In his current exhibition at David Zwirner gallery in New York, the Belgian artist Michaël Borremans is showing films that unfold at a radically slow pace. Their tableau-vivant images could be mistaken for stills but for a flickering light or a figure’s discreet breathing. Borremans, born in 1963, is best known for paintings that engage past masters like Manet and Goya—but the haunted characters who inhabit them display a distinctly contemporary unease, as if they were prey to an uncertain fate. That an artist lauded for his skill in painting and drawing should turn to the more impersonal surface of the cinematic image is a noteworthy shift—one that we addressed during my visit to his expansive studio in Ghent in January 2009, as he was preparing for the Zwirner show, his first there since 2006. David Coggins Your new exhibition features a number of recent films. What can people who only know your paintings expect to see?
Michaël Borremans I’m showing a couple of older films. Add and Remove  is based on a painting from my first show at David’s gallery. What I try to do with films comes out of the paintings. While painting, I had the feeling that I needed a different element of light or movement. My interest in film has always been there since I was young, so I started experimenting. The Storm  is a 35mm projection of a live image. But the work is still more painting than film—the medium is film, but the way I approach it is like painting. That’s why the films are so unusual. When people ask me if they can screen the films publicly, I can’t agree to it because they’re really not meant for that.
DC Because the films are very slow.
Mb Yes. The rhythm is very important—they have to be as slow as breathing. I’m experimenting in the way I show them—mostly on an LCD flat screen which is framed, and this frame is wooden, so the film is like a framed work.
DC Your paintings have such a physical quality. Was it hard to give up that painterly surface?
MB Not really. A filmed image has another quality—you use lenses, you use lights. I use actual film [not video], so the images are grainy. You can get some painterly qualities even though it’s another language; it has its own poetry. I’m interested in cinematic esthetics, like going in and out of focus.
DC So you can manipulate the cinematic qualities the same way you can manipulate the surface of a canvas or of paper?
DC In your paintings, you make references to the history of the medium—to Manet and Goya, for example. Do your films likewise refer to a cinematic history with its own traditions and allusions?
MB I don’t refer to these things intentionally—the references are there in all my work. There are references to the history of art that are not specific. They appeal to your consciousness in a very open way. It’s something I think about. All the imagery of the 20th century and earlier is baggage we have to deal with. My work is an answer to that, a dialogue with that.
DC With anyone in particular?
MB Not really. But of course there are figures you pick out, like Manet, who you’re so conscious about. My last show at David Zwirner [“Horse Hunting,” 2006] was really an intentional dialogue with Manet paintings like The Dead Toreador and The Execution of Maximilian.
DC And he appeals to you as the beginning of modernist painting?
MB He’s an interesting figure because he’s seen that way. But at the same time he’s also the last classic painter, and that aspect is just as important.
DC Can you discuss the difference between narrative in painting and in film? In film we generally expect something to happen, but you seem to resist that expectation.
MB You can look at the films for two seconds or watch them straight through; they’re like a presence. With the paintings, at first you expect a narrative, because the figures are familiar. But then you see that some parts of the paintings don’t match, or don’t make sense. The works don’t come to a conclusion in the way we expect them to. The images are unfinished: they remain open. That makes them durable.
DC There’s a mystery in your paintings that a viewer wants to solve, but it can’t be solved. You invite people in but make an image that’s ultimately unreadable. Is there a tension that you’re looking for?
MB There’s a dichotomy—there are two poles and you’re in between them. There is a tension, but it’s not a game—it’s like research.
DC Your drawings deal with figures that are extremely small, your paintings can be very large and your films are often projected life-size. Could you address scale, and shifts in scale, in your work?
MB Scale is for reference, for recognition. By playing with that and making it unclear, you provoke a kind of anarchy in the image. In the drawings I use that a lot and make references to models. In our society we use models to try things, to test things; scientists use models. The model as a metaphor for our actions is very appealing to me. That’s why you have these tiny figures.
DC Like an architectural model where a figure shows the scale?
MB Yes, like in architecture, but also in warfare.
DC You often portray people carrying out activities that are fruitless. People have compared your work to Beckett’s. Do you think that your work deals with the absurd so overtly?
MB The actions are often senseless. But the work switches between an aspect of the absurd and a romantic connotation, like a vanitas. That the human being is a victim of his situation and is not free is a conviction of mine.
DC There’s a feeling in your work of invisible power, of things the figures are waiting for and can’t see, or something that’s beyond their control.
MB That’s true—but I don’t do that intentionally. It’s just there. In The Storm it’s just three people waiting. The light is flickering. It’s a completely still image of people sitting on chairs in costumes of shiny white that looks like the satin fabric in 17th-century paintings. They’re just sitting there breathing.
DC You have a very restrained palette in your films and your paintings—like Dutch still-life paintings. Is that another thing that just happened, or did you set out to achieve it?
MB Part of it is intentional. In an image you want to provoke—but I try to balance the painting. Overpowering colors create a language that’s not useful to me. That’s why I choose very unsaturated colors. I never use black. Everything is mixed out of color but the colors don’t play a starring role; they serve the painting.
DC You sometimes include people in costumes that refer to World War II. Elsewhere they’re in modern dress. But you still can’t quite place them in a certain era.
