“Canberra has a desert climate which means that it is fucking cold in winter and face meltingly warm in summer, this summer we had an entire week above 40 degrees (105 F), nuts.”
Wouter Van de Voorde is an artist that I could not ignore when we crossed paths on social media. I had no idea about him, his nationality or his position on the globe. What I knew was that his work had a bleak monochrome feel about it, but was not without its “sunnier” moments. There is an unmistakable darkness to the locations he photographs-dis-used houses in tatters, monolithic black rocks that remind one of a Nineteenth Century gothic sublime painting and other locations that feel like evidence photographs that have a strange forensic potential. In what follows, Wouter and I discuss his work and all of the things that I have mentioned above.
BF: I wanted to start this interview off by discussing your background. I believe that you are a Belgian national trapped in Canberra looking out aimlessly over the prison island that you now call home and I believe that you have been forced to adopt its language, habits and miscreant behaviour while dodging a plethora of oversized and pestilent insects and reptiles-you live in bat country and the bastards swarm from above and are able to carry off whole species in no short time. One must find protection amongst the canopy of concrete and rock or be carried away in short measure.
So, with all of this being said and please do note that my attempt to interview you is not only a conversation, but also a desire on my part after reading some pithy and pretentious twaddle of an interview this morning to regulate and bring the timbre of humanity back to world of photography dialogue. So, in your kind recollection and estimation of truth, how in Dog’s name did you end up trekking from the lowlands of Belgium to the carnivorous plains of Australia and were you involved with photography back in waffle land or was it something you picked up in the surveillance culture of the prison state of Canberra? Please refrain from quoting any illustrious and over-glorified and redolent white men from the past if possible.
WvdV: Back in 2006 I was an avid MySpace user, I loved how you could build a full custom layout. My profile was full of little animated GIFs I made, some were even shot in studio using green screen. At some point during that time I started talking to this girl who had a strange picture of a neon shooting star as her background on her profile. She also had a strange selfie in which she was wearing a lucid dreaming mask. She turned out to be an Australian girl studying in Antwerp. After her visa ran out we decided to get married in Australia. This was my first trip from to this carnivorous island continent. Her parents lived in this decrepit 1850s mansion on a massive property with family cemetery and rainforest just to name some of the features. It had belonged to her family since that era. For a small town boy from rural Belgium this was all I needed to be thoroughly blown away, also her dad was this outback, bush person, mad unit. He told stories about being a cattle pilot in the 1960s, being hired to shoot wild dogs in the far north, I was in awe of this guy. Shortly thereafter we decided to have a crack at living down under. After a couple of years living in a granny flat in a quiet town along the east coast we moved to ‘the bush capital’, Canberra. Coming from the land of Magritte and waffles most of my perceptions are deeply surreal, Canberra fits in really well in this context. A planned city somewhere roughly in the middle of New South Wales, which is a ginormous state by European standards. Canberra has a desert climate which means that it is fucking cold in winter and face meltingly warm in summer, this summer we had an entire week above 40 degrees (105 F), nuts. Every surface exposed to sunlight is fit to cook steak on. Only a mad unit would consider working under a dark cloth with a view camera in this context…
In Belgium after growing up in a small town I moved to Ghent to study painting and later printmaking at KASK (Royal Academy of Fine Arts). To this day I feel like a lot of what I do in photography finds its roots in painting. At some point during that time I was painting inside an abandoned factory and I came across the body of a guy who hung himself. I remember my teacher in painting saying that I should have made a painting of the dude hanging. This teacher later suicided as well. I had several friends kill themselves during that period, maybe a Belgian thing? Photography started with my move to Australia, I was running a little blog to show my new life to friends and family back in waffle country. This slowly developed from little digi shots taken with a little P&S camera to the pitch black sheets of fibre paper I’m cranking out in the darkroom today. During that time I learned to embrace the harshness of the light and the ‘lights on, lights off’ hyper fast sequence of sunset and rise. I still made paintings every now and then, for the past couple of years I’ve developed a relationship with Datura Stramonium of which I make small paintings of cuttings in a jar while they slowly die, fun stuff.
