“Luc Sante, an American writer and photographer, who was from Belgium originally, said my pictures look like unexploded bombs, there is so much energy in them. They look quiet, but inside, they are full of energy, that is waiting to explode. So, I think people are feeling there is more than only the image.”
A career-long dedication and profound love of the print is abundantly clear in Dirk Braeckman’s large scale photographic works. Walking through the Belgian pavilion in the Giardini of the 57th Venice Biennale, it is difficult to break away from the magnet pull of any of the pieces there, such is their latent and enigmatic power. If you ever get a chance to see this work in its physical manifestation, up close, don’t miss the opportunity, that’s all I can say. In the preview week, Braeckman greeted the crowds, excited and passionate, yet quietly humble about what he does and why he does it. I spoke to him, when we were both home, away from the crowds and the glamour of Venice, back in our day-to-day realities.
Sunil Shah: Representing Belgium at the Venice Biennale must feel like quite a significant achievement in your career. How was this experience? Was most of the work made specifically for the show at the Biennale?
Dirk Braeckman: The fact that I am representing Belgium in the Biennale, I think it is the right moment in my career. If they would have asked me 10 years ago, I don’t think I would have been mature enough, so I think it is the right time in my career. I become 60 years old next year and so maybe if it was in five or ten years from now, it might be too late! (laughs). I now have the maturity to handle it, but anyway, sometimes I can’t even believe I am there.
When you ask about special work for the Biennale, for me, every exhibition is a kind of ‘state of things’. I don’t make work in series or in periods but this time, I did one special piece for the show in Venice, I did one diptych specifically for the pavilion. Normally I don’t even say such things because it is not important to know in order to appreciate my work. But, maybe in this case it makes sense to tell you what I did.
The two pictures are of a large painting by Tintoretto in the Doge’s Palace in Venice. Its history is that after a fire at the palace, there was a was a contest between Tintoretto and Veronese, amongst others, for a commission to make a painting which would replace a damaged fresco. It was Tintoretto who was assigned for the execution of ‘Il Paradiso’. The sketches Veronese made for this competition are held near me in a museum in Lille. So, I went there to photograph. It is not something I do very often, because I never go to a special place or event, or at a special time, but for this, I went to Lille, to the Palais des Beaux-Arts. The sketch is a kind of painting, around 1-2 meters wide and I took pictures of its details and printed and presented it in my style. So, I think that is an interesting story to link to Venice, but normally I don’t tell these kinds of stories. I don’t tell stories behind the pictures I make and how they are ever made. But maybe for this one it makes sense.
SS: And of course, sometimes, many artists who are commissioned to make work for Venice, they only make new work, very specifically, but you are drawing from a very rich body of work that goes back up to 30 years.
DB: Yes, I show the newer works but I always combine them with older work. The older work in Venice is not that old, there are a few pieces from the 90’s but at the same time I did not want to show only new work. Most people who visit the Biennale will discover my work for the first time, so it is not necessary to show only new work. It is good to show older works to have some context of time and of my evolution.
SS: One thing to note about your work is that with such a large body of work every time you show the work, it’s an opportunity to make new connections and relationships between work that may not have been presented together previously; work of different periods, of different content. It is like a new take on your work in exhibition form, every time it will be completely different, and although it comes from a single body of work, the differences are subtle.
DB: That’s what it is, I see my oeuvre as one big work, and of course it is always one big work, every artist produces one big work, but most separate their work by series or periods. For me time is not too important so I can take all the work and re-combine it with the recent pieces.
“It is also important to make a good print. In my case, I intervene in the print process a lot, actually sometimes I make another image from the original, I intervene with chemicals, with light, with several tools, and sometimes I stay for 10 – 15 hours in my darkroom. It’s a kind of flow, kind of a contemplative state of mind.”
SS: It might be useful to know when your practice became the practice it is. Was there a turning point in your career when that happened?
DB: There were several moments that were important. The first thing was that I was more interested in painting and sculpture than photography, right until I went to the academy. A friend of mine said maybe I should study photography, before I started to paint. It was at a time when Gerhard Richter and many other painters used photography and I thought it was a good idea. Before this I had no camera and had never seen a darkroom, so I went to the academy to study photography for a few months, and then intended to go back to studying painting. However, I stayed with photography. But in the spirit of painting.
