review

Melancholia at Villa Empain: detours into melancholy

Claudio Parmiggiani, Senza Titolo, 2009
Onze score

Seventy pieces by modern and contemporary artists make a path through and around the outside of this Art Deco townhouse in an effort to convey that indefinable sentiment: melancholy.

What makes a group exhibition successful? Is it the theme that ties it all together or the quality of the individual pieces? It’s both, of course. Sometimes, themes can also be present that seem unimportant, but which succeed in penetrating very disparate artistic worlds, connecting them by a thread as fine and fragile as a spider’s web. Take melancholy, for example. Once celebrated by poets, it evokes solitary evenings spent musing on paradise lost. In reality, melancholy is a terrain through which many pathways lead.

To start with, it draws us inexorably back to an idealised and untroubled past, as with Claudio Parmiggiani’s assortment of antique heads. Positioned at the entrance to the grand hall, it is as though they have been rejected, washed up by the tides of memory. Where does the content of the books we’ve read go? Maybe that’s what Pascal Convert is pondering with his beautiful library of books suspended in melted glass.

Upstairs, moving from bedroom to living room, bathroom to boudoir, a few themes emerge which connect the pieces. Ruins, the passing of time, solitude or absence, everything starts to take shape. As curator Louma Salamé understands, however, these associations are not fixed. They flow from one to the next like in a dream.

Lifeless gaze

When we think about this melancholic attitude, it is De Chirico and Delvaux who are the first to spring to mind, or Spilliaert’s work, in which there is even a hint of dread. On the surface, melancholy seems to go against the spirit of our age, in which “living in the now” has become, for many, a fundamental maxim.

That doesn’t stop contemporary artists from embracing it in subtle ways, like in Lionel Estève’s beautiful installation of coloured pebbles arranged in the guest room, Jef Geys’s questions, or Samuel Yal’s fragmented face. There is no melancholy to be found in Giuseppe Penone’s lifeless gaze, but it doesn’t matter. With Mathieu Mercier, it is in his forms and in the mass-produced plastic utensils which recall the colours and volumes of Mondrian.

In the garden, Tatiana Wolska climbed the trees to assemble her ramshackle hut, which takes you back to your childhood. Christian Boltanski installed his little Japanese bells. According to him, they chime with the music of the soul. Definitely experts in melancholy.

> Melancholia. > 19/8, Villa Empain

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