Sarah & Charles at Be-Part

Artists: Sarah & Charles

Exhibition title: In The Hands Of Puppets

Venue: Be-Part, Waregem, Belgium

Date: November 17 – December 22, 2019

Photography:  K. Vrancken / all images copyright and courtesy of the artists and Be-Part, Waregem

Be-Part platform for contemporary art presents the solo exhibition ‘Sarah & Charles’s In The Hands Of Puppets’, taking place at Be-Part’s Waregem premises.

Sarah & Charles (b. 1981, 1979, Brussels) have been working with the theme of reality and fiction for over ten years now. Their work has typically addressed this theme in relation to the public, with an increasing focus in recent years on the public space. The artists expose mechanisms, playing with illusion and confusion. This exhibition at Be-Part Waregem is comprised almost exclusively of new work (prints, a light box, lms, a curtain, benches…) and is the result of a three-year period of research, including a residency at the Sint-Alexius-Elsene Psycho-social Centre and a number of projects realised in the public space. In this exhibition the artists’ gaze is directed more inwardly as compared with their earlier work, in the sense that their more recent work offers more of an analysis of the individual and the individual’s role in today’s society. While their works from 2015 related more to the spectacle of society and their own imaginary world, their oeuvre now embraces the scope of a broader societal context. In this exhibition Sarah & Charles integrate a fundamental reflection regarding our connections with the virtual world and artificial intelligence (AI). In the world of augmented reality they have also come to view individual responsibility
as an absolute necessity.

The first work in the exhibition is titled ‘Sound: STEAM_PRESSURE RELEASE’ and serves as an introduction of sorts for what’s to come. Steam and vapour are wispy due to their low density. They symbolise air and emptiness, the transient and the intangible. The theme of vapour, steam and smoke and their associated transience runs through the exhibition as a common thread.

The series of five posters behind Plexiglas, ‘Simulacre & Simulation’, is based on a number of images from a make-up manual from the 1980s. These relatively small images were greatly enlarged to the point where the original halftone pattern, characteristic of the printing process, became visible. The Plexiglas panels on top bear evidence of city life, such as graffiti tags and slogans scratched into the surface. The subtitles of the works refer to the interventions on the Plexiglas: ‘rain drops’, ‘spray paint’, ‘praise & approval’, ‘lipstick’ and ‘funny eyes’. This work refers to Baudrillard’s ‘Simulacres et simulation’. In his simulacrum theory, the French sociologist and postmodern philosopher Jean Baudrillard (1929 – 2007) posited ideas on the authenticity and reality of images that we think we know. According to Baudrillard, we as a species have lost our connection with the real world and thus create an image of reality based on what we see in the media. The five works are layered in their construction. The layers of images and objects, both real and virtual, are activated by the viewer’s imagination, thus taking on different contexts, histories, realities and dimensions. It is a shifting of meanings in a world of subtle illusions.

The animation lm ‘In the Hands of Puppets’ serves as the exhibition’s pièce de résistance. Animation is a new development in Sarah & Charles’s artistic practice. A virtual hand puppet with an expressive face enters into dialogue with artists and people prone to psychosis. This lm was realised in the context of Sarah & Charles’s residency at KAOS, a non-profit whose objective is to bring together art and psychiatry, dissolving the border between insider and outsider art. Prior to their three-month residency, Sarah & Charles attended a session of drama therapy, a form of therapy that can help patients to overcome their problems through participation in theatre productions. The conversations that formed the basis for the animation’s script took place at the Sint-Alexius-Elsene Psycho-social Centre and in the artists’ studio. The topics broached by the artists constitute the boundary between fiction and reality, which serves as the backbone of the work. The interviews with the patients and carers touch on themes such as anxiety, exhaustion, alienation and the difficulties experienced by people when entering into social relationships. The puppet has a human voice, while the interviewees speak with computer voices. The conversation is in English but a Dutch translation is available to visitors. The hand puppet listens to the concerns of the interviewees and is ultimately overcome by emotions it- self. The screen mimics the dimensions of a phone screen. A separate space is created for the film by means of a curtain (‘UV maps’, 2019). On the semi-transparent curtain the viewer sees parts of the artist duo’s faces stretched out in 2D. The form of these 2D drawings is a necessary intermediary step in designing an image in 3D. In this way the viewer is given a glimpse of the creation process behind another work in the exhibition (‘The Heads’, 2019). The boundary between fiction and reality is constantly being crossed: the animation is based on interviews with real people and the virtual puppet is clearly held up by a real arm. These days we are regularly confronted with realities that turn out to be fiction, and fakes that bear more than a semblance of reality. Artificial intelligence and its possible repercussions for the individual can certainly be considered among the themes of this work.

In the main hall we find the video installation ‘Vanity of Vanities’. The title of this work alludes to a statement from the Book of Ecclesiastes in the Old Testament. The notion of vanity in this book refers to the transience of the world and is often used in combination with the word emptiness. The world is a nonsensical place, it defies reason and is absurd. The text from the book possesses a subtle contemporaneity and contains a number of expressions that have been adopted by the artists, such as ‘all is vanity’ and ‘nothing new under the Sun’. On three screens, photos
and videos circulating on the internet alternate with quotes from the Book of Ecclesiastes. The visual design of the video reflects the template of an Instagram page with its highly recognisable aesthetic. The video is in fact a live capture of an Instagram feed whose content one can follow and like during its time as a video installation. The three screens of the video ‘Vanity of Vanities’ are presented on so-called Peanuts, pieces of urban furniture in pastel-coloured, coated stainless steel, designed by Sarah & Charles under commission of the Municipality of Anderlecht for the district of Kuregem. A parallel is thus drawn between the public space and the virtual space of the internet. Here the status of the benches, 22 of which were made, changes from utilitarian object—the benches are used in all manner of contexts in Kuregem, from toys to seats—to a sculpture within the protected context of an exhibition. In the main hall the wooden floor is covered in cardboard packing material normally used in the food industry. The purpose of this floor covering is to strip as much information from the space as possible. However, in this work the question arises of in how far we are still able to shape our fate.

