The Boogeyman, exhibition catalogue, Catapult, Antwerp, 2016
Moving purposefully through the strollers in the park a man makes a beeline for his goal. His fantastical appearance occasions some surprise. He wears a balaclava-type hood with holes for his eyes and mouth. Rolled up on top of it are four army blankets, held together by belts with metal buckles that glitter in the fitful light. The surrealistic character of his headgear is continued in the rest of his apparel, which consists of a medley of styles: the collar of a woollen army jacket flares out from the midriff to become a triple-layered skirt. The patch pockets, the khaki colour and the field blankets evoke an image of something between a soldier and an explorer. But these elements are purely referential and aesthetic, deprived of any practical purpose they may have had. The skirt and the trousers worn under it have been treated with bleach applied with brushes, sticks and fingers. It leaches the colour from the fabric, creating a range of patterns based on animal motifs and ethnic tattoos.
The man’s self-confident stride is at odds with the amblings of the other people in the park. Instinctively they move aside and stare after him. Some find him funny; others perceive a vague sense of danger in his strangeness and automatically draw their children closer. His movements seem routine, suggesting that he has been here before and for the same reasons. Without once slowing down he proceeds directly to a nineteenth-century stone plinth, which the majority of passers-by now notice for the first time. On top of the two-metre-high pedestal is an enormous, elegantly formed, dark brown Antique hand. There it lies, waiting for him. By means of cunningly concealed metal steps the man works his way up until he’s next to the dark hand. He kneels beside it, seizes it in both hands, raises it up and sinks his teeth into it, all the while staring at his astonished, accidental audience. His motions are slow, monumental, graceful even.
Now that he’s on the plinth he undergoes a change. The majestic self-confidence with which he made his appearance is transformed into a sensitivity that turns against him.
Instead of supporting the man’s prestige like a monument the effect of the plinth is to isolate him. He is surrounded by people who stare at him in surprise and expectation.
This perspective gives him the vulnerability of a creature in a transparent cage, trying to hide from the gaze of the curious. With measured movements he gnaws at the eight-kilo chocolate hand. It takes no small effort to prise a piece off. Suddenly impatient with this finicking approach he slams the hand down onto the capstone till a finger breaks off. Fragments of chocolate shower down and land on the base of the plinth. For forty-five minutes or so the man endeavours to devour as much of the chocolate hand as he can. Eventually he lets himself down off the plinth and disappears in the direction from which he came. Not a word has he uttered the entire time. The remaining chocolate is carried off by the children, who have kept an unwavering eye on the action from start to finish. An hour after the man has left, the last piece of chocolate has also disappeared. Slowly, the cold empty plinth seems to withdraw into the bushes to wait for the man’s next appearance.
This performance has no rhythm or fixed time. It occurs without announcement and ends without reason, silently infiltrating the daily movements of that environment. In that respect it possesses a fortuitous character which is, however, directly contradicted by the deliberate actions of the man and his detailed, elaborate attire. Unlike a sculpture on a pedestal his presence, animation, movements and appearance have a direct effect on the people in the park. That unexpected confrontation temporarily distracts them from their everyday concerns. It makes them improvise a reaction and speculate about where this man comes from, what he’s trying to say, and who is actually behind it all.
The name of this figure is The Boogeyman. It’s a project by visual artist Yan Tomaszewski (b. 1984) 1, who lives and works in Paris. The Boogeyman is the result of his quest for Antwerp’s specialties and characteristics. Staying in Antwerp, it was not long before Tomaszewski encountered the legend of Silvius Brabo. This story is a jumble of elements from a thirteenth-century folk tale, though in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries its humble roots made it no less handy as an underpinning in legitimating the power of the Duchy of Brabant 2. The legend tells of a giant named Druon Antigoon who demanded a toll from every ship that sailed into the prosperous port of Antwerp. Should a skipper refuse to pay up, Druon Antigoon would cut off his hand and throw it into the River Scheldt. Until, that is, the Roman legionary Silvius Brabo conquered the giant 3 and freed Antwerp from its tyranny. In the heat of the struggle, Brabo cut off Antigoon’s hand and hurled it into the river. Today, Antwerp still makes good use of the legend in its promotional campaigns. Tomaszewski found references to it wherever he went: the statue in front of the town hall 4, the huge hand that has landed on the main shopping street 5, not to mention the Antwerp-hand-shaped chocolates and biscuits in the bakeries and souvenir shops and the silver hands on the walls of the city’s new museum, the MAS 6.
With The Boogeyman Tomaszewski unites this tale with a historical event in which hands really were cut off and which became a grim symbol of a troubled era. Following John Boyd Dunlop’s invention of the rubber tire in 1887, the hunt for wild rubber in the Congo Free State was on with a vengeance. Leopold II proclaimed a tax in the form of an imposed quota of wild rubber, which was to be harvested by the local population. The euphemistically-named sentries 7 and the Force Publique 8 were responsible for its collection. As they themselves were paid according to the amount of rubber produced, the African population lived under a reign of terror. The white officers demanded proof that every cartridge issued to their soldiers had been used to kill someone, not ‘wasted’ in hunting. In a number of areas the standard evidence was the corpse’s right hand. As it might be days or weeks before the collectors saw their superiors the handswere carefully smoked over a slow fire to stop them from rotting in the hot moist climate 9. The ‘severed hand’ became the symbol of Leopold II’s exploitation of Congo 10.
The hand that The Boogeyman eats is the hand of both Druon Antigoon and the Congolese victim in Leopold II’s Congo Free State. The Boogeyman extracts his vital energy from the residue of a heroic deed and a reign of terror. He’s not entirely at home in either of these stories; then again, he has no existence without one of the two. His costume emphasizes the fusing of antithetical cultures: the European culture of the explorer as opposed to the culture of the indigenous inhabitant of Congo. The result is a character with different identities who evades unequivocal description. He survives, but only partly. There is always a piece of him that gropes restlessly around in the dark. By giving his character the name Boogeyman, Tomaszewski also enrols him in the widespread tradition of the ogre, the bogeyman, the bugaboo: an imaginary creature like a spectre or spook, used to frighten children into staying away from dangerous places or to stop them getting into mischief. In defining the borders between good and evil the invention of a strange dark punitive power is very effective.
The Boogeyman does not punish, he reveals. Nor is he an invention, he is actually there, walking around. The hand is really made of chocolate and every week The Boogeyman comes to take his meal in Antwerp’s city park. There will come a day when he’s no longer there; maybe he’ll be kept alive then by the people who have met him.