A panoramic view of Brussels's contemporary art scene
Dirk Snauwaert (Wiels), and Alice van den Abeele and Raphaël Cruyt (MIMA)
With the city going all out in the slipstream of Art Brussels and the like, Brussels is again aiming for the title of European hotspot for contemporary art. Dirk Snauwaert from Wiels, and Alice van den Abeele and Raphaël Cruyt from the MIMA take a closer look at everything that's going on in the city.
It is becoming a recurring sight: in the second half of April, the Brussels contemporary art scene starts bursting at the seams. The biggest fish in the pond is Art Brussels, which is presenting its 35th edition this year, but there are also schools of other – "more critical", "cooler", "cheaper", "more accessible"… – art fairs, as well as a gaggle of artists, collectives, galleries, and institutions, all preened to perfection. This growing momentum is undoubtedly one of the reasons why the international scene throws so many curious looks at the city.
But the Brussels art week is first and foremost a commercial affair that is intended to mobilise possible (international) buyers and so it is relatively far removed from the energy that the city generates on a daily basis. The art fairs are a nuanced story, according to Alice van den Abeele, who exactly one year ago built a bridge over – at that time, just after the attacks – very troubled water with the MIMA, and who earlier this year was described by Politico as one of the "28 people who are shaping, shaking, and stirring Europe".
"You can criticise them," she tells BRUZZ. "There are way too many of them, they look like supermarkets, and by increasingly presenting their visitors with the option to see everything at once and at one place, they tend to crush local initiatives. But on the other hand, they are part of the deal, and the collectors attending them can have a substantial impact on galleries and artists."
Over the past few years, the nuanced comprehensive view of Brussels as a city of contemporary art has induced publications such as The New York Times to write somewhat bolder statements like "Why Brussels is the new Berlin", their way of explaining the quiet emergence of the city as "one of the continent's most exciting creative hubs".
"It expressed the feeling about a certain energy in the city. I don't think it was meant to do much more than that," says Alice van den Abeele. "The new Berlin… Maybe that is how people see Brussels and that is the reason why people want to open fairs here," adds her partner Raphaël Cruyt. "From the outside they can see that there is something happening here, and if there are artists, there must be a market. I don't think the two are necessarily connected. And of course The New York Times isn't writing for a Belgian readership. From my perspective, this was a way of depicting Europe in a different light, to show what is going on here. Like a postcard that you send to the States."
But what story does Brussels itself tell? First of all, Dirk Snauwaert, artistic director of Wiels, the leading contemporary art centre in Vorst/Forest, sees an attractive practical context. "Brussels is cheap. And young artists look for a place where they can settle down and leave easily. That nomadicity of artists is very important: they may live and work here, but they have several places they relate to. Brussels of course has the advantage of being very well connected to the rest of Europe and even to Africa. And furthermore there is the strong international and multilingual character of the city."
"Brussels is the first city on mainland Europe where the majority of people are of non-Belgian descent and they all come with their own stories," he continues. "But while these people are in the majority, they are not allowed to act like it. Instead we're looking at new laws for integration and assimilation. So you can still see how difficult it is for them to open doors. That is one of the things that is on our agenda: how to address the issue and open up the playing field."
This mosaic of people definitely gives Brussels an edge, according to Raphaël Cruyt: "The chaos of the city can be frustrating, but it also offers opportunities. For artists too: you can collaborate with other artists to create your own spaces or even small institutions. It is possible, there is a place for everybody. We have more than enough reasons to complain, but at the same time the chaos also offers freedom. Brussels is a grey area, where everything is possible. The worst and the best."
The worst and the best: two extremes that converged last year in the postponed opening of the MIMA and which made the new museum an emotionally charged symbol: a bridge that was built between different cultures, various disciplines, the city and the art scene. "There is a before and an after the MIMA, definitely," says Alice van den Abeele. "It has been a very good year. People are responding to it, in large numbers, and that is very comforting. But now we need time to grow. We have a lot going on in the background: we're building relationships, heading to schools, Raphaël is working with a boxing club… All of those small things add up and create bonds and links and bridges, but it takes time."