BF: Jesus christ man err you were carried off by a noble siren back to her lair then-a brave griffin did descend on Antwerpen. Cave of the white worm and national anthems of cricket and chum. Perhaps we better find a suitable method for which to continue this mad caper and back track until we find the record button on the VHS player and shut it all down.
You had me at “myspace”. I sympathise with a man your age as it appears we are tandem hoodlums walking into the brisk sunset of all the rest of these dirty 90s children singing the theme tune to Alf and maybe Baywatch, trying desperately not to get snagged by the primordial stew in the young maggot brains currently trying to grab the microphone-millennial is only a good word when we think of cults and you must know a thing or two about cults being Belgian and apparently they only invented the chocolate to get to the children.
Biscuits for breakfast-christ man. You are being drawn into another net of death. In my observations, one usually starts with the camera as a way to crutch his or her paintings etc and you, you have gone backwards and changed the script, which makes sense given you have crossed the line-the equatorial boundary that sees the world upside down like some twisted wedding cake.
Why are you drawn to ruins? I am sad to hear of your experience of swinging men. I myself ventured for train maulings and in my early years was fortunate enough to see two train suicides. It reminded me that we are all existing in different tombs waiting for the lids to drop.
On a more serious note, you’re a god damn romantic aren’t you? I guess that explains some of this Belgian solution that you speak about. There is a soft spot in your images for Gothic sublimity-bleached bones and blackened business. You make rocks look like Bela Lugosi’s hairline, inverted and crushing my brow. These I have seen from you, but I have also seen this restless movement in the tree lines of trash. We have spoken about your aversion to David Caspar Friedrich, but I am reminded that perhaps your queer and sinister motivation comes from the confluence between your nationality and the impending and dangling sword of Canberra mustering its bush might across your fevered brow. What makes you climb to such festering mountains of debris in the houses you photograph? They make me feel like im in an outback terror film. The ones where some sick bastard picks you up slams you down on a meat hook and lets the pigs into eat your feet off up to the knees before fondling your writhing genitals in his dirty hand while his 4-toothed cousin watches on in a shit-stained fosters mesh hat reeking of piss and petrol? The horrific sublime-how did it find you? Why are you drawn to the rubbish tip-and please note, I love a slag heap.
“At some point during that time I was painting inside an abandoned factory and I came across the body of a guy who hung himself. I remember my teacher in painting saying that I should have made a painting of the dude hanging. This teacher later suicided as well. I had several friends kill themselves during that period, maybe a Belgian thing?”
WvdV: I suppose the being drawn to ruins is something that goes back to my childhood. Close to where my folks live there were these clay pits with some old moist German bunkers planted through it, I used to explore these kind of places with my old mate. Also walking through the fields behind my folks home, jumping a fence to see what is on the other side, sneaking into people backyards. Back in Ghent there used to be this massive old wire factory, it was basically like a little village with streets running through it. There were so many facets to this place that me and a couple of friends were constantly drawn back to there. We used to stand on the roof of one of the buildings with our little easels painting this beautiful ruin. I guess the lamest way to describe the attraction to ruins would be to say I’m into urbex… I like to feel a bit scared, a bit threatened. Being in some of these places puts me on edge, gives me more focus. I used to (and still do) photograph in this one spot here in Canberra called McGregor. There are two streets, one called Recycling Circuit and Sustainability street. Basically it used to be one gigantic dump, with scrapyards leased to different types of shady blokes with even shadier doggos to match. I first came across this place some months after moving to Canberra. I just could not believe this place was in the fucking capital of this island. I remember walking there at sunset, dogs barking loudly and about to jump over the fences, dodgy ‘mates’ doing donuts in the dirt, super sketchy.
