This review was first published in ArtSlant.
Generally, when you walk into a gallery, you expect two things: light and silence. Enter Gallery Maskara and you’re plunged into a darkness that is made all the more eerie by the whirring noise of projectors playing Belgian artist Ruben Bellinkx’s 16mm films on loop. “The Trophy” presents a set of videos that Bellinkx has made over the past five years, beautifully displayed in the cavernous gallery. All except one use animals (predictably, animal rights activists aren’t enamored by the artist’s work but Bellinkx took great pains to ensure the animals were much happier and settled than the videos they starred in). The first work that greets the viewer shows a dog and a chair. Further inside is a table whose legs are on the backs of four turtles. In the depth of the gallery is the work after which the show has been named — featuring a reindeer and a wall. Ensconced in a niche above the door is one work that may initially seem out of place because it lacks the leit motif of animals. The black and white video shows water streaming, seemingly out of a lamp, and bathing a table with light and water. It’s a hypnotic video, made all the more dramatic by the fact that it’s tucked deep in an unapproachable, dark corner. You can’t go up close. You can just maintain your distance and stare at its continuous loop as you try to work out its meaning.
Actually, the connection between all the works in “The Trophy” isn’t the presence of animals but rather the fragility of what we know as human civilization– the human effort to dominate the uncontrollable aspects of nature and create an orderly pattern. Civilization is supposed to be proof that we’ve left the bestial side of ourselves behind. “The Trophy” isn’t entirely convinced. Through his videos, Bellinkx wonders whether the orderliness that we value as a sign of evolution isn’t an illusion.
Every video in “The Trophy” shows a symbol of human civilization – a table, a wall, a chair – but they are each redefined by natural elements. The most violent work in the exhibition is the set of three videos showing the chair. In the first, one dog is seen with the chair. It wags its tail, sniffs around, and watches the immobile and unresponsive object. In the second videos, two dogs join the first one and the pack attacks the chair. The last video shows the three dogs panting but at rest, with the chair reduced to splinters all around them. Given that the chair is a well-established symbol of authority and power, the central theme of this work is quite obviously an attack upon civilization. There are also disturbing ideas of the destructive quality of a crowd mentality and the terrible effects of miscommunication. After all, the solitary dog was quite friendly. It’s when the dog received no response for its friendly gestures that the pack entered the scene. But does the dog know that a chair doesn’t have the equivalent of a tail wag? Is the pack being manipulated by someone (like an all-knowing artist, for instance) to destroy the chair?
In “The Table Turning”, a table moves slowly on the backs of turtles instead of being rooted to a spot. At first, the image is simply cruel. It looks like an attempt to domesticate the animals but when you consider how the table is rendered useless by the turtles, the power balance shifts in favour of nature. Yes, they carry it on their backs but they’re not immobile and crouching inside their shell. They move, and with a certain degree of coordination, to render the table dysfunctional.
Manipulation is one of the major themes of the show. In the video showing the table under a shower of water, it looks like the water (a natural element) is falling out of the lamp (a man-made element). Look closer and you realize that this is an illusion. The lamp simply appears to release water. In actuality, it has no control over how much water washes over the table.
The illusion is most powerful in “The Trophy,” which is as clever in execution as display. Two screens are arranged so that you can’t see them simultaneously. One shows a reindeer mounted upon a wall. Within seconds of standing before it, you realize the animal is alive. You can hear the breath, see the flare of the nostrils on occasion. Perhaps the most unsettling aspect of seeing this half of “The Trophy” is the complexity of the power dynamic that Bellinkx sets up between the viewer and the work. To be mounted while alive should be a painful experience, almost akin to a crucifixion. But the reindeer’s face shows no expression. It looks down regally and impassively, as though it is lording over the scene.
The second scene shows the other side, literally. The reindeer’s body, neck down, stands steady and still on the other side of the wall. There’s an occasional tail twitch. Bellinkx has placed the animal between the death pose of the mounted trophy and the vitality of a reindeer standing on its own four legs. It’s a strange, disconcerting and yet fascinating limbo, much like the entire exhibition.