As lovers of photography know, FOMU is not the only essential stop-off when visiting Antwerp. Stieglitz 19 is also worth checking out. The vibrant gallery is now launching a Brussels space with a debut show that promises to set the tone: a dialogue between the late Ren Hang and 223, two key figures of the young Chinese photography scene.
Launched in Antwerp in 2008 by Dries Roelens, Stieglitz 19 (named after the US photographer Alfred Stieglitz, who contributed to the recognition of photography as an art form in the early twentieth century) has continuously promoted photography that is full of vitality, lust for life, and elation, which dances to the rhythm of a younger generation that is both indomitable and hypersensitive.
With a global outlook, the space includes artists based in New York, Johannesburg, São Paulo, London, and Berlin. The gallery represents such undisputed stars as Anders Petersen from Sweden and Daido Moriyama from Japan, but it also acts as a unique showcase of contemporary Chinese photography with artists such as Ren Hang, Lin Zhipeng (aka 223), and Liang Xiu. Furthermore, particular attention is paid to talented Belgian artists, such as Lara Gasparotto, Thomas Vandenberghe, and Vincent Delbrouck (who currently has a solo show at Stieglitz 19's Antwerp space).
Featured in the biggest international fairs and festivals, the extended family of Stieglitz 19 photographers have appeared all over the world and will shine in Brussels starting on 27 January this year. Excellent news for the gallery's fan club and for all lovers of contemporary photography.
Brussels, the obvious choice
Dries Roelens had been mulling the idea over for a while of opening a branch of his gallery in the capital. “I studied in Brussels, I got my first job in Brussels. I often go to Brussels for exhibitions, and I have met very interesting collectors there. In Brussels, there's a different mentality, it's more cosmopolitan. The collectors and the public do not allow themselves to be limited by linguistic barriers, and their tastes are more international. So, I said to myself: why not?”
And he would not be discouraged by the interminable pandemic, quite the opposite. “The successive lockdowns resulted in an unexpected phenomenon for us gallerists. People began visiting our spaces more than they used to. Wandering from one place to another because there was not a huge amount of other cultural activities that were permitted. It had the effect of broadening my public and I am far from alone in that.”
So, when the opportunity to establish himself in Brussels presented itself out of the blue a few months ago, Dries Roelens did not hesitate for a second. “The decision was made impulsively, but I do not regret it at all.” At Sint-Jorisstraat/Rue Saint-Georges 24, between Louizalaan/Avenue Louise and Vleurgatsesteenweg/Chaussée de Vleurgat, which is teeming with art galleries, Stieglitz 19 is an intimate space on the ground floor of an unassuming little building. “The space is definitely small, but I work with artists that produce small pieces anyway. Ren Hang's photographs, for example, are less than a metre across. The space is not important to me. I have visited mini-galleries in other countries where the space worked extremely well. I remember one very well-known gallery in Japan that was the size of a bedroom. It's the quality of the work that matters, not the size of the images,” says Dries Roelens.
In good company
For this new adventure in Brussels, Dries Roelens took care to enlist some local talent: the curator and cultural planner Marie Papazoglou. Having run the exhibition programme at the Botanique for a long time, she handed in her notice in late 2018 to make the move into independent curation. “Marie is an exceptional curator with excellent knowledge of the photography scene who is capable of speaking about it with an enthusiasm that is very rare,” says Dries Roelens.
Marie Papazoglou is a long-time adherent of the Stieglitz 19 approach. “I visit the gallery practically every time I am in Antwerp. I share an affinity with Dries in terms of photographic aesthetic. I also appreciate how much attention he pays to the young Belgian scene. It's something that has always drawn me to the gallery. I would have included the artists that Dries represents in my own programmes.”
Invited to curate the group exhibition “A Tree” in May 2020 at Stieglitz 19 in Antwerp, Marie Papazoglou had already collaborated with Dries Roelens in 2017, curating Lara Gasparotto's show “Come Down to Us” at the Botanique. “I love Lara's energy and the way her work has developed over the years. There is something quite intimate and joyous in the way she documents the people she knows,” she says.
Dries Roelens spotted the young Lara Gasparotto at the Biennale de Photographie en Condroz in Marchin in 2009 and saw her as an obvious choice for his gallery. “I didn't know her at all, the prints of her work were extremely bad and yet the quality of her work was blindingly obvious,” recalls the gallerist. “What Lara Gasparotto in Belgium, 223 in China, and Chad Moore in New York all have in common is an immediate and intuitive way of working. Sometimes disordered, too. But that's just it: it doesn't always have to be perfect. It is bursting with lust for life, incredible energy and real freedom.” But that youthful perspective is not always in proportion to the age of the artists. “Today, Anders Petersen is 77 and Daido Moriyama is 83, but they could easily be 20. Their images speak a universal language that is instantly recognisable.”
Vitality is not the only trait that is shared by the artists of the Stieglitz 19 family. “Many of them do not work by theme, that's important,” says Dries Roelens. “Photography is their means of expression; it could just as easily have been drawing. They work intuitively and yet their work is very consistent. There are many self-taught artists at Stieglitz 19, and that's no coincidence.”
Ren and Lin
Among those naturally gifted artists are the Chinese artists Ren Hang and Lin Zhipeng (aka 223), chosen to launch Stieglitz 19 in Brussels. The decision came naturally, because the gallery's history is intimately connected to the emerging Chinese photography scene. “I debuted the gallery in Antwerp with 223,” says Dries Roelens. “And it was through 223 that I encountered Ren Hang. It's very simple: these artists were producing a type of portrait that I had never seen before, and I was immediately blown away. Many people believe that 223 was influenced by Ren Hang, but it's actually the other way round. That's what I want to show.”
A voice of the young Chinese photography scene, exhibited in the most popular international spaces (such as MEP in Paris) and published in the most fashionable publications (such as Taschen), Ren Hang took the artistic world by surprise in 2017 by jumping from the top of a building a few days before his thirtieth birthday. The young artist left behind a breathtaking body of work: intensely vibrant and colourful, full of desire, playfulness, and fearless eroticism. Free and stripped-back portraits of his friends and people he knew, which more than once led to their being harassed by the Chinese authorities. “The acid colours used by Ren Hang are like a visual punch in the face,” says Marie Papazoglou.
“The work of both Ren Hang and 223 was created in extremely difficult conditions. They take enormous risks to show their generation in a different way, to show another kind of sexuality,” says Dries Roelens. “The risks they take, they take in the name of art. I find it extremely refreshing to meet artists who are not preoccupied with money. I remember I even had to explain to Ren Hang that he could not sell a print for just €100, and that that wasn't how the world of contemporary art worked.”
Another equally influential figure of Chinese photography, made famous by social media like Instagram, is Lin Zhipeng (who calls himself “223”). Also known for portraits of his friends, he has become a standard-bearer for a generation that wants to live by its own rules. “The way he creates poetic openings towards melancholy really speaks to me,” says Marie Papazoglou. “I am particularly touched by the thirst for freedom that endures in a climate of repression.”
As for following exhibitions to be presented at the Brussels satellite of Stieglitz 19, the two collaborators remain evasive. “That will all be decided in due course. The space could help us to launch some of our artists and show works in progress by others. The programme might be more experimental than in Antwerp.” One thing is certain, the spaces will each have a distinct character. “What matters at this stage is that we were able to establish this presence in Brussels; we're not worrying too much about the rest.”
REN HANG – 223
27/1 > 19/3, Stieglitz 19