A conversation with Bart Ramakers
“In my deepest thoughts I feel like a magician, who has explored many references from the classical arts, opera, theater, myths and literature in a stubborn way over the past ten years and has translated them in an almost ‘deceptively traditional’ way into a current context. ” A conversation with Bart Ramakers. About motivations, society and – how could it be otherwise – working in times of Corona.
I like to describe it that way because my work is very multi-layered. It’s about much more than just a narrative approach. I really want to organize all the puzzle pieces until I have a clear statement. My training as a draftsman but especially my reference field as a historian play an important role in this. So I don’t show a traditional translation of themes, but I often add layers to the recognizable, sometimes traditional aspects that are less directly interpretable.
What are your main sources of inspiration?
A broad variety, and above all, constantly evolving. From Rops and Verdi, Tarot cards and Offenbach to currently, for example, also the surrealist artist Marcel Mariën, or Paul Joostens. And of course Cervantes. Classics like “Don Quixote” are timeless.
Can you tell more about your work process?
A first observation: the inspiration never stops. I get up in the morning and often feel that I have already seen my next work in a vision. In the most recent “The Bride Unveiled” you get Tintin in an atypical Caravagesque environment, exactly as I saw it during a vision. Once such an image comes into my thinking world as inspiration, it all begins to ripen and ferment and I check where the topical value is. Such a process really is the cornerstone of my thinking and doing. It is converted into stage design and then seasoned with props, extras and models. This is already the case in my photo and video work, but now also in my sculptural work. The input of others is very important in staging, but in other phases of the creation process you as an artist must also be able to stay in your cocoon and quietly brood in secret. There is now more time and space for this. Bringing scenes to life together with models and assistants, creating magic is of course very social. That disappears in these unseen times, but it also gives an enormous hunger.
Isn’t the reflection of current events a constant factor in your work?
No doubt. Flora and the Water Warriors is a good example of this. When William Sweetlove and I started the project in May 2018, Anuna De Wever was nowhere, and when we opened the exhibition in May 2019, the Belgian climate movement was already over its peak. But in the meantime, we had created a perfect symbiosis of classicist goddesses and the role models of the climate movement. It resulted in a “themed magical moment” that clearly puts the “new” aspect of climate movements in perspective. You see, the scientific insights and free speech that the climate movement claims are not inventions of the 21st century. They root in the Enlightenment and they form a new kind of manifesto. We subsequently converted this idea into “Flora and the Water Warriors”.
Suddenly this crisis makes it crystal clear that the themes I work on are the major themes this society copes with. I designed climate goddesses. I have created a new gospel, with the central message that we must revise fundamental values and create new gods for the society of the future. Less male egocentric heroism and the urge to win, more female social empathy, that is one of the central themes. That is exactly what the Corona Crisis teaches us: when it really comes down to it, we have absolutely no use for the Boris Johnsons and the Donald Trumps and the Orbans and the Putins and the Erdogans of this world, we owe everything to the anonymous caring doctors and nurses, and the solidarity that binds us.
Yet you could argue that your view of humankind is not necessarily optimistic. Will the current Corona crisis prove that too? In other words, will it be ‘business as usual’ after this period?
As an historian I adknowledge that history often repeats itself and that human behavior often forms the basis for that. Fake news, nationalism, populism, climate denial, wars, migration flows, hunger and poverty … But at the same time, humanity also usually excels in resilience and we always look for silver linings. Survival is in our DNA. In my work I question that human behavior, especially when it comes to repeating the same wrong approach time after time. Look, I am and remain an optimist, I want to enrich my life with this work, and of course hope that it also stimulates many others to share my view, be it through the humor, be it through the emotional or more contemplative charge that my work.
It is no coincidence that artists like William Sweetlove and Panamarenko have been part of your universe in recent years?
No, in both cases the collaborations have formed a particularly instructive dialogue, precisely because they are both artists with a completely different approach than mine. It has in both cases resulted in an enriching dialogue that has yielded many liberating insights about art, social awareness and the inability to contextualize our artistic practice and the way in which you deal with it as an artist.
How do you deal with that yourself?
Letting go and moving along becomes a habit. First with Panamarenko’s death, now with Corona. And seeing the positive sides of a new situation also makes the uncertainty less important. Personally, I am becoming more and more in favor of an open end in this regard, and that may be because in recent years I have allowed more and more improvisation in my work process. If we are honest with ourselves, we don’t know how things will evolve in the short and long term. This not only applies in this period, it’s always the case. Those who are struggling today are often the people who consider happiness as a privilege or a makeable product. In an “open end” you don’t know, you don’t know anything. The “not knowing” leads us more often to the “repeat” button than to the “reset” button. So allow me to sprinkle some visual magic around that choice and, as I mentioned earlier, inject my viewers with a look of hope, into a world where people sometimes dare to step into the dark. It’ll probably not result in a perfect society, but perhaps a more liberating one. A society in which the not knowing, the not being in control, the openness for the unexpected becomes a quality instead of a weakness.
How do you do it yourself during these Corona times? What impact does this period have on your work?
There are of course the inconveniences that everyone has, we all have to miss dearly beloved family members and friends … I note that I read a lot, delve into a number of themes that have attracted my attention for quite some time and furthermore I polish and finish a lot. Perhaps more importantly, I take the time for in-depth phone conversations with friends, collectors, gallerists. Whatever technology is used for this, the conversations are undoubtedly much more intense now than before the outbreak of the crisis.
I am currently working on a bronze statue of the Minotaur, this time not beaten by a Theseus with a sword, but by a dancing Ariadne. Many parallels can be drawn from this idea to the near future. The current forced isolation is a great opportunity to work in a concentrated manner, and one of my plans is to build in more periods of similar isolation in the future.
Can the art market draw lessons from this period?
I notice that people attach even more importance to art in these times of isolation than before. Although art seems a luxury, it apparently fulfills a basic need, as a consolation, as an answer to the question of meaning, as an incentive for the mind … In the past I often did not know where my works went, but now collectors email me, send me selfies, enter into a dialogue … Everyone tries to be more present online and that undoubtedly has added value, but I still hope that people will continue to value human contact. The artist does not have to be the loser in this difficult period. I take the opportunity to speak to my gallerists and collectors about what matters to them, and not infrequently I get the positive story about how happy they are to be surrounded by art during this time and about the hope and comfort they enjoy because of that. After all, that’s what we do it for, right?