In the studio with Belgian artist Hanne Peeraer, whose practice depicts puzzles of magical wonder and scientific understanding. We met with Hanne to tell us more about her greatest influences, growing up between Belgium and Italy, and how the pandemic has mobilised change through her practice.
When did you first begin to see yourself as an artist?
That’s a difficult question. I have always been a maker, and have been drawing for as long as I can remember. It shifted away from just being a hobby when I started uni, but even then I always referred to myself as an art student, not an artist. I have only really started identifying with that latter label since I started my Master’s degree. I can’t put my finger on what happened, but something consolidated itself inside me and convinced me.
Where are you from and what was your upbringing like?
I’m from Belgium, but at the age of seven I moved to Italy with my family. There I went to the European School of Varese until I was 18. It was quite a unique environment to grow up in; because of the nature of the school, I was exposed to many nationalities and cultures on a daily basis. As a kid, I took things like that for granted and assumed it was normal, but I do think it shaped me in a certain way. Aside from that there’s the fact that it was not an arts-oriented school, and I ended up studying physics, philosophy, history and German in my final year (I even dropped art entirely). That definitely had an influence on my work now, in that much of my inspiration comes from the sciences or topics that have no direct connection to art.
Paint us a picture of your artistic journey. What inspired you to first pursue, and then continue to practice, artistic work? Was there a pivotal moment when you felt you were on the right track?
There’s no real pin-point moment where I decided I was going to be someone who makes art. It was a given; drawing was just part of what I do every day. Somewhere in my teenage years I decided I did want to pursue it. Because I had dropped art at school, I went to assist Vera Portatadino, an artist who lived in the village next to mine, in her studio. In exchange, she taught me about oil paint and stretcher bars, and helped me prepare my applications for university. I initially applied to do a foundation year at UAL but didn’t get accepted, so I did a year at LUCA School of Arts in Belgium before re-applying and finally getting a place on the BA in Painting at Wimbledon College of Art. It wasn’t until I made it to Wimbledon, and met the students and tutors who worked there, that I truly started to feel I was on the right path. I finally started to understand the reason behind my artistic practice – my “why”. Since then, it’s been a matter of experimentation and discovery; my practice has been one big journey of trial and error, and it’s still very fragmented in terms of production process.
What’s the message of your work? How would you describe your aesthetic?
The instinctive response that comes up in me when I hear a question like this is that I don’t want to answer it, haha. I don’t want to put words on it, because I think the work is precisely about those things that you can’t put words on. But I’ll give it a go. I am fascinated by science; clear, logical explanation and understanding, and magic; incomprehensible, wonderful and imaginative. More specifically, I’m fascinated by what happens when you combine the two, and start to consider their similarities and differences within the same field. That is because I believe both appear on a regular basis in all of our lives and within ourselves – we just tend to focus on each of them separately. I think humans exist in a great network that lies somewhere in-between and inside of magic and science. My work is my way to make sense of this network, and I suppose that is what its message is; to consider magic and science simultaneously, and in that way aim to get a more realistic sense of what we as humans are made of. I would describe my aesthetic as soft, dreamlike, calculated, diagrammatic and illusory.
Who/what are your greatest influences?
Before anything else I have to mention my friends, family and peers – from all disciplines, not just art. Other than that, I love fresco painting, geometry, yoga, light refraction and optics, philosophy of science, human ecology, the occult, and geology. If I had to name a few names; Santiago Ramón y Cajal, Bruno Latour, Markus Vater, Michelangelo, Hayao Miyazaki, Piet Oudolf, Kaye Donachie, Hilma af Klint…
An unexpected source of inspiration?
Magic Eye picture books
What do you want people to take from your work when they view it? Do you have the audience consciously in mind when you are creating?
What makes me truly happy is if the work resonates with a viewer’s gut feeling, and not just their brain. I want them to feel understood, and feel a bit calmer: reassured that there aren’t always logical answers – and that that’s okay. That’s what I get from my own work anyway. I don’t have the audience consciously in mind when creating – I’m scared that would make the work less honest.
What events in your life have mobilised change in your practise/aesthetic? How has your art evolved? Do you experiment?
My move to London had a huge influence. It was like the international environment I was used to at school, but multiplied by a hundred. There is so much to absorb from this city, its suburbs and its people. Aside from that, the tutors that guided me at Wimbledon College of Art, as well as at the Royal College of Art, have had a drastic influence; people like Zoë Mendelson, Nelson Diplexcito, Dan Hays, Milena Dragicevic and Jesse Ash really pushed my work into places I never thought it could or would go. They encouraged me to experiment and archive all my various influences and references. To this day, material experimentation is a foundational element of my work. That definitely wasn’t the case; I used to spend way too much time preparing and thinking before starting. Now, I learn through the medium and its forms, infusing it with imagery that is much more spontaneous and intuitive than it used to be.
Lastly I have to mention the pandemic. The slowed pace of life, the time to think, the shift in perspective and the fact that I had the privilege of being able to work from home in a house with family I love, really changed my understanding of my work and my surroundings. I started caring for nature and my connection to it. I was exhausted from spending too much time with diagrams and science; lockdown really made me put more emphasis on the magical part of my subject matter. This shift was emphasised even further by my decision to undertake a yoga teacher training in early 2021; yoga was in my life, but ended up being something I relied on to keep me and my work going after the first lockdown. My yoga practice is still a huge source of inspiration.
What are your ideal conditions or catalyst for creating a “good” piece of work?
Unlike many other artists I know, I cannot work through my emotions by making work about them. I have to deal with my mental turbulence first, and sit down with a clear head and healthy body before I can begin working. It helps when I have just spent some time reading, watching or listening to podcasts that inspire me; most recently I’ve gotten such a creative kick from reading “A Beginner’s Guide to Constructing the Universe” by Michael S. Schneider. It also helps when it’s sunny outside.
Something in the future you hope to explore?
Tell us about the inspiration behind one of your (consignment) works?
Here Again, 2020 is my attempt at finding a very literal translation of the idea of blending brain with gut, magic with science, inside with outside. The tiles are reminiscent of bathroom or kitchen tiles, but they are made of grass, like an outdoor space. The body is empty because its insides are actually surrounding it, outside of itself. The sleeper is dreaming and its surroundings are its dream. It’s inside out.