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 ...
11 March 2014