Expo Koen Theys: Home-Made Victories

'Home-Made Victories' is the first retrospective of video artist Koen Theys, now on view at S.M.A.K. in Ghent. Large monographs by male Belgian artists are no novelty here, but with a solid scenography and a well-considered overview from the eighties to today, the museum manages to do the trick. The show alternates between a strict selection of photography and video works, presented as sculptural projections in which the disenchantment of art as a mass ornament is a prevailing leitmotif.

In the right wing of the museum the visitor is confronted with ‘Crime’ (1983), an early diptych inspired by found footage shot by Adolf Hitler of his dog Blondi in the Eagle's Nest: on the one side, we witness the artist, masked and chopping a dead German Shepherd into pieces, on the other a still life composition of a baby with two dog heads draped around its crib. The dark tone, spiced with a hint of irony, recurs in a large-scale vanity still life (‘The Vanitas Record’, 2005) where snails are slowly consuming the work of art. In ‘Mediastudien. Nach Heinrich Hoffmann’ (2001), images of Hitler practicing the dramatic effect of his gesticulations are merged into a series of evil Führers, endlessly repeating the same theatrical choreography. This iterative, echoing effect reappears in Theys' photographs of Belgian houses and tribunes stacked with apples, as well as in the decorative wallpaper (‘Stars’, 2003) in which the faces of iconic film stars are barely recognisable, engulfed by a dark vastness, a cultural black hole.

A delightful prelude to Theys' oeuvre, but the artist's critical message on the dubious intentions of art, its instrumentalisation and recuperation by the media and power structures is more than clear. Gradually progressing through the museum, the work becomes less gloomy and appropriates a more tragicomic tone. In the middle rooms the visitor encounters digital videos including ‘Patria (Vive le roi! Vive la république!)’ (2008), once more referring to art history in an ironic manner. Inspired by a painting of the Belgian Revolution by Gustave Wappers, Theys turned the dynamic heroism of the nineteenth-century tableau into a scene which looks far from spectacular. Instead, sleepy policemen and waiting cavalry depict the collapse of the ideals of today and illustrate the artist's nihilism inspired by Fukuyama's theory on the end of history.

In the left wing, the passive and still character of Theys' digital video works is exchanged for the loudness and chaos of contemporary culture in which each of us has a part. ‘The Final Countdown ((2010) is a loop of video clips taken from Youtube, posted by all kinds of people who made an attempt at playing the well-known classic. Meticulously composed by the artist, the different tunes turn into a cacophonous crescendo, but this excess of noises and impressions might well be an apt portrayal of today's culture.

The exhibition comes to a close with ‘Death Fucking Metal’, a performance during the opening in the velodrome adjacent to the museum. This video work-to-be consists of a dozen comatose heavy metal rockers, occasionally hitting a note, snoozing on a turning platform in a smoke curtain. Despite the bleak themes and the cynical chuckle of the artist resonating through the exhibition (which can be nerve-wracking), Theys proves to be a master of the contemporary still life and does succeed at getting his home-made victories.

Laura Herman – ThisisTomorrow
Apr 2013