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Michaël Borremans in Conversation

Embarking on a career as a painter relatively late, at the age of 33, Belgian artist Michaël Borremans initially trained as a draughtsman and engraver at Saint Lucas in Ghent. On the occasion of his inaugural exhibition Michaël Borremans: Fire from the Sun at the new David Zwirner space in Hong Kong (27 January–9 March 2018), I spoke with Borremans about his practice and his participation in the Biennale of Sydney (BoS) (16 March–11 June 2018).

There has always been something not entirely of this world about Borremans' works. His paintings depict figures sometimes incomplete with limbs or heads missing, frozen mid gesture, seemingly swaying or dancing to unheard music or engaging in some sinister ritual. They are unsettling, eluding comprehension. His portraits—if they can be called such—tell nothing of the sitter. Borremans uses the language of portraiture to draw in the viewer but then subverts our expectations and understanding of the works. The painted figure is beside the point, more absent than present, an object to be posed and deciphered like a riddle, rather than a subject with a story.

Borremans' painted figures are Beckettian actors without a script, posed theatrically, resembling Edouard Manet's The Dead Toreador (1864), where a female figure lies on the ground cocooned and obscured in a red polygonal cardboard cylinder as if lying on a stage. They are untethered, directionless, forever waiting in a non-place, forever forced to repeat pointless actions that seem to have no beginning or no end. Some of Borremans' paintings, such as Automat (I) (2008), feature figures with truncated torsos or dismembered limbs, further suggesting that these are figures trapped by a pervading sense of futility. Borremans has said '... it is a conviction of mine ... that the human being is a victim of his situation and is not free'. Even the gestures and postures of the figures, with slouched shoulders and downcast faces, seem to indicate resignation, as if they had long ago accustomed themselves to the purgatory of their existence. There is an atmosphere of brewing tension and anxiety with an undertow of horror tugging away beneath the surface in his paintings: with his paintbrush Borremans brings to life a cargo of existentialism.

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