Nothing Is Hands-Free in the Hirshhorn’s New Black Box

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Scale modelers of the world, unite! In the Hirshhorn’s new short film exhibit that opened yesterday, Black Box: Hans Op de Beeck, anonymous hands moving with a fluid, mime-like grace create stark, uninhabited set designs, in miniature. A lit city street, a theater stage and a barren forest-scape are among the scenes set to a soundtrack of keyboard and xylophone blips and beeps. Filmed in black and white to emphasize shape and shadow, the film's dramatic lighting and forced perspective makes its dollhouse-sized sets appear life-sized to the viewer.

I corresponded with Belgian artist Hans Op de Beeck via email to find out more about his project.

What was your initial inspiration for "Staging Silence"?

Actually, the work arose from a need, more than from a concept. Most of my work as an artist consists of very large, experimental installations and sculptures. These projects are very demanding. I work on them with an entire team of assistants, and every time these projects take us to the limit. Construction and conservation-wise, these installations and sculptures need to be well-executed and finished to the finest detail. . . Making "Staging Silence” was the opposite, a kind of counter-reaction. . . I was longing something small that I could steadily work on aside of the other activities at my studio–a kind of intimate, growing project in the margin, like my paintings that I mainly produce on my own at night. . . The only general idea I had was to create both fictional interiors and outdoor scenes. . . From the beginning I decided to have two pairs of anonymous hands coming into view every now and then, like a deus ex machina, constantly transforming one small world into another before the eye of the spectator. As in much of my work, I wanted the video to look funny and somehow ridiculous, as well as serious, melancholic and deserted.

It must have been an incredibly tedious shoot, due to the precise lighting and movements required. About how long did filming take and how many people were in your film crew?

Ha-ha! It wasn’t tedious or that labor-intensive at all. Both the tinkering and recording were extremely playful and relaxed; it was a lot of fun. There were three of us. My assistants Jasper and Bert and myself produced the objects, and taped and edited the video at the studio. As I said, the work evolved as a sort of side project over a period of about five months. Every now and then we continued working on it. Time-wise I think the three of us worked on it for about a month, all together.

Which of the set pieces from "Staging Silence" were you most satisfied with, and why?

I prefer the simplest scenes, such as the clouds (just some cotton balls on a string) that reflect in a kind of water surface (a simple sheet of Plexiglas), and my discovery that I could use a stupid light bulb as a sun and a full moon. I like it when you see this hand screwing this light bulb in the sky in the background; a banal and stupid gesture, but with a great visual result. I'm also happy with the birthday cake that first looks like a building in the background of a park, then turns into what it is, and then later on turns into a ruin in a winter landscape.

What kind of reaction do you hope to get from viewers with "Staging Silence"?

In general I like to show that fiction, illusion and authentic experiences are malleable with the simplest and most banal means, and that, in our lives, we actually do pretty much the same. We constantly stage our lives and our surroundings, creating habitats onto which we can project our desires and feelings, in which we can profile our identities and actions. By having anonymous hands appearing and disappearing on the screen it all remains readable as a homemade game. I also hope it is a serious movie that, after you’ve seen it, might make you reflect on how we deal with time and space, and each other. Most important is that the film is a poetic and almost tactile experience that guides you into moods, creating a kind of silent parallel world in your head that allows you to just let go of your daily worries. Hence the title: the staging of silence, without the interference of a plot, language or narration.

And I just have to know, were you the mystery hand model in "Staging Silence"?

Ha-ha! I’ve been asked this question before. I must disappoint you now. The elegant hands you see are Jasper’s and Bert’s. They did such a great job, I think, just with their hands, that they should consider developing professional dance careers!

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