The basement of Be-Part is bathed in pink light. The work ‘A Creative Spa’ emits a fog, clouding our vision. The idea came about after the artists saw a great many videos on social media of people smoking electronic cigarettes (though ‘smoking’ is not the right word, since the devices emit vapour rather than smoke) and performing all manner of tricks with the exhaled vapour. (See also the work ‘Vanity of Vanities’.) The protagonists in these films do little more than to produce air and emptiness, but this does little to limit their popularity on social media. The setup in the basement is the most open-ended part of the exhibition in the sense that it forms the basis for one or more performances that will take place in the future, including at the BUDA arts centre in Kortrijk on 14 and 15 April 2020 (as part of the End of Winter Festival). ‘The Heads’ shows two avatars (representations of real people in virtual space) of the artists, albeit without eyes or mouths. Lacking mouths, they produce only an unintelligible groaning. Clearly the avatars allude to the vain and the elusive.

In the garden we find structures with recesses in which plant holders have been placed: ceramic bowls suspended by macramé. Both the bowls and the macramé hangers lack proper functionality. The material was highly popular in periods when utopian ideas were prevalent, but it is clear that in 2019 we have left these forms of utopia far behind us. These structures date from 2016-2017 and, due to their choice of material, can be viewed as precursors to the furniture recently designed by Sarah & Charles for the public space.

The work ‘Theory and Practice’ consists of 650 rubber-coated magnets that crop up in various combinations throughout the exhibition space. The work makes uses of incongruous yet necessary elements, such as a pillar and heating elements, which are used to support the artwork.

Sarah & Charles also replaced the existing handrail between the two exhibition spaces with a new handrail, which fits in with the philosophy and aesthetics of this exhibition.

Sarah & Charles, Sound: Steam Pressure Release, 2019, print on paper, paint, frame, 80 x 60 c

Sarah & Charles, In The Hands Of Puppets, 2019, exhibition view, Be-Part, Waregem

Sarah & Charles, Untitled Painting III, 2019, paint on canvas, 240 x 180 cm

Sarah & Charles, Simulacre & Simulation, 2019, print on paper, print on plexiglass, frame, 105 x 70 cm each

Sarah & Charles, Simulacre & Simulation, 2019, print on paper, print on plexiglass, frame, 105 x 70 cm each

Sarah & Charles, Installation view of In The Hands of Puppets, film, 9’03”, geluid

Sarah & Charles, In The Hands Of Puppets, 2019, exhibition view, Be-Part, Waregem

Sarah & Charles, In The Hands Of Puppets, 2019, exhibition view, Be-Part, Waregem

Sarah & Charles, Vanity of Vanities, 2019, multichannel video installation, sound, 3 HD screens, steel, paint, dimensions variable

Sarah & Charles, Vanity of Vanities, 2019, multichannel video installation, sound, 3 HD screens, steel, paint, dimensions variable

Sarah & Charles, In The Hands Of Puppets, 2019, exhibition view, Be-Part, Waregem

Sarah & Charles, Puppet, 2019, two light boxes; UV print op plexiglass, aluminium, tube lights, 376 x 150 cm

Sarah & Charles, Theory and Practice, 2019, rubber magnets, 650 ex (13 x 3,5 cm each)

Sarah & Charles, Theory and Practice, 2019, rubber magnets, 650 ex (13 x 3,5 cm each)

Sarah & Charles, Theory and Practice, 2019, rubber magnets, 650 ex (13 x 3,5 cm each)

Sarah & Charles, Installation view of Smoke Fountain, 2019; concrete, insolation, paint, pvc pipe, smoke machine, sensor, 220x160x180cm; The Heads, 2019, multichannel video installation, sound, 2 HD screens, dimensions variable

Sarah & Charles, The Heads, 2019, multichannel video installation, sound, 2 HD screens, dimensions variable

Sarah & Charles, The Heads, 2019, multichannel video installation, sound, 2 HD screens, dimensions variable

Sarah & Charles, Movie poster: In the hands of puppets, 2019, print op papier, 250 x 139 cm

Sarah & Charles, Installation view of Dystopia II-V, 2017, Metal, synthetic rope (knotted), terracotta pot, paint, 240 x 114 cm each

Sarah & Charles, Installation view of Dystopia II-V, 2017, Metal, synthetic rope (knotted), terracotta pot, paint, 240 x 114 cm each

Sarah & Charles, Dystopia IV, 2017, Metal, synthetic rope (knotted), terracotta pot, paint, 240 x 114 cm

Sarah & Charles, Dystopia II, 2017, Metal, synthetic rope (knotted), terracotta pot, paint, detail

Sarah & Charles, Dystopia II, 2017, Metal, synthetic rope (knotted), terracotta pot, paint, detail

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