Michaël Borremans, The Feeding (film still), 2006

Michaël Borremans, The Feeding (film still), 2006

The Cinematic encompasses the relationship between the moving and still image, most notably between Film and Photography. Film itself is intrinsically linked to photography because without it, it would not exist. “A film is a succession of snapshots, more or less posed, and it only very rarely gives us the illusions of the unexpected and rare” (Campany, 2007: 41) Generally films depict successions of time, but despite their intense relationship, photography and film have different representations of it. In the shift from the still, the preservation of one instant, our sense of time was altered. One instant preserved forever, is only that. It doesn’t reveal the truth of the situation; that once the photograph is taken everything changes. It is this aspect of the Cinematic, the postponement of change, which is so intriguing in the works of Michaël Borremans, whose films are interminable suspensions of action. This is a recurring theme in his paintings and drawings, whose relationship to his films is as intrinsic as it is for cinema and photography, the original cinematic relationship.

Two figures wait, alone on a stage, for something, anything, to happen. This continues for some time and still they wait. It concludes. Nothing has happened. Is this not the epitome of Cinematic Time? Waiting for Godot (Beckett, 1949) is a play dedicated entirely to this premise. “It’ll pass the time,” (Beckett, 1949: Act I) utters Vladimir who begins to tell the tale of their arrival and the activities of the night before. The story is never fully told and it becomes clear that the pair cannot even remember what they were doing the day before. The play, like the story, and many of Borremans’ works, is suspended in time. Vladimir and Estragon are forever doomed to repeat their wait for Godot and the little girl in Weight is doomed to forever rotate in one spot. The Spectator, the audience, is the catalyst for this activity, or inactivity as it may be seen. Without someone there to witness the act nothing will have happened. The interminable wait would be delineated to just waiting, with nothing else to report. After all, how can you depict waiting without waiting and without someone there to see it happen?

“…the figures…driven by conspiracy or nightmarish dispensations to strive compulsively towards destinies rendered in speech…confronted with an endless postponement of an event and the figures that strike their presence into the people’s hearts.” (Christ, Reust, 2011: 21)

Michaël Borremans’ often dark and macabre work seems to take place in these endless time suspensions. He places his films, paintings and drawings into stasis, where they are forever waiting, wanting and perhaps hoping. Filling his worlds with characters that seem to be part of machinated, production line that exist only when we are there to watch them. They are reduced to the most infinitesimal movements, exalted because they are being watched. The tremble of hands held fractions of an inch above the paper as seen in The Feeding, the movement of an elbow caused by the hands performing some function we are not permitted to see. This is example of Borremans’ control over his audience, entrancing them and controlling how much they get to see, capturing them in time along with the figures before them.

Through photography and cinema we are able to “embalm time, rescuing it simply from its proper corruption.” (Bazin, 1967: 24) With an image, or a series of moving images, we are expected to accept the things as they are, they are unchangeable in this representation, one we are occasionally told is superior to other forms. However, the sheer concentration of the audience on the image or film before us surely alters it? The fact that these events, or non-events, have been captured forever makes us consider them as more important. Borremans’ use of slowness is something that gives great importance to things that never happen, or never quite reach their fullest potential. Wim Wenders was quite passionate about the idea of films always sticking to the original passage of time, he deemed it more important than narrative when he said “noticing or revealing things is actually much more precious to me than getting over some kind of message” (Wenders, 1991: 5) In Borremans’ filmic work this becomes particularly important as the activity taking place before us is so infinitesimal, so slow, than any tiny movement becomes monumental in this environment of inactivity. He doesn’t believe in the idea of filming narrative, he believes that by trying to illustrate things, narrate things, with film portrays a “deformed picture of reality.” (Grove, 2005: 35)


