At the entrance of the fiftieth anniversary edition of Art Brussels (19–22 April 2018), Iván Navarro's Sediments (2017) at Galerie Templon's booth offered an appropriate 'welcome' into the bottomless world of an art fair—a world map rendered in lights that infinitely stretch into a void by way of an illusion created with mirrors. At La Patinoire Royale / Galerie Valerie Bach's booth, which constituted one of Art Brussels' 22 'SOLO' presentations, four performers dressed in black wove copper wire around reconstructions of the columns of a Nuhé, a Colombian temple from the Sierra Nevada, as part of Alice Anderson's performance Nuhé: Architecture Data (2018). The happening felt like a metaphor for the diverse world of art, with layers of applied wire representing the resources invested into the building of an artist's practice over time, or an artistic scene.
With 147 participating galleries from 32 countries and some 800 artists represented on the fair floor, over 30 percent of whom were below the age of 40, Art Brussels was in youthful spirits, despite being the second oldest art fair in the world after Art Cologne. Held at the Tour & Taxis complex, the fair comfortably dominated the weekend in the absence of its competitor, Independent Brussels, whose next edition will occur between 8 and 11 November 2018 rather than at the same time as Art Brussels—a decision that was made by Independent earlier this year.
Art Brussels was organised into three sections. The first of these, 'PRIME', featured 114 galleries, including returnees such as Office Baroque and Tatjana Pieters, and several important newcomers, like Mendes Wood DM and Blain|Southern, and included the possibility for galleries to extend their stands with a SOLO or 'REDISCOVERY' section, which featured works created between 1917 and 1987 by 'unrecognised, underestimated or forgotten' living and deceased artists. There were 33 exhibitors in 'DISCOVERY', which focuses on international artists whose recognition is still developing in the western European art scene, such as Colin Snapp and Emmanuel Van der Meulen at Allen, and Przemek Pyszczek at Galerie Derouillon. Just outside of the fair's main entrance was the Sculpture Project, which provided excellent selfie-taking opportunities for visitors with eight large-scale sculptures, including Caroline Coolen's large, yellow polyester Flag (2010) presented by The White House Gallery.
The fair also staged an exhibition Mystic Properties, which took the famous Ghent altarpiece painted by Jan and Hubert Van Eyck, known as The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb (1432), as a point of departure. Orchestrated by Elena Sorokina, the curator of the prestigious postgraduate artistic residency HISK (Higher Institute for Fine Arts) in Ghent, the show featured a mix of HISK alumni across generations and several external artists, referred to as '(future) friends', including Pieter Vermeersch, Nicolas Provost, Rinus Van de Velde, Kasper Bosmans, Hedwig Houben, and Ella Littwitz, whose In Situ, Ex Situ, Non Situ (2015) consists of a mosaic that is affixed to a sheet of cloth and rolled over a wooden cylinder commonly used in archaeology for transportation.
The exhibition examined the histories of possession and the temporalities of belonging in a non-hierarchal dialogue, and as a whole, the scale of such a monumental inquiry seemed a tad ambitious. 'I have never curated an exhibition that lasts only four days', Sorokina confessed at the press conference. Indeed, there is no quick way to express something complex and comprehensive, after all, even if the necessity to speak about such heavy subjects in such a context appears topical.
In general, a feeling of urgency was in the air, with works referencing or departing from political complexities. At Bernier/Eliades' booth, an excellent hand-woven tapestry by William Kentridge, Porter Series: Carte de France Divisee (2006), dipped into political currents. The contemporary gobelin shows a dark silhouette of a man sitting on an office chair under a shower of blood-red rain, with the medieval map of France as a background. At Michel Rein's booth, the young Chilean artist Enrique Ramírez showed his series 'Prototipo' (2018): plexiglass boxes encasing cartographic collages, where vintage cloths from ships that once travelled to Latin America are juxtaposed with political symbology of the continent. The stars of the US national flag suggestively stand for both Chilean national symbology as derivative and a metaphor of orientation for the ships in the storms of the present.
