Yes, the work looks sterile - an interview with Wesley Meuris

By Dirk Vanduffel - Friday, August 25, 2017
Yes, the work looks sterile - an interview with Wesley Meuris

Wesley Meuris is a Belgian sculptor and installation artist. Having studied sculpture at Sint Lukas School of Arts in Antwerp, he began exhibiting large-scale sculptures that explore the ways we classify and explore the world around us. His latest exhibition at the Annie Gentils Gallery opens in September.

Yes, the work looks sterile - an interview with Wesley Meuris

Wesley Meuris is a Belgian sculptor and installation artist. Having studied sculpture at Sint Lukas School of Arts in Antwerp, he began exhibiting large-scale sculptures that explore the ways we classify and explore the world around us. His latest exhibition at the Annie Gentils Gallery opens in September. 

Artdependence Magazine: Can you tell us a bit about your work? Is it about classification and order?

Wesley Meuris: There is a part of my work that does indeed seem to have strong correlations with context classification as well as the ordering of objects and knowledge. Ordering through architecture, through language and through particular systems of perception.

My interest in this area initially started while I was working on my project Zoological Classification (2006), during which I became increasingly interested in the architectural design of animal enclosures. Not merely for the ways by which these designs create a livable context for exotic animals, but also in the way particular animals are shown as ‘creatures on display’.

Often, zoos create conditions that allow us to observe these creatures in the most comfortable way (from a human point of view) by creating lifted platforms for direct eye contact with the animals. The use of glass generates proximity between object and observer, without having the hindrance of smell or the experience of anxiety over a possible attack. Additionally, many other architectural mechanisms are used to maximize the experience for those who are on the illusionary ‘free’ side of the separation. In the end, the gaze of the spectator is also caged. Whether ‘the eyes’ seek entertainment, scientific proof, or just have the desire to look, in almost every case the animal cannot escape the gaze of the observer.

At a later stage, the links between zoological display (several enclosures arranged in a consequential order) and museum display (objects and systems of knowledge arranged within an architecture) became more obvious in my work. Simultaneously, an interesting and additional complexity appeared. More precisely, the correlation between the constructed environment and the institute’s program as a significant ground to orchestrate a balanced context for objects on display. Not necessarily limited to one type of museum, I delved into visual research. The showcase, the museum barrier and the information desk are just a few of the devices I examined in order to unravel their effects and power within the experience of the museum. Beside the physical and constructed environments present within a museum (among different types of exhibition platforms) the facilitation of information was also important to me. By ‘information’ I don’t exclusively mean the accompanying label of the object on display, but rather the overarching constructed program that influences the gaze and the ways in which the object of interest is perceived. I probably don’t need to emphasize that a substantial amount of research has been done, and is still being done, to show how an exhibition could be conceived and set up. This ranges from research on the content of the exhibition to research around how the visitor behaves within the trails set out within an exhibition, or how the eye scans the architecture, the pedestals, the labels and hopefully also the objects on display. I just want to stress the power and politics of display - the considerable impact of the context.

However, there is not always a clear-cut method in creating a display. When I analyze the architecture and infrastructure of institutions that show, archive, conserve and present artifacts and other objects more or less related to art, I cannot rid myself of the palpable and visible field of tension between the scientific policy on the one hand, and the visually stimulating presentation on the other: between the collection as heritage and the institutions’ longing for renewal, between political control and artistic freedom, economic input and public return, and so on, and so forth. The negotiation and dynamic between these parameters (in relation to the physical design and the communication mechanisms) are an inexhaustible domain of fascination for me.

Enclosure for Okapi jonstoni, 2007. 430 x 1250 x 2700 cm, wood, glass, tiles and lighting. Photo: Cel Brugge. De Bond, Brugge

The World’s most Important Artists, 2009. 260 x 2400 x 1250 cm, wood, glass, 660 handels & 660 unique labels. Photo: H. Beurel. Galerie Art & Essai, University Rennes, France

Compare two Magnificent Pieces of the Collection, 2012. Site specific, wood, metal, paint and tube-light. Photo: E. Chenal. Casino Luxembourg Forum d'art Contemporain

AD: Was there a fascination with classification?

WM: It is a fascination yes. I discovered this fascination while looking into the history of collecting. If you look back to the first Kunst-und Wunderkammers of the 16th century, there was already a longing to capture the world in an understanding that was still ‘subjective’. Later, around the 18th century, a more rational approach was being used: the encyclopedic collection. This approach was also founded on the basis of the current stateless arrangement and dissemination of knowledge. 

Today, there are so many different and overlapping classification systems that try to deal with the amount of available knowledge. Systems that once looked so reliable and solid are becoming more and more fragile. Just to mention a few: search engines, intelligent surveys and economic and political models. In the art world, we are also starting to see several different classification systems being used. 

AD: Your work seems very sterile. Is it?

WM: Yes, the work looks sterile. I think that is because of my method of working. Many of my sculptures refer to objects from our familiar environment, though they are executed in a different way. Precise selected characteristics of the real context are depicted within clear-constructed conditions. In this sense, the work refers to the ‘real’ objects, but does not fall together with them. They are a kind of model, something they refer to…but at the same time they evoke a new way of looking. The objects I make are not a trompe l’oeil, but they are elements from an unraveled reality, deconstructed with precision, putting the emphasis on their power of construction.

AD: Your installations are on a 1/1 scale. Does size matter?

