The Vanitas Record by Koen Theys
The Vanitas Record, a video of an installation more than twenty metres long, twelve metres wide and four metres high (Loppem, 2005), enables the spectator to enter an immense pile of objects brought together by the motif of the Vanitas. In other words, it enables us to see “the world’s largest Vanitas”, through a rearranged channel. The video thereby creates a way of looking at the installation, by framing the shots in a continuous sequence: the elements of the Vanitas thus appear in a trajectory that the spectator could not have followed by himself, given the vast dimensions of the installation. It could be said that the video presents an analysis of the installation, which, because of its oversized characters, aims primarily to elucidate the repetitive theme of “the Vanitas of Vanitases”. Indeed, what could be more paradoxical than a “Vanitas record”: twenty tonnes of elements including one hundred and twenty-five skulls -- classical symbols of Vanity -- and twenty-two thousand snails which, scattered throughout this spectacular pile of objects, eat through the pages of books, leaving behind the slimy trace of their peregrinations. The slowness of their progress, accompanied by the noisy ticking of alarm clocks, constitutes the sole animation of the Vanitas and marks the passage of time on all of the definitively altered objects.
The exclusively meditative purpose of the Vanitas is therefore contradicted and The Vanitas Record sends an ironic message that manages to celebrate temperance in a context of excessiveness. This excessiveness applies not only to the spectacular nature of the installation; it also applies to the effects that it provokes, such as the no less “spectacular” banality of the reactions it has elicited among the journalists whom we see moving about pathetically in the last part of the video. We might believe that they have totally succumbed to the artifice invented by the artist, by focusing only on the exceptional aspect and the exterior part of the installation. The installation thus surpasses its material limits by englobing the media hoard in its grotesque intention; an intention which the artist confirms by comparing the journalists’ two television camera aerials to the snails’ antennae, thereby attributing them a similar function.
In terms of the analysis of the composition, the interest and originality of Koen Theys’s installation also resides in the changed status of the objects exhibited which, unlike those of classical Vanitas works, have lost their symbolic function to become nothing more than pure, inert matter. Of course, the skulls placed in various ways, the half-burned candles, the books piled up in heaps and the multifarious alarm clocks, are typical symbols of Vanitas pieces, warning the spectators of the passage of time and the death which awaits them. To these items, along with the snails, the artist adds computers and other contemporary elements, familiar items with which the spectator cannot fail to identify. However, beyond constituting indices of recognition, these elements appear to have been curiously abandoned, as though disused, almost thrown on the scrapheap. They have lost all usage and singular value, reduced to featuring as one element amongst others in a chaotic pile. With the exception of a line of pearls that runs right around the Vanitas, giving orderliness to the impression of disparate accumulation. Likewise, in contrast to the installation, which crushes our gaze with its oversized dispersion, the video guides us into the very core of the Vanitas, through sequence editing or dissolve lapse, whereby compositions of objects build up and break down, filling the entire screen. The spectator thus watches helplessly as the ravages of time condemn the objects -- and in particular a whole host of books of all kinds: on art, geography, literature and even philosophy -- to merely embody bygone testimonies of knowledge that have now become obsolete.
This installation is a departure from 17th-century Vanitas pieces, whose portrayal of death justified a morality of temperance. By accumulating and arranging the objects and thereby removing their individual function and identity, rather like a caricature, Koen Theys’ Vanitas instead has more in common with the world of melancholy, in which all objects are equivalent, none having more value than any other, in a reality devoid of relief. The sound bites in the video -- the ticking of the alarm clocks, church bells or a cock crowing -- reinforce the impression of silence in which the elements of the installation are bathed, like old toys long since abandoned. Through this astonishingly emphatic silence, which weighs upon the immobility of the objects in the Vanitas, we then recognise both aspects of the paradox which they comprise: the humbleness of spiritual reflection, and pride in the knowledge of this same humbleness.
Thus the spectator who is familiar with the first installation, from 2005, finds himself confronted differently by the video, adopting the analysis that has been brought to light by the editing. As a result, the great installation will forever resound like a contradictory proposal in the video’s various “tableaux”, which are presented successively to the spectator as a series of small Vanitas pieces. The contradiction continues, from an ironic angle and with great inventiveness and perspicacity on the part of the artist: for such is the inherent paradox of the Vanitas genre.
Marie-Claude Lambotte - catalogue 'Home-Made Victories