Vanitas (Latin for vanity), in art, a genre of still life painting that flourished in the Netherlands in the early 17th century. A vanitas painting contains collections of objects symbolic of the inevitability of death and the pointlessness of earthly ambitions and achievements. The genre exhorts the viewer to consider mortality and to repent. Most recurrent objects in the gouaches and oil paintings from painters like Frans Hals, Willem van Aelst or Harmen Steenwijck are skulls, candles, hourglasses and clocks, overturned vessels, books and (fading) flowers.
For the exhibition Locus Loppem at Kunsthalle Lophem, Koen Theys built a largescale installation, entitled: The Vanitas Record. It was a three-dimensional still life of 20 x 12 x 4 meters. In this grand design, Koen Theys placed alongside skulls, books, alarm clocks and candles, 22,000 live snails. The still-life was not only built as a work of art, but it also became the subject for a new video work, which Koen Theys also titled The Vanitas Record.
In the first part of the video, the camera moves steadily along the installation, showing in detail the objects presented. In the course of the film, Theys adds a series of voice-overs that give testimony to relativism and self-irony. They include sound clips from the many radio and television interviews that Koen Theys gave as a result of this installation. After all, it was a 'vain' record attempt, and a successful one, to make the largest Vanitas still life ever.
At the end of the film, Theys suddenly makes a turnaround to the opening ceremony of the exhibition, the solemn moment when the world's largest vanitas still life was presented to the public and the press. We do not get to see the audience, nor the deputy speakers, we can only hear them, but what Koen does show us on the other hand, is an extraordinarily large press gathering and an abundance of cameras. Through the eye of the lens, the press crowd attentively follows the opening speeches and when it comes to an end, frenzied applause erupts. After some time, the tumult of the excited crowd fades, leaving us only the slow-motion image sequences of Theys' camera, staring back at the eager eye of the press crowd.
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