As my train to Antwerp pulled out of Brussels North Station, the wall next to the tracks fell away to reveal the street below, an urban trench where the city’s red light district thrives. Near-naked women teetered on platform slippers as they posed behind polished glass, hands on hips, their thighs catching scattered rays of midday sun. The train gathered speed and the parade of bodies receded into the distance. It felt like an apt prelude to my visit to ‘The Strange Life of Things’, a solo show by Belgian artist Anne-Mie Van Kerckhoven, who is known for using her vast collection of soft-core pornographic images in her works. The wider theme of collecting runs through the show, which takes its title from Maurice Rheims’s 1959 book about the relationships between collectors and the things they collect.
A series of four works combines digital prints of images from the 1950s French magazine The Stripteaser with the artist’s painted brushstrokes on the front and back of multiple sheets of Perspex mounted on board. Saturated colours blaze through the negative spaces left by the strippers’ exposed flesh, exacerbating the abstraction of their bodies caused by the degradation and high contrast of the reproductions. In Opgepast voor de Heilige Hoer (Beware of the Holy Whore, 2015–16), a woman holds one hand behind her head and rests the other on her hip as flares of luminous turquoise, fuchsia and orange paint shine through the unprinted space of her torso. Her elegant pose is typical of the images Van Kerckhoven uses, which tend to date from the 1950s to the late ’60s – before the sexual revolution – an event the artist sees as a disruption of conventional relationships that generated despair and nihilism among her peers. With Rainer Werner Fassbinder-inspired titles, such as Bitter Tears and Resurrection and Love is Colder than Death (both 2015–16), these works allude to anxious relationships, disappointment and resentment. From my vantage point, the mood feels tinged with nostalgia for a more innocent time, when sexuality was playful and pornographic images sought to seduce by enhancing the beauty of the female body rather than violating it.
Opposite these works, three faux-leather banners collaged with images hung from nails in the wall. In Zweep (Calais) (Whip [Calais], 2015–16) a dominatrix in thigh-high boots stands on stony ground with a whip in her hands, looking into the distance, hotspots in red and blue painted on her leotard, gloves and boots. Her image is printed on a transparent sticker pasted over advertisements for some of Belgium’s numerous private golf clubs. The work pits the glossy theatrics of S&M against a banal symbol of the corporate mentality that invests in genteel sport rather than humanitarian aid. Together with the title’s reference to Calais, which is now shorthand for the migrant crisis, it’s an affecting combination that has the spirit of a protest poster. It also evokes the grotesque cliché of the statesman caught with his pants down, lending the work a dark humour compounded by its wipe-clean surface and cheap fake leather.
In another gallery, a large jacquard tapestry (Van Vlasselaer, 2016) pays homage to Julien Van Vlasselaer, an influential art professor at the Royal Academy of Antwerp, whom Van Kerckhoven admired but never studied with, having chosen instead to learn graphic design. The tapestry features the image of a stripper bending over, a grinning giantess folded in half so as just to fit the picture frame, within an imaginary modernist interior sketched by Van Vlasselaer. A set of shelves on the wall slices through her torso as geometric shapes swirl around her. The dominant colours of the work are powder pink and sage green, the tones of naked white skin and new foliage, lending the padded textile a fleshiness that asks to be touched and felt.
The jacquard technique uses looms guided by perforated cards, and is an ancestor of modern computing, a field that has long fascinated Van Kerckhoven, who once said that her two main interests were naked women and artificial intelligence (AI). Over voorstellingen, waar of vals (About Representations, True or False, 2015) – a set of four works on PVC made with paint, collage and acetone transfers – considers the theories of mathematician George Boole, an important figure in the development of logic and AI. Handwritten excerpts from Boole’s writings sit beside distressed images of 19th-century bourgeois interiors filled with collected objects and artworks, a picture of Alan Turing’s Enigma machine, and half-naked pin-ups. More than in any other part of the show, the women here are presented as objects, their status comparable to that of any other collectible. Their vintage, faded depictions no longer shock or titillate, but instead become pure style, and their presentation as art has driven them to their terminal objectification, ready to be bought and owned. But Van Kerckhoven’s skilful interweaving of references to Boole and Turing, whose contributions to computing reflected their faith in a greater good, suggest that AI might be a liberating force from the dead end of female objectification.