David Claerbout

Kortijk Belgium 1969, lives and works in Antwerp

The passage of time seems to be the central focus throughout the work of the Belgian artist David Claerbout. In his photographs and video works, the passing of time plays a main role. With this Claerbout uses both older and new visual material. The video work Ruurlo, Borculoscheweg, 1910 (1997) consists of a digitally manipulated old photograph of a village scene including several people, a windmill and a tree. Claerbout has edited into the older image a present-day video recording of the same tree. The tree sways gently back and forth in a bygone era. Though the old photograph seems to come to life in this way, the movement remains frozen in time - fixed in the endless repetition of the loop, like a permanently delayed development.

In 2000 Claerbout produced the work Venice Lightboxes; here four nearly black slides are displayed on lightboxes in a completely darkened space. The slides are shots of Venice that were taken in the nocturnal darkness. Not until one’s eyes adjust to the scarce light do the outlines of the ancient city emerge in a twilight panorama.

The works mentioned illustrate two major aspects in the art of David Claerbout: time and light. In his photographic or filmic registrations, the passage of time and light plays an essential role in our perception and interpretation of an action or event. The artist combines the static image of photography with the moving image of film, thereby creating a surprising shift in time. By means of digital manipulation, he reanimates old photographs and manages to put movement and life into images of a bygone era. The effect is deceptive and intriguing.

 This can also be said with respect to Shadow Piece (2005) which has become part of De Pont’s collection. The black-and-white video projection shows the glass entrance doors of a building. Because the image has been shot from the inside looking out, we see part of the interior and, through the glass wall, the sidewalk outdoors. At regular intervals passersby appear on the scene, some of them wanting to enter the building. This gives rise to the idea that this is a public building or an office of some kind. The visitors encounter closed doors, however, and despite attempts to open them, the entrance remains shut. Eventually the visitors walk away again and disappear from view. 

The architecture of the building has a ‘fifties’ modernist look, and the clothing worn by the people is also reminiscent of times past. The bright light and long shadows suggest a low sun. These shadows and the play of lines in the various architectonic elements give the image a distinctly graphic character. The point of departure for Shadow Piece was an old architectural photograph. To this Claerbout added, through the use of digital techniques, the passersby who seem to bring the old image to life. Here we are looking back at a dated modernism, which was itself so directed at the future at one time. 

The work of David Claerbout causes us to doubt the authenticity of the image. Is this a historical film fragment or a completely staged situation? How genuine is the image that we are observing? What we experience is the opposition between documentary registration and staged simulation, between factual and fictitious observation.