Beyond the fair, Korakrit Arunanondchai's exhibition A workshop for peace: nowhere to go: let the song hold us: in a room filled with people with funny names 4 (19 April–26 May 2018) at C L E A R I N G's new Brussels space includes the artist's all-encompassing and hypnotising video work with history in a room filled with people with funny names 4 (2017). The main focus of the video is the removal of the subject of history from the school curriculum in Thailand since the 2014 Thai coup d'état. The military junta, silently acknowledged as legitimate by the international community's lack of response to the situation, replaced the gears of political institutions, leaving questions of possible futures hanging in the limbo of an ongoing uncertainty. The video is shown on a huge screen in the gallery's main space, and is surrounded by sculptures, costumes and other items that make an appearance in it.
Brazilian artist Letícia Ramos' exhibition Resistance of a Body (18 April–26 May 2018) on the first floor of Mendes Wood DM's Brussels space, presents a photographic project for which Ramos captured, through the use of strobe lights at ten-second intervals and projected on black and white photographic prints, models and dummies that the artist photographed in her studio. From a close up of a hand or a leg, these compositions mimic bodies in protest, from activists typing protest messages, posts and tweets to those demonstrating on the streets.
The form of pastiche, collage, assemblage and constructed landscape was another dominating theme at the fair. Art Brussels' DISCOVERY prize went to South African SMAC Gallery, which presented Mexico-born, South Africa-raised Georgina Gratrix's colourful oil on canvas paintings and sculptural assemblages depicting flowers, teacups and other domestic symbols in joyful, affirmative arrangements. The artist sees her practice as a gesture against stoic canvases painted by men, the effect she reaches by painting light subjects with heavy brushstrokes, as in the case of Midlands Meander Still Life (2017): a thickly-laden still life of flowers in a vase with monkeys perched on choice petals.
Opportunities to take a break between strolls from sector to sector was kindly provided by the USSR-style ration cards that were distributed like coupons by Art Brussels, here playing the role of a generous welfare state. But the Belgian Beer Terrace turned into a sauna under the 28-degree heat that unusually graced the fair for its run. Someone should research how climate conditions can influence decision-making in the buying process. 'It's so hot I just want to get it over and done with and dip into the pool', said one collector about the works he had on reserve. In this melting pot, even cold beers failed to offer respite from rising temperatures, albeit with catalysing effects on sales it would seem.
Opposite Art Brussels' Tour & Taxis site, renovation work is in progress at the former Citroën garage, which will become the 35,000-square-metre site for Kanal-Centre Pompidou, a future museum of modern and contemporary art and multidisciplinary cultural hub set to open at full capacity in late 2022; a project driven by the Brussels-Capital Region after long and painful years of negotiations. The site will be test-opened on 5 May for 13 months, with exhibitions, installations and ten commissions by Brussels-based artists, as well as shows produced with Brussels-based cultural organisations. Bernard Blistène, the director of Centre Pompidou, who is playing the role of chief consultant for the project for the upcoming 10 years, announced that Kanal's programme will include permanent and temporary exhibitions that will be developed in parallel with the future institution's staff, who will be appointed over the next year.
A short walk from Kanal's building site was the alternative Brussels fair POPPOSITIONS (19–22 April 2018), which was founded by Pieter Vermeulen, Liv Vaisberg, Bart Verschueren and Edouard Meier in 2011 as a response to mainstream art fairs. Located in the cooler and cosier space of the former atelier of accessories designer Christophe Coppens, which was also banana warehouse at some point, 29 solo presentations by galleries and project spaces, including Arcade, Chez Mohamed and narrative projects, were united under the curatorial theme In Watermelon Sugar, developed by the fair's artistic director Niekolaas Johannes Lekkerkerk with a focus on ecology and the value of environmental, biological, political and social diversity.
The overall atmosphere was youthful; like the graduate exhibition of a postgraduate art school or the final presentation of a group artistic residency. As with Mystic Properties, curatorial ambitions flew very high, but they didn't seem off-putting in this case—here, the spirit of young utopian radicalism felt purer than its distant aestheticisation by an established, fifty-year-old institution.
