Water ballets on dry land

Koen Theys’ Waterloo Forever! is a video film for three screens. This means not only that the picture is very wide, but also that several images can be shown at once, reminding us of the famous film Napoléon by Abel Gance, who for the first time projected three films side by side to convey the chaos of a battlefield in its vastness, inscrutability and fatality. And this inscrutability reminds us not only of the famous passage from Stendhal’s La chartreuse de Parme in which the baffled hero Fabrice del Dongo finds himself in the midst of the fray before suddenly realizing it is all over, but also of Tolstoy’s unrivalled description in War and Peace of how chaotically a battle with the Napoleonic army could reach a conclusion.

In this film however we see more. As in Busby Berkely’s water ballets, reflecting movements unfold, multiplying the uniformity of the individuals until they become like a wallpaper pattern. They are splendid, perversely aesthetic compositions celebrating sameness, rather like classrooms where all the infants have to make the same collage or dictatorships where everyone has to dress and behave in the same way.

We are also dealing with slapstick: two men resemble each other because they are wearing the same clothes, but one man is very thin and the other is corpulent. However, in this film the slapstick is concealed in details like the men telephoning and smoking, the secretly snacking corpses and the solitary figure with the handcart whose erect, cruciform handle suggests he is a herald of death.

Thanks to works like Koen Theys’ films (e.g. Meeting William Wilson, in which we see bewildered individuals wandering around like lost souls when they enter a museum space containing eighty identical twins and triplets), I have come to understand that works of art derive part of their magic from the fact that we read them as ways in which artists make room not only for themselves but also for all the other people who feel they are unique and secretly deviating from certain norms and expectations. Art occurs on the border between two intimate desires we all share: to be unique and to be the same as everybody else. When we experience the artwork, both seemingly conflicting desires seem momentarily reconcilable in an encounter with a bold claim to unicity (the artwork) in which the others recognize themselves.

We see this, too, in the desires of the participants in the annual re-enactment of the Battle of Waterloo. Everyone is an artist, we think, unwittingly quoting Beuys, and they take part in a spectacle into which almost every one of the nameless figures is sucked. Only Napoleon emerges as the one truly recognizable figure; not as the great Napoleon whom Nietzsche described, but as a pitiful figure: a dwarf in giant’s clothing, as artists, spectators and art critics sometimes dare to imagine themselves. Montagne de Miel, 26th September 201.

Hans Theys – Catalogue ‘Home-Made Victories’
mar. 2013