Brussels art “Un-Scene” at WIELS’ third emerging artists summit

Out of an understandable need to delve into artistic practices based around the corner, the most internationally famous art space in Brussels also known as WIELS holds the so called “Un-Scene” exhibition every three years to present, as they call it a slice of a city’s scene in a particular moment. We visited this year’s edition (the third) just a few hours before the opening to post a few thoughts about what we saw there, hoping to provide some fruitful comments to read those selected Brussels’ artistic facets.


Coming from neighbouring countries such as the Netherlands, what impresses of the Belgian capital’s art biosphere is the massive presence of private galleries (mostly small or medium size ones) compared to the city’s dimensions and to its often overlooked and relatively small contemporary art institutions. Despite the fact that we could agree with a common remark among Art Brussels goers on how knowledgeable, critical and open most of the local collectors were (Alain Servais might be the quintessential case), Brussels’ profit-friendly art economy is arguably shaping what artists working there are doing. To some extent, Un-scene III proves that, aside the consequent sellable and highly aesthetic quality of most artworks, less marketable/research-based/alternative projects also exist in town, perhaps in the need of bigger exposure and recognition than that coming from a small bunch of specialised private galleries (see our reportage on D+T and Harlan Levey Project) and artist-run spaces.


We start this small survey of Un-Scene III with blue-chip artist Jean-Baptiste Bernadet, who presents a little known series of plates where the chromatic romanticism of his famous paintings is somehow translated into smokey glazed ceramic, shifting from controlled colour gestures of oil paint to the high degree of randomness typical of the fired medium. To some extent, these objects speak of a widespread interest the Brussels art scene has in design and, despite the fact that human figures and movements are probably their origin, Erika Hock’s sculptures owe much more to furniture, acting in the space like architectural interventions rather than an inanimate performance. Design can also be exotic and the abstract camera-less photographs of Sebastien Bonin are a meticulous interpretation of Native American tapestry motifs.


In the exhibition, the two-dimensional medium comes on stage in different roles. The first act is in fact a theatrical installation of unstretched canvases by Leen Voet, showing colourful interiors of Belgian modernist churches and hanging as props in a flashy yellow room. A fun tragedy follows, acted by crying portraits Julien Meert made of the same character (which turns out to be of the artist himself as the handout confirms) in his half blurry/half neat airy style. The other protagonist of this 2D opera, photography, funnily speaks up through those Belgian prides everybody has heard of: Marina Pinsky’s photomontages of a BEER brewery elements and, perhaps less of a pride, Brussels’ urban MESSY ARCHITECTURE along with Stephanie Kiwitt’s images of CHOCOLATE factories, both in the form of abstract pictures of the delicious produce and the less fancy, though sleekly put, reality of their workers. Kiwitt’s photography also participates in a sort of body act, fully concentrated in one room where her pictures of body builders stand by the already mentioned sculptures by Hock and a very isolated painting by Marnie Slater, in which the chalk board of an English language lesson about the names of body parts is quite inexplicably translated onto canvas.


But not all the Belgian prides are funny cliches like the ones we mentioned earlier. The local art world rightly looks at the fruitful period of conceptual art of the Seventies (and its embodiment in the mythological figure of Marcel Broodhaerts) as one of the most important moments in recent Belgian art history. Borrowing processes and elements from those years, Yuki Okumura presents a white room in which a poster explains that only conceptual artist Roman Ondak, upon official identification by WIELS’ personnel, is allowed to intervene by marking his height on the white wall and by doing so, actualising his previous piece where the public could mark theirs. We are vaguely left to wonder if Okumura’s update was intended as a comment to the end of participatory art as we knew it.


Somehow relating to conceptual art and its Belgian period in particular, the interesting work by Béatrice Balcou takes inspiration from ritualistic Japanese tea ceremonies to construct performances tackling the issues of art storage, preservation and replicas. Her piece consists of a shipping crate containing an undisclosed artwork from the Herman Daled’s collection (one of the most famous Belgian collectors of conceptual art) which will be opened by the artist twice during the course of the exhibition with specifically codified gestures. On the performative side, Hedwig Houben cleverly questions the nature of sculpture and the language that frames it. The objectified artwork, typically accessible to its maker only, is physically shared by Houben with the public and the museum staff. Alongside a video documentation of one of her performances/talks, she presents a series of ceramic pieces on movable shelves whose disposition will be changed by the curators and other WIELS’ personnel on regular intervals during the exhibition.


We would like to conclude this brief survey with our two favourite projects from Un-Scene III, which seem to be those that have distanced themselves the most from minimalistic approaches or, as art theorist Jan Verwoert would humorously say, the construction of “a thing that does one thing”. For this reason, they are also the hardest ones to talk about in a few journalistic words since both of them comprise a lot of research and plurality of elements. The first is the work by Freek Wambacq and his broad exploration into the sensorial shift of objects: from the dictatorship of their visual potential to the quality of their sonic, tactile and tasty characteristics. His five tables covered in a synthetic slime, which as one learns, is the type used to create cinematic sound effects (ambiguously a do see but do not touch artwork), are accompanied by images inspired by Chinese massage manuals and a found salad recipe that also, as the titles suggests, involves the benefit of rubbing its leaves.


Our second pick is an installation-looking series of works by Kasper Bosmans. It is divided in three sections, all kept together by the artist’s interest in ancient or exotic painting techniques: a series of monochromes made by the smoke produced while burning different materials, resulting in a series of cotton canvases whose colour (and odour) varies subtly; a black basin filled with milk that shows how the colour blue can be produced; a chest of drawers where palette-looking paintings function as experiments on the egg tempera. Rather than a single element alone, what we found interesting in the installation is how their interaction functions in the artist’s process and how this is amazingly externalised through some cryptic yet somehow explanatory drawings hung in the installation. These sort of pseudoscientific manuals seemed to be there to navigate the very individual framework of Bosmans’ practice. Trying to read them as they were the explanation for the use of a machine, they made one wonder what it means for an individual to create meaning through art in this age of quest for exactness that is the progress of apparently unshakable technologies.

May 31, 2015