Nelson: Please talk about how you created The Admiral’s Headache during a four-month residency in Curaçao and the processes you used to develop this artwork, as well as the research you did on this Dutch Caribbean island.
De Beijer: I mostly start out with a phenomenon that catches my eye; in this case it was the fact that Curaçao has a lot of typical Dutch farms, but they are painted in bright colors. On first sight, these buildings look way out of place on a tropical island. While the exteriors look like closed fortresses, the inside looks like it is supposed to preserve the intimacy of Dutch rural life. This idea of placing a series of hubs on alien soil and controlling the island from there reminded me of movies about alien invasions.
I followed up on this when I found out that most things on the island are standardized. It feels like things are deployed. The slaves to run this machine are considered fuel by the invaders, completely dehumanized and considered only as a commodity. So, I extrapolated this idea and designed a modular system in which the ships can be transformed into houses, and the houses all fit the same module. After designing and drawing these modules, I printed them out like paper folding models and cut, folded, and glued them to 3D scenes, which I photographed. The style used is one from the eighteenth century, which refers to the paintings and drawings from colonial Curaçao.
Nelson: What skills and techniques did you learn through the autonomous design program of the Utrecht School of the Arts, and how has that program impacted your work?
De Beijer: I was classically schooled at an art academy, with an emphasis on drawing and painting. I see everything through the eyes of a painter, not a photographer. This was all before the digital age. In the beginning of this century when I added the computer to my tool set, I could combine drawing, sculpture, painting, and photography to create worlds that are under my control. The photographs are more or less a testimonial to my research and building process.
Nelson: When and how did you become interested in pursuing a career as an artist?
De Beijer: From the moment I could hold a pencil.
Nelson: Please describe your process of creating large-scale models, including the materials you use, studio lighting, and hand-drawn and manipulated imagery, and the advantages and challenges of this method.
De Beijer: The advantage of this way of working is the independence of scale. In my head, I can create a whole world, which I then build in three dimensions. On the computer, I can design this world and zoom in on the scenes that interest me. The scale and material depend on the nature of the project itself. If you don’t use the models, it’s hard to guess the scale and context from the photograph alone. With the models, the photo feels like a part of a much bigger world.
When I am certain of the angle from which I will photograph the subject, I sometimes build only the parts that are visible from the camera angle. When I use paper, the lighting is extremely difficult. When I use pencil-hatched textures, they become flat gray on the photo pretty fast. Sometimes I use black light because it brings out the whites. I set the white balance of my camera on that light color and the photographs become much more graphic.
I also do projects that are completely computer-generated imagery (CGI), especially with 3D scans of objects and landscapes. Parts of these scans are easy to cut and paste, so I can work on them like I would an old-fashioned collage. In general, working physically or digitally makes no difference in time and labor, both methods need the same kind of attention.
The challenges in CGI are the texture of the 3D scans. A raw scan looks like CGI and has no handwriting. To make it look alive, it needs an extreme amount of TLC.
Nelson: What inspired you to create the Marabunta series that depicts the Mexican drug war’s leaders and victims, and why was it important to include colorful and festive images, as well as those of skeletons and ghosts?
De Beijer: I was triggered when I saw that the cartels often use their victims as a way to communicate. They stage the bodies, add texts and make a complete scene as a grim warning to competitors, the local population, or police. At the same time, the narcos use pompous mausoleums which are also elaborate scenes of death. In both cases, death is used as an integral part of visual communication. I tried to make a world where those two realities come together in a shadow world. I used the materials I found during my research to create layer upon layer of imagery, peel it off and reconstruct it again.
Death has different connotations in Mexico, and the celebration of the Day of the Dead shows how colorful this vision is. The graphic depiction and confrontational aspect are a normal part of life, and unfortunately so are dead people on display in the daily papers.
Nelson: I’m fascinated by how you used virtual reality in “The Exhibition” at your solo exhibit last summer at the Wiels Contemporary Art Center in Brussels. Can you explain how this offers a unique experience to each visitor, as well as the advantages and challenges of this type of media?
De Beijer: It is unique in that I used algorithms to generate a different content base for the direction the visitors walk towards and the objects they are looking at. In this manner, the presentation amplifies their behavior inside the 3D space. The biggest challenge in this project is wanting to show stuff, but without moving through a space with a controller. To me virtual reality is not a roller coaster, but a much more refined tool to watch and experience non existing objects up close. At the same time, I wanted to get rid of the tempo that is always ruining these kinds of experiences, and I wanted to add content and make the visitor comfortable enough to take a good look at it. That’s when I came up with the idea of changing spaces and objects in the presentation behind the visitors’ back. By physically walking in a space of 5 x 6 meter, the visitor switches space eight times without the visitor feeling disoriented. When I designed this, I knew I had a platform to treat it as a normal exhibition, and treat the objects and space as such. That was the most important part for me.
Nelson: How do you see your artwork evolving in the future?
De Beijer: My tool set is getting bigger every year, and with current developments it makes things possible that were not possible before. I try to distinguish between analog and digital because that boundary is already gone. When I start the project, I just look at what I need. It’s not important if it’s a scale model, a life-size set, or a virtual reality environment. It is only important in relation to the subject itself; the language has to feel natural. Somebody said that in a good painting you don’t notice the paint.