But yea, I guess I can’t escape the romantic bit. My focus is often inward, not so much as an egotistical narcissistic perspective, but rather how I relate to the shit surrounding me. Those black rocks I keep going back to photograph are part of an area called fittingly ‘The Boneyard’. I’ve found myself in that spot more often than not consumed by existential dread, like I kind of thrive on indulging in imagined drama. Last time I was there about a month ago I walked into The Boneyard at dusk, it got really hard for me to see where I was walking. A freak wave could lift me off my rocky pedestal and pull my Belgian ass out to the continental shelf darkslides et all. As night fell consumed by mosquitos I faced off with my favorite phallic rock formation (…)
The whole rubbish loving and the horrific sublime I guess are just a lovely compost for me be a parasite on. My worst nightmares are set in pristinely manicured gardens, well lit walkways along man made lakes and public benches. Canberra is surrounded by mountains, miles and miles of bushland, just huge fucking slabs of nothing. Nothingness is palpable at any given time when heading out of suburbia.
When I moved here for the first couple of years I just could not get my head around the fact that you’d barely see any indigenous people. It felt strange being in a country geographically so far removed from Flanders and finding myself in a culture, which was not very dissimilar aka white. I tried to educate myself on indigenous culture, reading stories and looking at paintings and reproductions of rock art etc. In my limited research I found that a lot of the stories I read regularly contained quite horror like events. Thin ghosts seducing travellers to then proceed to scoop out the kidneys of the victim and fill the cavities with green ants. Bone-pointing (voodoo death)… Maybe it is just the dark part of my mind honing in on this part of the native culture. You don’t have to have a phd in Australian history to be somewhat aware of what the horror colonial white men inflicted on the natives. Even though I am often ‘off with the fairies’ this is somehow always in the back of my head when I am photographing.
BF: I’ll go you one further and lambast the whole goddamn tribe of white people-haven’t done a single thing that benefits the world after that German feller made the printing press, but that went awry as soon as the asshole printed a bible page on toilet paper with it. Should have stayed that way. Imagine if we had the verses on bum wipe, people might actually read the fucker. Horror my friend is the first refuge for people who can claim the world as their own in their likeness and I fully agree with you and understand the compunction to be drawn to nefarious ends. Its not so different with Mahler, Wagner, or any other sensible musician.
Knowing that you are voodoo man, I wanted to speculate about your orbits and gravitations to other lens people, crooked as we are. When you broke free from the dangers of the plastic arts, were you involved much in the historic elasticity of the medium enough to let some of its denizens influence you and your machine or was it simply that you cloaked yourself in intuition? The world is photography’s trash heap, but a few of the Americans like Baltz and that other queer-eyed bastard Robert Adams had a unnatural affection for sublime trash heaps, though the latter clearly tried to hide it in the bushes. Are you in debt to any of these lamentable bastards? Do you find any solace in the confines of the medium? Do you worry that your kith may take up the infernal machine?
WvdV: Being cloaked in intuition sounds about right. I have been incredibly ignorant to the history of the photographic medium. Coming from the plastic arts most of my influences are to be found in that corner. I keep going back to Piet Mondrian as one of my key influences. This guy stuck to his own way of seeing the world and slowly distilled his way into abstraction resulting in his famous paintings with black lines with primary colors we all know and of which ignorant fools say that a child can make these. Artists like Martin Kippenberger who produced an eclectic madness of artworks. You can’t tie any logic to his work, he embodies a whole army of different artists. My late teacher Philippe Vandenberg had a massive influence on my work, still has to this day. He was non-stop battling his demons on massive sheets of canvas and thousands of drawings. All these people were very particular in their art, bunkering down and sticking to their own bullshit.
It sounds a bit wankey but a big influence on my motivation of making images has always been a distrust of language. I used to love to blab on about Wittgenstein while being really high, making absolutely no sense at all. For years this used to be how I perceived language: a problematic and abstract way to mutter meaning into life. Like you’re actually using some persons concepts (made up words) to explain shit, not a productive, let alone sane way to stand in society. Luckily my wife, who was studying philosophy at the time, pulled me out of this language philosophical bullshit by saying that contemporary lines of thought are all about utilitarianism.
