AN ARTIST UNLIKE ANY OTHER, BRAM VANDERBEKE’S WORK IS DIVERSE, YET CONSISTENT AND RECOGNIZABLE. SOMETIMES FUNCTIONAL, SOMETIMES SCULPTURAL, SOMETIMES MONUMENTAL, SOMETIMES FRAGILE - BUT ALWAYS ENGAGING AND FASCINATING. THE RAW TEXTURE HIS WORK OFTEN POSSESSES IS IN NO WAY A REFLECTION OF HIS PERSONALITY THOUGH, AS THE MAN IS AS GENTLE AND THOUGHTFUL AS THEY COME. BRAM RECENTLY DROVE UP TO ANTWERP WITH SOME OF HIS WORK, GIVING US A CHANCE TO PICK HIS BRAIN AND TAKE PICTURES. IT WAS A GOOD DAY.
Before we get into your art, I wanted to ask how you got into music. I know you’re a big music fan with a broad taste. That’s also how we met, because we’re often at the same concerts. Were your parents also heavily into music or how did that all go?
As far as I can remember, I was always fascinated by music. But it was something I explored on my own, my own little thing. When I was really young, around 13 years old, I’d go to the library in our little town all the time, and I checked out everything I could find. I’d randomly search for “metal” or “punk” related stuff. That’s how I got to know the Bad Brains even (laughs). It kind of started with the nu-metal and punkrock that was big back then, but I found so much more there. I’d just take all those CDs home with me and ask my dad to copy them. Sometimes my dad would go to the library and take some stuff for me as well.
After a while, I wanted to go to shows and festivals. Initially, my parents would only let me go to local gigs, ‘cause those weren’t far away. I didn’t really know what was what, but slowly got deeper into it and developed my own taste. As I got older, I obviously explored a lot of different genres as well, which explains why I have such a broad taste now. I love discovering new stuff and seeing live shows is essential to me. It’s something that nourishes me, inspires me.
Is there a certain record that you can look back on as being the record that really changed things for you? One of those records where you felt like, “yes, this is me”?
Possibly “Perseverance” by Hatebreed (laughs). I listened to that one all the time back then. That was probably the first heavier record that felt like it was “mine”.
And it just turned 20 years old!
Yeah, I was around 15 when I found that one. Before that, Slipknot was a big one for me too. After Hatebreed, I got deeper into hardcore and found earlier stuff like Youth Of Today, which I still love as well. But it’s hard to name just one record or band, there’s so much. It’s all over the place honestly, I was also really into AFI too, or “Ride The Lightning” by Metallica – that’s another one I still go back to.
Going back to what you said about live music nourishing you, how should we look at that? What’s the correlation between that and your art, if any?
I don’t think there's a direct link. It’s more like a feeling, or a vibe I get into, which allows me to create or draw or design. It’s hard to explain, but I do often come home with ideas for new work after seeing a live show. I don’t think of anything else while I’m at a show, but I suspect that it kind of resets my mind. After that, I can start working on a new project with fresh energy.
I’m also constantly listening to music while I’m working, so that possibly influences me too. What I listen to is often linked to what I’m doing. When I’m making something that is more fragile and refined, I won’t be listening to anything aggressive. And vice versa, when I’m working with the grinding wheel or doing rougher work, then I can. All in all, I do think there’s an influence, but it’s hard to pinpoint.
The range of your work is also quite wide. It’s not like you only make one specific thing. What’s the best way to explain what you do?
I usually refer to it as architectural objects or pragmatic sculptures. As you can tell, I’ve thought about this (laughs). But that’s the umbrella that covers the whole spectrum, with architecture as the tie that binds. Architectural shapes, elements and styles; architectural form language to be brief. I can walk around the city and see a column in a certain building, and that’ll stick with me as inspiration for my work, for instance.
I make functional objects as well as abstract work, but there’s not always a clear division between both. Sometimes, I start working on something sculptural and abstract, but it ends up being very functional. Then again, sometimes I start working on something functional, but it ends up as a totally abstract piece. That’s the freedom I allow myself to work with, because I need to be able to follow my instincts. Plus, I also like it when people can have their own interpretation of what I make, like “is this something I can really use or not?”. The difference in scale is also something I really enjoy, going from smaller objects to larger projects that are close to full on architecture. In that sense, what I do is very diverse, but I want everything to have that Bram-feel.
I think it all makes sense for sure, but do you find it hard to explain what you do to people that may not be that familiar with the art world?
No, that comes pretty easy too. I think it’s because I have a background in woodwork and construction – which I studied in high school – and that helps. There’s a practical “makers” side to what I do, so I can always focus on the techniques or materials that I use. The more technical aspects make it easy to connect to. People don’t always need to understand the more abstract or creative part, but they usually understand the craftsmanship.
