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.