WM: Scale matters. Especially in the case of installations where there is always an experience of space, time and human circulation. Many of the works rely on architectural principles, so it is obvious that creating similar real-size situations works best. Standing in front of a wide glass surface creates an overwhelming experience. Walking through corridors covered with drawers puts you in the middle of the physical diagram at stack. Of course, not every concept I want to work with results in a 1/1 scale installation. Drawings and collages are perfect solutions if budget and space are not available. Installations are inseparably connected with exhibition space, not merely the particular space for that exhibition, but also the institutional context that creates a necessity to examine.

AD: How difficult is it for you to create an exhibition? Do you want to have some influence on the venue itself? Is that possible?

WM: It varies from venue to venue, but let’s use the example of a situation where there is an invitation to work with a given space. Often, an (exhibition) space has already had a history - whether the history of the space itself or the history of the exhibitions organized in that space. A project will always be put in line with this context. It is something to be aware of. Without allowing the possibility of handling all aspects of the space, it can be interesting to influence, or go into dialogue with some of them. It could be the spaces’ architecture, the institutional system, or even the expectations of the visitors that can be used to make the connection between the project and the space. Being critical of an exhibition setting is a necessity. From then on it is a negotiation in finding a way to make the questions the space raises more visible. The way to have influence on the space is through dialogue. It is a visual dialogue.

Enclosure for Primates, 2017. 400 x 1500 x 400 cm, wood, lighting and glass. Photo: I. Arthuis. Musée des Arts Contemporains au Grand-Hornu, Belgium

Panoramic Rotunda, 2017. 120 x 1000 x 1000 cm, wood, glass mosaic, metal and water. Photo: I. Arthuis. Musée des Arts Contemporains au Grand-Hornu, Belgium

Congo Collection –Research Building. Scenographic intervention. CC Knokke

AD: Can you tell us a bit about your current exhibition at Mac's site du Grand-Hornu?

WM: The exhibition at Mac’s was created from two main installations. The first work is a newly created enclosure-sculpture. A 15-meter long corridor leads your eye through 3 cages. As a spectator you investigate the other side of the glass, the interior of the cage and of course also the cage itself, since there are no animals on display. This work also raises question around our human need to ‘capture the world’, to ‘exhibit the world’. It also extends to ‘understanding the world’, although the latter might be an illusion.

This installation stands in dialogue with ‘panoramic routunda’, an architectural sculpture in the square room at Mac’s. Here, the perception, the circulation of the ‘eye’, works differently. The spectator doesn’t stay outside the work. He becomes part of it. It is an ambiguous work that questions the ‘outside-inside’ relationship and also the unstoppable urge of ‘museumification’. 

AD: There is growing interest in your work. Why do you think this is?

WM: I do not know. I doubt I want to know…

AD: What exhibition / event has had the biggest impact on your carrier so far?

WM: There are several projects that have had (each in their own noteworthy way) an effect on my oeuvre. One to mention is the ‘Research Building – Congo Collection’ exhibition, which was a stenographic intervention with a collection of African artifacts. During the installation, and even after the finalization of this project, many questions were raised regarding curatorship, authenticity, scenographic power, political influences, economic influences and others. Almost as a reaction to this project, I created an artist book called the ‘Foundation for Exhibiting Art and Knowledge’ (FEAK). The book provides an overview of all sorts of studies, activities and events that were organized by the eponymous institution, including various exhibition models and formulas that have apparently been stipulated consistently, but are not verifiable. For me, it has more to do with the various methods rather than the specific cases. In essence, FEAK is a collection of familiar and less familiar mechanisms - exhibition mechanisms that lie hidden by the mere ‘display of objects and knowledge’. FEAK picks up communication strategies, scenographic constructions, educational formulas, border-crossing and interdisciplinary partnerships, collection management, knowledge-producing activities and countless other themes. 

FEAK is made up of these mechanisms that are borrowed from existing institutions. But they are not merely being reproduced. I think of them as digital collages, where existing pictures, structures, design and text are combined in a constructed hypothesis. At first sight, the pictures seem to lean heavily on the existing examples, but they are not replicas.

If there is a critical dimension to FEAK, it does not lie in the cracking of exhibition models, and neither is it the intention to knock down the institutional mechanism. It is rather a desire to get a grasp of it. At the same time, the possibility of success is subject to that desire. My aim is to reveal the heavily manipulated perception. Various approaches are evoked in the book, from a historical-scientific one to mere maintenance. This results in various perspectives and interpretations, which prevent it from being a trompe l’oeil. It is not an optical illusion and it does not make fun of the entire exhibition mechanism. It brings certain visions into sharper focus and lets different perceptions intersect. In fact, I want to make it clear that exhibitions, museum structures and also general cultural perception cannot be grasped in a clear-cut layout.

R-S5.QOS.0056 – Machine that Changed the World, 2012. 58 x 45 cm, print and water colour on paper, mounted on aluminium sheet

An Outstanding Sculpture Garden. 155 x 115 cm, print on photo-rag mounted on aluminium composite sheets

AD: What evolution do you see in your work over the years?

WM: There was and always will be an interest in unraveling systems of seeing, understanding and interpreting, with a strong affinity towards architecture, the use of language and schematic understanding.  

AD: What does the future bring? 

WM: In September I will have a solo-exhibition at Annie Gentils Gallery. In the meantime I am working on an architectural piece for the next Triennial in Bruges. I will also be launching my new publication very soon. The presentation will be presented towards the end of the exhibition at Mac’s (3rd September). It’s called ‘Exhibition Types’, which puts the last 10 years of my work in a fictional, categorized perception frame.

Dirk defines the overall policy of ArtDependence Magazine, in addition to conducting interviews. He specializes in valuation and auctioning.

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