Prater, Elizabeth. “Michael Borremans – A Victim of His Situation.

” The Ember (July 1, 2010) [Online]





Belgian Artist Michaël Borremans insists that his figurative works and portraits do not depict individuals. He
aspires to the archetypal, the generic and the anonymous. Identity is a retrograde myth, social function and
structural determination are the defining human conditions. So it goes. But Borremans’ figures invite a kind of
sympathetic response which undermines his arguments against the dignity of the individual.

Whether it be painting, drawing, etching or film, Borremans is wide awake to the traditions of his media. His
imagery and palette contain echoes of Velazquez, Goya and Chardin. The entirety of one recent show was an
“intentional dialogue with Manet’s paintings The Dead Toreador and The Execution of Maximilian.” Among
contemporary figures, Borremans is impressed by the confident mark making of Luc Tuymans, and he gets
shivers from the simplicity and intimacy of Richter’s family portraits. He hearkens to the bleak rigours of Bruce
Nauman’s worldview and admires David Lynch’s attempts to depict things that are “against our nature.”


Having come to artistic maturity during a time when traditional idioms were mostly fodder for superficially
knowing appropriations, Borremans sees his historical consciousness and earnest dialogue with the rich
heritage of representation as a subversive and revolutionary orientation.

And the basis of this revolutionary orientation: “I think an interesting work of art … should have a whole range
of qualities … In a lot of 20th century art, you have this focus on only certain aspects of art, and it was a very
interesting period for that. But that’s finished now. That’s why I think I’m a very subversive and revolutionary
artist [laughs]. An artist has to be convinced of that. It’s not pretentious, it’s not arrogance, it’s a
responsibility.” Finally, the neo-modernists are starting to call the conceptual tune.



Writing in Artforum, Jeffrey Kastner explains: “Borremans is known for his refined style and for the
portentous absurdism of his scenarios, which often feature characters engaged in cryptic activities that propose
the human body as a subject of examination and alteration within bureaucratic or clinical environments.”
Kastner looks at Borremans’ preserved, airless scenarios and feels that even the plainly living subjects might as
well be dead. In the worlds which Borremans has drawn into existence, there seem to be very few functional
distinctions between the two states. After all, if these are archetypes, or universal figures, they have no real
independent life anyway. Are these people then, or symbolic figures moving about in patterns determined by
their situation and function?

“In my paintings there are no individuals, they’re just types, stereo-types, two—dimensional images. They’re
human beings in their symbolic quality, like the pieces in a chess game – they stand for something.”


For all Borremans’ structuralist convictions, it’s hard to accept that his personal vision, even one so strongly
engaged with and prompted by the historical sequence of painting, has been solely determined by the structural
level at which he performs his role. Free-will? Individualism? Character? These are fantasies – we behave as
befits our function. The privileged can sustain the illusion of personality and free-will because they can afford
the upkeep on this historical romance.


This crypto-Marxist worldview is conceptually frayed, but in its theatrically dour semi-coherence it is also rich
and fascinating. Borremans’ anti-individualism, bolstered by the severe tenets of structuralism, is in its own
way a kind of romanticism, an altered vision that recasts reality in an image that sustains a cherished idea, but
then takes that image as the true copy of nature.

Borremans draws an intellectual line between art and reality, but then he takes a truth about painting and
treats it as a truth about life. A painted figure will only ever be paint, it will never capture the individual essence
of some person, place, thing or time. Even if that’s true, though, it doesn’t follow that an actual person can
never be more than a figure defined by context. People, like paintings, exist within a system, but they are not
created by that system, not solely. There are things in individuals, and in individual works of art, that exist and
survive outside the determining functions of social systems. In theory, Borremans rejects this idea, but his
works (particularly the drawings over which he claims virtuosic control) carry human energies and narrative
subtexts that resist his intellectual taste for a structuralist worldview.


