A seemingly endless zigzag of tall white partitions, hung with an equally endless series of spare pencil drawings (500, to be exact), greeted viewers of Jos de Gruyter and Harald Thys’s recent exhibition. The Brussels-based artists turned three galleries into painfully bright labyrinthine corridors that featured traced drawings of random imagery gleaned from the Internet. The images came fast and weird as one moved along: sketchy drawings of three thuggish guys with two bikini-clad girls, a sports car dashboard, a weather map of Europe, a dressage rider, a couple of Irish dancers kicking up their heels, three pairs of trousers, a coiled snake, a wineglass, a female volleyball player spiking a ball—each as inexpert in execution and indeterminate in meaning as the last.
Rendered with a nearly primitive scrawl, the imagery seems nothing so much as a caricature of contemporary Western society. Such critique is characteristic of the Belgian duo’s larger body of work, which consists of films—made over the past two decades—that delineate familial and personal alienation in a style that evokes stark Beckettian farce, Brechtian political stylings and James Ensor’s carnivalesque satire. If the drawings seem like a departure for the artists, the surreal display reaches back to their performative roots.
The gleaming white environment and the imagery that littered it induced a kind of blindness: with so much to take in, one ended up taking in almost nothing (which could be a comment on Internet culture). At the center of two of the rooms were white sculptural male heads set atop attenuated white pedestals. The heads overlooked the drawings like neutered kings or Ken dolls, simultaneously evoking Socialist Realist monuments and something far more bizarre.
In the show’s final gallery, an ecclesiastical arrangement of plain white benches—an intended reference to Belgian Protestantism—faced not an altar but a projection screen. The slow, strange film that filled it describes, in a series of simple diagrams and vague textual analysis, the “relationship between the real world and the parallel world,” as the droning, dispassionate voiceover claims.
Alienation from one’s world seems to be the film’s subtext, as well as that of the exhibition as a whole. With its retro-futuristic staging and clinical palette, the show had a Twilight Zone effect, as if the world had turned out to be the archeological archive of our own long-lost civilization. The drawings illustrate our sports, animals, vehicles, landscapes and foods in such detached shorthand that they seem as inscrutable as ancient relics. This exhibition-as-archive was sinisterly titled “Projekt 13,” as though it were some top-secret military venture, with Thys and de Gruyter as its masterminds. If the duo’s earlier films have a skeptical darkness at their heart, they also have an ardent and redeeming visionary urgency that was altogether lacking here.
Photo: View of Jos de Gruyter and Harald Thys’s video installation About the Relationship between the Real World and the Parallel World, 2010, 25 minutes; at Kunsthalle Basel.