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Niels Donckers

Untitled II

Opening: Sunday, 30 October 2022


We are proud to present at our gallery the second solo exhibition of visual artist Niels Donckers (b. 1969, Antwerp; lives and works in Belgium).


Niels Donckers is an acclaimed architectural photographer in Flanders. Donckers studied photography at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp and obtained a postgraduate degree at the Higher Institute of Fine Arts in 1995. Numerous architects, museums and the Flemish Government Architect then made use of his expertise as a photographer. But also as a visual artist, Donckers has been working on a special and coherent photographic oeuvre for the past twenty-five years.


In his early work, Donckers explored in-depth the characteristic architecture of urban and suburban Belgium. These were photographs of typical, often parochial architectural constructions, ranging from soulless new houses and flashy villas to modern ruins in deplorable housing estates or alongside desolate roads. He shows us the frayed edges of public space. What strikes us in these photographs is the absence of humans. The only reference to size and scale is the position of the photographer himself. The photographs are always very sharp, technically perfect images: particularly centralized compositions with which Donckers flawlessly captures the surroundings.


Donckers views his subject with a diagnostic eye. He captures things in a neutral and rational manner. He thus avoids having to take a stance himself, let alone that he expresses an opinion. Yet, the slow and patient way he proceeds—sometimes he returns up to five times to a specific place to make a photograph—gives away that the artist feels a certain empathy for his subject. Though on first glancing at them the photographs seem merely photographical, on looking more attentively they reveal a deliberately layered identity. Donckers has a keen eye for spatial ambiguity and injects his photographs with a sort of subdued tension. The space the artist captures stays inherently empty and requires the thoughts and ideas of both the maker and the spectator to be complete. In an often perfect symmetry, Donckers’s work transcends everyday pictorialness, thus eluding the tyranny of a superficial, predictable and mediocre visual culture.


Of late, a certain change is noticeable in his choice and approach of images. A sort of softening has unmistakably stolen its way into his recent photographs and we also notice a narrative, poetical overtone. Donckers now takes us, sometimes literally, from the exterior towards the interior. There is still a focus on a clear and technically perfect record, but there is also a sense of humour that puts things into perspective as he zooms in on interiors and architectural details. He is also more flexible in the presentation of his work and he explores more possibilities. By using different formats and materials, he adds a subtle new layer to his work and our perception of it. 


In 2017, Koen Leemans curated the retrospective exhibition Niels Donckers: Selected Works 1992-2017 in De Garage in Mechelen. The first monograph of Niels Doncker’s works, published on the occasion of this exhibition, provides an overview of the artist’s impressive, powerful images and affirms the artistic relevance of his unique photographic oeuvre.


Koen Leemans, 2017



text by: David Claerbout and Koen Leemans / English / Dutch

design by: Atelier Sven Beirnaert

24  x 31,5 cm, 144 pages

price: 30 €

The objects in Donckers’ pictures show themselves as traces, abandoned in mid-action, of urban and spatial struggle. Perhaps Belgians, and more specifically the Flemish, look at a cadastral plan as a necessary evil to stop private property from colonising the whole country, which in itself is difficult because it is not clear what ‘country’ means. They do know what ‘private’ means, however, and this shows in variations ranging from discrete marks to unashamedly questionable taste and private monumentality.

In the past, the regulating state authority was largely mute, and when its voice was expressed what came out was deaf howling, usually contributing to fragmentation, estrangement and a sense that the objects in the street have been placed with no regard for one another. How remarkable the difference with our northern neighbours, for example, who embrace common state regulations and direct verbal debate, where regulations are regarded as values for all, affecting what you can and cannot do in your own private house. Conversely, the Flemish allow private and local endeavours into the public or national sphere, which they often regard as a failure.

David Claerbout in: “The Camera that sits, arms crossed”, in: Niels Donckers, Sected Works 1992-2017, pg 11, De Garage 2017


De voorwerpen op de foto’s van Niels Donckers laten zich lezen als sporen van een stedelijke en ruimtelijke strijd die halverwege gestaakt werd. Misschien kijken Belgen, en in het bijzonder Vlamingen, wel naar een kadastraal plan als een noodzakelijk kwaad dat moet voorkomen dat privé-eigendom het hele land zou koloniseren. Op zich is dat al lastig omdat het onduidelijk is wat ‘land’ precies betekent. Wat ‘privé’ betekent, weten ze echter wel: je ziet het in alle gradaties, van discrete tekens tot schaamteloos twijfelachtige smaak en private monumentaliteit.

De regulerende overheid was in het verleden meestal stilzwijgend, en wanneer ze toch iets zei, klonk er een bot geschreeuw, dat vaak leidde tot fragmentatie, vervreemding en het gevoel dat objecten in straten werden geplaatst zonder enige onderlinge samenhang. Het verschil met bijvoorbeeld onze noorderburen kan niet groter zijn. Zij omarmen gemeenschappelijke overheidsvoorschriften en een openlijk debat en beschouwen richtlijnen als waardevol voor iedereen, terwijl ze bepalen wat je wel en niet mag doen in je eigen huis. Vlamingen daarentegen laten private en lokale inspanningen toe in de publieke of nationale ruimte, die ze overigens dikwijls als een mislukking beschouwen.