‘… the portraits are not real portraits. They’re not about people that are depicted, or making a characteristic
image of them that speaks for what they are. I just use this exterior form of a portrait so that you have certain
expectations of it, but it doesn’t really work like a portrait. It doesn’t reveal anything or go where we’d expect it
would go. So on the surface you have a portrait, but the content of it is just not there. There’s nothing there.’

There’s an echo in the room, it’s faint but clear enough: “A portrait must not express anything of the sitter’s
‘soul,’ essence or character. Nor must a painter ‘see’ a sitter in any specific, personal way…” It’s Richter, holding
forth on the painting of humanoid colour-fields. But can he be serious? A painting is a mere appearance, he
tells us, and real things will not give up their meaning to a mere appearance. We can’t know anything with any
certainty, and an artist with integrity will work hard to frustrate the viewer’s desire to find meaning. A painting
does not mean something, it is something. “You realise that you can’t represent reality at all” says Richter, “that
what you make represents nothing but itself, and therefore is itself reality.” And Lesende (1994) – is this not
my beautiful wife?


Portraits that are not portraits. Representations or reality that represent nothing and therefore are reality
(which also represents nothing). Individual agents are out, chess pieces, cogs and organ stops are in. But
speaking in his function as artist-drone on the subject of drawing, Borremans is strangely self-oriented. “What
has always fascinated me about drawing since I was a child is that you can, on an envelope or whatever, evoke a
complete world. You are god. That has always been completely striking for me. I can do anything, and I don’t
harm anyone.”


In spite of Borremans’ routine subversions of the conventions of perspective and scale, the illusion of a
plausible reality remains (hence the godly thrill). Borremans’ is distorting the connective tissues in the
codification of reality, but he never dispenses with the basic language of literal figuration. Every object, place or
thing, is accurately depicted and in proportion to itself – from these literal components Borremans assembles
alternative realities with the confidence of the expert draughtsman.

“We all deal with images as language, we all respond to these codes, but I fuck these codes up – that’s what I
do.” You have to know the codes before fucking them up, though, and in this Borremans is carrying on the
tradition of fellow Belgian Rene Magritte’s concept-based figurative punning.


The pictures in The Journey series (including The Conducinator) take the visual codes of the frame and
perspective as part of their subject. These images of landscapes observed and depicted (possibly even created)
contain an homage and a revisitation of Magritte’s allegorical surrealism.

Magritte’s representations of nature cover up the real thing, intervening between the painter or viewer and the
ostensible subject of the work. Reading Magritte’s images at a very basic level, the choice of subject implies an
aesthetic appetite for nature, say, which the act of representing nature supplants. When Borremans’ revisits
this visual trope he emphasizes different aspects. The artist figure is imbued with the power to recreate reality,
and with the help of a few simple tricks of light and shade, frame and perspective, to redefine their own
relationship to it. Compare the implied relationship between the seated figure and the landscape in The
Conducinator with that in The Journey – remove the window frame and the sketch pad from The Conducinator
and you have the world maker of The Journey. Alternatively, The Journey might actually be the image
produced by the figure in The Conducinator. The Journey, that is, may simply represent, as a literal fact, the
creative attitude of the seated figure in The Conducinator.

One step further back, though, we have Borremans himself, ready to remind us this is a flat surface decorated
using certain tricks which successfully fool the eye into reading it as a coherent reality. Magritte, by contrast,
never tries to fool the eye, the two-dimensional artifice in his work is always plain. Whereas Magritte’s
compositions offer a two-dimensional world assembled like a surrealist photo-collage, Borremans’ intricate
sketches give the impression of accurately recounting an observed reality. Borremans’ commitment to
generating the illusion of a documented reality means that his airless, display-cabinet tableaux are fully
charged with the static electricity of the uncanny. In this, they are less openly allegorical than Magritte’s work,
and invite a kind of emotional, narrative interaction, that is coolly rebuffed by Magritte’s plainly contrived and
symbol-ridden idiom.