SS: Your work sits outside of any social or political narrative, if anything there is a kind of fiction at play, for me personally I am drawn into what feels Lynchian, a twilight world where something extraordinary is happening, your photographs feel like a portal into a dream state. Can you tell me a little about how you perceive your images and what it is that you are looking for when you come across a scene, or object or situation which for you holds a certain potential?
DB: Yes, they are not political, but I am a very engaged person. It’s not that I am not engaged with the world as a social person, I just don’t put it clearly into my work, but it is there. Somebody recently told me, she can feel I am an engaged person, but it is not evident or present in the work. I don’t want to do it because it is very difficult to make work around political and social concerns, so I try to do things another way. I try to make good work and this work is coming from me, so I think you can feel that. Luc Sante, an American writer and photographer, who was from Belgium originally, said my pictures look like unexploded bombs, there is so much energy in them. They look quiet, but inside, they are full of energy, that is waiting to explode. So, I think people are feeling there is more than only the image.
SS: So, is this latent energy something you discover, something that you want to photograph, is it a latent potential the scene holds for you?
DB: It is not really the scene itself. It is more the final image that ‘speaks’ in general. So, the scene is more like you were saying, a contemplation, and so sometimes I stay there for a long time, in the same place and then do the shooting. Sometimes I wait for weeks and then do the shooting. In the darkroom, there is a second step and that is also a meditative state of mind, much like in the shooting: I make exposures many times, just like when I am shooting, it is a kind of snapshot, but it is not at all, it is really about time and a need to feel the scene, the place, the space, before I can shoot the right picture. It is so important to stay in a certain place, and to reflect and to discover, the right angle, the right position, the right light, the right frame.
SS: The darkroom is a place, where success or failure occurs. Whether something is a success or whether a failure is developed into a success. It is a place where the image is in a process of becoming. What are your thoughts on the darkroom as a site of artistic production?
DB: In my work it is a very important step, it is always important. It is also important to make a good print. In my case, I intervene in the print process a lot, actually sometimes I make another image from the original, I intervene with chemicals, with light, with several tools, and sometimes I stay for 10 – 15 hours in my darkroom. It’s a kind of flow, kind of a contemplative state of mind. I create a kind of relation between me and the picture. You mentioned about having a ‘eureka’ effect, it’s not that. Because of the technique of photography, you need to shoot, to develop the film and then print in the darkroom, so it’s a whole process. It’s not like a painter who is in his studio with his tools where you can have a kind of ‘eureka’ effect, but with me it not a eureka effect in that moment but over a long time, in a stretched time.
“I’m not the kind of photographer who wants to document a story or a place, in a certain time, that’s not important for me. For me it’s the final print that hangs on the wall. That’s why I don’t make so many books and I don’t want to show my work too much on the internet – but you cannot control that.”
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SS: I touched on the idea of your own labour and effort, you mention the time you spend, in crafting these images, there are number of additional darkroom techniques and experimentation you carry out in that time, within that labour is your own presence that exists, that is then embedded in the photographs.
DB: Yes, that’s very important. Sometimes it can be thought of as autobiographical work, because I’m not looking for the right place or the right time. It is the opposite, for example, I am travelling to travel, not to shoot pictures, but when I’m travelling, I am shooting, but sometimes I don’t make photos when I am travelling, and when I come back I am shooting. It is another way of handling the medium. And that’s why I always say that the story behind the shooting is not very important. It is important for me to make and create the image, but it is not important for looking at it. Otherwise you are stuck on the story and you forget about the image and for me it is the image that is important.
SS: And I think some of that is to do with the emphasis often placed on the “event” in photography, the moment of capture. Your work, however, is a construction, it only derives from a previous happening, it encompasses and embraces a change of state, a transformation.
DB: That’s right, I’m not the kind of photographer who wants to document a story or a place, in a certain time, that’s not important for me. For me it’s the final print that hangs on the wall. That’s why I don’t make so many books and I don’t want to show my work too much on the internet – but you cannot control that. Of course, publishing in books, is something I try to avoid because it is so important to see the real work. You see, for example, paintings in books and on the internet but you have to realise that it exists, in a certain size, in certain material. In my work, it is the same, but when its published it reads as an image and you don’t have an idea of what is like in reality.