The MIMA has expanded both the city and the scene, just like Wiels did ten years ago. Dirk Snauwaert: "That wasn't easy: people really feared we would bring in the rich kids and get the original inhabitants kicked out and sent to Drogenbos. But this isn't gentrification, we're investing in the inner cities. It is positive that Flagey took it over the hill, we took it to Vorst/Forest, and the MIMA crossed the canal. The city really needs to get more connected."Raphaël Cruyt: "Because it is an exciting place. Just before our opening show 'City Lights', the artists from Brooklyn were painting the streets of Molenbeek, just before they caught Salah Abdeslam. It felt like Brooklyn 20 years ago, they told me. A little dirty, multicultural, with a lot of cultural hangouts, nice bars and so on."
It's a long way from Dirk Snauwaert's coming to Brussels in the 1980s – "when I saw my first transvestite and the city was a complete dump, broke, and fifteen times darker and dirtier than it is now…fantastic!" [Laughter] But it's the same thrilling sense of the power of mixity that drives one of Wiels's central operations, the residency programme.
Dirk Snauwaert: "The initial idea behind it was to open up Brussels's art scene by setting up a dialogue between local artists and artists from abroad. Of course these last few years, the influx has been enormous. Every promising French artist lives in Brussels nowadays. The scene has become so open that we have to think about the next step: a more global influx."
Such as with the impressive project by Sammy Baloji and Filip De Boeck last year, which explored Congo's post-colonial urban fabric. "We'll have to see how permeable Belgium and Europe remain. Certain countries never or very rarely get visas, or artists can't bring their families with them because that would be considered 'family reunification' and Theo Francken might start screaming at you. But the residents are great ambassadors for Brussels. When they return home, they know the city. They keep connected, because the city has become a critical place, apparently. They go for ideas, they're not here just to hang out."
From the bottom up
The same goes for the artist-run spaces and artist collectives – the likes of NICC, Friche, or Greylight Projects – that have been popping up all over Brussels. There is a powerful force driving these bottom-up initiatives. Raphaël Cruyt: "Sure, they can be a little sketchy, but they radiate so much energy. They're a great addition to the institutions. They are a new kind of gallery, creating a living for themselves, selling beers and art works, doing gigs. They are hubs to create a public, to stimulate a first connection with contemporary art. They make me feel young again." [Laughs]
Dirk Snauwaert: "They all have exhibitions and they stimulate each other mutually. That is also exactly the reason why people do a residency: you make stronger connections through informal contacts than through formal ones. Informality is the best motor for anything in Brussels. Partly because the formal things don't really work. On the other hand, this bottom-up approach can also be a sign that these artists feel left out by the Belgian structures. How do we react to that? Do we recognise those actors? I ask collectors the same question: will you be adventurous enough to give these people a solid foundation here? We'll have to open up to what these people are talking about, to their symbolics."
It's these symbolics that are central to the project with which Wiels is celebrating its tenth anniversary. "The Absent Museum" aims to raise difficult, painful, but essential questions, and to that end, it is bringing together artists like Francis Alÿs, Otobong Nkanga, Mekhitar Garabedian, Younes Baba-Ali, and Sammy Baloji in an exhibition that is provocatively nestling into the void that a possible museum of contemporary art in Brussels has become.
"I absolutely love museums," says Dirk Snauwaert. "But why is it that in a multicultural city like Brussels, all of these other stories, histories, and sensibilities that populate the streets – about the origins of racism, about exclusion, that whole difficult ball of superiority and inferiority – don't get reflected upon in the museums? A generation has not seen half of the collections of our national museum since it is in storage, and at the same time you hear people in the Senate talk about the norms and values of our society."
"Well, the transmitter of those norms and values is the museum that is being disinvested and managerialised," he continues. "Instead we hand out clichés like that Belgian identity they're selling in the centre, that mix of beer, mussels, Manneken Pis, art nouveau… We have always been more complex than that. Art isn't just about those five or six big names. Art is a continuous, debt-ridden investment in the future. So yes, 'The Absent Museum' is critical, but also about our discipline. Why are we so absent? If we don't speak up, how could we claim to be the transmitters of tradition?"
