From classical sculptures making out in bed to a group of people swimming inside a traditional Portuguese can of sardines, the works of Sammy Slabbinck transport you to surreal, absurd places. He explores nudity, outer space and human behaviour through cut-outs of vintage magazines from the ‘60s and ‘70s, which he finds inspiring and, somehow, a sort of mission. He calls himself a re-animator because he gives them a new life, “a second chance as to speak”, he explains. Re-Animator is precisely the title of his third solo show at London’s Michael Hoppen Gallery, on view until January 25. We speak with him about glossy and cold magazines, Belgian humour, and his new method of collage-making.
You’re presenting your work in a solo show called Re-Animator as you see yourself as such. But what exactly are you trying to reanimate?
I work with vintage magazines ranging from the 1960s to the 1970s. Most of the pictures inside these magazines are not made by well-known photographers, so they are almost forgotten. They will never see the light of day again. It’s the same with vintage videos – I give them a new life, a second chance as to speak. So that’s why I came up with the term re-animator.
A few weeks ago, I interviewed Anton Jenssens, co-founder of the Antwerp-based brand Komono. When speaking about a collection they presented in collaboration with the Estate of René Magritte, he told me that “Belgians have sometimes a surreal sense of humour; it’s what we’re surrounded with.” Do you think so as well? Do you feel that Belgian culture and Belgian’s specific sense of humour inform your work?
I think so. Belgium as a country is very surreal. Consider the way our political situation is organised: we have been the outsiders for a long time, that small country where everybody came to fight out their wars. Because of that, we have had a lot of influences from other countries and we have turned that into a Belgian mentality without chauvinism – a melting pot with a liking for absurd humour and surreal art. In my own work, I have noticed a natural tendency to give a twist to the narrative, making it absurd or surreal, mostly unintentionally.
Taking a look at your artworks, I see there’s a lot of diversity theme-wise. In Re-Animator, is there any thread connecting them all? Like a common storytelling?
No, not really. The works were made over a longer period of time, so my themes shifted. I also like to try out different things to keep it interesting for myself and to expand and explore the creative field. In this exhibition, for instance, I experimented with 3D collages – layered collages which have much more depth of field. But I think that one can recognise my hand in each work, a common surreal denominator.
The absurd, the surreal, the magical and the fantastic all share space in your artworks. Do you feel the worlds, universes and possibilities you present are a way to escape from the crude reality of today? Is it a way to transport us to faraway imaginary lands that make us somehow forget about the world we live in?
I think that’s the effect or even the purpose of most of the arts. Be it music, theatre, cinema… they all take us out of our reality and let us dream for a little while. Visual arts do the same if you are attracted to the image. Hopefully, my work will also be meaningful to some people and will trigger their imagination.
You keep using images of the ‘50s, the ‘60s and the ‘70s mostly. But as time goes by, do you think you’ll get to the print imagery of the '90s and 2000s, for example?
I don’t think so, I don’t really like the ‘90s and 2000s magazines. Generally, they are very glossy, bland and almost ‘cold’ if compared to older ones. There is an innocence, a depth of colour and print that has been lost along the way. What was a first for this exhibition was working with my own photographs. I hired a model to do a photoshoot and I’ve made the 3D collages with my own images. I am definitely going to work more with this method, it gives me more freedom.
In addition to collage, you also work on video, but that’s harder to exhibit and sell. Do you feel as an artist that galleries take fewer risks and prefer not to show your multimedia work? Do you feel it restricts/limits your creativity somehow, going for more commercially-driven work that pays the bills?
It’s logical that video is not the main focus. Videos work better in a different area, probably outside of a gallery. Selling a video or moving image as an installation or artwork seems odd to me, although it is common practice. Given the rapid evolution of social media, I think videos are ideal for commercial work. Every brand needs content, the more creative the better. I like doing commercial projects as they are generally well outlined – you know what is expected of you, you get a detailed brief, etc. It’s nice to alternate between commercial projects and my own work, it keeps me sane.
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Camerashy (2019), © Sammy Slabbinck. Courtesy Michael Hoppen Gallery.
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Sliding Out (2019), © Sammy Slabbinck. Courtesy Michael Hoppen Gallery.
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The Mountains are Calling (2019), © Sammy Slabbinck. Courtesy Michael Hoppen Gallery.
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Picture Spot (2019), © Sammy Slabbinck. Courtesy Michael Hoppen Gallery.
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The Last Goodbye (2019), © Sammy Slabbinck. Courtesy Michael Hoppen Gallery.
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Spider Woman (2019), © Sammy Slabbinck. Courtesy Michael Hoppen Gallery.
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Spring Cleaning (2019), © Sammy Slabbinck. Courtesy Michael Hoppen Gallery.