For Magritte, only the pictures are in the frame – the artist stands back with the viewer, he makes the joke,
shows it to them. For Borreman’s, the artist figure is also pinned down, or confined, within the allegory. This

artist has been demoted, he is not allowed to stand back with the ultimate audience because his role as a
producer is inseparable from the end product. The function he is fulfilling is included in Borremans’
reinterpretation of Magritte’s visual commentary on aesthetics.* Borremans’ artist figures are firmly bound to
the process of representation.


In these allegorically charged representations of representation, the seated figures with reality laid out before
them suggest creative power (a giant model maker, shaping the natural world), but also something of the
production line. Whether filling the frame or exploding it, Borremans’ artist figures seem chained to their
labour. Although these figures are plainly involved in creating something capable of encoding the sublime force
and beauty of the natural world (either as a fact or as an artistic trope),there is little sense that they are
involved in personal expression or interpretation.


Perhaps this is merely a trick of the palette, with Borremans’ washed-out, pallid tones offering no
encouragement to myths of inspired, passionate or gratifying travail. Even a merry flash of garnet, which looks
at first like a licentious expression of decorative flair, is actually just another marker of uniformity, the
distinguishing badge of a particular level or specialisation.



Trickland recasts the natural world as a social project, but is this forced labour or co-operative participation?
Are the people here collaborators or components of a system. Borremans’ rhetoric would suggest the latter, but
the clothing and postures of the figures is more weekend working bee than work camp. Perhaps this comes
down to how Borremans imagines the difference between living as part of a system in which people are
components, and living in a community where people are participants with roles to play, jobs to do, abilities to
utilise? The source of his archetypes – their austerity, the mimimum of ornamentation and individualizing
fashion - looks to be the economically isolated Eastern bloc of the mid-twentieth century. It’s likely that there is
a deliberate element of protest wrapped up in this choice, a sense that the austerity contains a conceptual link
to a less superficial, less diffuse social ideal. However, in concocting this deliberately confronting commentary
on the relationship between society and individuals, and on the fallacy of individualism, Borremans seems
inadvertently to present a reality in which collectivism is a cage or a shackle.

The functionaries in ‘The Common World’ monitor a patch of reality, the figures in ‘Trickland’ tend fields and
meadows from above as if they were small patches of a kitchen garden. They labour at their chores, but with a
hobbyist’s intensity – whether this is a scale model or an actual landscape, the relationships between the
figures and the world they inhabit speak plainly of contrivance. There’s an echo here of the large allegorical
landscapes Goya painted in his final years – such as the Cudgel Fight and Asmodea. In Goya’s murals human
passions and conflict are expanded to a titanic scale. Borremans’ figures crouch over the countryside at much
the same scale as Goya’s, but their size suggests neither power nor independence. They are not colossal, merely
big enough to walk the world and perform their particular function. They set the scene. Which begs the
question - who for? Collective enjoyment? Themselves? Or for unseen forces with unclear goals. Are they
automatons or collaborators?

And again, in the Good Ingredients pictures - where prone figures are arranged on the ground to form
geometrical patterns - what are we looking at? Is this some situationist intervention, a whimsical or playful

performance? Taking the images at face value, and putting aside the literal implications of the way these figures
riff on Manet’s Dying Toreador, I fail to read any menace or foreboding in Borremans’ visual code. Then there’s
one anomalously expansive title: “The Good Ingredients: The Hostages had to Lay Down on the Ground in
Order to Form Geometrical Figures.” That changes things. Now, for instance, I find some significance in the
presence of those still standing among the laid out figures. There is a relationship of power now - a hierarchy.


And what if I came to the prone figures in the Good Ingredients drawings via Borremans’ Square of Despair? I
would already have seen the plans for something like a public memorial plaza, filled with rows of horses figured
in various stages of what looks like dying and death (ailing, writhing, rigor mortis). I would already have learnt
the pertinent visual code. These are all figures, I would remind myself. They are not people, not living things - if
they’re laid out, most likely they’re broken. They are not playing, they are someone else’s playthings
(Borremans’ mostly). In some of the Good Ingredients pictures rigid limbs and postures suggest the recumbent
figures are statues and not real people at all. These imaginary eye-witness sketches record and enact an
exercise in power and subjection in which, as Borremans observes, no-one gets hurt. But they also confirm
again the potency of power dynamics which presume the unilaterally high value placed on individual agency.




