JEF CORNELIS

For Jef Cornelis, who directed films for Belgian television between 1964 and 1998, it is very important that his work should add something extra, beyond the ‘television experience’. Cornelis’ work has been made possible thanks to TV-broadcasting, but his attitude towards both genre and institution has always been ambivalent: from the very beginning, there has been a sort of ‘friction’, or ‘miscomprehension’. Cornelis has made over a hundred films, on modern art, architecture, the Flemish landscape, etc., but in a sense they are all dissections of television itself, the very medium in which he used to work.
 
What Jef Cornelis considers the most important principle behind his work is that it adds something worth seeing to what we look at. At the core of his effort lies a tumultuous relationship between visual art and television, a medium for which he directed films between 1964 and 1998. Cornelis’ oeuvre was made possible by television broadcasting, but the relationship has always been an ambivalent one. Although he’s made over a hundred films, including films on modern art, architecture and the Flemish landscape, Cornelis’s work is primarily a dissection of television itself, the very medium in which he worked.

In 1961, after studying film direction at the Netherlands’ Film Academy in Amsterdam, Jef Cornelis began his career as a director for the Arts Division of BRT Television in Flanders, which would later become VRT broadcasting. From the beginning, there was a ’friction’, a ’misunderstanding’. In 1964, director Cornelis claimed that Flemish image-makers were still operating at the ’parish hall’ level: amateur amusement provided by ignorant producers for underdeveloped viewers. At that time, there were few people in television production who were in fact familiar with or able to handle the language of television. Jef Cornelis, however, together with Alain Resnais, Jean-Luc Godard and Alexandre Astruc, belonged to what was then a relatively new tradition, but one which was already gaining international recognition.

Television basically sets out to chat, entertain and amuse the majority. Beyond this, it is by definition a voice that announces and explains what we are about to see. In this sense, Jef Cornelis perceives himself as a parasite, someone who uses the system to do his own work, his films lying beyond these co-ordinates. Cornelis worked within a broadcasting system that paid great heed to ’the average man’ and to viewer statistics, and it was this restrictive character of the medium that formed the cornerstone of Cornelis’s work. Only within the reformist system of a mass medium could he make films that could be termed ’parasitic’ or ’marginal’.

Although Cornelis’s extensive body of work falls into three general categories - his favourite themes of the architecture and landscape of Flanders, the fine arts and the medium of television - his work interwove varying focal points, principles and techniques. To a lesser degree, Cornelis’s films also cover literature, opera and music. Through the years, an outspoken idealist evolved into a pure-blooded television artist. For his early films on architecture, Cornelis joined forces with scenario writer Geert Bekaert. In works such as Home Sweet Home (1968) or Bouwen in België (’Building in Belgium’, 1971), his direction took a critical stance against the framework within which it operated.

He filmed the Flemish landscape with great love, investing remarkable efforts to achieve a worthy visual and cinematographic result. Cornelis’s films were neither fictional nor documentary reports, but aimed more for a form of essay. His camera direction in particular can be described as exploring or feeling its way, more than actually directing or presenting conclusions. His earliest work showed the young Cornelis as an idealist, ironic in his handling of public domain (his point of reference for Flemish architecture was a dovecote), and his commentaries were those of a man out to improve the world.

His first years at work also revealed Cornelis’s engagement with the fine arts. In the late 1960s, the young director made short films on Documenta 4 (1968), Sonsbeek Buiten de Perken (1971) and other art events for programmes on contemporary art. In dialogue with then young but established artists, such as Joseph Beuys or Christo, Cornelis played the devil’s advocate, donning the shoes of the uncomprehending ’homme moyen’. Brimming with honesty and veiled irony, Cornelis made no bones about interrogating artists on the whys and wherefores of their actions. In contrast to this pretended adversity, however, Cornelis was personally very involved in contemporary art. He was fascinated by the activities of artists such as Broodthaers and Panamarenko , and in addition to filming unique portraits of them, by the late 1960s, his engagement had extended well beyond the camera.

