Letter: to Koen Theys (2)

Who now remembers the name of the Syrian toddler who drowned in the Mediterranean on 2 September 2015 and washed up on the Turkish coast? And who still knows the name of the Tunisian man who set himself on fire on 17 December 2010 and thereby triggered the Arab Spring? History is a wave of events created by people, and forgotten by other people. Everything becomes anonymised, and is drowned in the unwillingness to remember. Artists have always been there to create images in the folds and cracks of history which extract an event from its time and elevate it into a work of art. Think of artists such as Francisco Goya, Eduard Manet, Gustav Metzger, Anna Boghiguian, Adel Abdessemed … In his work Koen Theys often explores phenomena such as masses, power, identity, history and media’s manipulation and translation of them. The artist perceives the baroque as a monumental submersion, as exaggeration and gesture, as a totalising iris that crosses thought and feeling. The history of art is thereby the backdrop to his thoughts, the current reality his field of operation. With Diasporalia he is tackling the incredibly difficult challenge of creating a work about one of the recent tragedies in European history, inappropriately described by politicians and the media as the refugee crisis. He has opted for bronze – twelve multicoloured painted sculptures. He immortalises the futility of an existence severed by war and violence in a still life with the items that a person retains: a mattress, sheets, a suitcase, a hat, a teddy bear, shoes, toys, a handbag, a sweater … Each of them the adjuncts of an uncertain survival, hints at a forgotten identity, archetypes of a new ‘type' of person. In the same way that centuries ago a bishop was honoured with a white marble or bronze tomb, Koen Theys is honouring the anonymous refugee with a monument, a funereal monument that emphasises the bankruptcy and impotence of an old continent. Just as Caravaggio literally picked the models for his paintings off the street, so Theys has found his models in the area around Brussels North station, in Calais or other locations. The artist has created an image that, as a work of art, closely matches reality. With twelve patinated and coloured islands he invites the onlooker to view the world from the bottom up. Koen Theys: an artist who I suspect has translated his anger and dissatisfaction over the years into images that seduce and mislead. At a time when there are few truthful mirrors, he is an artist who can still hold one up to us.

Philippe Van Cauteren – catalogue ‘Diasporalia’
1 May 2018