08.12.2013 > 09.03.2014
Throughout the world, the urban spaces in which we move each day seem to be increasingly inter- changeable. Anonymous meeting places and passages in the public space through which we temporarily move and share as a universal community, such as shopping centre parking lots, industrial sites and metro stations are very similar everywhere, in a sense. In describing these areas of uniformity, the French sociologist Henri Levebvre introduced the concept of the “non – place”. Photographer Bert Danckaert (b. 1965, Antwerp) focuses his work on urban “non-places”, bringing them organized and structured into depiction while performing an examination of the cultural identity of these “inadvertent spaces” within today’s globalized world.
Initially Bert Danckaert photographed in Belgium and its neighbouring countries. After a visit to the United Arab Emirates, he noted that even there the backstreets of the cities showed similarities with those in Belgium. In 2007 he made his first trip to Beijing, then he moved to Shanghai, Guangzhou, Hong Kong, Brasilia, New York, Istanbul and Cape Town. The purpose of these travels was twofold: to visit existing places loaded with context, and to observe those places through the lens of his own cultural baggage. In framing his travels the photographer followed his own personal improvisation strategy. He conducted random walks through the city until he found his images: elements of buildings that are both absurd and tragicomic, fragments of an urban landscape that present themselves as a still life… His quest crystallized into a series of images that show how the regional space is increasingly being given over to the benefit of international clichés. We get a picture of the contemporary city – in the generic sense of the word – read by using the walls as a kind of scripture regarding universality. The answer to the question of whether cultural identity still has a place in a globalized context, becomes ultimately formulated with more nuances than originally thought.
In displaying his prints, Bert Danckaert uses discretion when choosing their size. This presentation formula preserves the images with a certain intimacy that invites the viewer to zoom in closely and peer deeper into the hidden meanings the works contain. Danckaert always photographs “democratically”, with the same lens, with equal lighting, almost emotionless. His work shows abstract expressionist painterly influences as well as minimalist and constructivist architectural references. The attention to the aesthetic value of the interplay between formal elements, certain details and colour planes, seems to betray a thorough formalistic style. The impulse for high abstractness and aestheticism, is, however driven by the overwhelming context of a found location. Embarking upon a city walk with a trivial starting point, Bert Danckaert reflects on the quality of contemporary life and world problems and then tries to capture, what he as a photographer might have to say on these matters, or what he might have to add. The premise is not formalistically mannered but rather, socially engaged. Inherent in experiencing an urban context is the abstraction of the incomprehensible complexity and diversity of it all. The impulsive need for unconscious abstraction is inherent in everyone’s everyday experience and is also reflected in the images of the photographer. With a high documentary content, the image essentially shifts to a level at which it acquires greater autonomy. However, behind the thorough aestheticizing hides an animated social discourse. A reference to the socially conscious photography of innovators like Martin Parr and Paul Graham is relevant in relation to Danckaert’s work. In the early 1980’s, these were the first photographers who documented their own culture disregarding the taboo of using colour photography. Until then, colour photography was reserved for advertising and tourism, while the high artistic standard, by contrast, was displaying exotic places in black and white images. In a sense, Bert Danckaert has built on this. However, he pushes the search for the existence of a cultural identity in his own country to exotic locations. The observation of banal places in distant lands brings the conclusion that this form of photographic exoticism itself raises: the non-places exhibit strong similarities with similar sort of places in his own country. It is the figure of the artist, thus, as a subject in his own extensive traveling with his own loaded perception that creates a tension. Another aspect of artistic content in Danckaert’s work can be linked to the principle of the “invisible contamination”. Namely, an image takes on a different meaning when the issues concerned are projected on to innocent subjects that happen to figure into a part of a larger and more charged context.
The imagery within the two new films shown in the exhibition blends seamlessly with those of the photo-oeuvre. The process of being an individual, as well as a photographer of the multiplicity and complexity of daily abstractions and of visual and contextual information, comes strongly into play once more. What the photographer can only illuminate in the fragmentary gains an extra dimension his film. We see additional elements being addressed, such as the passage of time, the figures of people in the images and the use of sound as aural abstraction. The common element in both films, which play out in different locations in Guangzhou and Havana, is the natural element of water. Adding an audio recording of a third metropolis, Mumbai, creates a sensory bridge. The urban roar from Mumbai flares up into the space occupied by the imagery. Both films start from a solid photographic point where the horizon maintains a central role. The line that evokes infinity brings together landscape, still life, photographic and film work.
The past 6-years Bert Danckaert has furthered his artistic practice towards doctoral research, in collaboration with the Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp and Tilburg University. This research was reflected in two publications, one a visual essay where photographs act as protagonists and one in the form of a novel. Simple Present contains a selection of 86 images taken in 18 cities on five continents. The text portion of the PhD grew into the book De Extra’s. Danckaert travelled to Mumbai in order to explore the core of his doctoral research. The photographer, together with his brother, allowed them selves to be recruited as western extra’s in a Bollywood film and saw this as an opportunity to take advantage of the film’s decors. The opportunity to photograph the film sets was lost due to circumstances. That failure granted Danckaert the ideal opportunity to reflect on the surreal dream world of Bollywood and the essence of photography. De Extra’s is a book about doubt and failure as a motor in the artistic process, but again, the significance of cultural identity and the convertibility of non – urban areas.