In 1969, Cornelis was one of the founders of A 379089, an alternative art centre in Antwerp that declared itself an ’anti-museum’ or ’anti-gallery’. Together with A 379089’s co-ordinator, Kasper König, Cornelis organised presentations with Carl André, Marcel Broodthaers, Jörg Immendorf, La Monte Young and Panamarenko. Cornelis’s association with art has in fact been just as ambivalent as his relationship with the medium of television; there have been great leaps between intense love and hate. Cornelis set his contemporary art activities aside in 1972, only to pick them up again later, in the 1980s.

In the 1970s, Cornelis and Bekaert had meanwhile discovered the helicopter as a technically useful tool for the camera. This resulted in a series of films, with Vlaanderen in vogelvlucht (’A bird’s eye view of Flanders’, 1976) and Rijksweg 1 (’Highway 1’, 1978) amongst the most memorable, which find the director and writer flying over the Flemish landscape. From the perspective of flight, Cornelis’s odes to these landscapes, to ordinary people and their everyday lives, are supported by texts and interspersed with numbers.

In the late 1970s, at the time when he was making his ’helicopter films’, public television was engaged in its first conflict between ’numbers of viewers’ and the demand for quality television. For Cornelis, the circumstances provided an incentive to expand his horizons. He began dealing with television at its most basic level, as a means of communication and a vehicle for conveying information. As early as the beginning of the 1980s, Cornelis was already being labelled a ’television artist’. His broadcasts were about communication, or the lack of it thereof. The ’subject’ of the programme was simply a supporting layer, the vehicle for his analyses of larger-level communications. By this time, Cornelis’s focus was the talk show format, and he was exceptionally creative in applying its imperatives. For his Ijsbreker (’Icebreaker’, 1983-’84) programme, he used satellite links, very advanced technology for the period. What were then the early stages of modern prying techniques, were for Cornelis a module to speed up his switching between various ideas and discussions. The result was confusion: the conversations, taking place at different locations, got completely out of hand and left the viewer wondering what was going on.

With Container (1989) - a truly legendary television programme, which a major smear campaign managed to take off the air after the first broadcast - Cornelis formally embarked on a new road. The programme was based on an extremely simple, unvaried concept: its maker herded a number of young thinkers together in a small container, in order to hold an uninterrupted conversation. Cornelis again managed to create confusion, and not only because his guests interrupt one another and all talk at once about matters far removed from the lives of the ’average man’. The visible layer of the subject under discussion once again had little relevance. Container is first and foremost about exposing a medium. Cornelis demonstrates ’misunderstandings’ that generally are not, or may not be, dealt with on television. The stammering moderator, searching about for a new question to ask, the nervous guest fiddling with his pen or the persistent babble of a speaker in mid-shot: in Container, Cornelis does not mask the shortcomings of his medium, but isolates and emphasises them. It is self-evident that given the television norm, such a recalcitrant programme would not be destined for longevity. Cornelis’s later programmes stand out as a solid resistance to the standard language of his medium, stranded as it was in pure amusement. His work opposed the conditions imposed by that medium and mercilessly poked holes in the illusions it generated.

Around 1985, Cornelis was once again engaged in the fine arts, aware that the artists whom he had interviewed in the 1960s and 1970s were now active on a wider, international stage. Cornelis’s renewed interest led him, amongst other things, to curate exhibitions for the Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art in Rotterdam, where in 1995, he presented an exhibition on the correlations between cinema and the fine arts.

As a whole, the work of Jef Cornelis comprises a headstrong, unique chronicle of modern and contemporary art since 1960, a history of art that strove unanimously for change, and whose social attitude has significantly contributed to circumstances we experience today. Cornelis’s documentaries have moreover lost none of their relevancy. They are prime examples of analytical perception, reaching far beyond the standard parameters of journalism. Cornelis looks beyond the historical information and the nostalgic anecdote in order to present effective essentials. It consequently makes no sense to consider Cornelis’s filmmaking simply in terms of the television medium. It is a body of work that belongs amongst the most valuable cinematography that Flanders has ever produced.
 
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