Dirk Zoete

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01/09/2008 - Max Borka

Flemish Voodoo is the title of the latest exhibition of Belgian artist Dirk Zoete (°69) at Galerie Annie Gentils, in Antwerp, Belgium. For some time it has also been the term used by Zoete to describe the nature of his most recent work. Especially to those familiar with Flanders this may come as a surprise - paradoxical, comical, hillarious even, challenging, and strange- since it concerns two words and worlds most people would never associate. Perverted notions also, which one rarely stumbles on in contemporary art anyhow, probably because they have gradually lost so much of their original meaning, that today little more than a caricature is left. With Flemish the reason lies in the political history of Belgium, and the way in which a nationalist movement claimed the sole use of the word, making it a corner stone of its Blood and Soil philosophy. In a similar manner the much inspiring religion that Voodoo once was, has been reduced to little more than the sensationalist interpretation delivered to us by Bond’s Dr No. Significant detail: hate and revenge are at the core of these semiotic processes. It probably also explains why Dirk Zoete picked them up and merged them in one title.

Dirk Zoete is Flemish by birth. He also stems of a farmer’s family, a past to which he has been referring more and more since he graduated in mixed media at the Ghent Academy. This is also quite unusual, not only because Zoete is still a relatively young artist, but also and mainly because this rural and catholic Flanders of yore, of which hardly any traces are left, is still used as a model by a nostalgic nationalist movement. An artist who mingles with this debate threads on thin ice, and asks for trouble.

Despite the fact that Zoete’s drawings are also from a stylistical point of view perfectly in keeping with artists and movements that practiced this kind of rural art in the past, and particulary with Brueghel - as if he did not only want to include his own past but also ages of history in the maelstrom of his work – one look at his oeuvre makes it immediately clear that it is all but steered by political nostalgy. But it would also be a mistake to categorize him at the other end of the social scale, and to see the early scale-model that is now on show at Gallery Annie Gentils, and that demonstrates with an utmost precision and into the smallest detail how manure could be recycled into building stones, as an ecological manifest. While Zoete went even as far as producing some of these stones and also to build with them, his models are first and foremost meant as thinking models, metaphors, and mentale spaces, that try to describe and indicate what is going on in his mind and head. Be it drawings, sculptures, or installations: his whole work is a self-portrait. And be it a simple loaf of bread, a wooden slat or a nail: every detail, realistically and sensual as it may have been drawn, is also meant to be a sign and symbol, a warning, a mene tekel, or writing on the wall.

Already early in his career Zoete seems to have come to the conclusion that he could/would/should only live in his head. And so his head is taken time after time as a model – in the most literal sense of the word- for a studiola where he can retreat to observe himself and the world, and translate these registrations in drawings- like a bookkeeper, and not as a kind of preacher. The blueprints that are the result reveal a universe and inner world in which everything tumbles and turns incessably, and in which everything seems to be doomed to an existence that is ruled by an eternal return of the same, now heroic, then again hilarious, but always linked to great labour, and driven by an irresistible and inexplicable urge. On a formal level, this break-on-the-wheel existence or machine infernale finds its expression in an omniprescence of circles, cylinders and cycles: going from the tractor wheels with which Zoete built the word Tractor in giant letters, as a monument to agriculture, over the many round loafs of bread and plates in his drawings and sculptures, to the cylindrical towers that offer a panoramic view of his drawings and the surrounding landscape. Equally cylindrical are the manure stones with which he built his Manure Head, a studio that took the shape of his head, and around which he elaborated a three-year cycle: manure house B, where he would live for one year before moving to manure house C, would get its energy from the gradual burning of manure house A, while house C would be built simultaneously, and would serve him as a home the following year, taking its energy from the burning of house B, while a replacement for house A would be built, and so on.

As the absurdity and impractabilty of this energy devoring project may show, Zoete is not exactly the kind of artist who wants to exorcise his demons with a rational logic. His thinking moves by association, intuitively. That was also how the notion Flemish Voodoo was born last year, when he discovered that his selfportraits had the tendency to transform themselves into skulls. The name also had to indicate an evolution in his work in nails popped upeverywhere, while the sultry manure was replaced by grey and lifeless concrete as a basic material for his installations and sculptures, and the rubber tractor wheels made way for scary circular saws - as if, together with death, a growing anger and aggression had invaded his work. The words Flemish and Voodoo had not so much been chosen for what each of these words stood for, as for their contrast and incomptability, that somehow represented a growing discord and incomptability in himself: modest and introspective on the one hand, exuberant on the other hand. Open versus closed, sweet versus sour, resigned versus mad, silent versus loud. Irreconcilable polarities that seemed to relate to each other like the bickering concrete skeletons that are now part of this exhibition, while wearing a proverbial symbol of blindness, a plate, on their skull.

Central to the exhibition stands another, new, model, of a silo built in gloomy grey and airy blue, half open, half closed, its cylindrical walls partly in concrete and partly in lattice. Inside, a man sits at a table. The artist. He stares through the window in front of him, while jotting something down with nails. On top of the silo stands a sculpture that is entirely made out of giant nails and that holds the middle between an antenna and a defence system. The silo depicts the imaginary Espace Mental in which the other works in the exhibition have been created, adds Zoete. Self-portraits, hollow-eyed, or jaunty with a pot in his head, like a Bruegel character or Don Quichote, the “Knight of the Ill-Favoured Face”. Zoete’s face transforms in front of the eyes of the viewer into a mask or skull. Not entirely, the process is somewhere half way, between life and death. Munch and Ensor seem to be close, but also Knut Hamsun, and his book ‘Hunger’. The attributes of the artist as starveling are everywhere: in the slices of bread that tumble out of the mouth of a skull, in the many pots and pans, or in the visions of chopped off bull heads. The silo is a kind of prison, says Zoete. The word torture-room would probably more appropriate. Nails, the pre-eminent Voodoo weapon, and symbol of pain, revenge and hate, are the only links left with the outside world.

Max Borka