Trouw 2023-04-01

Is Kirac kunst of flauwe grap? Hun ‘keeping it real’ blijft in ieder geval ongrijpbaar

Joke de Wolf, Trouw, 2023 April 1

Original in Dutch

Translation to English

Is Kirac art or lame joke? In any case, their ‘keeping it real’ remains elusive

Is it real or a lame joke? That question lingers after the lawsuit between art collective Kirac and Michel Houellebecq over porn images of the writer. As with all works by Kirac, which constantly seeks discomfort and outrage.

That French writer Michel Houellebecq was embroiled in a lawsuit because Dutch art collective Kirac wants to use porn images of the writer for a film surprised many literature lovers. In the summary proceedings, Kirac was vindicated by the Dutch court on Tuesday; Houellebecq is not backing down.

Kirac is stirring up a lot, but why do the members of this collective call themselves artists? What is art about Kirac 27, a porn film featuring Houellebecq? Or is it all one big, lame joke?

French television channels found it hard to believe. Dutch filmmaker Stefan Ruitenbeek, the man who allegedly filmed Houellebecq having sex with a young woman, did not live in a canal house, but in a ‘banlieue’ that some Dutch people could recognise as the Bijlmer. There, Ruitenbeek was editing the film. In front of the French camera, he constantly held a glass of red wine in his hand, even as he walked down the street. ‘This is French wine, good wine!’ he added. He was making fun of the French. At the same time, he says he takes his own artistry, and that of Houellebecq, very seriously.

Irritation and anger
Kirac stands for “Keeping It Real Art Critics” – art critics who keep it realistic, freely translated. Ruitenbeek (1982) and his friend Kate Sinha (1988) founded the collective in 2016. They make films that feel like documentaries, often accompanied by lightly ironic commentary by Ruitenbeek in an exaggerated reverberating voice. Indeed, in the first films, the two behaved as critical art critics. They discussed and philosophised about exhibitions, engaged artists and art phenomena, such as art subsidies and gallery owners.

But soon their method also evoked irritation and anger. Right-wing philosopher Sid Lukkassen came forward after a call to have sex with a ‘left-wing’ student in front of the Kirac camera. He said he wanted to solve polarisation by doing so, but when he was rejected on camera and that was to be shown, he tried to stop the film. Those conversations also made it into the final film.

When Kirac had artist Julian A. accused of rape and assault paraded around on a horse at a presentation, women accused Kirac of applauding rape culture. Making a film in which someone has sex with a leftist student and putting an artist accused of rape on a horse sound cheap or childish. Kirac plays with that outrage.

Art needs to rub off
Some people believe it is indeed part of a much bigger art idea. Like the patrons, people who donate money monthly to Kirac to see the films online. They reason that art is basically about everything, including things that are unpleasant. Art should be able to chafe, is their view. And often that chafing has to do with sexual and ethical boundaries.

In the nineteenth century, Édouard Manet shocked the public with a naked woman of flesh and blood in the painting Le déjeuner sur l’herbe. Photographer Andres Serrano caused a stir a century later with artworks like Piss Christ, in which he combined images of Christ with urine, blood and semen. Church representatives tried to ban galleries from showing his work.

But unlike Manet and Serrano, who made tangible artwork that you can also ‘just’ see as beautiful images, Kirac makes films that you cannot easily find aesthetically ‘beautiful’. Discomfort regularly pops off the screen. Discomfort in which persons of integrity but verbally less strong or awkward lose out. As happens now with Houellebecq, an artist who, no less, has himself always played a game with sexual taboos, with the truth and the boundaries of good and evil.

In an interview in 2021, Ruitenbeek explains that Kirac started from an abstract idea about art. He looked at Rembrandt, Velázquez and Orson Welles and figured that good art should bring something new. Now, if you made a painting in the style of Degas, it would not be a good work of art.

Even more clarity is provided by the ‘Movie talk’ video from June 2022. In it, Ruitenbeek and Sinha talk for an hour and a half about the writer Balzac, who shows society in all its ugliness. They recognise themselves in Balzac’s character Lucien, who, while having great romantic artistic ambitions, writes pulp stories to make ends meet.

Sinha sees a parallel between Kirac and Balzac: they too are involved in society and do not want to focus only on the cultural world. They want to show today’s reality instead of idealised beauty. That you provoke people in the process, and that this provocation generates attention, is fine. But it is not an end in itself.

Reality series that present reactions as ‘real’
The latter can be doubted. Because unlike Manet, Serrano or Houellebecq, who create their own fiction and thereby provoke a reaction, Kirac uses real reactions and emotions to create their own fiction. Social scientist Linda Duits compared Kirac’s method in NRC to that of reality television in which the makers deliberately pressure the participants to elicit reactions and then present them as ‘real’. This causes irritation.

But is it really that real? In the latest Kirac film, Under a Sinking Sun, one of the most painful scenes is the one in which artist Tarik Sadouma razes the work of Chris Houben, a somewhat bashful student, at the art academy in Ghent, in front of several people and the Kirac camera. An interview afterwards revealed that Houben is a big fan of Kirac, and that he had personally invited the collective to comment hard on his work.

Whether the issue surrounding Houellebecq is different in reality remains to be seen. A lawsuit does go a step further than a negative review at an art school. And Sadouma, the artist who often appeared in the Kirac films in a role of sadist and pimp, dropped out of the collective because of Kirac’s dealings with Houellebecq. For the same money, that too is all part of Kirac’s plan. ‘Keeping it real’ is a description that has given the collective a whole new interpretation anyway.