Jasper de Beijer’s Heart of Darkness

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At the art fairs when I was overloaded by the big, the flashy and the noisy, I found myself seeking the comfort of what I already knew was great: Koto Ezawa, Erwin Wurm, Richard Artschwager, Candida Hofer, Stephan Balkenhol were just some artists whose work made my eyes light up.

Even though I didn’t known the work, one photo by Dutch artist Jasper de Beijer at TZR Galerie’s booth (Scope) drew me in like a magnet. Some combination of noirish atmosphere, ambiguity and the suggestion of ruin grabbed me and required that I pay attention.

Jasper de Beijer
This is the photo I saw by Jasper de Beijer.

The photo shows a brick building, maybe apartments or maybe industrial. The location is somewhere in the tropics because there are palm trees. Shot at night with odd, bluish lighting, the ambiance is spooky — and a little too perfect — like it’s a stage set or something unreal trying to pass for the real thing.

Jasper de Beijer
Apartment, by Jasper de Beijer

When I inquired, the gallerist explained that it was indeed not “real.” The artist made a model, based on an antique photo of a place in the Amazon that no longer exists. Then he photographed the model and that’s the art. The model includes computer rendering but there is also a kind of hand-made drawn quality to the image which gives everything — the bricks, the leaves on the trees, the sky — a storybook quality. It’s a very satisfyingly intriguing image.

Jasper de Beijer
Train, from Cahutchu series

The TZR folks gave me a copy of a monograph on the artist, The Devil Drives and Other True Stories, a soft-cover book published by Nai, with color images from three of the artist’s model-making projects: Buitenpost (about the vestiges of colonialism in Indonesia based on photos from Dutch colonial era), The Devil Drives (about English explorer Richard Francis Burton’s trip to Somaliland and his discovery of Lake Victoria — based on the explorer’s rambling sometimes incoherent journals), and Cahutchu (about the Amazonian village of Manaus built after the discovery of rubber but abandoned when the rubber industry went east to Malaysia.) The photo I saw at Scope, called Apartment, is from the Cahutchu series.

Jasper de Beijer
Luis, from Cahutchu series

The book is beautiful with many color spreads, an essay and a Q&A with the artist. The essay by Willem Kramer speaks of de Beijer’s sense of alienation from the past and his questioning about how the Dutch history of colonialism is taught. Alienation is surely evident in the work. Kramer alludes to the artist’s process, although it is nowhere succinctly spelled out. The artist uses the source photos, scales them up — it’s not clear what scale — but I believe they may be life size, since many of the human figures are real people wearing masks and seemingly ensconced in human-scale environments. The artist uses a computer modeling program although it’s not clear that he uses it for each project. And in some of the shots the backgrounds look as if they’ve been digitally collaged on.

Jasper de Beijer
Cahutchu # 2 Escobar
2006
Cibachrome
75 x 50 cm

De Beijer, a young artist (b. 1973), is freaked out by colonialism and by the teaching of history. Sparked by travel to Indonesia and elsewhere and by encounters with 19th Century archival materials, his work questions the very nature of experience (subjective, ephemeral) and the nature of historical record, (also ephemeral consisting of paper photographs and paper diaries and journals). His works — which are touched with a kind of outsider-y feverishness, and with a tactility that is almost repellent — re-enact the false records as more paper fantasies to be printed out as photographs. It’s kind of like Hollywood making a movie of the Broadway musical Hairspray which was originally a Hollywood movie.

In fact, de Beijer conjures Hollywood reality a lot in his work, which is appropriate. Who among us knows Civil War history? But who doesn’t know the Civil War through the eyes of Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler?

With his Night of the Living Dead ambiance de Beijer is conveying his own subjectivity about the past: As Kurtz (Marlon Brando) says at the end of Apocalypse Now, “the horror… the horror…”

William Kentridge
William Kentridge. (South African, born 1955). Drawing for Stereoscope, “Untitled”. (1998-99). Charcoal, pastel, and colored pencil on paper, 47 1/4 x 63″ (120 x 160 cm). Gift of The Junior Associates of The Museum of Modern Art, with special contributions from Anonymous, Scott J. Lorinsky, Yasufumi Nakamura, and The Wider Foundation. © 2007 William Kentridge

In his evocation of white man’s guilt about colonialism, de Beijer is mining material William Kentridge brought to the table with his ambitious and heart-rending animations based on South African colonial rule.

Thoughts about commerce and the debasement of civilization due to failed capitalist enterprise is also evoked and in many ways, Cahutchu,about the failed rubber industry in the Amazon, could be a visual endnote to Jared Diamond‘s great 2005 book “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed” which details the downfall of failed societies like the Easter Islanders and the Maya due to ecological and economic stupidity.

Thomas Demand
Space Simulator, 2003
Thomas Demand

In his photoshopping of backgrounds and in his destruction of his paper model, de Beijer evokes the likes of Thomas Demand. Both artists make photographic dioramas. But whereas Demand is about contemporary times and his vision eschews the use of the human figure (although humans are everywhere implied) de Beijer is about the humans completely. Although his masked humans are monster-like they are recognizable as you and me and the point is clear: History is made in part of monstrous acts and who are today’s monsters?

Jasper de Beijer
Cahutchu # 9 Jungle
2006
Cibachrome
61 x 150 cm

The whole is about the ephemeral nature of life; the subjective nature of experience; the failure of photos and paper documentation to capture the truth of historical experience. And it questions the very basis for the recording and teaching of history. There are no clever answers for these big questions. But this is exactly what artists should be raising so that we all might get to work thinking about history and our own times and what our children will be left with. Are we not on a course like that of the Easter Islanders? Or are we?

I can’t wait to see more of de Beijer’s work and I hope he’s is on the radar of the global curating cartel. He’s worthy.

Tags

jasper de beijer, scope, the devil drives, thomas demand, tzr galerie, william kentridge

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