Jos De Gruyter (b. 1965) and Harald Thys (b. 1966)

Untitled 1 (no date)
Untitled 2 (no date)

For 20-odd years, Belgian artists Jos De Gruyter and Harald Thys have created a body of 21 video works possessed of the darkly divided spirit of collaboration, their peculiar productions being those of artists acting not only in consort with one another, but also with the hidden forces occupying the territories (both physical and psychological) in which their haunting narratives take place.

Site readings illuminate their realm: sparse, constructed spaces that sometimes look like stages, at other times, fall-out shelters for deflated characters who always seem to be post-something: -trauma, -language, -human. The stories stutter along, stunted hybrids of eviscerated fairy tales and exhausted melodramas. The actors – untrained, and largely drawn from the artists’ circles of family and friends – do not perform so much as gesture and pose in a style so stripped of theatrics it could be mistaken for a list of symptoms: unmoving, unspeaking, punctured, perverse. (Imagine Bresson’s mannequins rendered spiritless, or Herzog’s hypnotized cast of Heart of Glass relieved of panic’s propeller). On top of that, the artists film their numbskulls in sheer stupidity – in transparent veils of formal dumbness that rightly refuse classic cinematic modes of storytelling. (After all, doesn’t inaction inherently resist the relevance of coverage, continuity, and cutting?) Divested of the usual seductions, the disquieting world of De Gruyter and Thys seems to lay the groundwork for a particular kind of insurrection, one that rebuffs certain standards and practices of art-making in order to return our attentions to the subversive powers of the artist.

Having met in 1987 as disgruntled film/video students at the Sint-Lukas Brussels University College of Art and Design, De Gruyter and Thys began their collaboration with a 5-minute middle finger-wagger titled Mime in the Videostudio (1988). The video stars a young Thys – all gangly limbs in a white vest and underwear – imitating gymnastic exercises to hokey Europop songs in the school’s video studio. He marches, pretends to swim, and performs graceless acrobatics, anemic goose steps, and stiff-legged kicks that are as funny as they are sad sack, his movements reminiscent of the disarming flails of Taylor Mead, Warhol superstar cum court jester. Thys then parades around carrying unidentified objects that belong to the ex-priest who runs the school’s video studio, and who hides his pornography there. The young artist ends his show by enthusiastically mouthing the lyrics to one of the songs ("Big city!/Big, big city!") out of time with the recording. Bumbling and puckish, Thys performs a kind of failed fascism – of the body, of art education, of religion – as well as a playful, if pointed, interrogation of the space in which art is made.