Dirk Snauwaert: ‘WIELS aspires to a moment of consciousness’

Piero Bisello

A seminal interview with WIELS director Dirk Snauwaert, who explains why for a museum is important having a good balance between private and public money.

Despite the vibrant and big contemporary art scene of Brussels, there is a sense in which the city hosts only one large scale institution for it, and that is WIELS. As we report in a recent article (here), this situation will soon change with the opening of a public contemporary art museum in town. Whether directly or indirectly, WIELS is now taking the occasion of its ten-year anniversary to respond to this change, presenting a large exhibition titled The Absent Museum. With this slightly provocative title, WIELS’ current exhibition is a finely curated group show that presents some of the most interesting artists from WIELS’ past along with other works that fit WIELS’ typical curatorial attention to political and social issues, among which there is of course the question of what a contemporary art museum should do and be. To a large extent, this long-standing curatorial identity of WIELS and the recent attention to the question of Brussels’ new contemporary art museum is the responsibility of its director Dirk Snauwaert, who after being involved with FRAC Rhône-Alpes and directing the Munich Kunstverein, he took up the job of developing and directing Brussels new art centre from its very beginning in 2004. We met with him to discuss all these issues and shed some light on what we really mean (or should mean) when we talk about contemporary art museums.

Before starting to delve into the current exhibition, art museums, and the political dimension of art, I’d like to talk about the history of WIELS. How did the art centre start and what role have you played in its development?

WIELS has existed for 10 years and the current exhibition is also a celebration of this anniversary. I’m the founding director and I’m responsible for much of the “hardware” and “software”, viz. the design of the building itself, the framing of the content, the residency program. Moreover, the fact that WIELS has community-oriented activities and it is somehow a social project is also my take, something I have insisted WIELS should pursue since the very beginning. In a way, I’ve been at WIELS before it even started, since I was involved in the very renovation of the building that begun in 2005, which was also the moment when we decided what kind of place WIELS would be. Unlike most renovations of industrial buildings for the arts like The Turbine Hall in London, we didn’t opt for the monumental nature of the brewing hall as spectacular sculpture. Back then we already wanted WIELS to be also a convivial and social place.

When you say “we”, who are you referring to?

Along myself, the staff and the board, WIELS is really the brainchild of three people. One is Herman Daled, former collector of conceptual art (whose collection is now at MoMA) and former radiologist. The other person is Sophie Le Clercq, a real estate developer, who turned a lot of the former local industrial ground into housing. A third important voice in the early days was Bart De Baere, the director of Muhka Antwerpen. Together we tried to invent an institution that didn’t exist in Belgium in those days. One should also say that we were helped by the committee for the preservation of monuments in Brussels, which in that period took a special interest in 1920s-30s modernist architecture like the one in which WIELS is hosted. Moreover, the Flemish community of Brussels ran a program for the reformation of culture in the mid 2000s, and we were lucky to fall within that dynamic of public funding.

Let’s turn to the current exhibition The Absent Museum, which definitely feels more than just a retrospective of what has been exhibited at WIELS throughout its ten-year life. Looking at the artworks and reading the explicatory texts, one soon realises that the show has a political purpose, namely to criticise how art museums are thought today. In this regard, do you think WIELS in general, and this exhibition in particular, can be seen as a role model for other museums or art centres?

Role model is a big word. It is a blueprint, it is an exercise. If you will, it is somewhere between a museum and a festival exhibition like a biennial or triennial. It openly asks the question whether having a collection is really a necessary condition for an art place to be a museum. In Europe, this is simply assumed, but anywhere else in the world, it is not. A museum can be filled with temporary experiences. And then, there is a further question: can a museum of contemporary art be a scientific, methodological apparatus?

Do you think WIELS is a scientific apparatus?

No, but when we make choices within WIELS, the choices are objectified. WIELS is objectified, and therefore it becomes justifiable for common consideration. There is a degree of rationalisation on which it is based, which perhaps doesn’t make it scientific but transforms its content—what artists make—into an object for the discussion on the most sensitive issues of today. By issues here I don’t mean only societal issues, but also artistic issues, about interiority, issues about the materials, and the relationship between virtuality and craft. These and others are the issues discussed in the cultural world at large, and I hope they are present here at WIELS too, since as an institution, it must aim at being part of both an artistic and a larger discourse.

In this regard, I think there are two main lines throughout the exhibition. One has to do with presenting a popular and specific view of Belgian art, for example conceptual minimalism. On the other hand, The Absent Museum is a multicultural exhibition, presenting works about political issues that don’t necessarily relate to Belgium.

