In his solo exhibition in Hasselt’s Z33, Flemish visual artist Leon Vranken has built a fountain. It shoots through a hole in the ceiling, and the top of the jet can be seen in the room above. Welcome to Vranken’s wonderful world.
On the ground floor of Hasselt contemporary arts centre Z33, a large, otherwise empty room contains a fountain, called “Flowing Line”. It’s a powerful jet that goes through a hole in the ceiling, as if the fountain has made the aperture itself.
On the first floor, we just see the top of the fountain; a small, barely moving jet (pictured). Still, it’s the same fountain. The playfulness of the work and the idea that things are not necessarily as they first appear are illustrative of the Paper-Scissors-Stone exhibition by Antwerp artist Leon Vranken.
Becoming a visual artist was a late calling, Vranken tells me. “I studied landscape architecture, but after working for a year in posh gardens, I realised it wasn’t what I wanted to do with my life. So I decided to start studying again.”
Not spatial planning, as most of his colleagues did, but In Situ3, a course at the Antwerp Academy that focuses on art in the public space. And there Vranken entered a whole new world: “I hadn’t been interested in art; I never visited museums.” He smiles: “I thought I knew what the training would offer me. But I was wrong.”
Not that he ever regretted his choice. “In the first two years I focused on art in public spaces, but in the third year I started making works that could stand by themselves. I loved it, and I never stopped doing it.” Later, he studied at Ghent’s prestigious Higher Institute for Fine Arts (Hisk).
Vranken was born in 1975 in the border town of Maaseik; Paper-Scissors-Stone is his first big solo exhibition in Flanders. It’s not a retrospective – most of the works are recent, or even brand new, but, he explains, “I made sure to incorporate as many different aspects of my work as possible. I’ve been making art for a dozen years now; it was time to give an overview.”
Vranken creates objects in wood, metal, glass and paper. He also takes photos of objects. He plays with exhibition conventions by altering the pedestal or the framework. Because of the materials he uses and the shapes he creates, his work looks familiar, but it isn’t in the end, which lends it at times an uncanny undertone.
Although he can’t be viewed separately from art history – he names Lucio Fontana, famous for the cuts in his canvasses, and Dadaist Marcel Duchamp as some of his influences – his works have no parallel in contemporary art.
It’s difficult to precisely pin down what kind of artist Vranken is, but I’d call him in the first place a sculptor. Naturally, he doesn’t agree. “First of all, I’m doing a lot of different things, including video – though I had no room for one in this exhibition – and photos. And a sculptor, for me, makes statues in plaster, ceramic, you name it.”
So, how should we refer to him? “An in situ artist who sometimes decides to make a sculpture or painting, but isn’t a sculptor or a painter.” In situ works are created for a specific location and that makes them very transient: Generally they will disappear once the exhibition is over. “That doesn’t bother me,” Vranken says. “I like how they arise and disappear again. Of course, I document every work thoroughly.”
Sometimes a work will reappear later in a different form. “For an exhibition in Mechelen, I made a 180-metre long oak handrail that followed the walls of the different rooms,” he says. “I used it again, in a different form, in a gallery in Brussels.” And one of the rooms in Hasselt now also has a handrail, though made from different material.
He might see the same thing happen with one of the most impressive works in Z33, “Horizon”. The upper part of the four walls of a room is covered with bricks, supported by rusty scaffolding. If a museum is interested, I suggest, he could build a room with the same dimensions and recreate the work. “That doesn’t interest me,” he says firmly. “A copy-paste work? Certainly not. I would look for a space in the museum where I could create a similar work.”
Visual artists make a living from selling their works. That seems to be a problem for an in situ artist. “Indeed,” Vranken agrees, “I teach at two schools, and that pays the bills. Luckily, sometimes I sell one of my smaller sculptures or photos. But it’s always a challenge to create the works I’ve designed for an exhibition with the available budget. For instance, at Z33 we needed a sponsor to reach the budget, and the deal is that it will be compensated with a work of mine.”
In case you were wondering… part of the budget will be used to repair the hole in the ceiling that was created for “Flowing Line”.