Vanitas vanitatis. Omnia vanitas est: ‘Vanity of vanities! All is vanity!’. The Vanitas-theme, going back to a verse in Ecclesiastes, has been a topic for reflecion for a very long time. In art history, particularly the still lives of the 16th and 17th century, Vanitas is a symbolic image of death, calling back to mind the transience of life. Life balanced against death. Vanitas as a void, inherent in excess. Appearance and vanity in art are recurring ground ideas in the work of Koen Theys (°1963), but never before did he touch on it so directly as in The Vanitasrecord. A motive which keeps coming back is the ‘fantastic’ - though in a Kafkaesque sense: a theme is carried through to such an extreme, that it begins to turn on itself. To Theys it is a way to visualise certain impossibilities or dilemmas in contemporary art. He makes particular use of omnipresent images, icons of Western culture, pushing them to their essence. In this way characters from previous video work - Like Hitler in Media studies, after Heinrich Hoffmann or Picasso in Painting with Picasso - are cut off from their underlying personality and reduced to iconographic images. The commonplaces of the vanitas-theme - skulls, candles, books, snails, ...- mean nothing more to Theys either than empty or abstract symbols out of art history.

The video The Vanitasrecord is based on the installation Theys produced on the occasion of the artist trajectory Locus Loppem (15 January to 14 May 2005). In the former horse stables of the castle in Loppem he built, on a wooden plateau of 12 by 25 meters, "the largest Vanitas still life in the world", for which over 20.000 live snails were dragged in. In the first part of the video the camera slowly wanders along the construction, on and off echoes resound in the background from press comments and radio interviews, given on the occasion of the exhibition. This hint of relativity and ironisation takes on bigger proportions in the second part, when Theys layers images of the press conference with sound recordings of extensive speeches, roaring applause and a bombardment of clicking and flashing noises. Mediatisation, not merely as a way to conceal things, but as an alignment of the emptiness. With The Vanitasrecord Theys questions the position of art and art manifestations within media society, characterised by a longing for identifiability, spectacle and sensation. The hugely orchestrated record attempt reveals the mechanisms art and media use to keep each other in balance, and at the same time take over from content and intent in the end. The connotations the Vanitas still life carries, are undermined by its mediatisation.

Produced by VAF, co-produced by Kunsthalle Loppem
Camera & Lights: Danny Elsen

Koen Theys, The Vanitasrecord, 2005