Clotted: the Cityscapes of Bert Danckaert   -- Ann Demeester


 

"The relationship between language and painting is an endless relationship.  This doesn't mean that words are imperfect or deficient, or that, when they are confronted with the visual they are insuperably inadequate. The first cannot be converted to the second: we say in vain what we see and what we see never lies in what we say.  And it is in vain that we try, by using images, metaphors and comparisons, to show what we say...” So writes the philosopher the Americans call the great wizard of paradox, Michel Foucault in 'Les Mots et les choses'. The place where people speak and the place where people look, according to this philosopher, never coincide.  It is not necessary here to study carefully and analyse Foucault's thesis, which he also develops from another point of view in his essay 'Ceci n'est pas une pipe', referring to the work of René Magritte. It's enough to say that the 'place' where we look and the 'place' where we speak do not ever go together. This kind of incompatibility also occurs in the work of Bert Danckaert.  His images don't lend themselves to verbal or textual translation. They are determined in themselves, and recognizable elements, which we also experience as abstractions, are brought together.  The ordinary is lifted out of context and placed somewhere else.  It is isolated and shut off from the physical reality that we feel, hear and taste. It is like looking through peepholes in a thick wall, through a porthole in the bow of a ship. 

Chilly, tight and impersonal, on first sight these are the main characteristics of Danckaert's photographs.  Banal street scenes in which all the elements are carefully positioned in relation to one another to create a feeling of harmony and balance, order and regularity.  The unreal character of everyday reality is brought to the surface in these images. They are too constructed to be 'true and real'.  It is as if every redundant detail has been eliminated and everything superfluous has been artificially removed.  Yet manipulation is as good as absent here.  The cleaning operations and digital manipulations Danckaert performs with the computer are minimal, literal composing being strange to him.  Street scenes that we see every day and everywhere are transformed into layered 'situations' by framing.  A significant whole is created by zooming in on a partial aspect of the scene.  Danckaert opts for a form of erosion: the redundant is abraded and pared down.  What remains is a kind of naked essence, a loaded meaninglessness. 

From this point of view, Danckaert's work is conceptual. An insight is transformed into form and the underlying thinking process works as a structuring force.  By isolating ‘components' -- our view of the surroundings is always panoramic -- placing accents and using a kind of order and system, the photographer tries to retrieve sense from everyday visual reality. The significance of things in themselves and in relationship to each other along with the meaning of the 'artificial' image is what makes this relationship.  Danckaert's search for pattern, rhythm and cadence is equal to the search for a deeper explanation of the things we perceive every day.  It is an attempt to uncover meaning and insight in the world, an attempt that is doomed to fail.  The order and seeming cleanness of the 'found' images stands at the same time for the emptiness of significance.  For him “it is all senseless, it is about nothing, but nevertheless essential”.  He deals in a light and playful way with the absolute absurdness of existence, the so-called existential void.  "The world is a circulating movement, the maintenance of an activity that is completely useless."  And yet with his purified images he creates – against all odds – the illusion that there is something like an underlying total scheme, a framework of significance that gives content to what on first sight is meaningless and falling apart. 

What intrigues me in these images from the series 'Make Sense!' are the internal tensions. The tension between abstraction and figuration, style and realism, representation and registration. The photographs have a formal quality. They can be seen as the conjunction of purified colour fields that have been placed against each other in a fragile balance.  But Danckaert plays with internal relationships, with open and closed forms, with the interaction of horizontal and vertical elements, interior and exterior, old and new.  By the careful placement of objects and the use of colour accents, connections are made.  A fence starts a dialogue with a blood red door at eye level, a leafless tree plays a game of resemblance and contrast with some small street posts, and red and white danger signs 'communicate' with closed rolling shutters.  While his outdoor scenes are inevitably figurative, human beings are always absent.  What we see is the residue of human activity, the traces that are left behind in the urban landscape.  In these silent 'street portraits', dirt bags, traffic signs, street tiles, cement skittles and electricity boxes have a sculptural quality.  The pictures are like found installations, the world as a preconceived composition. Little shifts and transformations are of the essence.  Everything has a logic.  It is natural and at the same time artificial, a well-considered balancing act. The ordinary is shown as it appears but on a higher level.  The pictures are like an extreme exercise in composition. Rigorous and consequential they are also fragile and vulnerable. It is as if the illusion could be stabbed like a colourful birthday balloon.  Paradox is the motor that drives everything.  

Ann Demeester, director of De Appel, Amsterdam (NL)