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Michaël Borremans: Fire from the Sun (Spotlight)

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In this series of work, children are presented alone or in groups against a studio-like backdrop that negates time and space, while underlining the theatrical atmosphere and artifice that exists throughout Borremans’s recent work. The image was widely interpreted as a symbol of Hungary’s political circumstance and even showed up on a large banner promoting the show. On the occasion of his inaugural exhibition Michaël Borremans: Fire from the Sun at the new David Zwirner space in Hong Kong (27 January–9 March 2018), I spoke with Borremans about his practice and his participation in the Biennale of Sydney (BoS) (16 March–11 June 2018). While the fire and (probable) cannibalism imply some sort of ritual, the works are most chilling as sketches of random violence, causal and instinctual. As Michael Bracewell argues in new scholarship on the artist, published in the accompanying exhibition catalogue, viewers are “caught in a strange time loop, in which the nobility of execution ascribed to Old Masters―the re-creation in painting of human presence, caught both stilled, in a particular instant of its being, and for eternity―is placed in the service of vertiginous modernist vision.

The main theme depicts naked toddlers (like in the Renaissance with the putti) who seem to be in a very strange ritual.The first in a series of small-format publications devoted to single bodies of work, Fire from the Sun highlights Michaël Borremans’s new work, which features toddlers engaged in playful but mysterious acts with sinister overtones and insinuations of violence. That the painting had had an unintended and instinctive meaning signalled that “I had made a good work”, Borremans said. The exhibition traveled later in the year to the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, followed by the Dallas Museum of Art in 2015.

I heard other interpretations while there, and so did the artist: that the paintings examine the loss of innocence, that they are a caricature of original sin, that they meditate on hypocrisy, that they demonstrate human capacity to be at once good and evil. This is a set or a stage, devoid of context, withholding of answers, but suggestive of a director or someone watching. Published on the occasion of Borremans’s eponymous exhibition at David Zwirner in Hong Kong, this publication is available in both English-only and bilingual English/traditional Chinese editions.From the outset the artist understood he was taking a risk with the new works, precisely because of their open relationship with interpretation. Hong Kong is an international city, a port city, a crux of world politics, world history and world finances. The painted figure is beside the point, more absent than present, an object to be posed and deciphered like a riddle, rather than a subject with a story. Other paintings in the exhibition depict obscure machines, whose enigmatic presence appears foreboding in the context of the toddlers and suggests an element of scientific experimentation. In some fictional future, they might be unreliable carriers of this formative origin story or trauma.

The children do not appear to be distressed or disturbed (though some viewers at the gallery may be).The general opening was likewise packed—crammed, stuffed—no doubt with people from different starting points. In his accompanying essay, critic and curator Michael Bracewell takes an in-depth look into specific paintings, tackling both the highly charged subject matter and the masterly command of the medium.

His recent publications include The Rise of David Bowie 1972–1973 (Taschen, 2016), Bridget Riley: Paintings and Related Work (National Gallery, 2010), and a short story, The Way Ahead (Sternberg Press, Berlin, 2018). In some of the paintings the children are in the process of disappearing: phantom bodies not quite removed from their gruesome acts.But even if the paintings deceptively represent a vacuum (lack of context, setting, explanation), they are not made in one. In 2011, Michaël Borremans: Eating the Beard, a comprehensive solo show was presented at the Württembergischer Kunstverein Stuttgart, and traveled to the Mu´´csarnok Kunsthalle, Budapest and the Kunsthalle Helsinki.

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