Wellness Centre Future Proof, initiated in 2017 by the artists Katinka de Jonge and Liesje De Laet, developed a performative walking tour, where visitors were invited to metaphorically charge their emotional energy with regular water intervals inside plastic shell sculptures, prompting questions about 'wellness' as a process with no destination. Continuing the fluid theme was Saunra (2018), by the ever-playful American artist and Jan Van Eyck Academie alumnus David Bernstein. An operating sauna was constructed inside the ugliest car in the world, the Fiat Multipla, whose name Bernstein semantically appropriated by translating it from Latin to 'let there be multiples'. Inside the car, loudspeakers played the music of Sun Ra, the cosmic Afro-futurist.
Speaking of multiples, Brussels is thriving with semi-formal and hybrid spaces that both replicate institutional structures while defying them and softening their borders. At the cultural association Musumeci Contemporary, Elena Mazzi and Enrica Camporesi's video installation Performing the Self – The interview (2017) was on view until 30 April 2018. Curated by Valentina Lucia Barbagallo, the work began during Elena Mazzi's residence at the centre and stages the impossible conversation between a protection officer and an asylum seeker just before their interpreter arrives, creating an imaginary space that redefines existing protocols of power relations.
Ballon Rouge Collective, a roving gallery that describes itself as having many homes, presented Philip Janssens' no needs an another mountain (12 April–28 April 2018), curated by Evelyn Simons, which featured performances on 19 April by Stefano Faoro, Camille Lancelin and Atelier Bildraum. Faoro performed Broken Shoe (2018), a piece of fragmented and elusive text read from the screen of the laptop on the backdrop of the projection of text. In the monopoly of the polished visual presentations at the art fair, this genuine gesture of experimentation with language was refreshing.
Featured in Art Brussels' 'OFF Programme'—a collecton of off-site exhibitions at museums, art centres, private collections and artist- and curator-run spaces in and outside of Brussels—was the Family Servais Collection re-hang at The Loft, where Romanian artist Dragos Olea, part of the collective Apparatus 22, curated the exhibition Dérapages & Post-Bruises Imaginaries (19 April–2 March 2019). Works by artists including Ivan Argote, Kader Attia, Mohamed Bourouissa, Nicole Cherubini, Liu Chuang and Athena Papadopoulos, among others, were arranged in an attempt to reflect the possibility of finding 'less gloomy futures' amidst the overall fatigue of these dystopian political times. Seeking a way out of the myopia of contemporary artists struggling to retain the energy to find new meanings instead of converting their practice to conform to accepted institutional forms, one highlight was Josh Kline's Contagious Unemployment (Kind Regards) (2016): a cardboard filing box with personal belongings wrapped in plastic bubble wrap, like an oversized virus.
The exhibition Paroles (1 February–22 April 2018) at WIELS was another high point of Brussel's art week, where Saâdine Afif staged an exhibition curated by Zoë Gray in the tradition of clean and all-encompassing conceptualism. The show positions Afif as a meta-conductor, given that the works on show are a result of Afif asking various collaborators to interpret and translate his works into new forms. The result is a space that performs several mediums like a sophisticated opera piece with works taking many forms, including posters, installations, photography, songs, poetry, objects, sculpture, to name a few. At the heart of the exhibition, a fully functional music studio was installed that could be booked by visitors so they could jam free of charge, thus opening even more collaborations in an exhibition hinged on them.
One of the standout objects in Paroles was a coffin shaped in the form of the Centre Pompidou, Anthologie de l'humour noir (2010), which unintentionally created a witty play of contexts when it comes to the changing landscape of art in Brussels, particularly with the development of Kanal-Centre Pompidou. Since the Parisian giant is behind the strategy of this long-awaited cultural hub, and knowing the political complexity of the city and the project itself, torn apart by French and Flemish politicians in a constant cultural guerrilla war for domination, Kanal still seems like a miracle, or an impossibility. But if the fifty-year-old Art Brussels is anything to go by, perhaps coffins can become cocoons; out of which great things emerge. —[O]