Xⁿ Talk | Karel Burssens
Trained as an engineer, and architect, worked as a scenographer, and a maker of several large-scale installations, Karel Burssens may be new in the contemporary art world, but he is certainly a trans-disciplinary creative veteran. On view through 30th April at the Wilford X, the artist’s exhibition Encore is better described as a scenography viewer should immerse in rather than an exhibition to glance through. It draws four groups of sculptural works into a single space for exploration. Among the works are an elusive ‘scent’ of materials of the sculptures, fresh flowers, and mingled with the aroma of food as the show is located in a restaurant. The artist Karel Burssens, over several zoom calls, spoke with the London and Brussel-based art historian Penny Dan Xu about his new show and trans-disciplinary creative practices.
| Karel Burssens
Encore, Exhibition View
Xⁿ: To begin with, it is difficult to define who you are. It seems correct to call you an emerging artist who just had his third solo show. But you are also a sophisticated scenographer who worked with high-end fashion brands; worked closely with artists such as Anne Imhof; created several art installations... You have developed a very interesting and diverse portfolio over these years. Can you give us a walk-through of your working experience?
Karel: I was first trained as an architect and engineer. Soon after graduation, I was involved in the fashion business, working for villa eugeìnie and spent ten years on scenography design for fashion brands such as Dior, Burberry, etc. But at the same time, art-making is always my sideline. Together with my friend Jeroen Verrecht, we founded a dynamic and open studio called 88888. We worked on projects ranging from scenography for dance & theatre, little interventions, temporary architecture and large-scale installations. So far, we have collaborated creatively with several artists and performers. In the meantime, I never ceased to brew ideas of my own, which led to the creation of my first performance, Currents, in 2019 and my first exhibition in 2020 at Philippe Piessens. One thing leads to another, and now my third exhibition, ENCORE, has been showing at Wilford X since the end of October.
Xⁿ: I am impressed by two earlier works of yours: UNTITLED (Horst) and CURRENTS. The former is a public art installation, and the latter is a collaborative performance with the choreographer Mario Barrantes Espinoza. These two projects revealed to me your artistic concern: using the most concise architectural visual language to interact with the environment or people. You spent a minimal amount of intervention to change the present. The outcome is such a surrealistic scene which reminds me of the renowned literature challenge — using the least words to write the shortest sci-fi novel.
Karel: UNTITLED (Horst) was a project by 88888. We designed a large steel rectangle to be placed in the middle of the lake. It created a hollow space in the water, and the light was installed within. The light created an inverted experience during the nighttime, with light coming from the hollow space, even lightly illuminating a part of the castle that sits in the lake.
CURRENTS, on the other hand, started from the experience and perception of space and how to control this. I designed a line as a light sculpture programmed to move at different speeds and angles. Together with Mario Barrantes Espinoza, a brilliant choreographer, we developed a choreography forming a dynamic dialogue between the machine and the human body. Collaborating on a horizontal level with Daniel Brandt for the composition, Cate Carter for the light, and Max Doerr for the costume, it became a project where each element worked meticulously with each other, paced to the rhythm of the machine.
UNTITLED (Anonyme I, IV, V & VI)
Xⁿ: Compared with your previous large-scale installations, your exhibition Encore is a small forest. Can you tell us more about it?
Karel: ‘Forest’ might be the right word. My exhibition is not a single ‘narrative’, but more like the diverse conversations, references and cross-references gathered in one space. It comprises four groups of artworks. They are my reflections on the urgent issues people are facing today. The tall and linear sculptures UNTITLED (Anonyme I, II, III, IV, V & VI), for instance, are based on the design of the industrial architectures, referring to Bernd & Hilla Becher’s iconic photography work. Industrial architecture is a symbol that speaks about many things: they are made by anonymous designers but carefully designed with pure practical and functional elements; they have beautiful and abstract forms, but they are also signs of dreadful pollution.
The grids placed on the floor are, to some extent, an extension of the sculptures and create a city structure. They echo the grid system of the ‘No-stop city’ proposed by thinkers and critics Archizoom in the 1960s as a reaction to the problem caused by over-consumption. Today, we are left with a dense and wildly expanded urban landscape, and very little true nature remains. Contrary to logical and seemingly scientific urban planning, the damage of this development is hard to measure, let alone the possibility of rectifying.
In the same grid, I placed my series UNTITLED (High Rise) as buildings within the city structure. To break the stereotyped ‘sculpture’, I made them also vases for flowers. Seeing the fragile living thing amidst the white and cold structure, I hope it says something about the tension between cityscape and nature.
UNTITLED (High Rise)
Xⁿ: At a glance, the exhibition is a kind of ‘white on white’, but it is not as simple as it looks. For instance, though in the same colour, the materials you used for each set of sculptures are different. What are the details that require more careful looking?
Karel: There are many, but I can’t reveal all of them. I used Carrara marble powder to make the high rise sculptures, which is the leftover of these luxurious marble materials often used to make expensive interiors and furniture. The powder, however, is bounded and shaped in the form of extruded columns, referring to the columns of Mies Van der Rohe. Small cut-outs hint at the reference to high rise buildings of our contemporary cities.
In UNTITLED (Twenty eyes), I collaborated with Pascale Scuflaire to reproduce the retina of the seven most powerful - probably also the most terrible - male politicians active in the global political scene. They are scattered and fixed on the white structures. If look closely, the viewer’s gaze and the gaze of the ‘politicians’ raise certain peculiar feelings about the male power. In a world of surveillance cameras, retinal scans, and biometric identification of all sorts, who is watching whom?
UNTITLED (Twenty eyes)
Xⁿ: The last thing I want to talk about in this interview is your collaboration with other creative partners. Being a scenographer, you have worked with different artists, and you carried on with the same spirit in your works of art.
Karel: I enjoyed working with craftsmen and technicians throughout my career. They have great insights on how to solve creative problems. As the material is defined by the concept often, it means that it’s each time a search for the right people to help me. In that sense, it is created with their knowledge and experience, their ‘savoir-faire’. My work may look very much controlled, but I left space for collaborators to play their parts. It happened that they came back with results different from what I had imagined. In that case, I would take a step back and contemplate if this ‘surprise’ plays along with the concept. After all, the conversations, the process and ‘errors’ are part of the work as well.
I also collaborate with artists. Last show, I worked with Wiet Lengeler, who created a sound composition for my exhibition based on recorded sounds from an industrial area that lies between the edge of the city and nature. It also refers to the constant noise which is part of our lives. For the same exhibition, Piero Bisello wrote a text-based upon the Ecomodernist Manifest, which partly talks about intensification. The text itself was presented as a sculpture within the landscape of the whole exhibition, fading the borders between the different elements it consisted of.
I believe good works of art should open up more possibilities. Together with other craftsmen, writers and artists, a good work can evolve from one piece to a constellation of thoughts.