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Michaël Borremans: Fire from the Sun (Spotlight)

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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. 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). As Bracewell further notes on these works, they portray psychological states that are not intended to be decoded: “the scenes depicted by the majority of paintings comprising Fire from the Sun show a state of being or society in which the primal is uncontrolled, without bearings, in a state of anarchy―the Id of Freudian primary process run riot, with no Ego to mediate between instinctual behavior and ‘reality. But even if the paintings deceptively represent a vacuum (lack of context, setting, explanation), they are not made in one. Seven years ago in his studio in Belgium, Michaël Borremans told me about the response to his painting Red Hand, Green Hand at an opening in Budapest.

A major museum survey, Michaël Borremans: As sweet as it gets, which included one hundred works from two decades, was on view at the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels in 2014. In the most evident terms, Fire From The Sun portrays children aged two or three in various stages of play with fire and what appear to be human limbs, even hair. His paintings depict figures sometimes incomplete with limbs or heads missing, frozen mid gesture, seemingly swaying or dancing to unheard music or engaging in some sinister ritual. These ghostly figments remind us of the artist’s hand (another detached extremity) and its control over what we see and what we don’t.

Like Red Hand, Green Hand, this exhibition is an unexpected, sometimes unwelcome, illumination of the different situations in which we similarly live. The 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. He has since written extensively on modern and contemporary art and culture, and is a contributor to Burlington and frieze magazines.

It is difficult to concentrate on the weight of the artist’s brushstrokes when such a scene is staring you in the face. 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. They are untethered, directionless, forever waiting in a non-place, forever forced to repeat pointless actions that seem to have no beginning or no end.In some of the paintings the children are in the process of disappearing: phantom bodies not quite removed from their gruesome acts. In 2010, he had a solo exhibition at the Kunstnernes Hus in Oslo, as well as commissioned work on view at the Royal Palace in Brussels.

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