Michaël Borremans, Weight (film still), 2006

In Weight we watch as an automaton-like girl, with no legs, turns slowly on a tabletop. Borremans seems to agree about the “potential for the uninterrupted long-take…cherished for its slowness and its honesty” (Wenders, 1991: 5), with this single take we are unable to escape from the figure on the screen before us. On first watching you might believe that this is in fact not a girl but the model of girl, constructed for the making of the film, when in fact the girl is being rendered still by Borremans and his camera. There is a tangible feeling of unconsciousness and death emitting from the screen. “The actors…may be dead, yet their living semblance moves before us on the screen.” (Newhall, 1937: 88) She is not living, nor of this world. She may have existed a long time ago or have left the room moments before. This slowness reaches out into the audience rendering them as still as those in a traditional cinema seat, usually being bombarded with fast-moving images accompanied by a deafening soundtrack. Absorbed completely in the task of catching those tiny imperfect movements there is an “eerie similarity between the mourners”, the audience, “and corpses…” (Wollen, 1984: 4), which are the subjects on the screen. Borremans’ reach is far further than that of the subjects he is filming, he achieves, as any accomplished director is able, complete control over the audience. Your eye is not allowed to wander. You are captured in this forever recurring moment that seems to happen over and over without anything ever actually occurring.

If anything is obvious about the work of Borremans it is that he is completely in control of his subjects. He is the ultimate regulator of the scenes playing out before him. Nothing is simply allowed to happen, he intends it to. The actors are the lesser victims of this compulsion, Borremans has nothing to do but to frame them and film them as they are, though their actions are certainly controlled. In his drawings and paintings however they are entirely left to his mercy. Not only do their faces and figures change, they are rendered enormous or tiny and occupy worlds which are not their own. As spectators we are unable to decide whether the people really are gigantic or whether we have simply stumbled upon a world of borrower-like (Norton, 1952) people in our own world.

Michaël Borremans, Trickland, 2002

Michaël Borremans, Trickland, 2002

In Trickland, he captures the moment giants appear out of sequestered hiding places to move tiny trees two millimetres each night, slowly changing the landscape irrevocably (A Knife in the Eye, 2009). On my own first viewing, I saw a group of workers fixing a miniature version of the landscape, and in truth this is probably closer to the original source, but he has altered the viewer’s perception. They look to be in a hive of activity though Borremans himself stated that he believed they were only there for a few seconds before disappearing again. The lack of a given narrative is troublesome, allowing the viewer to imagine almost anything happening. Where his filmic works are arguably “congruent time sequences, not congruent ideas” (Wenders, 1991: 6) his painted and drawn pieces seem to be even more out of time. They take the place of the photographic stills in this cinematic relationship, preserving time less effectively than the films do as they have no duration, lasting merely a second or forever as they complete interminable chores.

The Jante Law – Courtesy of Bent Van Looy and The Jante Law

In The Jante Law we are confronted by an image of Borremans himself in a video installation created by Bent Van Looy. In this, we see Borremans the actor, as we have never seen him before. The slow zoom of the camera into his position behind the desk, as he paints aeroplane after aeroplane in the same glossy enamel paint. Behind him is a large map of the world and a framed logo for the company he is advertising. At four minutes long, it is intense. The musical soundtrack is unusual for Borremans, his work is typically bare of everything except the tortuous movement on the screen. But this is not his piece. Van Looy has created something distinctly different with this work, while Borremans himself ensures that his character can be no others. He is a machine, working as part of a chain of creating aeroplanes which might actually be normal size planes as opposed to the small ones we see on the desk. Borremans is a giant who, once finished, lowers his head to face the desk and clasps his now empty hands before him. The folding and unfolding of these hands lends such tension and seriousness to the image you are transfixed by what isn’t happening. Why has he stopped? What was his purpose? Are the planes to scale, or the map, or is Borremans in fact completing toy models with a seriousness usually reserved for the handling of explosives? The only part of this film that does not feel like Borremans is in fact the soundtrack. Without it, the activity passes by so slowly that the four minutes seems endless and the space he is in becomes more controlled, like a laboratory. Borremans choice to work with no additional sound in his own film work has been revoked in this Van Looy piece but he still manages to express what the ten rules of the Law of Jante and his own practice conveys.

The ten rules state:

  1. You’re not to think you are anything special.
  2. You’re not to think you are as good as us.
  3. You’re not to think you are smarter than us.
  4. You’re not to convince yourself that you are better than us.
  5. You’re not to think you know more than us.
  6. You’re not to think you are better than us.
  7. You’re not to think you are good at anything.
  8. You’re not to laugh at us.
  9. You’re not to think anyone cares about you.
  10. You’re not to think you can teach us anything.

