What’s so special about Brussels and why are so many artists moving there? Though the lively multicultural city is ideally located and offers a good standard of living at affordable prices, it lacks the elements that would make it a world-class art city, as there are few galleries and most institutions and exhibition spaces operate with modest means.
Despite efforts from some aspects of the art media to elevate its importance (one German art magazine went so far recently as to proclaim it the “new Berlin,” which is a wild exaggeration to say the least,) Brussels thankfully is still resistant to hype and marketing. Grand ambitions and showiness of any sort don’t go down well here. On the contrary, some of the most important and interesting venues occupy unassuming, modest storefronts or are situated in unlikely neighborhoods.
In Brussels there has not been the drive, desire or money to ‘go big.’ This resistance to spectacle and excess, and a certain no-nonsense attitude, is certainly one of the reasons many artists are moving here. Brussels, thus, is not your typical ‘arts city’ but is, rather, a city for artists, a city that is better suited to production rather than presentation. International artistic presence in Brussels is fractured, quiet, discreet — it does not proclaim itself nor is it ‘advertised’ in any way. The artists occupy their own autonomous space and, for the most part, work quietly, inconspicuously and in a fragmented fashion, taking advantage of the fact that here they may enjoy anonymity, work unencumbered and don’t feel pressured to participate in any kind of ‘scene,’ group, ‘in-crowd’ or ‘visibility.’
For all these reasons Brussels has already been drawing artists since the early ’90s; among the first people to settle here were Dora García, Orla Barry, Pierre Bismuth, Marie José Burki, Aglaia Konrad and Willem Oorebeek. They have all stayed in Brussels, continued to exhibit internationally, and many of them teach here, which without a doubt has enriched the artistic landscape. Though there is nothing that connects the work of all these artists, each one of them has forged a distinctive path and has adhered to a certain form of practice without diluting their vision.
Dora García’s multi-disciplinary practice centers on the creation of situations or contexts that serve to alter the traditional relationship between artist, artwork and spectator. Contesting the notion of artistic ‘signature,’ her Internet projects, videos, performances and interactive works always test the limits between art, audience and space. For the 2008 Sydney Biennial last year she enacted a Lenny Bruce performance from 1962, which was interrupted even before it began when the stand-up comedian appeared on stage in Sydney, uttered, “What a fucking wonderful audience,” got arrested, and was thrown out of the country. Forty years on, García gives Lenny Bruce his voice back and imagines what the performance might have been like.
Language and text also form an integral part of the work of the Irish artist Orla Barry, whose photographs, sound installations, performances, videos and texts revolve around anecdotes, stories and biographical elements, exploring the nature of communication and the complexity of human relationships. Her dexterity with language is best exemplified in a recent video, The Bastardstown Blogger (2007), in which the main character describes his daily life while suggesting the anxieties and pressures of our contemporary existence. The cascade and richness of language in the monologue is riveting, a veritable tour de force, which keeps coming without interval, leaving the viewer breathless.
Deconstructed language and language as form and architecture are two of the primary concerns of the American artist Peter Downsbrough, who has been in Brussels for nearly 20 years, and who is an important if still somewhat underrated figure. His characteristic minimal spatial interventions employ lines of black tape, painted aluminum pipes and adhesive letters to demarcate space. True to the tradition of minimal and conceptual art, Downsbrough’s work generates a new experience of space with Spartan means and razor-sharp precision, something that could recently be seen in La Verrière, the contemporary art project space that Hermès maintains in Brussels. In addition to his spatial manipulations, the artist also has a keen interest in place, as evidenced in his cartographical works and documentary-style city photographs and films.
The American artist Adam Leech (recently featured in Manifesta 7) also works with language, but is more interested in word play and in speech as compulsion as well as the power of language to shape consciousness; Speech Bubble (2008), a short video, takes its cue from the bankruptcy of a Belgian high-tech speech recognition company. In it, Leech assumes the character of a pathologically optimistic salesman in dialogue with a mysterious client. Playing with notions of narcissism, desire and seduction, the language used captivates the viewer and demonstrates the contrived nature of ‘market talk.’
Aglaia Konrad, on the other hand, has become known for her meticulous visual research into urban space, the rise of the global mega city and the experiments, failures and discrepancies of the modernist experiment in different contexts, pointing to the rupture between its ideals and its reality. Over the years she has amassed an enormous archive, a global cartography of images shot in cities such as Sao Paulo, Beijing, Tokyo, Cairo and Shanghai. Konrad is primarily interested in the social, economic, historical and political effects of architecture and urban planning. Her austere and often monumental black-and-white photos — often subject to manipulation through photocopying and enlargement — are presented directly on the wall, creating a second architectonic skin in the exhibition space. Urban space also lies at the core of the Swiss artist Beat Streuli, who has become known for his anthropocentric street photography. Streuli uses a telephoto lens, which allows him to remain at a distance from his subjects and to catch them unawares, lending his photographs an immediacy and intimacy that might not otherwise be possible. Streuli’s work is interested in probing the nature of metropolitan life by documenting the anonymous passerby. Last year the artist published a book of photographs exclusively taken in Brussels, which eloquently captures the multicultural, slightly rough character of the city and its different human nuances.
A different set of preoccupations underlies the work of Dutch artist Willem Oorebeek, whose practice explores the nature and status of the visual in printed media, probing the use, appeal and power of images. Oorebeek intervenes on posters, magazines or newspapers, subjecting them to different formal manipulations such as copying or blacking out. This process reduces the image’s original visibility and allows it to resurface as both transformed pictorial space and afterimage.
