.
 
What we tend to forget is the value and the power of the repetition. Sigmund Freud described it as an immensely human feeling, which mainly emerges when music is played. “Once more, with feeling”. This is not about material objects or processes but about the aesthetic emotions. And these are experienced on a completely different level.
 
Liszt composes many of his transcripts out of profound admiration. Out of a sense of humility in the face of a masterpiece and model, which he admires. Could this intense admiration for old masters possibly block one’s own creativity? This threat – even if it existed – can be avoided by copying, by imitating. Sometimes it is also a way of giving a predecessor a hand: Ravel – among others – did this in his orchestrations of other composers’ works.
 
It’s all about respect and love. Because you only manipulate what or whom you admire. Like Benjamin Britten with Purcell; Stravinsky with his adaptations of Pergolesi or of his beloved Tchaikovsky, who in turn had already paid tribute to Mozart. Couperin (the master) is honoured by Ravel (his student).
 
In music there is nothing extraordinary about working like this. In jazz too, where composers often start from a “standard” only to improvise upon it. In music composers have been obsessed with ideas of innovation for over a century now. This obsession is compensated and put into perspective by the fact that music, by definition, has to be performed and that each performance is different, sheds a different light on the score. That is why it is called an interpretation. What’s fascinating about this – see Freud – is that the repetition is never identical to what is repeated. There is tension, surprise, (re-)discovery concealed in these variations.
 
And what about literature? Aside from a few rare exceptions, narrative prose is all too well aware of the fact that the basic facts of a story are limited. Emile Souriau counted about thirty-six of them. The Russian Formalists thought that there were even less. And for Hollywood – a real fiction machine – “boy meets girl” and vice versa seems to be more than sufficient.
 
Personally I was not very happy with the “post-modern” label. 
 
Weren’t a lot of artists born as “post-modern”? The fact that they lacked that modernist Sturm und Drang is due to two attitudes. On the one hand, they have respect for and value tradition and everything that all these artists have created throughout the centuries. And on the other hand, it is a glorious feeling that you are able to add a work to this, in your own art discipline. The so-called modernists’ urge to shock and challenge the public is an attitude or a method that these artists do not strive for. All in all provocation in art has become a “genre”, a register rather than an essential necessity in art.
 
Dandies don’t concern themselves with trends or fashion! In the best case scenario they pretend, ironically, that they define trends. Dandies are timeless, they aren’t in fashion.
 
The trends in fashion – like art movements – by contrast are entirely dependent on time. Fashion is a market-oriented industry that is determined by the market (like so much in the arts sector). But it is also self-deprecating: every six months it needs to have a new collection ready. What is new here, what can be new about this? That is the convention but it is also always a challenge and a game. Always changing and yet always the same like the seasons. Anyone who does not respect this convention and tries to explicitly shock people does not take fashion seriously and consequently sidelines himself. In that case, why not call it a modernist art object? Or artistic fashionability. Many of Bruno Vekemans’s portraits in a sense are a flirtation with fashion imagery. But he always approaches the theme like a dandy. In a timeless fashion.
 
A lot of art is fashionable, bad fashion and     bad art. 
 
 
 
Eric de Kuyper
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