If that was your background in school, I can imagine you being the odd one out. Was woodwork and construction something you wanted to pursue from a young age?
You’re right, I think I was a little atypical back then, but it was logical to me. My grandfather worked as a bricklayer and that’s what I wanted to be when I was really young. While I was in school, I shifted towards woodworking more and got my degree in that. I did enjoy learning those skills, but I knew that it wasn’t something I wanted to pursue. Even back then, I could feel that I didn’t have the need to make something that was smooth and perfectly finished. I had a more creative urge, so I went to Ghent to study interior and furniture design, and after that I headed to Eindhoven to study at the Design Academy.
I just followed what interested me the most; the conceptual, more abstract aspect of design. That’s what really appealed to me and that’s what I could really dive into in Eindhoven. It was there that I discovered that the seemingly unfinished, more raw aspect of my designs was also my strength. When you look at what I make nowadays, you still see those rougher edges, or missing chunks at times. That’s just me and what I do, I embrace all of that now. When I look back at it every step I took, it makes total sense.
Was going to Eindhoven a big leap for you? Because that’s a definite change of scenery.
I didn’t really think twice about it, because it felt like something I really needed to do. Even though the Design Academy was a logical extension of what I studied before, it was a totally different environment. The cool thing is that you can really focus on creating things there, with your own hands. There are a ton of different ateliers, for everything from ceramics to screen printing, to textiles or woodwork. We’d just go to one of the workshops and started making things from scratch, which I really enjoy. Just messing around. That’s basically what I still do now in my own workshop, I mess around.
Sometimes, I’ll make a mold and it’ll look perfect, but then I pour something into it and it doesn’t look like what I had envisioned at all. Or the other way around. But it’s cool to be able to do that, because chances are that something interesting will come out of the process. I obviously have my sketches and small-scale models, but those are just a starting point – they’re not everything.
Zooming in on your more personal work, how do you approach that? Do you start with certain ideas in mind, or a message you want to convey?
There doesn’t have to be a meaning or message at all. It’s whatever comes out of me at a certain moment, and I just go from there, very intuitive. What matters is the shapes, the architectural forms and the way those interact with the spaces around them. That’s what I like about exhibitions, and about creating work for public spaces. In those contexts, people from all walks of life are confronted with what I create, and I love seeing how those objects affect people.
If someone buys one of my objects as a functional piece, that’s fine with me. And if someone sees it as a sculptural element for their house or garden, that’s fine too. All I can hope for is that it’s out there and is being used in whatever sense of the word.
How do you see things evolve for yourself as far as your work goes? How would you like to see the ratio between your personal work and commissioned work evolve?
The combination of both is super important to me, because the one nourishes the other. I like that dynamic. When I’m busy with a commissioned project, for an architect for example, I’m thinking and working within a certain framework. Some of the ideas that I use – or don’t use – within that context can perfectly serve my autonomous work. Or the other way around, see what I mean? Working in different scales is also crucial to me. I can take details from a very large sculpture and create something tiny and new with that. So, I hope I can maintain the balance that I have now, because I want to make sure I always have enough time to do my own thing. I don’t want to lose myself doing too many projects at once.
I really need both to function in the best possible way. Financially as well. All I’d really need now is someone that takes care of my administration for me (laughs).
You handle all of that yourself now?
I do and it does take up a lot of time. Paperwork, emails, tenders and everything else. I’d obviously much rather spend that time being creative. That’s actually how I started making those smaller sculptures that I brought with me to the photo shoot. Some days, I spend almost all of my time behind my computer and that feels like such a shame. In order to have something creative to show for the hours spent doing those tasks, I make those. Because they’re small in scale, making them goes rather quickly and that feels satisfying too.
One final question. I feel like you’re someone that can perfectly work by yourself, yet you’re also known to collaborate on various projects and you’re part of a design collective called BRUT. What makes collaborating so worthwhile for you?
Everyone involved with BRUT is very different, and we’re all busy with our individual work, but we do get together regularly to work on collaborative projects. We bring our own ideas and sketches to the table and take it from there – it’s an inspiring process. I just like having different people around me. It’s nourishing and also allows us to discuss the challenges we’re facing, or to exchange tips and knowledge. It’s almost like back in art school. Your teachers there are important, but your fellow students are just as important. It’s that type of vibe.
Next to that, I also often work with Wendy Andreu, a French designer I became close with while in Eindhoven. It started out as a one-off thing for an exhibition we both participated in, but since then we’ve often worked together on other projects. I’ve also collaborated with several interior architects and photographers for example. I find that variety to be really fulfilling. It’s the combination of all these things that makes being an artist interesting for me.
Thank you Bram!
Pictures by Wouter Struyf
Production & styling by Bjorn Dossche
Words by Bjorn Dossche