I love the art of Belgian artist Paul Michiels, and looking at his amazing installation pieces I was intrigued to see what kind of home he lived in. And I was not disappointed! Paul lives in what looks like a modest terraced house in Brasschaat near Antwerp, but open the doors and you are in for a surprise…
Hi Paul, and welcome to Om Pom Happy. You’re a graphic and installation artist and that is something which is most definitely reflected in your home. Every room is like an installation.
Hi Cand! Being an artist is not something you can randomly switch on and off, it is something you are, 24/7. That state of mind not only influences your work, but also your life and therefore your surroundings. With my work I don’t want to bring a message, I mainly make things in order to shape and express my fantasies. Giving a (new) lease of life to simple or useless objects: that’s what it is all about for me.
The ability to turn nothing into something, to give “life” or to take it away (sometimes I completely tear down an installation) gives me a feeling of almost divine power, the feeling of sovereignly ruling over my very own “wonderland”. That creative process brings me inner peace. The feeling persists even when I’m not in my studio; at home I keep on creating, I keep on shaping and improving my surroundings, I keep on putting everything right, it’s almost obsessive. All my creations, both at home and in my studio, are part of one big story.
You say every room in my house is like an installation and that really is spot on. Wherever you sit or stand, from each vantage point, the image you get to see must be entirely “right”. All objects in the space surrounding me have to communicate, which turns them into one big installation. Each room not only has its own defined character, but all rooms also communicate with one another.
You’re obviously a collector…
I always look around me, regardless of where I am, and I therefore always see one thing or another that could fit into one of my installations. These random objects are my tubes of colour. An object I stumble upon or receive can also kick-start a new installation, which might take me five years to complete. Some of my installations have a very long “incubation” period. Sometimes such a work in progress all of a sudden turns into something quite different, only because a certain item crossed my path. I don’t see myself as a collector, but rather as an analyst. I try to put the things I find into another context, whereby they can take on an essence I myself had not really immediately perceived. Introducing an item into an installation is something you can do in more than fifty different ways and you have to select one of these ways. Analysing these fifty possibilities is what makes it interesting to me. The final choice may seem definite, but chances are something might change.
The objects I use are to be found everywhere. In each country, in each surrounding I find objects that can seamlessly fit into my imaginary world. I think I treat every object with respect, that I respect its value. I might transform or even mutilate some objects, but I nevertheless see to it that they retain their true essence. Through the changes I bring about in an object I play with its soul. That offers endless possibilities.
People sometimes claim my work is sweet and poetic, but actually, the exact opposite is true. With my creations I first and foremost want to highlight the transience of things, or illustrate the painful issues in life. I want to show a kind of harshness, but in a safe way. If poetry is at all present in my work, that then has to be the poetry of fate.
You live just outside Antwerp.
I was born and bred in Merksem, an Antwerp suburb. When I was a child, the neighbourhood still was in full expansion. Houses were rather few, so, as a child, I had lots of space to play and build camps. These times are long gone: Merksem has now largely turned into a grey suburb. The magical spots of my childhood no longer exist. After my stint at the academy I lived in Antwerp for a while, but I got fed up with the hustle and bustle of the city and went looking for a place with a garden. That’s how I came upon leafy Brasschaat. I chose the house I have now been living in for the last twenty-five years because it was so neutral. Building something truly your own in such a neutral space is really great. The bland frontage is a conscious choice as well: I don’t want the outside to give away what’s happening inside. I can safely entrench in what essentially still is my childhood camp. My house is a safe haven, because that is where my fantasy comes to life.
Was your childhood home creative?
There was nothing creative in my parents’ house. When my mother was young she had a talent for drawing, but her father forbade her to pursue that. In my family art was seen as something “for hippies”. As I got older I started reacting against that lack of creativity. My mum and dad really loved me and cared for me, but I felt their existence was colourless. Their reality was a grey given at right angles with a world of creativity where surprises abound. My parents’ life felt boring and predictable. Art, on the other hand, is never predictable. In art, and especially in contemporary art, everything is always open and possible, just as in rock ’n’ roll. That openness, that unpredictability is essential to me.
Above: Paul with his mother
When I was seven a friend of mine took me along to drawing school. I kept on going and never looked back. I made my first “installations” in my grandfather’s garden as a child. He had given me an allotment and did not understand the first thing of what I was actually doing. I really wanted to be a sculptor, but my mother, who is very much into cleanliness, deemed that “too dirty”. I eventually studied applied graphics at the Academy of Antwerp and I briefly worked for an ad agency after that.
Above: two of Paul’s installation pieces
For quite some time I only painted and drew, but at some point I started to cut up my paintings and that is how I ended up making installations. Actually, I think I started integrating all the elements from my past into one creative process. My graphic work was temporarily put on the backburner, but I rekindled that a few years ago, as I could not stay away from drawing. Drawing is quick and direct, which is very rewarding, as something new emerges in a very short timespan. Drawing also is very physical, because every move you make on paper is linked to a feeling. I always have a sketchbook on me, because I like to capture moments and situations, just as in a diary.
Even in my present-day work I still keep trying to escape my childhood, although that exercise is doomed from the onset, since one’s childhood is part of one’s development. Many objects in my installations are linked to my youth. I consciously transform and mutilate them in a sort of “delayed” reaction to the way in which parents and society in general try to limit individual freedom.
Below: a work in progress
Your garden is also a magical wonderland…
I bought this house mainly because of its garden, grounds I consider my little part of the world. Similarly to the house, the garden had a kind of neutrality. It was a blank canvas I could do anything with. Since moving in, the garden has changed countless times. To me, it’s like an incubator: the installations I build in the garden remain there until they have acquired a certain patina, which makes them usable in my studio. That’s when I “harvest” them, in order to put them in a new context. By placing them in new surroundings they undergo a transformation. I would love to display my “garden sculptures”, as I call them, in a white, neutral gallery space, because that’s where they really will come into their own.
Paul, thank you so much for showing us around your amazing home. I know you love music, so maybe you can sign out with a favourite tune…
Music is very important to me and I cannot live without it. Be it at home, in my car or in my studio: I always listen to music. Music defines the rhythm in my drawings. Whenever I leave the house I have my headphones on and I am a fanatic iPod user. Music is a kind of soundtrack to my life, but it also is a form of protection, shielding me from my surroundings each time I leave the safety of my house or studio, allowing me to remain in my own personal world.
My musical tastes are very diverse. With an exception made for classical music, which cannot really enthuse me, I’m a musical omnivore, with a preference for rock ‘n’ roll and jazz. I have a permanent, unquenchable thirst for new music. From that angle modern-day streaming services such as Spotify are a gift from heaven for people like me, as I cannot afford to buy ten new cds every week. I bet you already feel where this is headed… Choosing one single number is next to impossible for me. I have changed the music I want for my funeral some one hundred thousand times already. I can try and select one piece, but that will then be a thing of the moment. An hour on I will definitely regret my choice. I choose John Frusciante – The Past Recedes…
If you would like to see more of Paul’s work you can visit his website here.
words: CAND JUSKUS and PAUL MICHIELS
images: SANDRA VERHULST