Listening on the radio this morning to
harrowing accounts from men detained at Guantanamo Bay brought back images from the
recent Michaël Borremans exhibition Black Mould (at David Zwirner in Mayfair).
I went to the private
view on a sultry summer evening; on entering the gallery I was immersed in
darkness. The normally white walls had been painted a greenish black, the tinge
of illness; against them, Borremans’s small paintings, figures against a
yellowy beige background, seemed to gleam. But that lightness became a burden –
a neutral, almost antique space in which the viewer felt something terrible was
about to happen. This was down to the figures themselves – the light background
drawing the eye into an even greater darkness – a series of hooded men (I say
‘men’ but the gender was indeterminate). Their black cloaks were based on a
Japanese Bunraku costume given to the artist, but
most powerfully evoked the cloaks worn by prisoners tortured and abused at Abu
Ghraib. I thought too of the KKK, the judge passing a sentence of death, the
prisoner heading for execution.
Even more chilling was that the figures were not stationary in their robes, they were portrayed in movement. It appeared they were dancing. Borremans’s title came from the name of a band, Black Mold (the artist was listening to one of their albums as he worked on the paintings). Their music is reminiscent of early Stooges, or the Swans – lugubrious thrash punk. Once you have heard them, the terrible dance of death makes more sense.
There was a play on
‘mold’, the idea of something regular that one must break out of, and ‘mould’,
a fungus dotting its spores of death over the surface of things. While these
figures were uniform in their uniforms, they were also subverting expectations
of their evil stance in their joyous dancing. They were at the same time
horrible and comic, that strange unsettling mixture that Borremans has often
captured in his work.
The paintings stay with me, and creep up, as they did this morning. Haunting, yes, but the executioner is having a laugh under his dark hood.