Daan Gielis

1988 - 2023

Born in BE, died in BE.

Daan Gielis: ‘twixt life and death

Belgian mixed-media artist Daan Gielis (b. 1988, Beringen – Leuven, d. 2023) studied printmaking in Hasselt and attended classes at the Dutch Royal Institutes of Arts and Design in Den Bosch and Maastricht, where he graduated with a master in the visual arts. His oeuvre is a quest for meaning, courage, and perseverance in a world full of deceit and suspicious contradictions. He made emoji and neon light sculptures and installations. He also alluded to the human body’s condition with prints of his middle finger and casts of his head. The artist died of an autoimmune disease at the age of 34.

In Gielis’ younger years, he looked to hardcore punk for release, but after a while, he realised the underground scene was also bound by a strict code. His first encounter with Koen Van den Broek was at art school. Van den Broek showed him that what he hoped to find in punk could also be found in art. Gielis then shifted away from printmaking and started experimenting with unconventional materials, which gave him a greater sense of freedom. ‘Personal anecdotes don’t do anyone any good; it’s only when you manage to transcend them that your story resonates. What’s most important to me is that relationship to the other; you only realise that you’re part of a whole and can find your place in the world in that relationship.’

But that whole isn’t pretty. When Gielis was working on his exhibition Omdat De Wereld Is Zo Ontrouw [Because the World is So Unfaithful], he was going through a bleak period that led to his discovery of Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s 1568 work The Misanthrope. In this painting, an old man is being robbed by an impish fellow disguised as a globus cruciger, the medieval Christian symbol of worldly dominion. Anyone holding this object in their hand holds dominion over the world, representing sovereign power. The old man walks away but, in his flight, threatens to trip over the crows’ feet lying on the ground. ‘That made me realise there’s no point in running away from the world. Only by engaging with the world do we find meaning. Go or stay. Either way, you’re going to get hustled.’

This realisation became the faithful starting point of future exhibitions. ‘It’s always about two systems that manifest and somehow deadlock each other. A rift appears where they collide, and it’s there, in the gloaming, that new possibilities are born. It amounts to discovering an alternative way of living and being in the world’.

‘Life and death are neighbours,’ the artist says. My mother was a florist, and I often helped her. She provided restaurants and events with countless bouquets. At the start of the week, we’d deliver beautiful fresh flowers, but by the time we picked them up, both blossoms and water were putrid and rotten. Then, you’d pack all the wilted bouquets into the van. But when you went to open the doors just a little later, an intense odour of death would hit you. Every week, you’d observe an accelerated version of the circle of life. Week after week, it was the same, never with any greater purpose. At the time, it felt terribly senseless. Today, making the attempt is where hope lives, in that never-ending quest for an alternative, even with the knowledge that it probably won’t pan out in the end. Failure also contains the seeds of beauty. Sorrow will always be at the heart, but sometimes something beautiful comes out of it, making it worth sticking it out and continuing the pursuit of your quest.’

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