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For the 21st Biennale of Sydney, a full wing of Artspace is dedicated to the videos, sculptures, notes and paintings of Belgian artist Michaël Borremans. The darkened space is punctuated with screens, low-lit plinths and glass-topped cases.

There is something of the distinguished patriarchy of the Old Masters in the artist’s paintings of hooded, veiled, dead-looking or turned-away figures. Since Borremans started to exhibit in the late 1990s, critics and curators have compared him with Degas, Manet, Goya and Velázquez. His faces and scenarios feel contemporary, but his dark grounds, muted palette and off-kilter realism are dense with tradition.

Borremans is primarily a painter, but moving image has been part of his practice since the early 2000s, and sculptural models have long served as the basis for many of his paintings. Here, sculpture and film are brought into the (dim) spotlight. The only paintings included are small studies laid flat under glass, along with sketches, clippings and other reference material. Biennales are the natural habitat of large-scale installation, video and interdisciplinary practice. It is perhaps unsurprising that Borremans’s paintings appear here as something of a footnote.

Michaël Borremans, installation view (2018) at Artspace for the 21st Biennale of Sydney. Courtesy the artist and Zeno X Gallery, Antwerp. Presentation at the 21st Biennale of Sydney was made possible with generous assistance from Pro Helvetia. Photograph: Document Photography.

Shortly after I enter the space, two men walk in arm in arm. One is tracing a path with a white cane while the other is talking him through the exhibition. The man explaining the art is in his 40s or 50s, and talks like someone who sees exhibitions occasionally, but is not accustomed to putting them into words. Overheard, these descriptions punctuate my experience of Borremans’s strange vision.

A tablet-sized screen is mounted to a wall. A luminous pale girl stands in white space “It’s like she’s floating, like she’s sort of built into the table,” the sighted man explains to his blind friend. Dressed in pale blue with long brown hair and downcast eyes, she looks like a figure from a Vermeer. Although, with the hint of strangeness, her floating body and inscrutable face, she is straight out of a Borremans painting. One hand darts off screen and returns. She shoves a morsel of food into her mouth without looking up.

This 2012 work is called The Bread, which hints at religiousness and earthiness absent from the work itself. The scene is clinical and coldly beautiful.

On the far side of the room is a cluster of display stands and cases. Space Vessel, 2017, is a diorama. A conglomerate weapon, an assemblage of missiles and warheads, has landed in an open space populated with tiny human figurines. “I think it’s a kind of bomb…but it’s also a church tower,” the man explains to his friend, just as the weapon resolves into a model of a spire, laid on its side and mirrored. It is cast in bronze. A seam has been left around its middle like a scar and a blowtorch has bloomed colours like camouflage across its metallic surface. The merging of church spire and missile, with its conflation of religion and violence, presents an old but depressingly relevant theme in the form of an elaborate visual pun.

Michaël Borremans, The Bread, 2012 (video still), 46 x 38 cm, framed LCD screen, HD video, continuous loop, 4 mins (approx.). Courtesy the artist and Zeno X Gallery, Antwerp.

The centrepiece of the room is a large suspended screen playing The Storm, 2006. “They have documents in their hands, we can’t see their faces,” the man begins, standing near me. “It’s sort of a sepia film, it fades in and out. The men are all black. They’re just sitting waiting for their shift, for something to happen. A bit bored or nonchalant.” The silent looped film fills the space with its flickering fluorescent lights and still, blank-faced men in crisp white utility suits. The man in the gallery thinks for a moment, and concludes to his friend, “They’re there, but they’re not there.”

This description suits the humans that Borremans depicts.

Whether sculpted, sketched or on film, none of them feel at all real. It is as if we are inside one of his paintings, in this crepuscular, mysterious space where meanings are hazy and the only thing that is certain is a certain sense of unease.

Michaël Borremans
21st Biennale of Sydney
Artspace
16 March – 11 June

Rebecca Gallo