– Autumn/Winter 2009

The Silence of the Lamps — The Autism of the Recent Works of Jos de Gruyter and Harald Thys

Joshua Simon

Jos de Gruyter and Harald Thys, Der Schlamm von Branst (The Clay from Branst), 2008, colour video, 20min

The work of Jos de Gruyter and Harald Thys confronts us with the fact that we are no longer able to understand the world we inhabit. For the past twenty years, the two Belgian artists have collaborated in video work, performance and mime plays populated by a cast of non-professional actors whom they condemn to enacting eventless stagings in gloomy and bleak interiors. Together with their artists' books, installations and drawings, these works tour a weird, troublingly dark universe, inhabited by a variety of peculiar objects, stone-faced women and wig-wearing men - an idiosyncratic and misanthropic theatre of the absurd characterised by a ghoulish and sometimes sinister humour: a sort of noir surrealism, perhaps typically 'Belgian'.1

Their video Die Fregatte (The Frigate, 2008), first shown at the 5th Berlin Biennial in 2008, is a 20-minute, speechless depiction of a world almost completely lacking in movement. The cast is made of several characters and objects (in order of appearance): a peeping Tom videotaping from behind a bush, a young man, a candelabrum, a woman, three other men, a black couch, a brick wall, a man with a fake red beard and a black frigate model on a pedestal. They all interact, humans and objects alike, accompanied by a soundtrack of abrupt, dramatic organ music. The camera lingers on details of the frigate - sails, ropes, cannons - and registers from a fixed position the men, who observe the frigate and the woman, and who then circle them both, even touching the woman, who appears sitting on the couch in different poses. The peeping Tom tapes this, looking into the viewfinder with one eye, and

  1. See Dieter Roelstraete, 'The Teaches of the Speechless: Jos de Gruyter and Harald Thys' Radical Silence', Mousse Magazine, issue 16, December 2008 - January 2009, pp.18-20. Roelstraete associates Belgian humour with weird, often gloomy, 'grand-guignol-styled' humor that is funny in a deeply troubling way. He finds this to be a quality present in de Gruyter and Thys's work, along with flares of the sinister counter-tradition of noir Surrealism which addressed the latent psychic and political forces of terror, paranoia and social dissolution in 1930s Europe.

  2. See Karl Marx, 'The Fetishism of Commodities and the Secret Thereof', Capital (1867), available at http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1867-c1/ch01.htm#S4 (last accessed on 29 June 2009).

  3. See Christina Kiaer, Imagine No Possessions: The Socialist Objects of Russian Constructivism, Cambridge, MA abd London: The MIT Press, 2005, pp.41-89.

  4. Unlike the 'simple' truth television advertisements present us with by making commodities their main character (notice the screen time humans receive versus objects in TV advertisements), contemporary romantic comedies focus on humans' attempt to mate in a world of commodities, as courting has transformed into a ritual of consumption structured by dating, status symbols and lifestyle accessories.

  5. Email conversation between de Gruyter and Thys and Katia Anguelova and Andrea Wiarda, published in the booklet accompanying 'Suitcase Illuminated #6: Tunnel Effect - Part 1: Jos de Gruyter and Harald Thys', curated by Katia Anguelova, Alessandra Poggianti and Andrea Wiarda, who form the collective DCM (Dipartimento Curatoriale Mobile), for Kaleidoscope, Milan, 27 May-30 June 2009. Suitcase Illuminated #6: Tunnel Effect - Part 1: Jos de Gruyter and Harald Thys, Milan: Kaleidoscope, 2009, n.p.

  6. 'Suitcase Illuminated #6', op. cit.

  7. Branst is a Flemish village known for producing clay. In relation to this use of clay, Roelstraete mentions the Jewish myth of the golem - a living humanoid figure sculpted from clay - as one of the pair's fundamental references. See D. Roelstraete, 'The Teaches of the Speechless', op. cit.

  8. 'Suitcase Illuminated #6', op. cit.

  9. See Michel Chion, The Films of Jacques Tati (trans. Antonio D'Alfonso), Toronto: Guernica Editions, 2003, p.81.

  10. Dziga Vertov, 'We: A Version of a Manifesto', The Film Factory: Russian and Soviet Cinema in Documents 1896-1939 (ed. Richard Taylor and Ian Christie), London and New York: Routledge, 1994, pp.69-72.

  11. Walter Benjamin, 'On Language as Such and on the Language of Man', Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings (trans. Edmund Jephcott, ed. Peter Demetz), New York: Schocken Books, 2007, p.316.

  12. See Hito Steyerl, 'The Language of Things', June 2006, available at http://eipcp.net/transversal/0606/ steyerl/en (last accessed on 29 June 2009).

  13. 'Suitcase Illuminated #6', op. cit.