I suppose I have always tried to be cautious of getting influenced by what has been happening in the medium. I have often looked away when coming across work I liked and on purpose not did any further research. A good friend recently lent me a copy of Seacoal by Killip, opening the pages of that book it feels like blinding laser beams burning into my retinas, I get blow away. That is how I feel seeing really great photography. I live in fear of losing my own voice. At this point in time there are many people I follow and am influenced by, there is no escape. Meeks, Divola, Soth, the list goes on. Even though on the surface what I do might get influenced by what is currently happening in photography underneath it’s all WVDV.
BF: Ahhh, So it is about language. That bastard kicked out the ladder and accidently let the bot fly INTO the bottle. I have also spent time with Mr. Witt. I get a sad sense of despair every time I read about Uncle Bertie signing off on the Tractatus. The greatest feat of logic ever performed was convincing everyone that logic was impenetrable, relentless and required dogma to enable it, which of course always leads to fascism. When Witt wasn’t beating school children, he apparently made a nice garden or a picture aspect of it. I have even visited his home and grave just to watch the worms crawl across his headstone.
When we decide to engage the limits of language in photography, we come full reckoning with the lack of power in an image beyond the salutary or self-referential, much like writing itself. The image is somehow only enabled by our innate fascism and when we agree upon it, we might as well start wearing little brown shirts and develop a funny walk, moustache is optional. I believe that you have found yourself at a debate surrounding this not so long ago. I seem to remember reading how you had work in a competition of sorts and it featured a watchtower in the portraits section and was taken to task by the writer or personifier of ill-omens as an impossible feat of category and language. The illiterate, the unimaginative and the damned all circle around playing at rosies and fall down quick enough. Can you recap that situation and perhaps if you dare chance, give me your thoughts on whether or not the photography has the potential for meaning or representation….
“For years this used to be how I perceived language: a problematic and abstract way to mutter meaning into life. Like you’re actually using some persons concepts (made up words) to explain shit, not a productive, let alone sane way to stand in society”.
WvdV: Wouter – Bloody hell feel like I dug my own grave bringing up old Ludwig W. I have never visited old mate’s grave. I think I always liked the contradiction between him writing tractatus and then going off to teach kids in a little catholic school. I don’t think that ‘being all about language’ is what sums up entirely what I do but I have always struggled with the limitations in meaning with words. I’m not using the correct semiotic jargon but you catch my drift. In my world I feel I can more adequately express whatever illiterate ideas float around in my head by making images.
So you’re referring to my portrait of Celia inside a watchtower, which is currently in an Australian portrait show/competition. In most portraits in the exhibited selection the human figure vs back and foreground ratio are mostly in favor of the humans. In the case of my picture only a small slither of face is visible peeking through a hole looking out of the watchtower. A person online (there are heaps of those) commented something along the lines of ‘Don’t understand why the one with the watchtower made the cut, obviously not a portrait.’ During the opening of the show I was anonymously hovering around my picture and heard this same comment in a number of different iterations. I found it quite hilarious how conformist most onlookers were. What is the value in adhering to standardised visions of what defines ‘a fucking portrait’. It’s a storm in a teacup but it was just an illustration how much the unimaginative lack imagination. Art becomes a really sad party when you start pigeonholing but I suppose that is what I get for entering something in a ‘Portrait Prize’…
Often people will want to perceive me as ‘Belgian guy living in Australia making Australian-Belgian images’ or something along those lines. Obviously where I live has an impact on what I produce but I don’t think my geological location is that relevant, I don’t feel I make Australian images. I think my art sucks at being categorized and we fucking love putting stuff in boxes.
Whether photography or art has potential for meaning of representation I don’t know. I agree with what R. Adams says that in our continuously failing attempts to represent (as photographers) we become part of the spectacle (of nature). We are part of this dance until we are released by Death.
BF: Because of our marauding conversation at the behest of death, Wittgenstein all signalled from the romantic watchtower down under, I think it is imperative colonel that we speak on the last vestige of the modern man’s creative dissonance. In times like these, with friends like those, we find ourselves swimming out of orbit into vast and empty nebulous seas, which by force of gravity alone continually try to upheave our paddling might as we break against their steel crests slumbering down those black wet tides into enforced oblivion. Canberra is out of orbit, the tilt of its access a shade harrier than the 23 degrees prescribed for a healthy rotation. We can’t be neutral about anything, not even the pachyderms, the marsupials or the fucking sharks, man. What storm I am gathering ma last wits towards is the beckoning of the land and the course best stayed away from the herd. How important is it for you to make work alone and in this morass of open off-tilt, nearly off-grid existence? I find we are not the only animals separated by water, but combined by isolation. Can you imagine urbanity, the devil itself every becoming a focus for you? What is it presently about the rural in your mind that offers dialogue?