The Slovenian artist Mitja Tušek is also concerned with exploring new possibilities for the image. His medium, however, is painting; his concerns surround the representational possibilities of painting today and the limits between abstraction and figuration. The artist often builds up layers of contradictory images, making unlikely juxtapositions and toying with the idea of taste. The result is an ambivalent, highly intelligent form of painting that eloquently suggests the ambiguity often underlying the image.
Swiss artist Marie José Burki’s photos and videos offer probing yet poetic glimpses into quotidian life. Predominantly anthropocentric in nature, the artist captures fleeting moments of informal contemporary existence, pensive distillations of everyday life that hover between reverie and reality. Zooming into details such as fragments of body parts, or inconsequential gestures, she exposes the formal beauty underlying the everyday in a discreet and elegant manner. The dreamlike, silent disposition and cinematic nature of her works are tinged with subtle suggestion and a certain romantic mystery.
Scottish artist Lucy McKenzie also made Brussels her home not so long ago. The artist’s work in painting and drawing has consistently explored the boundaries between fine and applied arts, ‘high’ art, craft and decoration. Inspired by the Arts and Crafts movement, her work refers to the notion of the artist as worker. Indicatively, one of her first projects in Brussels was to make a new sign for the façade of the artist-run space Etablissement D’ En Face Projects. There she was able to apply the knowledge gained at a private school of decorative painting in Brussels where she studied, among other techniques, traditional sign writing. McKenzies’s old-fashioned calligraphic sign responds to the intimate identity of the space and takes into consideration the local context, a street inhabited by small independent businesses.
Recent arrivals to Brussels include Chris Evans, from the UK, who left “over-saturated” Berlin, opting for the less crowded space of the Belgian city. Evans’s work is a fascinating exploration into systems of power, and is concerned with “giving voice to those who don’t need it.” From his ongoing project “Cop Talk” (2005-), where he invites police officers to recruit students in art schools, to his engagement of the CEOs of multinational corporations in the designing of artworks, the artist explores power relations, structures of authority and reciprocity, subverting the traditional leftist critique that normally transpires, and giving rise to unexpected scenarios.
Greek artist Danai Anesiadou’s work is concerned with finding a renewed language for performance, one that is far removed from the self-punishing strategies of the ’70s. Drawing from cinema, pop culture, art history and fashion, Anesiadou’s refreshing performances present a variety of beguiling feminine personas, highlighting the fluidity of female identity, flirting with glamour and femininity without an iota of guilt. Her most recent performance at Wiels placed the viewers in an elevator which traveled up and down stopping and opening at every floor to reveal a different ‘spectacle’ each time.
Performance runs through a large part of the practice of French artist Jimmy Robert, who won the 2009 “Follow Fluxus – After Fluxus” prize. Roberts’ work explores the notion of the fragility of representation and image through photography, performance and film. The artist often inserts himself into installations of found imagery and three dimensional yet delicate and seemingly flyaway drawings. Transforming the transient characteristics of time-based acts into sculptural elements, he renegotiates the image-object relation while always evoking the physicality of the original act.
Performance also lies at the core of the work of the Austrian painter, conceptual artist and professional wine merchant Kurt Ryslavy. Ryslavy plays with his role as a salesman to mock the role of the artist and the commodification of practically all art. He organizes car boot sales where he sells his paintings for ridiculously small amounts, while simultaneously offering the opportunity for wine tasting, turning his dual vocation into a “bourgeois travesty,” banalizing the artistic act and deriding the elitism of the art world and the exclusivity of the art object.
Kendell Geers, originally from South Africa, also employs confrontational strategies that are irreverent in nature, though his work is more concerned with transgressing social, political and sexual boundaries, and testing the limits of decency and freedom of expression by pillorying symbols of authority and combining the pornographic with the political. The Peruvian artist Jota Castro is also interested in dismantling political symbols and pinpointing the trappings of authority, though his sculptures and installations are more concerned with exposing social inequity and exploitation. Zin Taylor, from Canada, also works with sculpture and installation as well as video to construct unusual situations, factual fictions based on bygone periods of contemporary art history, which he connects to bizarre imagined narratives.
Other valuable additions to the Brussels landscape are the Dutch artist Manon de Boer and the Mexican artist Gabriel Kuri, both of whom have been exhibiting extensively recently, and deservedly so. Manon de Boer’s exacting videos and 16mm films explore the perception of time and space. Her structuralist approach to filmmaking eschews narrative and recently has employed music to create an experience that operates on a pre-linguistic level, activating memory and stimulating perception by non-traditional cinematic means. Gabriel Kuri’s sculptures, installations and collages modestly call into question how our culture is defined by everyday objects, their use, and consumption. Kuri appropriates commonplace materials for their physical properties, formal qualities and their semantic associations to pinpoint economic structures, as well as exchange and use value.
Kuri — an artist with a particular instinct for grasping the ‘feel’ of his surroundings — perhaps gave the most convincing reason for moving to Brussels when I asked him why he decided to move here. He replied that what attracted him here was the feeling that the city was in a “perpetual state of becoming.” It is this constantly lingering but somehow never fulfilled promise that perhaps makes this city so intriguing and attractive.
Katerina Gregos is a curator and writer who has been based in Brussels since 2006. She is currently curator of Contour, in Mechelen (BE).