Honesty and Immediacy
An interview with Peter De Potter by Mikel van den Boogaard
Those that know Belgium know that it is somewhat devoid of glamour. The Dutch landscape isn’t that glamourous either, but we feel and see the difference whenever we cross the border. Its roads are rocky, its architecture quirky, and its weather (like the rest of the Lowlands) shows at least fifty shades of grey.
In one glance at his work, it should be evident that to Belgian artist Peter De Potter, that mundane environment is precisely the kind of vibe he wants to surround himself with. Yes, he’s been living in the fashion city of Antwerp, but anyone who has ever been on a pilgrimage to Dries, Raf, Martin or Ann will have to agree that it is not remotely reminiscent of Soho or Paris. Belgians are sober and modest. Operating from a corner of Europe that very rarely stands in the limelight.
Further down in that corner, roughly 80 kilometers from Antwerp, lies the small village of Edelare. With nearly 1000 citizens, it definitely isn’t a cultural capital, yet it has inspired millions of people. On a hilltop in Kerselare (part of Edelare, near the city of Oudenaarde) is a 16th-century chapel that has been a pilgrimage site for centuries. The Onze-Lieve-Vrouw van Kerselarekapel harbors a Maria statue, and was burned to the ground in 1961. The chapel was rebuilt, this time by Belgian architect Juliaan Lampens who turned it into a massive concrete chapel that brutally breaks the peaceful green environment of Kerselare. It was finished in 1966, four years before Peter De Potter was born.
De Potter lived a stone’s throw away from the chapel. From his bedroom, he could see the concrete tower over the trees. “At the time, it wasn’t such an important thing, but I think that view really shaped me,” he explains, sitting in the Prinsenkamer of Hotel De L’Europe. “At that time, everyone was quite traditional and Catholic in Belgium. To build this brutalist concrete bunker requires bravery. Everyone hated it, but I loved it. It was cold, scary and very mysterious. It was the ultimate for me.”
Lampens’ chapel was pivotal in De Potter’s view on aesthetics. At his eighteenth, he would move to Antwerp to attend the illustrious Royal Art Academy. He graduated from the infamous school that counts people like Martin Margiela, Dries van Noten and Demna Gvasalia as its alumni in 1991 to work at a record store. “I mostly sold dance records to Gabbers,” he recollects. “And Raf would come by to buy stuff like Kraftwerk. We were already too old back then,” he adds jokingly.
Raf is the first name of fashion designer and long-time collaborator Raf Simons. Between 2001 and 2010, De Potter worked with Simons on his eponymous label as a consultant, assisting with concepts and providing artworks. Together, they created Simons recognizable punk/youth culture aesthetic that would bring Raf Simons to international acclaim. Simons would later become creative director at Jil Sander, Dior, Calvin Klein, and since 2019, Prada, for which De Potter recently did artworks complementing the Spring-Summer 2021 collection.
However often he is linked to Raf Simons, Peter De Potter is, most of all, a man on his own. Before our meeting, MENDO’s Roy Rietstap told me that De Potter is not very fond of interviews or photographs. “It’s not my favorite pastime,” De Potter says upon asking. “I have noticed that many interviewers enter a conversation with some preconceived notion of who I am or what I do. I prefer to stay outside of those notions.”
'People pointed out to me that books have such a strong attraction for many people, especially young people.'
It once again shows that De Potter might be at his best outside of the limelight in Belgium. Yet, he has been recognized internationally by magazines such as Dazed, i-D (for which he briefly worked in the 90s) and Hypebeast, and collaborated with Raf Simons and none other than Kanye West. “I’ve been basically doing the same thing for over twenty years,” he says somewhat admittedly. “It’s funny that everyone associates me with Raf and Kanye as if that’s what defines me. Most of my work with Raf is from the aughts. Prada and Kanye have been my only commercial work in the past decade.”
His exclusivity undeniably contributes to his popularity. In the early 2010s, De Potter rose to international acclaim through Tumblr. His blogs functioned as online publications, an endless stream of experiments, collages and archival images found on the internet. “I didn’t have much affinity with print at first,” he admits. “I found out I was actually wrong when people pointed out to me that books have such a strong attraction for many people, especially young people. It’s not a worn-out medium at all; It is alive and well. But Tumblr is still my ideal form of expression. A complete blind canvas where everything was possible. And the image was the only thing that mattered. It’s not about who made it, how many likes it has, or who the maker has worked with. It’s purely about the image and the viewer deciding whether they like it or not.”