In ‘The Greatness of Our Loss’, we have less geometry and more detail – but again it’s the Dying Toreador, and
again an image within an image. Spectators witness the greatness of their loss - the aesthetic force and the
mythical scale of propaganda creates an imprint of a generic experience: living amongst the ghosts of martyrs.
Among these great, toppled statues, monumental memorials to executed citizen-figures, the presence of
onlookers suggests an exemplary spectacle. The greatness of our loss – a state-sanctioned image, an emblem
and a cue for what it means (or should mean) to consider the greatness of our loss. Your loss, my loss – it all
comes to the same thing anyway, for mere figures like us, defined by our social context. This is the codification
of Loss – note it well and use it. As ever there is ambiguity here – is the function of these fallen giants memorial
or cautionary. Are they a homage or a threat? Is Borremans’ structured universe utopian socialism’s ideal of the
ant hill, or is it Evgeny Zamyatin’s oppressive city of glass, surrounded by the suffocating rural collectivism of
Platonov’s 14 Little Red Huts?

All these figures at differing scales suggest a hierarchy of knowledge and power. Simple tricks with perspective
suggest a human system engineered around the idea of inequality. Crowds of lower order beings are observed
from above by figures who are still defined within the system but who are conscious of at least some of its
purposes.

In reality, workers go home and they get paid. Borremans’ other-worldly stillness – that airlessness again – and
the sense of the workers’ passivity and identification with their work, erase the minor releases of a hard-earned
private existence. You could argue that the kind of social structure that totally subsumes the individuals who
serve its ends is a reasonable metaphor for social or economic systems that reject or dissolve the rights of
individual workers. It is a good analogy, that is, for those systems where the workers’ choices boil down to
surrender or starve. In this analogy, though, the interests of the individuals are not aligned with the interests of
the system, people are fitting themselves to a set of circumstances under duress. In some of Borremans’
drawings, social control is openly ascribed a menacing power over the individual subject. This menace is
seldom open in the workplace images, but it appears covertly in the clear designation of hierarchies among the
workers.




That idea of freedom beyond the workplace is a mollifying lie and here, in ‘The Cutters’, is Borremans’ truth.
The framed iconic figures seem totally defined by the task at hand. They might be put away in a cupboard at the
end of the day, or plugged in somewhere to recharge. More likely, they never finish working, never leave the
table. Tiny onlookers in the foreground act as human-scale markers, encouraging the viewer to read the
relatively monumental scale of the central figures as a literal representation of some kind of grand municipal
sculpture (to the weaving guild, the leather workers’ union, the electrical compliance and safety committee, any
humble, piece-working, collective engine room of industry). The titanic workshop makes an exemplary public
statement, providing an inspirational totem for the ant sized populace.

How, though, can a social structure, level or performance be represented if a person can’t? For Borremans,
these ideas (structure, level, performance) are little more than the repudiation of the individual. Representing
the systems that enforce this repudiation is always dependent then on the presence of the idea – the idea of
individualism. ‘That the human being is a victim of his situation and is not free is a conviction of mine.’
Borremans’ compositions often declare the primary significance of some generic function or structural role, but
this declaration is over-insistent. The atheist perpetuates the idea of god, the structuralist perpetuates the idea
of the free individual.

Borremans’ workers in the new dawn have been divested of any triumphal or spiritual sense of individual
determination. Their affect is blank, as it should be - they have not chosen collectivity, they simply are cogs in
a machine. If these people are capable of aspiration, it is to take their place in this orderly module of
productivity. This is a kind of dogma, and like most dogma it makes no concessions to an unconvinced
audience. To the liberal, the humanist and the man in the street then, Borremans’ figures emanate a desire to
be other than what he defiantly insists they are. Borremans’ strident insistence on the archetypal in his figures
makes for a population who, while performing the role they exist to perform, appear subdued at best and at
worst seem arbitrarily fated to a life of unfulfilled confinement.