In the Borremans machine you are nothing but a part and your existence is simply to complete your function until you are told otherwise. You are unimportant, but only in the grand scheme of things. The singular is worth nothing unless part of the whole. His involvement in this project only serves to remind us of his ultimate message, though it might not be his message, it is certainly something you can understand from looking at his Cinematic approach to his projects. Like the way he sets up his films, with actors and photographers and make-up artists, the end product is made up of tiny pieces each equally as important or as unimportant as the next.

When considering the fact that Borremans’ work is usually without sound, particularly music, he seems an unusual choice for the director of a music video. The Boatman by the band Balthazar is hard to consider this as one of his works when the sound aspect of his work is so intrinsic in the pieces. In truth it loses a lot of that quality, there is no tension, though we are left with a somewhat eerie tale playing out before us. The small movements are there, the fingers turning the dial on the cooker, the brushing of a feather duster against the beads of a glass chandelier and the cleaning of windows but these are rendered secondary by the unusual presence of real narrative. The character himself has a doppelganger, or may in fact be the doppelganger, his face has been rendered disconcertingly with a shiny plasticity. He is a reanimated corpse reenacting his days toil, or perhaps he is in purgatory, doomed forever to clean the same windows and begin making the same coffee.

Michaël Borremans, The Boatman- Balthazar, Music Video (2011)

There is no questioning of the activities of these characters. In fact, there is a definite and purposeful lack of questioning. We watch as the characters perform the same endless tasks as part of the Borremans machine. The Cinematic Time aspect here is different, instead of the interminable waiting for action, we are trapped in a time loop where everything repeats endlessly.

The Cinematic Time in Borremans’ work is not the ultimate focus of his work. Is Borremans’ work about the Cinematic? Certainly not. Does he use aspects of the Cinematic to torture his audience with the endless postponement of the inevitable? Yes. “Film is not a direct influence, but rather a suggestive element…Film is a wonderful medium.” (Grove, 2005: 93) Just as film is a suggestion in his work, so is action. Almost each piece suggests, deliberately, that some sort of important action is about to take place. Borremans is not just the director of his own world, he is the director of his audience’s. He casts his paintings and drawings the same way he casts his films. With him, as with Samuel Beckett, we are always waiting. We do not know what or who we are waiting for. In truth it might be Borremans himself. Or it might be the entrance, stage right, of Godot, who never quite seems to make his appearance. We wait by choice to see if something, anything, is about to happen and even though nothing does, we still wait.

Amy E. Brown

Amy. E. Brown (Aberdeen, 1986) is a painter, curator and writer from the North East of Scotland. She graduated from Gray’s School of Art, the Robert Gordon University, in 2010 with a BA (Hons) in Painting. She is currently completing an MA in Curating the Contemporary at the London Metropolitan University and Whitechapel Gallery and is a co-founder of the group amaCollective which is dedicated to exploring the notion of Dialogue through performativity.



BAZIN, A, (1967) “The Ontology of the Photographic Image”, What is Cinema? University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles

CAMPANY, D. (2007) The Cinematic (Documents of Contemporary Art), Whitechapel, London

CHRIST, H. REUST, HR. (2011) Michaël Borremans: Eating the Beard, Hatje Cantz, Berlin

DOANE, MA (2002), The emergence of cinematic time: modernity, contingency, the archive,

Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachussetts

GROVE, J. (2005) “Michaël Borremans: People Must Be Punished”, Michaël Borremans: Zeichnungen = Tekeningen = Drawings, Walther Konig, Koln

NEAD, L. (2007) The haunted gallery: painting, photography, film c.1900, Yale University Press, New Haven

NEWHALL, B. (1937), Moving Pictures in Photography: A Short Critical History, The Museum of Modern Art, New York

NORTON, M. (2007), The Complete Borrowers, Puffin, London

REES, A.L. (2011), Expanded cinema: art, performance, film, Tate, London

WENDERS, W. (1991) The Logic of Images, Faber & Faber, London

WOLLEN, P. (1984) “Fire and Ice”, Photographies No.4, April 1984

Online Resources

The Boatman: Balthazar, Vimeo – http://vimeo.com/20824770

Michaël Borremans: A Knife in the Eye, (2009), VRT CULTUUR voor CANVAS, http://ahomina.com/art-hoard/michael-borremans-a-knife-in-the-eye/175/

Law of Jante, Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Law_of_Jante

Waiting for Godot, Samuel Beckett, samuel-beckett.net, http://samuel-beckett.net/Waiting_for_Godot_Part1.html

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