Exploring Human Vice through Animal Inebriation

Brussels-based artist Frieke Janssens likes to push the boundaries of staged photography and expose social deviance through shocking, powerful images; her new series Animalcoholics does not, in this regard, disappoint. Depicting animals in various stages of intoxication, Frieke satirizes the human escapism provided by drink; always one to court controversy, Frieke characteristically employs beauty in the service of taboo, to encourage a confusing cognitive dissonance in her viewer.


A dark undercurrent runs beneath the impeccably organised exteriors of these images. Encouraging us to take a look in the mirror, the central theme focuses upon the so-called “animal behavior” of the human being in a state of inebriation, and asks the question: if humans need escape, why not animals, too? Perfectly staged, the images addle one’s moral compass, embracing and aestheticising the absurdity of such behavior. The whole series is a picture of humanity revealing in their vice.


Frieke’s art has a vigorous social element, but not at the expense of its playful humour. With a rich background in staged photography, the Belgian artist creates surrealistic scenes with a meticulous and sinful kind of beauty. Frieke shares with us her thoughts on Animalcoholics, social change, and her wider body of work.

The Plus: How did the idea for Animalcoholics develop?
Frieke Janssens:
Animalcoholics is an commissioned personal work made for the art festival #Trademarks2016. Stadstriënnale asked me to make a counterpoint to the exhibition of ‘Jenever’ (the Dutch gin) posters, entitled DistillArt. It challenged me to reflect on alcohol as a socially acceptable drug and its position in modern society. When people are drunk they are less inhibited, and the animal instinct comes to the fore.


First I studied the history of Jenever, how it’s made, the posters, … Distilleries, for example, were closely connected to farms, where oxen and pigs played an important role in making the drink. The Flemish bars I saw in the posters gave me inspiration to build the set, but I painted the set all in one colour, to make it monochrome and abstract. The Flemish bar culture is disappearing more and more, so this was another reason to draw attention to it.

I never want to impose anything on the spectator, but rather show them the other side of the same coin. Humour is never far off, and plays an important part in my reflection: do animals need an escape, just as humans do?


TP: What draws you to staged photography? 
I create images that I build in my head; I call it the image recreation method. Photoshop is a tool that lets me work as a painter, making images like the ones I have imagined. As a photographer I ask myself every day how I can stand out in a world where everybody has a camera; maybe the answer is to make complex, big, surreal shots with lots of preparation and detail.


TP: Your projects focus on powerful social themes, exploring human vices, addiction and social changes. What do you feel the biggest social change should be?
That’s true, I’m very interested in social changes. My biggest one that I would like to see is
for people to stop judging based on colour, religion or origin; unfortunately this is, I know, utopic.


TP: What artists have inspired you the most on your journey?
Some artists whose work seems very different to my work, but actually isn’t. I like the movie Happiness from Todd Solondz. It presents a cynical view on how we live, but one in which you can laugh with yourself. I love the paintings of Otto Dix and the surreal worlds he creates. And last, but not least, August Sander, the German photographer who portrayed all layers of German society just before world war two. I’m very inspired by how he photographed the Weimar republic.


TP: How do you find ideas for your projects, and what motivates you the most?
I’m mostly inspired by “things” that happen around me. For example, I have a lot of thirty-something single friends. While listening to their stories, and how they cope, I made DIANAS.
Smoking brought up lots of questions for me: is the government treating us like children? Or was the smoking ban in bars and restaurants overdue? The ban kind of waves goodbye to a period in which everything seemed to be possible. That’s why I made Smoking Kids.

Also because I find it difficult to quit smoking myself.


TP: How do you manage to turn your idea into the final product we can all see? How do you think people respond to your images?
First I have to find an idea that’s worth investing time in. Then I start to look at the subject from all sides. I used to write everything into a sketchbook, but now I work on Keynote to share my ideas more easily with the crew. Preparation takes up the most time; the shoot itself takes one or two days; the post-production takes longer then the shoot. But I never use post-production to create an atmosphere, I use it to make the image I have in my head.

Yesterday somebody told me my work made her smile, but it also forcefully posed questions. I understand what she meant; I always want to make an aesthetic, beautiful photo. I want to attract people, but also make them think when they look a bit closer.