The ideas that Borremans believes in - his insistence on the primacy of archetypes, his rejection of free will -
are a kind of literary romance. The ideas breed the images, which in turn set about making a case for the reality
of this worldview. Borremans sells it to himself, and buys it, because (fan of the imaginary) he likes a structural,
system-based world better than any other. It is a world, that is to say, which satisfies him aesthetically – if
nothing else, it suits his palette. But his insistence on the truth of his social vision is his own perverse version of
utopian wishfulness.

Borremans’ commitment to a figurative tradition is paradoxically combined with a rejection of his human
subjects’ individuality. And between these seemingly incompatible ideas, a lot of good friction is generated - the
conceptual freight Borremans has taken on as the ideological grounding for his worldview is ultimately fertile
and provocative precisely because of the contradictory truths about people that persist in the actual works.
Either people exist to fulfil a role in a structural system, or they don’t. If they do, then the kind of implied
suffering and the pathos of their condition (which fuels Borremans’ characterisation of the power and
pervasiveness of the system) defies logic. If people don’t exist for the good of a system, the discomfort that
registers in Borremans’ work amounts to an accusation against a structure that has been imposed on these
subjects, and which denies important aspects of their existence (such as their individuality) in the process of
furthering the interests of those who control the system.

If humans are structural subjects, structuralism should not feel like a straitjacket. The contradiction that
registers in the response of Borremans’ subjects to the world he inflicts on them, suggests that Borremans’ real
attitude is a kind of moralistic insistence on the propriety of individual subordination to some ambivalent,
over-arching system. Structuralism, as a term and idea, becomes Borremans’ moral authority, and the suffering
that takes place in its name (and which can be read on the faces and in the postures of those ruled by it) is the
price of self-abnegating virtue.



Borremans wants to reject Romantic Individualism, but his experimental representations of a structured
collective of depersonalised humans actually undercut his alternative. Or is this just my retrograde aversion to
the dissolution of the individual into groups of social functionaries? I look at ‘The Cutters’ and I see subjection.
I see their lack of interaction with their environment, each other, their product, and I see an image that is not
only in bad faith with the real people all over the world who conduct this kind of work, I also see a quietist
apologia for social systems that survive on this kind of reduction of human beings to instruments in a
manufacturing equation. If it were a protest, it were a good one – but Borremans is not ‘exposing’
instrumentalising forces, he is creating a false naturalistic record of their ubiquity. His critique of individualism
is justified, the idea is a construct of course, but it expresses important things about the way humans relate to
the social demands of our species. A system populated by a multitude of archetypes, undifferentiated except by
way of the function they perform, is hard to sell and hard to populate. Borremans’ desire to create images that
will castigate and unsettle those who cherish the Romanticised idea of the unique individual is at odds with his
conviction that the character free subjects he depicts truly represent the relationship between singular beings
and society. Borremans’ figures project an uneasiness with the roles their creator has given them.

SOURCES:
‘Interview: Michael Borremans’ by David Coggins 3/1/09
‘Michael Borremans at David Zwirner,’ Artforum review by Jeffrey Kastner.
‘Michael Borremans: A World of Quiet Mystery’ by Uchida Shinichi
Michael Borremans: Whistling a Happy Tune by Michael Borremans and Michael Amy. Ludion, 2008.
* It’s not always the case that Magritte removes the artist from his paintings of paintings, though it is true of his
many versions of a landscape through a window frame. In these images, Magritte seems most interested in the
relationship between a vista and its recreation (indoors, inside, as a human activity). Where Magritte does
show the artist sitting at the easel - looking at an egg and painting the bird it will become, for instance - the
subject is something more like ‘artistic perception’ and it begs the presence of an artistic perceiver.