David Claerbout in: “De Camera die zit, armen gekruist”, in: Niels Donckers, Sected Works 1992-2017, pg 11, De Garage 2017

For Niels Donckers
I first met Niels Donckers (Antwerp, 1969) when I visited him in the fall of 2009 in his beautiful house in Zurenborg. I remember pondering where my plans for a book and an exhibition on the dramatic deterioration of the natural landscape in Flanders would lead, when I rang the door of the photographer who would shine his light on my bleak picture of the urban sprawl called Flanders and, in so doing, become a key factor in determining the atmosphere of my book: from darkness to light, from bleak to radiant.
Yet that things would go in that direction was something I could not have predicted then, as I was standing at his front door, looking about. The only thing I knew at that moment was that I was looking for pictures of the Flemish landscape that could reconcile me with my visions of a battered landscape.
It immediately became clear I was in the right place, when, after a no-frills welcome by the photographer, I felt immediately attracted – from the kitchen where coffee was being served – to a giant colour photograph of a big black gate ("Simic ', 2010) behind which the sun was shining. I suspect that I then, after a short formal excuse, must have quickly bolted from the kitchen toward the living room, dragging the photographer along, to admire the picture in all its detailed precision and admire how beautifully the sun created contrasts on the stately beeches that stood behind the gate of Ronny Rosenbaum's contemporary recreation of an 18th century French chateau.

Everything in this picture is typical of Niels Donckers’ style: the position from which he photographed the gate (the ground), the subject of the picture (a building or part of a building in suburban Flanders), the empty space (there are no people in the image), the careful choosing of the appropriate time of day (take away the sun or the leaves of the trees and you have a completely different picture), the search for the best format that does justice to the image (the formats in this exhibition range from 180x233cm to 24x30cm ), the use of colour (the black and white prints of the photographs in this exhibition he gave me before writing this text made me doubt my aesthetic judgment), the industrially printed photos mounted on aluminium (all images are lambda prints on Dibond), and finally the soft, warm temperament that sets him apart from most other art photographers of the Becher-Schule tradition (the gentle irony of his images feels like the presence of someone who, confronted with too much seriousness, puts a smile on people’s lips. )
It is in this respect no coincidence to see the image of this big black gate included in the selection of this first exhibition that sees Niels Donckers publicly presenting work as an art photographer for the first time since long. I already told the story of why his artistic career was side-tracked, after a blitz start in the mid-90s, by a life-threatening illness in my book ‘Weg van Vlaanderen’ (2013); yet here it seems more appropriate to describe how Niels Donckers’ images had not only left me with a lasting impression, but also many other artists, curators, critics and curators.
The various exhibitions that have been held in which the big black gate, aka "Simic", has been shown, shows how easily he can convince a critical audience of the artistic quality of his images. I suspect I am not the only one who joyfully welcomed Niels Donckers’ decision to come forward in this exhibition with a trove of images from the past five years, which he, as inimitable flâneur, shot in the suburbs of Flanders. And here again, it is the subtle differences in light, subject and framing that make the viewing of his images such a pleasant walk. Almost as if one, caught in the magical state of infatuation, becomes aware of the various facets of a loved one. A loved one who, although perhaps marked with scratches or scars, is not loved any less. At least, not in the eyes of Niels Donckers.
Just look at the soft glow in the picture 'Druivelaar' (2013), in which the sun beautifully touches the edge of a grapevine and transforms the haze of a glass curtain into a soft veil that lights up the otherwise unimpressive view of the small terraces of an apartment building. Or the gentle irony in “Kleine Hond’ (2014), depicting the two asynchronous facades of two small townhouses. An asymmetry that is mirrored in 'Valeska' (2010), an apartment building in the former East Berlin, of which each side of the facade has been given another type of facelift.
Also, even when the photographer comes closer to his subject, and seems to run into a wall of seclusion, as in ‘Café’ (2013), ‘Terras’ (2013) or ‘Gas’ (2012), there is always some opening that counters the sense of oppression creating – as in the panoramic landscapes such as ‘Koolzaad’ (2012) and the two pictures titled ‘Ladeuze avond’ (2013) – a dynamic that leads the gaze from a close-up view to a wide, distant view.
Note also the interiors in ‘A Favourite Fixture’ (2013) and ‘Orchidee’ (2014), which build on the earlier work ‘Hof ter Rijst’, depicting an interior that incorporates a view of the landscape, always connecting, in this way, the space with that which exists outside of its four walls. It is this longing for the outside that is so familiar to me, but it is also this which, in Flanders, often hurts the eyes. Fortunately, there is Niels Donckers, who always returns with images from the Flanders suburbs, tenderly lifting – even if for just a moment – the veil of ‘ugliness and insignificance’ (Proust) that so often covers my eyes.
How did you put that Niels? "I'm not trying to say how ugly it is here, that isn’t difficult, you could make hundreds of photos in one day then." I will try to remember that, Niels, next time I feel low-spirited for the umpteenth time by the thought of the dramatic urbanisation of the landscape in Flanders ...

Jeroen Laureyns
11 March 2014


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