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people must be punished

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michaŽl borremans: 'the swimming pool '(2001)

nederlandse versie

Borremans MichaŽl, 'The swimming pool' 34,0 x28,2 cm, pencil, watercolour on cardboard, 2001
Courtesy Zeno X Gallery, Antwerp Photographer Felix Tirry


Our eye is attracted as if by a magnet to that enigmatic brush that seems to be delicately writing letters on the bare skin, though on closer inspection they appear rather to be carved out of marble with a sharp chisel. It is only when we realize that this aggressive act is obscured by the replacement of the chisel with a brush that we are struck by the fact that there are holes in the chest too. They look like bullet holes, but their positions at the corners of a square remind us of the screws with which a marble or copper memorial plaque might be attached. Our attention is diverted from the horrific act that goes with this because we only see the scars, while the perforation of the chest is replaced by the carving into the flesh, itself now disguised as painting on the skinwhich the victim can now undergo without complaint.

This painting hand in its turn diverts our attention from the painter who, hidden from view outside the picture, chisels onto his victim the verdict that is surely more applicable to the painter himself. The fact that the culprit vanishes outside the frame points out to us that this event is drawn on a screen in a picture, and this by the real artist who looks down on the closed space beneath him from a higher vantage point - note the box he has sketched in the border above the drawing:

In this space, the guilty hand - though life-sized - remains as an image on the rear wall of a swimming pool, while the gaze, now freed from its guilty hand, raises itself with superiority above what is occurring. This whitewash is accomplished in that the gaze that looks down from this heights unexpectedly descends into the body of the spectator on the swimming pool down below, to watch, through the eyes and with inactive arms, the innocent activity of the swimmers.

So the rejection of the guilty hand is accompanied by a telescopic outward surge of the space: the isolated hand remains on a giant screen in the background of a swimming pool down below, on which the gaze, liberated from its guilty act, ultimately looks down from a gigantic body. The sense of this inflation only becomes clear to us when we understand that the transition from doing to looking does not remove the guilt. On the contrary: the piercing and chiselling under the cover of painting celebrates its triumph in the optical dimension, in the reduction and multiplication of that one victim on the giant screen to wriggling ants in the swimming pool: the deflation of the countless masses - Nietzsche's Vielzuvielen - into insignificant earthworms, the counterpart to the inflation of the artist to the almost cosmic proportions of a supreme observing god.

Only then do we realise how unfounded it is to legitimize the act of punishment by the behavior of those being punished - "people must be punished". After all, their misdeed is limited to their sheer existence.

So the words chiselled in red letters on the chest verbally belie what is visually presented.

© Stefan Beyst, September 2013

For a text of the complete work of
Michael Borremans: Michael Borremans: the secret charms of the enigma

This text has been published in the Hatje Cantz catalogue of the Borremans retrospective'As sweet as it gets' 2014 in Brussels, Tel Aviv and Dallas.

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See also 'Mimesis and semiosis' by the same author.

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Background to this text: stefan beyst: theory on art

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