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ARGOS centre for art & media opens exhibition of works by Alexis Destoop
Alexis Destoop, Treetrunks, 2017, Courtesy of the artist.

by Ive Stevenheydens

BRUSSELS.- Four Directions of Heaven presents a temporary record of a spontaneous and subjective research Alexis Destoop (b. 1971, Kortijk) embarked on since the second half of 2012. With photographs, videos, texts, objects and documents the exhibition seeks to question our contemporary concepts of archetypal typologies of landscapes.

Central in Destoop’s multilayered oeuvre is the perception of time, memory and the related processes of recognition. In the mid-2000s the artist’s focus shifts from performance to a fasci nation with landscape that is rooted in painting, literature and cinema. In photographs, texts and videos he blends fictitious elements with documentary facts in order to question the compositional elements of storytelling.

According to the French sociologist and philosopher Bruno Latour, this is the first time humans are living in an era where they themselves shape the Earth.1 It is humans themselves that are the most significant variable capable of changing the status of their environment. In other words: the era that the Earth was stable system that determined itself, has gone forever. Furthermore, nature is now being exploited, controlled and steered by humans. Every day we are confronted in the media with the consequences of this situation. In Beijing smog frequently causes red alert; crucial glaciers on Antarctica break up from inside and the sea level keeps rising at an alarming rate. Yet our collective perception and mood remain quite neutral with regard to this situation. Some even flatly deny the impact of human activities on the our climate.

Though many places on Earth are going through radical changes, the ideas we have about certain landscapes remain rooted in a nineteenth-century fantasy, which is frequently nurtured by the literature of this epoch.2 For in a twilight corner of our heads the (clichéd) idea has rooted that for example the desert is a desolate, inhospitable place. Or take the jungle, which is supposed to be an adventurous, virgin place, an area far away from civilization, where other laws rule.3

In Four Directions of Heaven Alexis Destoop documents, analyses and manipulates four archetypical landscapes that are in a state of transition: the desert (to be associated with the colour red), the tundra (blue), the jungle (green) and the city (grey). The project actually already started in the course of Destoop’s research for the medium-length video Kairos (2009-2012). As an overture to the exhibition, we screen a shortened version of Kairos in the BlackBox, where we also present two photographic prints from the preceding research.

In Kairos we see a fictitious setting— set in the Australian outback— that is overwhelmed by ‘the great temporal catastrophe”, i.e. the end of linear time. The work is an allegory of the Australian colonization. Here rules a ‘new’ order, a corporation that is able to distil time and deploy it as powerful means. In Kairos, Destoop defiantly links science fiction to facts from Australia’s colonial past, especially concerning the mine industry.

When the British came to rule, the region was changed forever: the original inhabitants, the Aboriginal, were decimated, their culture destroyed and their living space scaled down; many areas turned into desert due to the devastating effects of their exploitation (which for that matter continues to date). Destoop’s work shows a strong commitment to ecological issues and the geopolitical value of landscapes. That is all the more the case for this entire exhibition.

The territories that Destoop tackles in Four Directions of Heaven are not unfamiliar to him. On the contrary, for more than five years they have been part and parcel of his reality. Destoop’s speculative and tentative research therefore coincides in large part with the developments in his personal life. Thus the artist lives and works alternately in Sydney (where his family lives) and in Brussels (where he has his art and editing studio). Because the two places are so far apart—there is no direct flight—the artist spends a lot of his time underway. This negotiating between Europe, Asia and Oceania leaves its traces in his art practice—and the same is true the other way round. A large part of Four Directions of Heaven was conceived in the Far North, more specifically in the region between Norway and Russia.

After studying philosophy and then working as a journalist-photographer, filmmaker and visual artist, Destoop finds it difficult to separate life and work. When he leaves home, he rarely forgets to take a camera and in the course of the years he has spontaneously created an archive of thousands of images—impressions of people and situations, but above all landscapes. It is an archive of areas, regions and places he went to deliberately or where he ended up by chance.

In the exhibition, a selection from this archive, the borders between deli berate exploration and coincidences start to fade. Thus the artist loves to lose himself in local contexts and situations, absorbing the impression of people he accidentally meets. Though it is not mentioned explicitly, as a consequence the exhibition also gets a sense of direction through witnesses of local people— microstories Destoop noted down and adapted. Stories of Aboriginals with whom he travelled along the northern coast of Australia. Or the findings of a biologist he met in a bar in Murmansk, who studied the impact of oil pollution on plankton mechanisms. In this way Four Directions of Heaven navigates back and forth between the abstract landscape and specific place.

