To enter Jos De Gruyter and Harald Thys’ spell-binding exhibition Mondo Cane currently on show at Bozar, you need to pass through a set of imposing prison gates. Once through, you are greeted by a world of maverick and misfit robotised dolls, as comic as they are disturbing. Each one is given a name – from the inflated, wheelchair-bound Brigitte Pannecoucke to the former niche magazine-maker Mosquetero Sin Dinero –, a biographical narrative as well as a distinct identity and, together, they can be seen as the artists’ somewhat cynical and damning commentary on contemporary society at large. Consisting of 22 eerily-despondent and machinated figures, the exhibition – which comes complete with an accompanying website, a visitor’s guide, wall drawings as well as a made-to-measure carpet - immerses the viewer in a world-within-a-world, somewhat removed from it but very much part of it. We put a few questions to the artists to discuss the genesis of the exhibition, how it was adapted for Bozar following its viewing at the 58th Venice Biennial’s Belgian Pavilion and the meaning behind Fila shorts and Puma socks.
N.L I’d like to begin by asking you what the starting point for Mondo Cane was? What was the initial idea that led to these 22 dolls being created?
JDG & HT Some years ago, we decided to make a video in which the actors were puppets. In a way, the project back then was born out of laziness. A puppet has all the time in the world, you can dress them however you want, give them another wig or beard, a puppet will never complain. While we made compositions with the puppets in front of the camera, we wrote dialogues for them and put these in our computer’s speech program and in this way the puppets came alive. This was in 2010 and the video is called Das Loch (The Hole). Since then we have been making a large number of puppets of different sizes and personalities. There must be more than 200 by now. When we started thinking about a proposal for Venice it was an almost logical step to make puppets that can actually move. To create a group of individuals who live in a parallel world and only have an empty and frozen gaze into the distance.
N.L The exhibition in itself is quite an immersive, full-rounded experience, with sculptures, sound but also text (the catalogue) and video (the website) all playing a role. Can you discuss the importance of all the different mediums you used, and how they were employed to create a whole?
JDG & HT When we are invited to do an exhibition, we like to make an intervention that goes beyond showing art. There is the space, the catalogue, the publicity, the website – all these elements matter. The identity of our work has to be visible in all details. We always play with the idea that "the show" was conceived by a higher authority with its own rules. An authority that implements its rules into the museum or gallery. An authority that is very consequent and sometimes even harsh but gradually becomes friendly when the work is done.
N.L I’m particularly interested in the French Vogue video featured on the exhibition’s website’s French section. Can you talk to me about why it was chosen and its relevance in the context of the show?
JDG & HT It is a fetishist video that creates a kind of universe in which objects are pitted on the same level as human beings. A coffee pot has the same importance as a girl or a bicycle or a book or a pair of shoes or a plant or an African mask. Every detail is chosen in such a way that the spectator enters in a world that looks fantastic but that is created by an algorithm. A black robot in a basement that combines images of a woman, a city, an apartment, different kinds of objects and a sensual voice into a slimy film that tries to make us believe in something and, of course, buy stuff. The reality of Paris is somewhat different. It's interesting to see how simple it is to create a parallel universe. We think it's a dehumanising fascist video.
N.L In a way, more than the dolls themselves, I was particularly drawn to the story-telling, the contextualising, behind them - their names, their unique stories. Can you talk to me about the inspiration behind each figure and what binds them together?
JDG & HT The names of the puppets are very important in the production process. Most of them had names before they were made because they already existed in our head. Once you have a name, the step to a fictional biography is very small. As we are creating a "MONDO", a world, the inhabitants of this world also need to be rooted, they need to exist. The visitors' guide with the biographies adds an extra layer to the exhibition, like the catalogue, the website and the drawings on the wall.
N.L I may be wrong, but I assume the exhibition’s title takes its name from the 1962 Italian “shockumentary” by the same name. Is this correct, and if so why was it chosen as the name for this particular body of work of yours?
JDG & HT No, you are right. When we met at Sint Lukas in Schaerbeek back in the eighties, we found a VHS tape of the Mondo Cane film in the soft porn section of a sleazy video shop in Brussels’ Gare Du Nord. It made a big impression on us and we made illegal copies of it with the school equipment. We watched it over and over again and we kept the copies hidden under our beds. It was a big influence at the time.
N.L Bozar’s website describes your artistic practice as being intrigued by modern society’s current state of psychosis, with Mondo Cane being a living proof of this. How, in your view, does the installation relate to the world we live in today?
JDG & HT The state of society has always been our most important inspiration. Back in the 1980s we lived in Schaerbeek and we were on the dole. Every day at a random hour, you had to go to a rundown office somewhere in the outskirts of the city to get a stamp in order to get some money to survive. It was a system that dated back to the period after the Second World War. The office looked a bit like it was bombed by the Germans not long before. Every day at a random hour we saw the same people. Alcoholics but also middleclass guys who had lost their jobs or even psychiatric patients. There was one guy with a little hat that looked like a medieval jester who every day brought a little bird in a cage with him. That was all very inspiring. Society then was just as psychotic as it is today, and we think the French Vogue video proves that perfectly.
N.L Could you talk to me about the significance of the gated entrance that one must pass through before entering the exhibition?
JDG & HT One could see the gate as the entrance of a psychiatric hospital. Once you are in, you are in. There is no way out, only by passing through that gate again. There is no better way to mark a clear border than a gate.
N.L Could you talk to me about the production process involved in the exhibition? How were the dolls created, and who did you collaborate with in their creation?
JDG & HT A few years ago, we became obsessed with a 3D printer. We didn't know how it worked but a friend knew because he is 20 years younger than us. So we started printing heads with a 3D printer. We managed to recreate the head of an actor with whom we had worked with a lot 20 years ago but who died. Nonetheless, the resemblance was striking. The friend has since became our assistant and he is able to recreate any head we can imagine starting from a photo, a video still, our imagination or a combination of these.
N.L I’m rather intrigued by certain, more contemporary, touches in the exhibition, such as The Fool’s Fila shorts and Puma socks. Is this an intended detail and, if so, can you talk to me about its significance?
JDG & HT Personally, we are very intrigued by those kinds of details too. When we see a truck-driver with a beer belly on the parking lot of a gas station on the highway in Germany there are only two possibilities. Either he is wearing a pair of CROCKS or blue SCHOLL slippers. In 99% of the cases, we are correct. A whole world can be hidden behind certain brands. A detail like Puma gives a certain direction to a puppet.
N.L This body of work was first shown at the Belgian Pavilion during the 58th Biennial of Venice. Was it in any way adapted for this showing at Bozar?
JDG & HT In Venice some of the puppets were behind bars, in prisons. In Bozar the whole exhibition became a prison. The carpet on the floor in Bozar is also an intervention that gives the whole a more neutral look. Detached from the rest of the museum. A world apart.
Mondo Cane is on show at Bozar until 24th May 2020.