Still Lifes with Apples

In addition to his video work, Koen Theys has at the same time also built up a substantial photographic oeuvre. This work consists of collages, some created digitally. Some of them, such as Patria (2008), The Vanitas Record (2005) and Stars (2003) are related to his video work, but others exist more in their own right. Theys’ most recent standalone series of photographs is Still Lifes with Apples (2010).

Four pictures packed full with apples: a mass display of fruit. Even though they are not all equally tidy – some apples are upright, but most are on their side – the apples are neatly arranged. They lie on grey platforms or in stepped rows one above the other. But what is striking is that in all the pictures one or more apples are separated from the rest. In two pictures one apple is isolated on a metallic-grey cube, while the other two include a lower front area where a small group of apples stands smartly in line. In each case, the apples set apart or arranged so rigidly are surrounded by massed fellow apples. We see a space in which a mass spectacular appears to be taking place: the isolated cube is like the platform from which the speaker addresses his audience, while the space in front of the seating is a stage where the performers put on their act.

The title suggests that this is a still life, meaning a highly-coded image that takes its place in a long and worthy tradition in both painting and photography. In photography, the still life has flourished whenever any major technological innovation occurred. For example, the genre was practised enthusiastically immediately after the invention of photography and enjoyed a short-lived revival in about 1910 when the first colour photography technique (the autochrome) was introduced. The still life has always had a double function: it set photography in a pictorial tradition in the hope of thereby underlining the aesthetic aspirations of this mechanical medium, and at the same time it demonstrated the technical potential of this brand-new device. These pictures appear to fit into this narrative: they may refer to the still lifes of Cézanne and Picasso, for example, and they may demonstrate the artistic potential of digital imaging processes (the ‘photos’ are composed as a montage of digitally-manipulated objects).

Yet it seems somewhat premature simply to categorise Koen Theys’ pictures as belonging in the still life genre. It’s true that he here retains one of the common subjects of this essentially conventional and harmless art (‘the still life is minor art’, writes Bart Verschaffel), but he presents it in a completely different space. He lifts it out of the quiet domestic interior and puts it into what looks like a model of a public space, a place where one would expect lots of noise and commotion. This might also immediately explain the somewhat restless position of the apples that make up the ‘audience’. What is more, he distances himself from any form of realism: the setting is not realistic and there is clearly something wrong with the apples. Not only do these creatures not hide their digital origin, but anyone who looks more closely at the picture will soon see that they are not even ‘real’ apples, the bottom is more reminiscent of a pepper, and only the rosy tops are able to keep up the appearance of an apple. Transposition and transformation give the apples a monstrous aspect.

Koen Theys plays with the formal aspects of a rather intimist genre in order to make a statement about the public sphere, the public forum and thus also the museum. Although each picture takes communication (or rather, a specific form of communication) as its subject, a strange (deafening) silence reigns. The stage is set for an exchange, for an interaction between a transmitter and a receiver, a speaker and an audience, between people who speak, gesticulate and/or move, or, in short, people who appeal to the emotions and thoughts of the listeners, and on the other hand the people who listen, are moved and react. But in these pictures there are no living, dynamic beings in the seats or on the parade ground, just as there are none on or in front of the lectern. They are full of mute apples, soulless objects with nothing inside. In this way these pictures make this public gathering absurd. They show the collapse of even the most limited possibility of communication (the conveyance of meaning) in public space. This series is marked by a deep melancholy: the (overfull) stage is empty, a place where someone once spoke and someone once listened.

Steven Humblet – catalogue ‘Home-Made Victories’
mar. 201