WvdV: Wouter- There is a dichotomy in my work, on the one hand it is me being somewhere by myself (or pretending to be). On the other hand there are images of my wife, son, family or friends. Emotionally there is something different going on in these two types of images. In many of my portraits I subconsciously use some kind of ‘Callahan-distance’ to these treasured subjects, celebrating the context in which we find ourselves in. Like I am almost physically remove myself to illustrate some objectified view of my relationships. In the works without humans something darker is at play.
Where as I often revisit some treasured haunts making, what feels like, the same images over and over again, on many other occasions new locations are introduced to me by my wife looking who is looking a particular species of birds. On those trips I just tag along and work what is thrown into my lap. I love how she has this drive to see as many different species as possible in her lifetime, there is something very deliberate about it, it’s not just sightseeing for no good reason. Bird people constantly share their locations on a plethora of online fora. It sounds pretty cheesy but we found a way to work together like this.
Yes, I do feel this ‘combined by isolation’ you’re referring to. Despite following some kind of idiosyncratic path in my production of images I feel like this work could be made by anyone. There is a commonality in similar dark perceptions shared with a bunch of contemporary photographers. I feel like these images are not so much a manifestation of egos rather than some kind of shared angst or anger at the current state of affairs, like a shared smog that we breathe and which is slowly killing us. Not saying that this work is political a specific way. I was reading a while back about Rothko making his famous color field paintings during the Second World War. Even though many of his contemporaries would have perceived his work as thoroughly apolitical in those turbulent times I feel like the opposite is true.
There is something about being a ‘rural’ photographer. In Flemish there is a proverb which literally translated reads “And the farmer, he plowed on”. In the original context it related to farmers not being unruly or prone to go on strike unlike factory workers demanding higher wages. To me what it signifies is that you just keep fucking going, no matter what, it’s just what you do. This is how I feel about making art. Shooting, developing and printing over and over again. Spending countless hours in the darkroom, in the trenches, harvesting unsellable black sugar beets polluted by copious amounts of silver nitrate. The rural aspect to me is in my process.
BF: I was once told “there is no room for non-essential personell” when I was attempting to mount a life boat in the most sadistic manner, drilling holes in it as it were…and it reminded me that the drab-suited bastard who told it to me probably had acclimated himself to the essential caliber, by secretly nursing a fetish by rubbing peanut butter on his nipples and letting the ants remove it over the course of several hot summer days. The world is full of secret agendas and forthright blasphemies, it’s when the two become confused that we must suffer their processes and regulations. Myopia be damned….the microcosm of the ant if enlarged would make us ill.
One last inquiry for you and this will be my most sober. I noticed that when you were out and about in your rural environment that you have mentioned being drawn over and over to certain objects such as tree trunks and locations. It provided me with the notion that we are all somewhat forensically inclined unless we really avert our attention to the pleasant necessities of repeating ourselves in the frame. So, when out and about, why do you get drawn and re-drawn to particular objects or scenes to photograph them several times? Is this about temporality, decline and/or Change?
WvdV: I take pleasure in capturing my own few chosen haunts, rejoicing in small (changes of light, weather and vegetation) In my mind it is about all about mapping out different facets of an object or location. Similar to mapping out fingerprint recognition on a smartphone the small differences between the compositions provide a more complete vision, a 2D data capture. With some locations I have an emotional connection, photographing these locations is checking in with myself, how time affects me as I am part of these places. It is about building up a personal history in a country that is essentially alien to me.
(All Rights Reserved. Text @ Brad Feuerhelm & Wouter Van de Voorde. Images @ Wouter Van de Voorde.)