De Potter published his first book himself in 2016, The Vanity of Certain Flowers. It was followed by All Statues Sing Protest Songs in 2017, published by IDEA and Vape Shop Olympia by Claire de Rouen Books in 2018. The Vanity of Certain Flowers Part Two is published by MENDO, after De Potter and MENDO’s Roy Rietstap found each other on Instagram.
Like in his previous online work, De Potter’s books present collages of words, images, graphics and screen prints juxtaposed in De Potter’s signature uncanny ways, often consisting of photos of male nudity. Because of the nudity, critics and fans often place his work in the queer category. Defined by terms like “photographer”, “queer”, “erotic”, and “punk,” you could have found his very limited books under these misdefined categories. Although he isn’t surprised hearing these terms, they are inconsistent with his own reality. “To me, my work is more about human psychology,” he explains. “I don’t want to tell people how they should look at it. And I don’t mind being put in the queer genre. But to me, there is a big difference between the glamorous homo-erotic eye-candy image and my work. I hope people see that. Yes, what you see is a naked man. But the nudity is only a small element in the work that I’ve made.”
However tiny that element might be, it is often the defining part of a recipe for scrutiny. De Potter almost exclusively has young, muscular models posing in front of his camera. “I hear it almost every time I do an interview,” he says. “It’s just my version of masculinity. I’m not trying to make it erotic. It is a visual representation of a spiritual experience. I am obsessed with people who withdraw and develop themselves. That could be a boy who trains very hard to impress a girl, or in the worst cases, an extremist fighter who turns his backyard into a military training base. Someone who can free himself from peer pressure and wants to elevate himself, I think that’s fantastic. A young man with a physically strong body symbolizes that for me. But I still think it’s only a part of it. Like a painter uses their brush and colors, so are the men in my work an element to tell a larger story.”
‘To me, my work is more about human psychology.’
‘To me, my work is more about human psychology.’
The Vanity of Certain Flowers Part Two tells a melancholic story of isolation. The idea for a follow up to his first monograph was born at the height of the pandemic in 2020, as De Potter felt the theme of his first book was more present than ever. Every page in the book has the title of a flower. They carry absurdities like Een secondelange bloem (A second long flower), Een onmiddellijke bloem (An immediate flower) or Een Schroomvallige bloem (A timid flower). “I really wanted to do something with the Dutch language,” De Potter explains. “It’s such a beautiful language, and I also think it looks beautiful.” In his Dutch words, De Potter draws a lot of inspiration from Jan Arends. The Dutch poet, who was known for his struggles with mental illness and alcoholism and committed suicide in 1974, wrote poetry that went deep into the depths of a dystopic mind. “Real heavy shit,” De Potter says with his eyes widening. “One of his famous phrases is Wie kan zo mager praten met de taal als ik? (Who can speak the language as thinly as I can?). You see that in his poetry. When I read his work, it’s like Joy Division. It inspired me to do something in Dutch but keep it as “thinly” as possible. That’s what you see in the texts in this book.”
The images that are presented with the titles carry a similar melancholic tension. Fractions of catholic symbols are combined with attractive young men, seemingly random objects and sceneries, and Dutch, English and French words. Upon asking, De Potter himself describes his work with two words: Honesty and immediacy. “I try to create scenes on the fly,” he elaborates. “I can understand that it can be hard for people to really understand what it means, but I don’t mind that. Sometimes it gets interesting when people start to ask questions.”
‘Now that I think about it, this book probably is the most Flemish thing I’ve ever made.'
All images were made in the past year, with four shoots done remotely by the models themselves due to travel restrictions. For some photos, he went back to his hometown to capture Lampens’ chapel, and on one of the final pages, he dedicated a text to it. “The older I get, the more important that thing becomes to me. With everything I make, I ask myself: ‘would it fit in that chapel’? It has become a sort of benchmark over time.”
Funny enough, De Potter’s name seems to be the biggest outside of his home country. “I don’t mind,” he says with a big smile. “Now that I think about it, this book probably is the most Flemish thing I’ve ever made.” However elusive he might be, as the chapel in Kerselare, he is one of the most conspicuous presences the country has. Yet, at the same time, Peter De Potter is always hiding in plain sight.
About the book
In an elaborate, feed-like series of images, Peter De Potter explores the idea of retreat in his now signature, instantly recognisable way, constructing images through resolutely blending his own photography and video work with his poetry, language, artworks, appropriations and graphic design.
Available exclusively at MENDO. Limited to 750 copies world-wide.
The book is also available as an Art Edition limited to 50 copies that come with a signed 20 x 26.5 cm Ilford Gold Fibre Gloss fine art print.
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