– Autumn/Winter 2009

Systems Failure: The Embarrassing Antics of de Gruyter & Thys

Judith Wilkinson

Jos de Gruyter and Harald Thys, Die Fregatte (The Frigate), 2008, colour video, 19min

Tremors near the waist, weakness in the limbs, pressure, trembling, warmth, weight or beating in the chest, warm wave from feet upward, quivering of heart, stoppage and then rapid beating of heart, coldness all over followed by heat, dizziness, tingling of toes and fingers, numbness, something rising in throat, smarting of eyes, singing in ears, prickling sensations of face and pressure inside head.

These are but a few of the disquieting physical side effects of embarrassment recorded by British sexologist Havelock Ellis in his 1901 treatise 'The Evolution of Modesty'.1 Originally a military term meaning to 'block' or 'obstruct', embarrassment is experienced by Ellis's subjects as a form of physical ambush. The work of Belgian artists Jos de Gruyter and Harald Thys elicits a similarly bewildered state of mental anxiety in the viewer. Forcing their audiences to enter a series of claustrophobic interiors and depressingly dilapidated community centres, their films play host to a hoard of ghoulish misfits. Maniacal car mechanics, masked hoodlums, recovering perverts and stock commedia dell'arte characters enact strange rituals of exchange, in which power, violence and loss are present in equal measures. The menacing dramas use a recurring troupe of amateur players - a provisional theatre company composed almost exclusively of the artists' family members - that provides an incestuous twist on the traditional notion of repertory. Badly dressed, the figures sport curious costumes assembled out of the least desirable elements of suburban Flemish fashion. They move awkwardly and are prone to uncomfortable fits of staring. Ill-equipped to fulfil their roles as archetypal heroes and villains of de Gruyter and Thys's contemporary fables, their cringe-worthy performances are exaggerated by the artists' use

  1. Havelock Ellis, 'The Evolution of Modesty', Studies in the Psychology of Sex, vol.1, New York: Random House, 1942, p.72.

  2. Niklas Luhmann, Art as a Social System, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000, p.134.

  3. Ibid., p.17.

  4. Michael Fried, 'Art and Objecthood', in Gregory Battcock (ed.), Minimal Art: A Critical Anthology, New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., 1968, pp.139, 141.