According to Raphaël Cruyt the stories are there for the taking: "I think it is a question of scale. All of those stories can be found in the fragments of speech, the small-scale projects, all of these private, bottom-up initiatives. Of course we need more big institutions in Brussels. But if you have to wait for a sign from above, you'll wait for Godot. When we opened the MIMA, politicians were surprised that it was even possible. The way I consume culture, size doesn't matter. I visit institutions, but I look at my iPhone just as easily. You're looking at fragments, which ultimately define your interests and experience. Maybe that mosaic is the DNA of Brussels?"
Léa Belooussovitch, artist & part of the Friche collective
"Compared to Paris, there is more openness in Brussels. More things are possible outside the galleries and conventional structures. There are many artist-run spaces and collectives here, which indicates that there is a certain need among artists. That also happens to be how Friche – of which I am a member along with six other people – was founded: out of the will to exhibit, to do, to exist, outside of the classic commercial logic. Not that we rebel against the galleries; the two sides are complementary. But the collective allows you to work on a bigger scale and with greater freedom [as is shown by their current show at Hangar de la Senne]. We each have our own practice and our own perspective on the arts, but by blending them together, you create an exceptionally enriching experience, an enormous tapestry of people and ideas. The age in which artists wasted away in their solitary studios is over, I think. Art can exist outside the classic, well-trodden paths."
Anne Vierstraete, director Art Brussels
"Art Brussels was a very important component in the creation of the Brussels vibe that suffuses the city in April. There are the satellite fairs, but everybody else also connects to Art Brussels in some way or another, from the smallest to the grandest initiatives. We quickly started partnerships with both private and culture institutions across the city and we developed an off-programme early on so that we could profile ourselves in different ways. The art scene here is very informal and is very much a grassroots affair. The rents are cheap and relatively speaking, there are still a lot of spaces. Consequently, residents tend to base themselves in Brussels, and the gallery scene follows in their footsteps. Furthermore, this city has an audience of collectors who dare to take risks, who buy art early, are curious, and have a good eye. This critical mass is essential. And therein lies an important challenge for us: the larger the urban platform grows, the larger the critical mass that we mobilise has to be for us to perform well."
Hans Op de Beeck, artist
"Brussels is currently a city that attracts many artists. Many people are returning from Berlin disappointed because the city is too vast and isolated. Brussels is very centrally located and hyper-connected. Given that I do thirty exhibitions per year, this is a great environment. Brussels is both a genuine base of operations for me and it has that very particular feeling that you need to feel at home somewhere. I lived in New York for a while, but it was much too hectic for me. It is a difficult, deadly city. Although Brussels is permanently in flux, which can be both fascinating and irritating, I am able to find a certain tranquillity and intimacy here. The city is informal and is very grounded. When the queen came for a visit, there was exactly one fancy car on my street in Anderlecht. You can't imagine that happening in London."
WHICH ART FAIR TO GO TO?
Every year, the giant among Brussels's contemporary art fairs carries a whole urban art scene in its wake. The 35th edition features 145 galleries from 28 countries as well as "Mementos: Artists' Souvenirs, Artefacts, and Other Curiosities", an exhibition curated by international art professionals Jens Hoffmann and Piper Marshall.
> Thurn/Tour & Taxis. 21/04 > 23/04, Brussels
The sixth edition of this "experiment with the art fair format" gathers 21 projects at the ING Art Center. Under the motto "Don't Agonize, Organize!" you will see the individual white booths of the art market disappear before your eyes in favour of an exhibition assembled by curator Niekolaas Johannes Lekkerkerk.
> ING Art Center. 20/04 > 23/04, Brussels
The second European edition of New York's buzzing "art fair that works very hard not to look or feel like an art fair" – as The New York Times once described it. 70 galleries and non-profits will engage in solos, collaborations, and site-specific installations.
> Vanderborght Building. 19/04 > 23/04, Brussels independenthq.com
The fair for the young and contemporary builds on congeniality, accessibility, and a genuine dialogue with a young generation of artists, most of them straight off the benches.
> Kunstberg 5 Mont des Arts. 20/04 > 23/04, Brussels
YIA ArT fAir
Since 2010, the YIA art fair has been introducing "Young International Artists" in Paris. The ninth episode of the travelling fair is again coming to Brussels with 45 international galleries.
> Le Square. 20/04 > 23/04, Brussels