The notion that the exhibition space is an integral part of a work is a discovery that can be traced back to around the same period as the definition of the concept of the white cube. This concept appears to be the ubiquitous paradigm of contemporary art. Everything that can be found inside it, magically becomes a part of the work. Most strikingly, however, about the white cube is its technical quality of making us see more clearly one reality inside another. Structure, or rather, architecture is the main characteristic of the exhibition set-up. The elements of the building become a dominant part of the work itself. Many conceptual artists were very attentive to the observation of the context in order to find a direct combination with their artistic intervention.
The context and the space become a tool for looking, understanding, describing or dividing the elements of which the contemporary art exhibition consists. It has increasingly become an element in which a transformation of space towards matter takes place.
By transforming a pedestal into an artwork, by integrating the exhibition space in sculpture and by using space as material, the artist Leon Vranken artistically links his work to place in different ways. The subtle boundaries of this passage in which the artwork and space both become elements of the exhibition demonstrates that the displayed object becomes, in some way, aware of the place in which it is positioned.
In Oak rumble (2007), Vranken works on the level of perception and the devices of the work. A glass case has been transformed into the object of the work: conserving and displaying become intrinsic to the object itself. The void is matured by a formal geometric structure in which the lines become the leading aesthetic elements. The artwork on the one hand and the display case as a normal exhibition device on the other, are only separated by a thin line. This line differentiates the abstract structure/sculpture from the traditional support.
In Diagonal pane, Diagonal cross, Punctured marble-panes (2014) at Z33 in Hasselt, the artist showed a series of variations in which the device-work focused attention not only on what to look at but, above all, on how to look at it. The device is the base of the work in the public space, as in Proposal for an European sculpture for the future (2008). His proposal consisted of slightly tilting an existing monument. Here, Vranken undermines a traditional combination of elements that constitute our collective landscape of sculpture of the monumental tradition, by means of its hypothetical, inclined surface. A few years later, Vranken would make Public sculpture (2010) in which, as in the incomplete project, the icon of the monumental statues was placed in equilibrium by means of its semantic destabilization. In this case, more than highlighting a celebratory disequilibrium, it was transformed into a functional format (letter box, water tap, bicycle holder) of urban decor.
With Raised elevation (2013) in the sculpture park Middelheim in Antwerp, the artist exhibited two of his main artistic matrices: the monumental pedestal becomes the work, and its structure is sectioned into many parts so it generates a sequence which interposes a solid block of stone with space. Again, in this case, space is combined with the sculpture, as a result monumental rhetoric is placed in a condition of dismemberment.In Constructive carving (2009), the artist transposed elements of the exhibition space to create the objects that he exhibited in that same space. By cutting out wood from the floor, and reassembling the pieces in to furniture-like objects, the visitor sees two things: the negative shape in the floor, and the positive shape on the wall. The translation of the space’s materials in the same location, demonstrates how the creation and the enjoyment of the work takes place in the same environment. The traces of their creation become, in some ways, the composition while the created works become everyday objects, adopting the sculptural technique par excellence defined by Michelangelo as “by means of removing”.
In 2009, in Stella Lohaus’s gallery, the artist concentrated on the subject of display and the relationship between artwork and space. In The traveling riddle (2009), the objects were concentrated in a strip of space against the wall. This line-up created an economy of environment because the objects form a solid volume by means of their condensation, accentuating the contrast with the empty space that surrounds them. The accumulation of works was placed on a device that weighed against the entrance. In order to enter the exhibition space, the visitor had to push against a panel. Behind this panel the works were displayed. The strength needed to come into the gallery space, stood almost for the effort of symbolically “entering” the exhibition.
That Vranken has concentrated on questioning the relationships between the representation space and the represented object is evident from his institutional criticism that is always accompanied by a degree of subtle irony. In Horizon, in 2014, again at Z33 in Hasselt, he created a structure of walls in brick supported by a series of scaffolding pipes. The vertical view created a landscape in which the negative aspect of the void was placed beneath the brick structure. In this way, the architecture of the exhibition space was displayed in its fragility and, above all, its conditioning by the exhibitionary device. This element becomes evident in Every end has a beginning (2013) in which a handrail crosses the gallery walls creating a support and guide that comes to the aid of the visitor and the space itself.
Vranken is first and foremost a sculptor, but his work is not only in wood or stone or any other material. Both air and space are an integral part of many of his works. And, in combination with the tradition of sculpture, in which many of his works can be seen, he literally lightens them up, makes them look less heavy, in all senses of the word.