SS: The print is the artwork. This is why for me, your practice comes closer to painting that it does to certain forms of photography. The audience will gain the most from your work experiencing it in its physical state and not from a reproduction.
DB: Yes, that is what I think too. There needs to be a physical relationship to the image, not only for the viewer but for me too. That is why I have a huge darkroom where I can stay for hours, and that physical-ness is also why I print in life-size, more or less. When you stand in front of the photo you can almost step inside it. It is not like the photograph in a passe-partout, in a frame. It is more like a window to a certain reality. In my case, it is more an object on the wall.
SS: I wanted to ask about the slippage between correctly exposed images and images that allow error to happen, was this something you discovered early in your career as an artist? Photography as a manipulative medium not as something that creates a perfected or ideal image?
DB: I didn’t discover this, I knew it. Because you can manipulate every medium and I never read any user manual – not for the camera, not for the chemicals. I just experimented with things I learned from my professors and my colleagues. Step by step I developed my own signature. Because of that, I didn’t care about the exact technical image. When you look at my images, you could say, they are too dark, they are not sharp and so they are not good pictures, but that’s not the point.
SS: Did you shy away from colour for any reason? In fact, I know there a few colour images in your work.
DB: There are several reasons, but honestly, the main reason is because I can see what I am dealing with in the darkroom. When I first started, analogue colour photography was completely in the dark. I could not see, I could not manipulate in the darkroom with chemicals, so automatically I preferred black and white. Sometimes, color makes sense. When I use color they are very monochromatic, you can see the blue or the yellow images, the yellow refers more to the artificial light, the blue more to night light or daylight, early daylight or late daylight, so it is not really color.
SS: I’ve seen exhibitions where you are experimenting with installation, for example your show at Le Bal in 2013. Can you tell me a little about your approach in this respect?
DB: I always say, I am not against digital, of course my basic work is analogue photography, but I also work with digital photography, sometimes I combine the two, I shoot digitally and come back to analogue, and then sometimes the opposite, I shoot analogue, I scan the negatives and this way return to digital. The big prints I showed in Le Bal were made on Japanese paper. It was more like an installation, because I couldn’t make those large prints in the darkroom – so they were printed digitally. I sometimes need other techniques, but if I can do it in a huge darkroom, I choose this option. I always say that sometimes you have to find the right technique. You see what a technique can do for you and then experiment with it. That’s what I am always saying to my students: don’t miss the possibilities of Photoshop or other different tools. First of all, you have to know what you want and then you have to find the right tools to do what you want. Of course, it is not always the exact thing you wanted, and that’s also part of the adventure. But I think that is the first thing you have to think about, choosing the right tool, for the things you want to do.
SS: Finally, I’d like to end with asking the Venice Biennale, about Eva Wittocx and the collaboration in pulling that exhibition together.
DB: I’ve known Eva for about 20-25 years when she started as an assistant curator in S.M.A.K. in Ghent. We did my first show there together and later did some other smaller shows together. We then got one of my most important shows, in her new museum where she is working now, and released the big yellow book on Roma Publications in 2011. So, when they asked me to participate in for the Belgian pavilion, the condition was to find an institution or curator to work with and the first person that I was thinking of was Eva. Of course, because I know her and we did so many projects together and it always worked out very well.
SS: Obviously, there is a lot of diverse work in Venice, nationalities, different media and work made in different contexts. In relation to the Biennale’s theme, Viva Arte Viva, how was your work received in this environment of eclecticism?
DB: Until now it has been very good, but of course, when people don’t like it, they don’t say it. It is always like that, but I have a good feeling with it. We didn’t go with the idea of being spectacular, we went with the work to make a good show. Someone said our pavilion is like a resting point amongst the whole circus. I think that’s a compliment, but I don’t think it is really a rest. They look like really quiet pictures, but when you visit and you look deeply, you feel, like I said before, the energy, the enclosed energy.
(All Rights Reserved. Text @ Sunil Shah. Images @ Dirk Braeckman/Zeno X Gallery.)