MB I try to show figures—I don’t want to use the word “individuals”; they’re not individuals. I try to place them in a space that is familiar yet undefined. It’s very strange. I used to make images that were based on photographs from the 1930s or ’40s, but that was too recognizable. I heard that the work was nostalgic, and that was absolutely not the idea. So I try to avoid that, and now I usually work with models who pose for me. I have a room in my studio where I photograph them. It’s a room that’s anonymous, with a certain light—I call it my “Earth Light Room,” like in the spaceship in 2001: A Space Odyssey, where they have an “Earth Light Room,” whatever that might be. So it’s an artificial environment. I made my latest film Taking Turns  there as well.
DC You said that your figures are not individuals. Do you try to make them seem universal?
MB Yes. It’s also why I sometimes paint porcelain figures, like those based on the commedia dell’arte. They’re archetypes. I like portraying mankind that way. Now I’m also having costumes made for my models so that they look more universal and more indefinable. I find them in paintings—I have a great interest in 17th-century portraits—but I don’t want to refer to a specific artist or era. They have different elements from art history. I try to enrich them by being non-specific.
DC Do you think it’s possible today to make paintings that are not about painting?
MB That’s very hard. I make paintings because my subject matter, to a large extent, is painting. The medium is not free from that—it’s very loaded.
DC Is it surprising that you’re making films?
MB To me, there are more similarities between painting and film than between painting and photography. Before film, painting was about storytelling. Now film is about storytelling, though it wasn’t like that when it was invented. Today film is more like painting than ever before. Film itself is more and more rarely used for documentary purposes—everything is electronic or digital. But film has a language of beauty, like painting. It’s very appealing. That’s why they use it for commercials. I can use it for my own purposes. It has become a medium that is not transparent—like painting. You know you’re dealing with film. You know you’re dealing with an artifact, with an artificial image. With a photograph you look at the image without seeing the medium.
DC So will you be making more films?
MB Yes, but it’s a terrible process. You need to be organized, you need a crew and so many things can go wrong. Taking Turns went very smoothly, so I don’t trust it [laughs]. I hate to do it, but I have to do it.
DC You’re going to be working on drawings in Rome this spring. Is it difficult to shift back to making something by hand?
MB I try to draw from time to time. But somehow I’m losing interest in it. My sight is getting worse. I never buy paper; I work on found paper that doesn’t look too artistic. I like to work on a piece of paper that has a history that I don’t know.
DC You’ve made diptychs that at first appear to be two paintings of the same thing, like Pink Shoes (2005). Is that a form of questioning truth or how well we know what we’re looking at?
MB Those paintings are very different. That’s why I show them together. When I have a subject I want to paint I don’t succeed in painting it well enough all the time or the way I want it. So sometimes I paint the same thing two, three, four times before I’m happy with the result. But I can then have two results that I’m happy with. The work you refer to with the shoes—there I intentionally made the work in opposite order, like a technical experiment. In one painting I did the background first and then the trousers and then the feet, in the other I did the reverse. So one is translucent—though you really have to look carefully. The other is more opaque.
DC Your show in London at Parasol [“The Performance,” Parasol Unit Foundation for Contemporary Art, 2005] was hung in a very personal way—different things at different heights, sometimes in unexpected places.
MB It’s very difficult to install my paintings. It’s fine to install one or two pieces or a small show. But I’m putting together a book on all the paintings, and it’s very hard; it’s like an overload of sugar. It’s the same when you install a big show. I always prefer to show less work than more, though even small work can dominate a wall. If I show too much, everything collapses—one work kills another. It’s easier with the films. The combination of paintings and film gives you an opportunity to play, to make something more interesting.
DC It was surprising to go from the show at Parasol, where the work was fairly small, to your last show at Zwirner, in 2006, which included a painting that was 20 feet tall.
MB Painting is like a stage. Drawing is very different—it doesn’t have the weight of painting. In drawing, you can formulate all kinds of ideas, but in painting there’s a statement. It’s taken more seriously and in a different way. I really wanted to use painting like a stage, like Manet did. I like to refer to popular culture. One painting [The Appearance, 2005] looks a little bit like a pop music group. So there are a multitude of references.
DC The Bodies 3  is a painting of two people in bed sleeping. But it doesn’t seem very restful.
MB That’s a strange painting. I wanted to refer to death and playing dead. It’s kind of sinister. All the actors in the paintings [in the 2006 Zwirner show] are masculine. In the history of painting, it’s the men who go to war, who are fighters. Women are softer. Psychologically, the whole show dealt with that. The men in the bed have pillows behind them. This creates a strange interference in the psychology of male figures. Because they’re soft again.
DC What about living painters, like your compatriot Luc Tuymans?
MB I’m a big fan of his. Of course what we do is quite different. He’s an important painter and a very good one. His latest work got criticized, but I don’t understand why—it’s really impressive. He’s so confident when he paints. You notice his marks. He doesn’t think about it—he just paints.
DC You and Gerhard Richter are both painters who deal with photography.
MB One thing that’s clear with Richter is that he’s gotten better and better. Now his work is really sublime. His simple, intimate works, his portraits of his family, are astonishing. They give you the shivers.
DC And when you think of filmmakers that you admire—you mentioned Kubrick before—do you look at anybody in particular?
MB I look at David Lynch. We have some similarities—like the way he tries to show something we cannot solve because it’s against our nature. Also, as a filmmaker he’s a great painter. His latest one is great [Inland Empire,2007]. It’s so raw, shot on video, and the film really needed that. His intuition is perfect.
Michaël Borremans’s exhibition “Taking Turns” is on view at David Zwirner, New York [Feb. 24-Mar. 25].
David Coggins is a writer who lives in New York.