After seeing “Optimundus,” the first major survey show of the Belgian artists who have been working collaboratively for some 20 years, I had two vivid dreams—one was a nightmare, the other more of the laugh-out-loud type. The first featured a nasty looking zombie figure, its head inspired by Kitty & Katty, 2013, and its body made up of metal frames like in Ricco & Rocco, 2010–12. The zombie was floating horizontally by the house I grew up in. Two days later, I had a much more pleasant dream where I chanced upon a person I don’t necessarily like sitting behind a counter with a turd on her head, like the pooped-on dog in the series of clay sculptures Der Schlamm von Branst, 2008. To me, these dreams are perfect metaphor for the duality present in De Gruyter & Thys’s work: their oeuvre walks a fine line between idiocy and terror. I have never had as much fun seeing an exhibition, while keeping in mind that this strange parallel world might haunt me forever. Their works are where happiness and horror meet.
“Optimundus” combines drawings and sculptures with key video works, such as Das Loch, 2010, featuring the sad painter Johannes who believes in the universal expression of painting and whose soul is crushed when his wife Hildegard suggests he start making video works following the example of his red-headed macho friend and rival Fritz who saunters happily through life armed with an HD camera.
Characters and props from the video works reappear throughout the exhibition, strengthening the feeling of entering a parallel world fraught with social discomfort, psychological tension, human unease, staring into the void, and general strangeness. Consider, for example, the sculpture So ist das, 2013: two men (one of them headless) placed next to a plastic table adorned with oversized liquor glasses. The piece is so out of proportion and downright weird that it makes the viewer nervous. Yet, at the same time, the scene is acutely recognizable. Similarly, in the duo’s recent videos human actors have been replaced with makeshift dummies and a computerized voiceover; the dummies’ standard Styrofoam heads are personalized with pushpins, glue-on eyes and stick-on facial hair. Notwithstanding the crude human shapes, these characters seem familiar, as if we already know them; they are, in their own way, archetypes.
Here lies the power of this work: strange enough to throw us off guard yet familiar enough to remind us that this is as much about us as it is about any of the strange folk inhabiting “Optimundus.” In their catalogue exposé on the different relationships and possible disturbances between the real and the parallel world, the artists conclude with the scenario in which the two worlds become one: “a world from which one never emerges again.” This is “Optimundus”: an optimal world, but then slightly askew. There is a Johannes, Fritz, Hildegard, Kitty, Katty, Ricco, Rocco, or vagabond in all of us.