Depression, autism, power games, psychosis, sexual tensions and idolatry are just a few of the interests that Jos De Gruyter & Harald Thys have cited as crucial to their dark repertoire. ‘OPTIMUNDUS’ at M_HKA is the largest survey to date of the artist duo, who have been working together for 20 years. Despite the rather uncanny nature of the phenomena listed above, my first impression when entering the gallery wasn’t one of anxiety. A constellation of clay objects placed on elegant plinths, mixed with trashy and disarmingly schematic figures made of metal skeletons, Styrofoam heads, found clothes and accessories, seems to form a visually appealing and refined display. But only at the first, misleading glimpse.
Five films screened in an isolated projection room provide the rich but disturbing source material for the interpretation of De Gruyter & Thys’s sculptural works. Three of the older films are set in community centres – Utopian institutions conceived to produce normative social behaviours. Ten Weyngaert (2007) explores the destructive impact of a semi-enclosed environment where power structures generate violence and abuse. A pair of sadistic attendants dressed in identical uniforms bully the residents, a catatonic crowd of lost souls. No one speaks; only the voice-over tells the story of a man who squeezes mice to death in the pocket of his trousers for sexual pleasure. The institution offers no redemption for trauma or depression. Similarly, Der Schlamm von Branst (The Mud from Branst, 2008), which features an equally disturbing cast, questions the therapeutic potential of artistic and creative workshops. The Frigate (2008) is a harsh comment on the pathology of sexual relations and the fetishization of the body. De Gruyter & Thys’s films are stripped of any cinematic qualities, lacking a clear narrative structure and consisting of sequences of almost still images. Non-verbal communication replaces dialogue; the faces of the actors remain motionless and deadpan, reducing human presence to near objecthood. The artists explore their characters’ pathologies with crude, minimal aesthetics.
In Das Loch (The Hole, 2010) they pursue this anti-filmic tendency even further. This work tells the story of Fritz – an arrogant and successful video artist who is a devoted fan of fast cars, snobbish entertainment and juvenile girls – and Johannes, a romantic but untalented painter, tormented by permanent Weltschmerz. Both characters are played by mannequins – schematic figures with metal bodies and Styrofoam heads embellished with carefully selected adornments like fake hair or cheap plastic glasses. Shown with blank faces against a flat background and uttering clichés about art and life with voices manipulated by an equalizer, they constitute types rather than individuals.
The isolation of De Gruyter & Thys’s films from reality paradoxically brings them closer to it. Their adopted conventions couldn’t be further from those of documentary filmmaking, yet the films constitute uncanny and sharp social portraits. The reductive formalism distils their characters’ worst features. Dark instincts, toxic relationships, violence, perversity, idiocy and atavism are extracted from everyday, banal situations and thrown on the surface of the screen. Their crude exposure of these attributes is tactfully balanced by the artists’ use of surreal black humour. This sense of the absurd is a trademark of De Gruyter & Thys’s scenarios; and perhaps it is only thanks to playful irony that the viewer is able to endure their films’ morbid content.
The films cast a sinister tone on the formerly lucid space of the exhibition. Walking among the sculptures and installations, I recognized characters and props: Johannes amongst his clumsy paintings, his discouraging partner Hildegard, or clay objects manufactured by wards of the activity centres. Projected in an enclosed room at the opposite end of the exhibition, a diagrammatic animation, About the Relationship Between the Real World and the Parallel World (2010), provided a key to decipher the artists’ strategy for the show. It featured a study in which ‘mental displacement from the real world into the parallel world’ was stimulated. According to the narrator, once reality and fiction coincide, there is no way back. And, indeed, the shift in tone of the objects on display after identifying their origins in the films couldn’t be undone. The sculptures lost their anonymous neutrality and became inseparable from the roles they played. Disrupting fiction became a part of real experience.
This combination defines the universe De Gruyter & Thys have created at M_HKA. One navigates this world with mixed feelings – a blend of the excitement one might feel at a theme park, combined with the discomfort that it is mainly populated by evil or unhappy characters. Displayed on the walls throughout are drawings of people travelling on public transport (‘Untitled [Public Transport]’, 2013). The most prosaic scenes serve as subtle reminders that the artists’ cosmos is the same one of our day-to-day lives. Their fabricated, often absurd fiction overlaps with reality: in this case, institutions with their overwhelming bureaucracy, clichés and desires generated by mass media or the traps of the commercialized art world. This dichotomy resides at the core of De Gruyter & Thys’s dystopian yet often humorous vision. ‘OPTIMUNDUS’ is captivating both despite and because of its deeply disturbing lack of optimism.