The fundamental question we are dealing with is how the influx of a new demographical profile in the city and country is effecting our aesthetic languages. How to include these changes, how to include authors who are talking about different kinds of pressures on the imaginary — not only psychological pressures — in our society. And when it comes to artworks that do not seem to deal with these topics at first, we might ask: aren’t they actually doing so? Likewise, let’s ask about non-Western artists: aren’t they classic modernist compositions? Take the work of Sammy Baloji for example, which is a straightforward form of photomontage. Or Otobong Nkanga’s work, which is almost like a Fluxus event. This is also why we re-propose Stanley Brouwn as an exemplary artist for today’s question in the show. In this part of the world, he is considered a canonical minimalist or conceptualist, who achieved the culmination point of purity or reductionist orthodoxy. In the show however one gives up this idea that his work is of pure form, of pure information, to see that it is in fact the opposite. In other words, his work is aesthetically reductionist but its subject matter — and now we go to the question of whether it makes sense to speak about form and content, subjectivity and objectivity, or the “it” and the “me”, this kind of dualism typical of Western thinking — its subject matter is always the definition or description of personhood and the distance towards something else, a sort of relationism, which is a very important issue for a lot of post-modernist thinking, the creation of an open form of exchange that is based on equality, and not just equality among people but all the elements of the planet, which is the kind of ecologist position put forward by Bruno Latour or Eduouard Glissant. Now that Brouwn has died, I wonder what will happen to his work, which is really a progression towards total dematerialisation, a work and author that vanish.

You don’t think there will be an estate of Stanley Brouwn to take care of his work?

I hope so. You see, some people consider him as the logical consequence of Piet Mondriaan’s legacy, but he is also the opposite, the anti-Mondriaan. He has created such an intriguing body of work, and also influenced the taste patterns of a lot of collectors, art critics and museum directors. His legacy will be one of highest achievement, of bringing minimalist formal language to encompass complexity. He was an inventor of complexity through a total reduction of economy of means.

Would you say his work bridges the two narratives of The Absent Museum I was referring to earlier, the one of presenting a certain Belgian (or Western) formal identity and the one of political issues linked to multiculturalism?

Yes, indeed. And so does the work of Felix Nussbaum, even though in a very different way. Both these bodies of work respond to the question of how to mix the tendency of promoting the iconic with giving voice to those who speak from the margin, the excluded. Art museums in general, in their tendency of canonising things, they end up rigidifying categories and norms.

This reminds me of what I read in one the wall texts in the exhibition about the danger of categorisation. However, don’t you think categories can have heuristic value, can’t they help us know more than we would without them?

Categories must be a tool, not a value. This is like the problem of encyclopaedia, which is this system of describing, and like any system of description, it can be very limiting because it ends up as definition. For instance, take the definition of identity, which is a very slippery word. It can be extremely broad and extremely narrow. In fact, I think the role of visual arts is exactly to pass beyond the definitions, to be able to evoke a certain situation that is more complex than what we usually see reduced in common systems of communication. In this sense, visual arts have been able to maintain their legitimacy against the pressures of new technologies that too often just simplify things into information, data, signs.

I’d like to shift to some general questions about art and its role in society. In a recent review of the last Venice Biennale (here), Paddy Johnson complains that art is far too much seen as this powerful tool for social change and social critique. Relating to some recent political issues in the US, she writes: “Art isn’t going to save democracy. Art has no impact on Donald Trump’s actions […] People can call their representatives. Art cannot. All of which is to say, the art professional who believes artists are magical unicorns who will save us all is looking increasingly silly”. Do you agree that the political power of art is overestimated?

This depends on how you define politics. If you think of politics in the sense of bureaucratic, nation state-based politics, the answer is that art has very little influence. But if you take politics in terms of formation of knowledge and transmission of histories, art does have the power to change things. For example, take how we learn about the so-called discovery of America. What art can do is to show that what we read in most schoolbooks is but one story, and a particularly distorted one. You see, decolonisation is the most important topic today and what art has the power to do is to change the perception of the other as no longer the inferior civilisation—no longer as the marginalised and excluded—but as the equal. I believe our exhibition The Absent Museum has indeed caused a political shakeup here. As you know, our politicians are planning to collaborate with Centre Pompidou for a new museum of contemporary art in Brussels, but our point with The Absent Museum has been that the Parisian version of modernity is but one among many, and that modernity must be seen as a shared concept between many. Now, Pompidou has not been able to look at modernity from a non-Parisian perspective, at least not until recently. What we want to say with The Absent Museum is that this is not our reality, they cannot speak for the population of Brussels and Belgium. The question then becomes what kind of political institutions can speak for us. To put it bluntly, the Duchiampian paradigm is not our priority, while it is still so in Paris. We no longer need to convince New York that Duchamp was a French artist. From our perspective, this kind of back and forth on a single perspective modernity between Pompidou, MoMA and Tate Modern starts to feel a bit boring and out of touch. And it is worrying too, since these three institutions do have a lot of power.