Four years ago Destoop embarked on a series of travels to the border area between Norway and Russia – a counterpoint with Australia: the cold and dark, snow and ocean are completely the opposite of the warm, sunny, dry desert climate. And yet both regions are subject to similar processes, hence the artist’s interest. The Far North, too, is suffering an identity crisis, as it finds itself in a schizophrenic position. On the one hand environmental changes result in a slowly unwinding ecological catastrophe that has tremendously damaging effects on the biodiversity in a region that stretches far beyond the local tundra. On the other hand, these developments clear the way for a new and broader exploitation of the region. Raw materials -oil and gas— in previously unattainable regions now become accessible to exploitation. But more importantly, the opening of the North-Eastern Searoute now links Asia, Europe, and the West Coast of the United States. In recent years part of the Chinese industrial production started to transit through this route. All in all, this new situation has created a huge and ambiguous tension in the area: the ecological catastrophe that is going on, creates economic euphoria—not in the least with the local people, who used to live in poverty—and leads to territorialization and new colonialist reflexes.

All of these issues are hinted at in the double projection Phantom Sun (2017). Phantom Sun was filmed in the region of the military and industrial settlements of Kirkenes, Nikel and Zapolyarny. In this new video Destoop confronts the vision of the region’s future with the fading relics of its recent past. Phantom Sun is therefore divided in two parts. The first part explores the situation today and shows images—pointillistic, on the edge of darkness, as a moving painting—of a region that is getting ready for future exploitation. A utopian vision. The second, dystopian part is a montage of digital photographs that show a series of abandoned sites that bear witness to recent conflicts (World War II, the Cold War, the Soviet era). Somewhere between utopia and dystopia, there is the reality: since 2014, as tensions between East and West were on the rise again, the region has become exemplary for the re-enactment of Cold War. Like in Kairos, the new video Phantom Sun can be perceived as a story full of suspense. Once again, Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979) and Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s novel that inspired the film, Roadside Picnic (1971) haunt the work. Laszlo Umbreit’s soundtrack, composed of field recordings and analogue electronics, accentuates the menacing atmosphere.

Except in Australia and the Far North, also Hong Kong proved interesting as a case study for Destoop’s project. The natural tropical region—a mountainous area situated at the South China Sea—once used to be a collection of fishing hamlets. After 1945, when the Japanese occupation ended and the British colonial empire dissolved, Hong Kong rapidly became an urban centre. To date the city is an international centre, though no longer a production centre of (cheap) goods, as factories moved to South China some twenty years ago. Today, Hong Kong is a financial hub and a global distribution centre. China’s ambiguous relation with Hong Kong—mainland China pursues a divide-and-rule policy that promotes migration—ruins the social fabric of the city.

A Hong Kong peculiarity is the contrast between jungle and concrete. Because more than eighty percent of the territory consists of area nature where it is almost impossible to build, the city is particularly compact. The pointed mountains, covered with jungle, contrast sharply with the brutal concrete, glass and steel. Constructing houses is only possible in the areas near the bays. The city thus leans as it were against the mountains and can only continue to grow by reclaiming land from the sea. For Destoop, Hong Kong represents an ultimate typology: the materialization of the tension between nature and culture, and—after Paris, London and New York in the past—the archetype of the contemporary urban metropolis.

The idea of a nature that is pure and ‘absolute’, a nature untouched by humans or beyond their control, is therefore a thing of a distant past. At the exhibition we see a street in an Australian suburb, reclaimed by sand and vegetation (Incursion, 2011, from the series Raw Materials, 2008-2015). There are images from the sun at the beach of Dunkirk (Seascape with NOx, 2010), where the air is so polluted—the blue is hardly visible—that black clouds of smog condensate in front of the lens. Destoop does more for that matter than merely ‘documenting’ landscapes and situations. He manipulates and distorts, assembles and abstracts, recombines and deletes. He appropriates situations. Subtle digital manipulations undermine reality and dehumanize it. Often only an echo of human activities is all that haunts these tactile images. These seem zones where a catastrophe is about to happen or has just happened. The status of the landscapes is out of square, faulty.4

In other photographs the transformation is due to a natural process (a steamed-up lens) or it is the result of a context shift (for example by playing with scale and proportions). In this way at Four Directions of Heaven—the title is teasingly pompous, with an ironic touch—impressions turn into a composition of fragmented comments and stories that reveal a strong involvement with (neo)colonial and ecological issues, as well as the economical value and geopolitical importance of the landscape. Destoop’s suggestive interventions create a border area in which micro and macro levels tumble over each other and the boundary between real and artificial dissolves.

A special place is occupied by the installation with bronze casts of nine brain corals in (Untitled – [Naji] (2017). Brain corals are symbiotic life forms in which organisms belonging to different biological families ‘co-exist’ together. Destoop collected them on an Australian beach during a trek with an Aboriginal family through a region that is about to undergo drastic industrial changes. The corals are made of communities of polyps; they often live in colonies and can reach the age of 900 years. In the installations the seemingly similar corals are dead matter—even abstract bodies, alien beings, cast in bronze. They ‘float’ on a thin layer of oil in a concrete basin.

In all, Four Directions of Heaven represents a blur, from which unity in diversity originates. The shifts and processes we are confronted with are merely examples of things that happen on this planet. They result from a globalized dynamics that is a legacy of different colonization waves. Four Directions of Heaven refuses to articulate its obvious contents all too clearly. The exhibition shrouds itself in mystery, opting to raise questions rather than taking a stance. In doing so, Destoop offers us a poetical space that urges us to seek new readings.

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