The following is a piece I submitted earlier this year for the 2015 Frieze Young Writer’s Prize on Michaël Borremans’ recent show Black Mould at David Zwirner Gallery, London.

Rarely does a gallery come to envelop the viewer both physically and psychologically. Michaël Borremans’ current show at David Zwirner of 31 oil paintings on wood and upcycled cardboard ventures close to such a notion, and bears the brutal scars of universal pessimism. Works depict cloaked and hooded figures in what appear to be studio sets crafted of brown paper, the corners often peeling down as if to betray the artifice of both the paintings themselves and the scenes they represent. A slight departure from his typically eerie but only subtly disturbing portraiture, these works insist on unabating discomfort through their repetitively sadistic visions.

Black Mould appears to question whether even anonymity can be humiliating in a society of inescapable virtual exposure that continues to discriminate according to race, gender, religion, sexuality and wealth. Yet notably Borremans’ painted character remains a Caucasian one, shrouded by the uniform black garments of a fictional artistic cult so that only white hands and feet emerge from beneath the robes to humanise these figures.

One work shows two figures engaged either in an act of sodomy or of heterosexual intercourse, Borremans derailing the stigmatisation of sexual perversion while also bluntly reinforcing it. Likewise, the satiny cloaks straddle a rocky territory between the domains of the burqa and KKK costumes, stirring thoughts of gendered oppression and white supremacy.

A general sense of disorientation prevails, suggested initially by the dim gallery lighting and extended in the paintings by the figures, who seem unclear of the direction in which to face to address their beholder. This disengagement — a kind of grim coquettishness — perhaps legitimises our attention by luring us into a false sense of ease, while the objects of our fascination remain apparently oblivious to our presence. Certain figures appear distressed, hands grasping desperately at their heads; others stand more serenely within the miniature dimensions of their scaled-down world. Borremans adopts the role of artist-as-puppeteer, dabbing away at his supports as if poking and prodding the limp beings into positions.

The human figures — if these are in fact people and not fleshy mannequins — are depicted in primal and ritualistic poses, as if spelling out a kind of corporeal code when pieced together. ‘Black Mould’ could equally pre-empt the literal festering of the scenery, or could perhaps suggest a template that Borremans’ impotent specimens must conform to in one way or the other. Some are captured in dance, others perform bizarrely devotional acts, and still others bear lit torches or juggle burning limbs. Borremans seems to channel desperation and boredom; ostensible tranquility and psychic unease. His viewer is situated in a mode of spectatorship defined alternately by amusement and bemusement, peering into a world that is variously cruel, unsympathetic and lewd.

Torment underscores the series, Borremans appearing to derive pleasure from the sinister conditions of his sets and puppets. This is not restricted to the two-dimensional, however: through the curation of the space he simultaneously manipulates his audience into victimisation. His figures are anonymous subjects, yet they are profiled by their individual actions. Similarly, the trapeziums of light projected onto the floor before each work seek to bare the viewer. They are led from the starkness of the vestibule into the moleskin black of the exhibition areas, just as a bagged captive might be escorted away for interrogation and forced under a naked bulb. The dark walls become synonymous with the interiors of Borremans’ painted hoods, and resonating news stories of extremist beheadings are no longer a world apart.

The show generates discord between the unnerving and gritty situations of these new paintings, and the elegance of the neutral territory between the ground and first floor galleries of the Zwirner space, which are connected by a sweeping white staircase. The unguarded viewer is briefly exposed to grisly truths before returning to the sanitation of everyday civilian life.

Stylistic beauty in these paintings is easily savoured, yet the works’ insinuations place the viewer in a challenging position of power and parallel submission. Are we entirely perturbed, or somehow converted? The world portrayed by Borremans is certainly not a pleasant one, but it is oddly addictive and distressingly close.

More information on the show, which ran from June-August, can be found here.

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Is Dismaland a self-indulgent charade, a poignant class statement, or both? Not wanting to miss an ‘art’ event that people will probably be writing dissertations on in 10 years time, I actually trekked to Weston-Super-Mare to tick it off. Banksy has assembled a ‘Bemusement Park’, in part simply to rile Disney, and in part to create a genuinely immersive experience about anarchical and pessimistic British attitudes, peppered with topical issues (toy boats filled with black migrants seemed particularly raw in light of recent news stories about Syrian refugees) and recent historical events (a huge sculpture of Cinderella being photographed by paparazzi in her post-crash pumpkin was an uncompromising reference to Princess Diana’s death in 1997).

Wandering around the central Dismaland plaza – if it can be called that – what seemed most true about my own experience was the realisation that I had gone not only to look at the site and Banksy’s ‘attractions’, but that the people too were on display. The plot allowed certain visitors to stand out as culture pilgrims, while others looked entirely lost and out of place, and still others appeared utterly at home amongst the greyness, having apparently stumbled inadvertently into some foreign yet truly entertaining fantasy. Banksy’s scenery is constructed meticulously like a detailed stage set, while the roles of the ushers are convincingly executed by people whose lives are unnervingly similar to the ones they ‘act out’ as part of the Dismaland production. That is the greatest reality: that unlike Disneyland, where staff enter an overtly dream-like world concealing anything of their own identity, the workers at Dismaland are actually vulnerable, their lives exhibited in a kind of class exposé.

Banksy treads a fine line between the selling-out of an artist – and it is interesting to note the inclusion of works by Damien Hirst – and the greatest extension of his brand image, that of a maverick street artist creating humour which consistently bears a grittier undercurrent. His transition from an anonymous character endlessly teasing Hackney’s street cleaners to a name attached to 6-figure prices in auction houses and a solo exhibition at Sotheby’s Mayfair S|2 gallery last year, has perhaps been one of the most fascinating developments of an art world figure in the last decade. This makes Dismaland all the more ingenious as a personal dig at the saccharine corporate façade of Disney, one which at this stage in his career has certainly not been overlooked. However, in his mocking of the Disney conglomerate, Bansky also stumbles into the money-making vortex of merchandise and memorabilia (no receipts were issued, everything was paid in cash, and even the Dismaland castle had an actual green screen for souvenir photographs in card frames), and fundamentally, happiness.

The premise of Dismaland is an experience that will dissapoint, a concept that for some inevitably works well. In fact, one couple so aggravated by the semi-feigned rudeness of a staff member began shouting back at her. For others, however, Dismaland is a paradise – a beacon of left-wing discourse and artistic subversion, the former acknowledged through a giant scrunched billboard poster of David Cameron clasping a champagne glass. Everything is placed there to be noticed, and perhaps this is at times too literal. We look for the obvious because we have been trained to identify Banksy’s trademarks easily, and we remain gratified. However, as a totality the realisation of the project was surely close to Banksy’s vision, down to the miles of pointless and farcical security barriers visitors were told to snake through before reaching the bag check. The cheesy lines of staff, which occasionally felt awkward and uncomfortable, were sometimes pulled off too. The project bears narcissistic qualities, but there is also something about it that verges on heartfelt. One thing is for sure: it will be a grace if Dismaland is never reincarnated elsewhere after it closes at the end of this month.

Dismaland runs until 27th September on the Weston-Super-Mare seafront.

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