There is some talk in Milan that the lack of a public contemporary art museum is a weakness for the arts in the city. However, many private institutions in Milan — Fondazione Prada and Trussardi, Pirelli Hangar Bicocca, Fondazione Carriero — seem to be filling this gap. Where is the place of WIELS in between public and private? Do you think private institutions can fill up such gap as they seem to do in Milan?

I think the ideal model for an art institution is 80% public and 20% private. The public part should keep control and funding of the institution, whereas the private part is necessary to give it international ambitions. This is because the public authority is often limited to sheer representation of what is local and about self-image, while the private would strive for international visibility. The private reasoning is often: if the artists shine, we shine, which is not the legitimation of a public government. Many people are very critical of our model at WIELS because they think we support a sort of neoliberal agenda where the public authorities that sponsor us take the loss of their investment and our private capital makes all the gain. But this is not the case, since for us it is the private capital that pays for the ambition and invests in the social capital we’re accumulating to make our city a desirable and intellectually stimulating place to live in.

Do you think there is a problem with a 100% private art institution?

Yes, I think so, because in that case you depend too much on the personal mood of your sponsor. It is also very complicated to find longevity in this kind of institutions, unless the sponsoring party just wants to create a mausoleum for themselves, which is not compatible with the intellectual or critical purpose an art institution should have. A museum cannot be a promotion of one, but of the many subjectivities.

What about Fondazione Prada or Hangar Bicocca, they are 100% private but they seem to be doing an interesting intellectual and critical job.

I agree but in that case I would really talk about 100% corporate and not 100% private. These big companies work a little bit like states, there is a lot of check and balance within the company that adjust their own art institutions. And then, such big corporations have competent advisors, who see that they can be autonomous enough to work as they wish even within corporate interests. For example, there is no link between the art shows you see at Fondazione Prada and the brand Prada itself, but it is rather a matter of exchanging prestige between the patronage and that of the advisors.

In a previous interview (here) you say that WIELS has been able to avoid so-called cultural tourism. Could you clarify this concept? What do you think is wrong with cultural tourism? What audience is WIELS aiming at?

I could also have used the word “consumption” instead of cultural tourism, which means looking only at numbers of visitors when deciding what to do with your institution. If you take Paris and its cultural mass tourism, you see there is no longer any intellectual aspiration there, and this is the risk in approaching an art institution with consumption in mind. What WIELS aspires to for its audience is rather a moment of consciousness, a moment where one can grasp what concerns us, a moment of awareness of a problematic. Moreover, myself and our colleagues here are puzzled that some of these problematics are still absent from many art institutions, even in museums that are run by a new generation of directors and even for problematics that are otherwise not a taboo. For example, Belgian colonial past is not a taboo in Belgium. Perhaps we don’t know everything there is to know about it, but it is not being censored. So why, in 2017, when you go to an art museum in Belgium, is there no artwork about our colonial past? Or take another issue such as the Belgian collaboration with Nazi Germany in World War II. There is not a single day without somebody making a reference to it, but there is almost nothing about it in our art displays, even when we know there are works by some Belgian classics like Magritte that are about this issue. If we still see art as a consensual tool, I believe we miss the point of art.

We seem to be back to the political or even educational power of art but I wonder how this really functions. For example, what do you think is the difference between an academic book about an ethical issue and an artwork that deals with the same issue?

There is an effective and emotional level in our being that is not to be excluded, it is a very important gear that makes us move, that gives us directions as to which way to take, makes us think with more sympathy—that’s the artwork. A book in this case would be only about arguments, about explanation and deducing conclusions from certain conceptions. But how our unconscious, our emotional and symbolical imaginary level react to that issue is a completely different deck of cards. However, you see the extreme of that, like in this year Macel’s Venice Biennial, a cathedral of intuitions, in which there are no words, no concepts, no articulation, it is all about non-verbal, as that were the only realm of the symbolical. But this is not a precise analysis, there is indeed a big difference between the symbolical and the mythological and the magical, which here is supporting the ‘intuition’ theses. It is in the struggle between the verbal and the imaginary that we can touch the core of the problematics I was referring to earlier. This is really the spine of The Absent Museums and many more of our projects at WIELS.

January 24, 2019