Daan Gielis’ (born 1988) work explores the conflicts and contradictions in the emotional, communicative and social systems that together make up the world as we know it: happiness and sadness coinciding, a frustration of desire that only triggers new desire, an underground culture that stays authentic while selling out… Each of these systems is riddled by contradiction. And yet, precisely because of those internal contradictions these systems thrive, contrasting feelings feed off of each other, setting in motion a never-ending cyclical process from which no escape seems possible. No wonder then that so many of us are emotionally conflicted about present reality, struggling to find consistency.
Gielis’ work often concentrates on what might be one of the most defining and influential systems: the human body. His artistic practice has, for one, been marked by the body’s resilience and more precisely by the question: how much can a body endure? Turning a personal experience around and looking outwards happened by means of exploring the paradox of embodiment and transience in digital society. Mama, je hoeft niet te huilen (2019) for example references both the artist’s mother - a professional floral arranger - as well as the generic emoji of a wilted rose. An easily accessible pictorial sign system, emoji have grafted themselves upon our everyday written communication. In fact, they have become an ubiquitous and inextricable part of our online conversations. And yet they tend to be incredibly vacuous, even gratuite. Like so, it embodies the paradox our social lives are caught up in: expressing a deeply personal story in an unforgivingly generic language.
Two artists. Two exhibitions. Two formal languages. Tom Volkaert’s sculptures are made from epoxy and steel and it is their size that makes them impressive. Gielis’ bronze and ceramic figurines, on the other hand, are intriguing precisely because of their introverted smallness. Gielis’ sharply defined neon sculptures are almost repulsive due to their appealing colors. Volkaert’s amorphous shapes and steel cut-outs are appealing because of their repulsive color schemes.
And yet: in spite of the apparent difference between the formal language of Gielis and Volkaert, these artists share an attitude; or even what one might call a counter-language.
What might a counter-language be? The visual language that Gielis and Volkaert have each developed in their own way often refers to an underground culture that escapes the mainstream of the art world. Skate and hardcore in the work of Gielis, obscure gore and old sci-fi B-movies in the work of Volkaert. The many references to these subcultures can be understood as multitimbral voices that oppose and escape the dominant traditions of the art world. However, the real meaning and expressiveness that Gielis and Volkaert derive from these references only emerge once they are positioned within the interpretative field of the art world. It is only when interacting with a community of viewers for whom this visual language and references take on a new and artistic dimension that they truly become part of a work of art. This is the moment that meaning becomes unstable: we both recognize the underground references and are also unable to grasp them fully. As a result, these works acquire enigmatic quality.
Paradoxically, to achieve this effect Gielis and Volkaert need to let go of - and perhaps even betraying - the underground they so cherish. And at the same time, betrayal is always lurking in the art world too; after all, this world not only consists of an intimate community of viewers, but also exists (and even originated) from commerce.
In the work they created together and that brings the two exhibitions together, Gielis and Volkaert describe this paradox as "haat voor het veld (hatred for the field)". But let here be no mistake: this is also about self-hatred; about hatred for how the art world is being eaten up by the art market, and hatred for how the artists themselves are trapped in that world. The red neon letters of Haat voor de Veld (2020) somehow neutralize and obliviate the toxic, spit-green colored pool in the background - just as Gielis and Volkaert’s art pushes away the underground culture that they thrive upon, and vice versa.
Still, hate is certainly not at the core of these two exhibitions. On the contrary. Underneath the hatred we find determination and vulnerability. Volkaert’s giant snail moves as slowly as possible and carries its own world on its back, extremely vulnerable but always ready to withdraw into its own shell and wait patiently. The old man of Gielis, drags the world behind him like a heavy burden, melancholic and crutching his shoulders. Incredibly slow, the old man moves on, and so does the world in his wake. It is as if Gielis and Volkaert are saying that in spite of all the hatred, art carries this world and makes living in it bearable.
Text by Bram Ieven