In conversation with Dirk Braeckman

Dirk Braeckman’s photography allows viewers to create their own narrative. He suggests but never applies. His life-long oeuvre is dedicated to covering and uncovering the mystery. He is creating a very isolated and textured world that leaves a lot of room for interpretation.

His latest exhibition is 57th Venice Biennale as Dirk Braeckman is representing Belgium. His show is curated by Eva Wittocx, with M – Museum Leuven as the organizing institution. The pavilion is designed and curated in a way it maximizes the sense of tranquility so one can focus their full attention on the images. The exhibition mainly consists of new works made for the occasion, works that will also be included in a double show at BOZAR in Brussels and M-Museum Leuven in 2018.

We sat down with the artist after the opening to discuss his latest show and if his expectations were fulfilled.

 

This year you are part of La Biennale di Venezia, as your work is exhibited at the Belgian Pavilion, tell me more.

The show is very straightforward, with a selection of mostly new works presented in a rather classical and intriguing way. No scenography or special/spectacular installation. The work is central, around 20 monumental works that guide your eye and make a strong impression.

Representing a country, I believe, must bring a different kind of pressure than usual?

More than pressure it feels like an honor to represent one’s country. La Biennale has a focus on many artists, over one hundred, which makes one also feel connected to the many colleague-artists from around the world. Prior to the opening I was mostly curious, a bit nervously looking forward to reactions of the audience, especially from people that will for the first time encounter my work. Like everyone there, I hope to stand out. We have worked for over a year on this show and the new works. At this point, I do feel ready to share them with the public, both with my friends, people that follow me, and the new audience.

How do you feel now, few weeks after the opening? Were your expectations fulfilled?

It was really great to share the works with such a mixed crowd. From nobody knowing anything about the show, until thousands of visitors in these openings days, it was very special indeed. Most responses to the exhibition are very positive, both from visitors that discover my work for the first time, as from people who already follow me since many years. Some people even got emotional in front of my work or came back a couple of hours later bringing friends. I believe we have succeeded in our wish to create an exhibition that puts the work that is serene and calm, first. People seem to enjoy this counterweight with some of the other Giardini pavilions. I feel both tired and satisfied now. After the rush of the opening, full of obligations, I can now enjoy from a distance.

Do you remember what your first photograph was? And I don’t mean that as the first photo, I am referring to the first time you were conscious when taking a photograph that you were creating something bigger, something that you considered an artistic expression?

After I had left the academy, I made many photographs, looking for a style or signature of my own. End of the 80s, early 90s, I made some portraits where the head of the figure was directed outwards, or shown from its back. It was a sort of revelation to me and changed my way of working. Before the eyes of my subjects attracted too much attention and the gaze offered too much of a story. When the figure was turned away, I could focus more on a specific atmosphere and composition.

How come you decided to work almost exclusively in black & white?

When I studied photography at the art academy, the first thing we learned was analog photography, developing negatives and making prints in the darkroom, all in black and white. It became the medium that I managed, experimented with, and that I could use as my tool. With black and white, one can interfere, which I do, during the developing process, adapting the final image and making a unique print. Leaving out color also gives the image another character, takes away certain aspects. I do believe black and white photography offers another value to reality.

All your photographs look very eerie and mysterious. What are you trying to hide?

I want to suggest, make powerful images and not offer a specific story or straightforward subject. The tension that I want to achieve is about hiding and revealing, exposing and covering. This is what good images are for me. They not only seduce but also withhold things, making you invest in them.

What is being hidden is entirely up to the viewer to fill in. I’m not giving specific information, as then I would destroy the power of the image. I’m not looking for mystery, rather for tension, as if there is something that is about to happen or has just happened.

Cindy Sherman once said, “Believing in someone’s own art becomes harder and harder when the public response grows fonder.” Would you agree?

It’s indeed harder when many opinions come your way and doubt might be triggered. I do think that one can stay true to oneself even when responses are diverse and louder. The reactions to my work have been very diverse so far, not only towards one direction only, which makes one more directed towards oneself to make a stand.

What was the best party you ever attended?

About 20 years ago, I threw a party in my then new studio in Ghent. This was rather improvised and spontaneous, inviting people and friends last minute. These are often the best parties, not too much planned ahead and without too many expectations.

Have you met a lot of your heroes throughout the years?

When I was in the academy, I was attracted to what Jan Hoet was doing. At the time he was the director of Museum of Contemporary art in Ghent. I visited his shows and followed what he did, although my teachers at the Academy were very negative about him. I visited his key exhibition ‘Chambres d’Amis’ in private houses all over the city in 1986, that made a big impression on me. Then in the early nineties, I got to know him in person. He bought some my work to put into the museum. Later on, I had a privilege to work with him on many occasions and exhibitions.

But who was that one person that made the biggest impact on you?

My childhood friend Willy Pauwels was very important to me and my work. He introduced me to the art world and taught me a lot about art, he was a painter and he sadly passed away when he was just 18 years old. After he had passed away, I wanted to continue in the art world and decided to become a painter and to go to the academy. In the end, I decided to study photography.

What do you normally watch on TV?

I stopped watching TV ten years ago.  Only the news can interest me on TV.

I do sometimes watch films on the internet or go to the cinema. I often like to freeze and pause the image when watching a film online. Some movies I study from a more photographic point of view, without the sound or getting into the story.

Interview: Katja Horvat

Photos: Courtesy of the artist