Venice Biennale 2017 // The Belgian Pavilion: An Interview with Dirk Braeckman

Article by Alison Hugill in Berlin // Thursday, Apr. 06, 2017

The Venice Biennale 2017 series offers previews of curatorial and artistic projects presented in the context of this year’s biennial art event.

Photographer Dirk Braeckman will represent this year’s Belgian Pavilion at the 57th Venice Biennale, with an exhibition of stand-alone photographs curated by Eva Wittocx. Braeckman’s visual language was solidified in the ’80s, and still relies on decidedly tactile and analogue methods. His black-and-white photographs often resemble paintings, with abstract pictorial elements leaving room for viewer interpretation.

We spoke to Braeckman about his working process and what he plans to show at the Biennale this year.

Alison Hugill: Your proposal for the Belgian Pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale is said to lend a unique visual language to deeply personal stories. What kind of themes are you dealing with for this exhibition?

Dirk Braeckman: The exhibition in the Belgian pavilion will mainly consist of new life-size gelatin silver prints on baryta paper; unique prints I create in my dark room, a space that functions as an artist’s studio for me. For more than 30 years, my work has been an implicit response to the multitude and speed of images today. Slowness and resistance are core to both the creation process as well as the images themselves. I often store my negatives for years before deciding to revisit and develop them.

It’s not about photographs that can be duplicated or recognized at a glance. It’s about powerful images that don’t reveal everything and allow their meaning to be shaped in dialogue with the viewer. Quiet moments brewing with action underneath the surface incite the viewer to speculate and create potential stories in their minds. I can’t say that I visit specific themes, my subject matter derives directly from my surroundings, and it has been like that throughout my entire body of work. I invest in atmosphere and usually my images capture transient moments, non-places and banal contexts with poetic power, but I never “lift the veil of mystery”; whoever encounters my images is led to a different translation and perhaps familiar elements trigger their own personal stories to resurface.

AH: As an analogue photographer with a meticulous darkroom process, how do you compete with the contemporary demand for instantaneous imagery? Why is this process important to you?

DB: I don’t hanker after instant gratification. Most of the time, I visit places and don’t take a single photo for days. So in that sense I don’t follow Bresson’s idea of the “decisive moment”; I need to feel a place and get to know its character before I decide to capture it. Otherwise it would be an “empty” photo for me. But I don’t see it as competition; it’s just a different approach.

My interest in painting is undeniable and comes across in my photographic work. I work on my images as if they were paintings; it is very physical, because of the direct contact with the paper and materials, yet through a photographic process. That is also why I continue working with analogue printing. Analogue processing is my tool. I need the physical approach. The darkroom is core to creating my pieces. In there, I might change my images a lot and stretch the lines of fact and fiction. In a sense, I work against the characteristic ways of the photographic medium. From start to finish, my approach is rather impulsive. The work of art happens in the dark room, for me, the negative has no value as a piece of art. But, of course, having said that, you can never make a good print out of a bad negative.

AH: Your photos for the pavilion are printed on baryta paper. Can you tell us about your choice of materials and how it affects the outcome and presentation of your work?

DB: My work has a strong focus on tactility and texture, therefore I never cover it with glass as I feel that it’s an obstacle to experiencing the images. I prefer showcasing my images fully exposed and “naked”. I use the technique of gelatin silver print on baryta paper because of the technical benefits it offers when it comes to details, definition and range of tone. With digital printing, a layer of ink is basically sprayed on top of the paper, whereas the gelatin absorbs the silver into the paper, creating a wonderful depth in the ‘blacks’.

AH: As an artist working with photography in a very laborious, process-based way, how does your work respond to or address the curatorial theme Viva Arte Viva, for this year’s biennale?

DB: I create images that make no specific statement, nor connect to a theory, or tell a narrative. What’s central is the autonomy of the work or image. The viewer creates his or her own narrative. I try to convey a certain atmosphere or experience. In this way, I do feel related to the Viva Arte Viva theme, bringing something of my own to the public. Moreover, I strongly feel that my own artistic practice is not only of a technical interest, but it has become a way of life, the core of my very personality.

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