In Focus: Jef Cornelis

Posted on 2 September 2014 by Liverpool Biennial

Entrance to the Jef Cornelis exhibition, St. Andrews Gardens, Liverpool, 2014

Entrance to the Jef Cornelis exhibition, St. Andrews Gardens, Liverpool, 2014

As part of A Needle Walks into a Haystack, Liverpool Biennial have curated an exhibition of works from Belgian TV director Jef Cornelis at St. Andrews Gardens. The exhibition space contains a library of his films from which the visitor can select what they would like to watch. We asked Deborah Laing, part of our Mediation Team for her thoughts on the exhibition.

At St. Andrews Gardens, formally the ‘Bullring’, there are 55 works produced by Cornelis which have all been recently translated into English. His interviews from 1970-3 with famous artists such as Richard Hamilton and Daniel Buran are examples of the intense and inquiring approach he used during his career, allowing the camera to remain static, adopting one long take reflecting the tone of the subject matter. In this way, subjects are encouraged to develop naturally, promoting conversational exchange with little direction. 

Topics amongst the vast library of material range from expositions on artists, collectors and curators, to issues of urbanism, architecture and the human condition. His style of filmmaking lends itself to radical ideas through a highly constructed use of visual imagery and sound. The film archive based at St. Andrews Gardens is a celebration of his work, and is made up of studio and location based footage as well as raw, unedited rushes, documentary features and interview-based segments.

Whilst working for VRT (the Belgian TV channel) his projects were funded by public sources. On-screen presenters and interviewers in his team became successful in their own right and guided by Cornelis, developed a personal style which encouraged artists and cultural commentators to talk freely. Cornelis and his production team became an integral part of the public transmission of ideas about art and culture. Being the only channel broadcast in Belgium, the station had a monopoly over the Flemish audience. This continued to be the case until the introduction of commercial TV in 1989 when a change of government meant a more commercial approach. On reflection this must have been difficult for Cornelis whose liberal approach to the arts had allowed him such freedom. Cornelis's style of filmmaking was not at all conventional, and he produced short 5 minute films, often airing them between programmes such as Bonanza, ironically an American export featuring cowboys on a ranch in the desert, the longest running western on TV and a success in Europe!

In 1983, a new TV format offering a monthly live debate on Arts and Culture began called Icebreaker. This stemmed from the publicly formed Arts Affairs Department attached to VRT broadcasts which were committed to both educating and entertaining the public on arts and culture. Playing a vital role in introducing live events on the small screen, Jef Cornelis was one of four directors working on this show. The team worked hard to be completely neutral and allow prestigious and knowledgable guests and experts to lead these televised debates. 

As a director Cornelis' decision to stay behind the camera is significant. He rarely appeared on screen, preferring to edit as he produced, cutting film only when needed and favouring experimental filmmaking which he applied to the production process. In much of his material, Cornelis is the omniscient third person narrator, stepping back to allow his subjects to exchange ideas enthusiastically using metaphoric imagery or alternatively to promote ideological messages. Little Sparta. Et in Arcadia Ego (a black & white documentary filmed in Scotland) is indicative of his sometimes aggressive style of getting artists to reveal inner conflicts about themselves or their work. This documentary was originally shelved because of Richard Finlay Hamilton's angry response to the questioning techniques inferring his fascination with nazism.

Installation view of Jef Cornelis, 13th Paris Biennale, Programme: The Rumour, 1985.

In You Know the Way and the Language (1976), Cornelis switches from scene to scene randomly depicting village life and snapshots of people exchanging dialogue, often about mundane things, in a very different style of filmmaking. The band plays, women deliver flowers, farmers chat to their dogs, washing is put on the line. The camera dutifully follows ordinary people as they go about their business. The techniques employed by Cornelis are informed by the idea of 'cinéma vérité', for example, using observational and naturalistic imagery and paying attention to detail by adding visual props and montage only to reinforce meaning. He pays homage to early black and white American films such as King Kong (1933) and often prefers to open documentaries with pre-recorded archive film or cartoon clips.

Cornelis also produced live events such as The Longest Day, broadcast in 1986. This was based on three large exhibitions in Ghent, filmed in three locations reporting on a day-long event about the allied landings in Normandy (1944). His longevity in the field of broadcasting and ability to master live action seamlessly like a conductor manages an orchestra is testament to his filmic talent.

As long as the viewer was interested in arts and culture there was an assumed agreement that intellectual enquiry from Cornelis' documentary films was what all Belgians wanted. At the same time, regularly aired programmes such as Icebreaker encouraged debate; grouping conflicting ideas side by side and exposing flaws in the dominance of the visual image we take as 'natural'. For example, screenings of the 33rd Venice Biennale (1966) follow a familiar pattern characteristic of Cornelis' approach: in the opening scene he uses sharp, shrill sounds to signify conflict, demanding the viewer's attention. These sounds are applied to introduce dignitaries' involvement in the Biennale, interrupting the bureaucratic and conflicting ideologies behind the scenes.

As such, it is often the sound and film editing which provide the dominant meaning in Cornelis' work. The editing and mixing desk is obviously where Cornelis excels, creating a persuasive and sweeping atmosphere by conflicting implicit subtexts. This contrasts with the more subjective and constructed films of the 250 he made during his career works such as a series of films on urban development including, The Street (1972).

Cornelis is quoted as once saying that 'The image follows sound, not the other way around', which in his case was an idea central to the opening scenes of his films. He states that the right to speak is paramount particularly when it relates to cultural debate and the exchange of ideas. [Taken from an interview with curator and art historian Koen Brams, 1983].

It could be suggested that Jef Cornelis uses a 'low status' medium to communicate 'high art' ideas, as the cultural and sociological debate is born out by Cornelis’s use of intelligent juxtapositions and subtle introductions to problematic imagery. Cornelis saw the potential power of the TV message early on, and helped the development of art criticism through audio-visual images. Viewing a TV programme in the privacy of our own living room or in this case a shared student accommodation environment provides a powerful reflection on the way art is communicated today, and this exhibition space is a place for conversations about what television can be. For Cornelis, television is the perfect vehicle to represent art and provides a cultural critique we can all access easily.

Cornelis gives us an insight into the world of the artist; the artist voice is heard, the art process debated. The artwork itself becomes of secondary interest to the filmmaker, which suggests Cornelis' distrust in the critics and collectors of the visual arts and the somewhat inflated egos of some artists at that time; Cornelis both loved the visual arts and reacted angrily against it.

Jef Cornelis expressed his views on the art world in an interview Koen Brams when reflecting on his role as a producer/director; he described the art world as "remote, critical, ambiguous". Wanting to get rid of the static interview and talking heads format, Cornelis offers filmic visuals and montages or tracking shots which come across art work in unexpected ways, and exposes the occasional futility of those responsible for exhibiting or collecting it.

Belgium viewers during the 1960s right through to the 1990s were offered thoughtful and provoking television programmes on art, architecture and urban and cultural change. Regular series such as Searchlight and Icebreaker revealed amongst other topics a contemporary visual arts market getting to grips with post-modernity and his contributions to film make him an important figure in art and TV history. 

The Jef Cornelis exhibition at St. Andrews Gardens continues until 26 October. Visitors are welcome to join in on one of our free guided walks to the exhibition, leaving The Old Blind School on Hardman Street at 12pm each day.