VIDEO ARTIST WIM CATRYSSE ENTERS RESTRICTED AREAS
Tom Peeters – 2014
WHEN THE LANDSCAPE TAKES THE LEAD
Watching the video installations of Antwerp-based artist Wim Catrysse is like experiencing the elements of nature. On giant screens – often triptychs with a sculptural quality – he shows you the driest of sandstorms in a Kuwaiti desert or the most toxic of sulphur fumes rising from an active volcano on Java.
Observing all these desolate spots thoroughly before filming, it’s Catrysse’s goal to make you part of a science fiction that is reality.
He has always remembered a quote from the American writer, filmmaker and activist Susan Sontag, he tells me during a visit to his imposing exhibition in Mechelen. “Science fiction is not about science,” she said, “but about destruction,” referring to the habit of sci-fi movies to suggest a new, wonderful discovery by an idealist scientist, while at the end destroying all hope.
Could it be that in science fiction the landscape becomes a lead actor, creating an estranged, often apocalyptical setting, just like the films of Catrysse do? But make no mistake: The remote places he travels to for the sake of art – Alaska, Indonesia, Kuwait – are (or were) very active, at least on a strategic and economic level. Their remote areas are merely hidden from outsiders by people protecting their oil, their gas, their minerals. So you may take the title of the exhibition Restricted Areas very literally.
Before his trip to Kuwait, Catrysse, 40, had seen aerial pictures of the country. He could distinguish three areas of activity: army bases, oil fields and cities near the coast. At first he wanted to film the military domains, but with only a tourist visa and control posts everywhere, this was a no-go zone. “So we kept hanging around the Main Supply Road, or MSR. This road leading to Iraq was built for the provisioning of military operations.”
And then something unexpected happened. While driving on the MSR, he spotted a pack of dogs. “They were all lying down, lacklustre from the heat or digging holes in the sand to cool down. It really got interesting when a storm rose; the local weather forecast just said ‘dusty’, but if the horizon quasi disappears, I call it a storm [laughs]. Now the battle between nature’s elements was even more prominent, and the dogs played a metaphoric role in it.”
“MSR” (pictured above) is one of the two most powerful video installations filmed in Kuwait on display in Mechelen’s Culture Centre. A tracking shot and a swelling, threatening soundtrack eventually lead to this surreal image of dogs in the desert and, at the very end, a passing army convoy. Though it’s all chronological, Catrysse isn’t interested in a plot. “For me, storytelling isn’t the essence of the medium of film.”
Explaining this statement, he takes me back in time, to the world’s first cinema screening. “The audience saw a train coming on the screen, and they all hit the floor, seeking protection. Back then ,they felt the impact of the medium; they felt the illusion was real. Bruce Nauman, one of the artists who has really influenced me, once said that a work of art should be like ‘getting hit in the face with a baseball bat’. After he said it, he corrected himself: ‘Better, like getting hit in the back of the neck. It has to hit you before you know it.’ I like that idea.”
It’s one reason why Catrysse is working with expectations and tension, but never with a climax. His films come to an end, but at the same time they don’t. It’s more like they are rotating around an axis. Maybe, he suggests, that’s because he never followed a formal film education in film.
For two years at art school Sint-Lucas in Brussels he studied painting, but under influence of film students, he moved to the interdisciplinary ‘experimental atelier’, where he shot performance art on video.
It was by recording these performances on film that Catrysse discovered his calling. “In fact, film was not totally different from painting,” he says. “Through framing, you create an inside and an outside, and thus a perception.”
What’s equally striking is that his older studio work already contained the kernels for filming on location. “Unmastered Behaviour” from 2001 is a rotating cube in which the strange behaviour of the people inside is filmed. Though the self-provoked centrifugal power in a studio environment emerges differently from the powers working in natural landscape, it has the same starting point.
On location, Catrysse is often drawn to isolated land that is (or once was) reclaimed by industry. His first trip in 2006 took him to Alaska, where he followed a 120-kilometer trajectory to an abandoned copper mine in the mountains.
“I had seen aerial photos and became fascinated by how the landscape was formed,” he says. “Clearly, people wouldn’t go to these barren territories if it wasn’t for their greed in digging up an infinite amount of minerals. Isn’t it ironic that the project was financed by Guggenheim, now known for his museums all over the world?”
What made it worthwhile for the Flemish artist was the micro-climate in the nearby Copper River, evoking a storm limited to the riverbed. Such topographical characteristics are crucial for his work.
Often, both the artist and his equipment are exposed to hostile conditions, which is reflected in the final product. Filming an active volcano in Indonesia, his expensive camera was destroyed by the sulphur fumes. “Very frustrating when it happens just after the second week of your six-week stay,” he grins.
Nevertheless, 2010’s “Outward-Bound” (pictured above) is a captivating experience, right on the border of science fiction and documentary, in which the filmmaker captures a modern image of slavery. Locals workers tap the sulphur on top of the volcano with a pipe system. The gas turns to liquid, and when it’s ready, they drag it 1.5 kilometres down the volcano in 80kg baskets.
Catrysse is one of the founders of Escautville, an Antwerp organisation that supports video artists. All of his work, including the pieces that aren’t featured in the exhibition, are illustrated in a book published by Roma Publications.
In the meantime, he’s preparing his next trip – this time to Buzludzha, a peak in the Bulgarian Balkan Mountains, atop which a former building of the communist party is decaying. In winter it is snowed under, creating “an intriguing confusion between inside and outside, between architecture and landscape”.
Another fine description of what he creates with his work, whether it’s filmed in a 50°C. desert or on a minus 20°C mountain top.