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The Brussels contemporary art scene: how to believe the hype
Brussels Art Days

6 - 8 September 2013

Review by Pieter Vermeulen

What is that makes the Brussels art scene so different, so appealing’ The Belgian capital is currently tipped as the new gallery hotspot, a new Berlin, a tax-friendly paradise for French collectors, you name it. But in the margins of commerce are numerous artistic initiatives operating on a smaller, less visible scale. Instead of teaching us how to look beyond the hype, they might actually be sustaining it.

The Brussels-based art scene is not just an ethereal bubble, a commercial fantasy or a collector’s wet dream. It is the product of a collective effort, both by the galleries’ ambitious line-ups and the courageous endeavours of smaller organisations often run by artists or independent curators. Turning to more unconventional methods of presentation or production, these initiatives are not opposing the rapidly expanding gallery sector, but constitute a rather welcome complement. Increasingly, these initiatives are catching the attention of private collectors, art critics and curators, creating an inspiring climate where the commercial and the non-commercial don’t exclude but instead reinforce each other. This interaction undoubtedly contributes to the jovial yet vibrant atmosphere of the city.

It is a place where the local and the global meet, cross-linking people and cultural flows in a way that is unlike anywhere else. Where else would you hear three languages being mixed up constantly, or have such a degree of conviviality among the city’s culturati’ So what is at issue is not so much how to debunk the myths of commerce, but rather to see what keeps the spirit alive in Brussels, away from the spotlights. How to believe the hype’

In the coming months, we will be highlighting some of these initiatives in order to catch a glimpse of the city’s variety. Here’s a first portion of what the art scene had to offer during the Brussels Art Days (6 - 8 September), hangovers included.

We start with Komplot, a variable curatorial collective founded in 2002. Working against the institutional grain, they mostly do collaborative projects ranging from exhibitions to films, books and an annual magazine titled YEAR. Their spacious building also hosts artist studios, still a thorny issue in the densely populated city. Last year Komplot received an invitation from the Finnish Cultural Institute to think of a possible exchange between Brussels and Helsinki. So curators Sonia Dermience and Albert Garcia del Castillo, together with Helsinki-based Aura Seikkula, decided to stage two simultaneous group shows in both cities. Artists and curators were flown over from Brussels to Helsinki, and vice versa, for a week-long residency at Komplot and HIAP respectively. Among the artists from Brussels are Jürgen Ots, Felicia Atkinson and Bitsy Knox, among the Finnish Sauli Sirviö, Timo Vaittinen and Maija Luutonen. They were invited to create two copies of the same work, resulting in almost the same group exhibition in the two cities, playfully challenging concepts of originality, site-specificity and global synchronicity.

The conceptual starting point for ‘KOPIOITU’ certainly sounds inviting, but it wasn’t that apparent in the show. The project seemed to raise questions, without actually addressing them. How does the chosen format affect artistic practice’ What happens in between these two cities’ What does a residency actually mean’ What is the kind of cultural exchange that is expected, how is this institutionalised and on which levels can it be played out’ In this respect, the show fell a bit short, which can only be regretted in light of Komplot’s sharp profile and well-pronounced view.

WIELS is located within a stone’s throw of Komplot. The renowned centre for contemporary art is currently hosting a beautiful and compelling show by Petrit Halilaj (° 1986), a young, highly promising artist from Kosovo. ‘Poisoned by Men in Need of Some Love’ is curated by Elena Filipovic, and comes together with a publication.

Halilaj is presenting a new stage of his ongoing research into the Natural History Museum in his home region. The museum was closed down as Yugoslavia disintegrated: today, it is ‘rebranded’ as the Ethnographic Museum, with the collection of its predecessor tucked away in a sealed-off, humid basement. This political decision is exemplary of the rather nationalistic image that post-war Kosovo sought to create. After numerous attempts, the artist was finally granted access to this ‘forgotten’ collection, secretly documenting the pivotal moment. The zoological ensemble, however, appeared to be in such a bad state that there was barely anything left of the stuffed animal carcasses, only an uncanny, ghostly presence.

The whole process is presented, almost without further comment, as a striking video piece on the top floor of WIELS. The rest of the show is filled with owls, deer, fish, bears, herons and other animals reproduced by the artist using iron, dung, earth and glue specially transported from Kosovo. The visual result is a mind-blowing testimony to the scars of history, from the perspective of creatures excluded from its writing. Halilaj succeeds at making his personal narrative resonate with larger historical traces, without making a too overt or forced political statement.

Artist-run initiative NICC also took advantage of the Brussels Art Days to inaugurate its new space in Brussels. For several decades, the organisation has represented and defended the artist’s position and rights, with notable figures like Guillaume Bijl or Koen van den Broek on the board. Recently they decided to move their headquarters from Antwerp to Brussels. NICC presented a guerilla-style programme spread over two days. As a kick-off, they asked well-known French artist Pierre Bismuth to present a new piece on a vacant parking lot of discount store Lidl, a kind of tactical intervention in the public space.

The format was conceived by artists Warren Neidich and Elena Bajo under the name ‘Art in the Parking Space’, in the traffic-ridden city of Los Angeles - although one must admit it fits the Brussels jungle equally well. Bismuth created a kind of non-event, a golden Mercedes with closed doors and the radio playing loudly; a ready-made installation that would almost go unnoticed, and is yet odd enough to catch the attention of passers-by. The day after, NICC hosted a conversation in their office between Danh Vo and Tim Rollins, who were both exhibiting at leading gallery Xavier Hufkens.

In the display window of the space, Aline Bouvy created a neat looking, sanitary installation with a narrow stream of water running from a tap. The bourgeois phantasm of cleanliness and purity is disrupted by a folded, brownish canvas lying against the window. The title of the work is telling: ‘It looks like shit, it tastes like shit, want a toothbrush’. The result is a quite convincing start for Bouvy, who recently decided to part ways with her former partner John Gillis.

There’s a German saying that goes In der Beschränkung zeigt sich der Meister, the art is to know how to set limits - and to work within them. This is precisely what the artist initiative ‘Coffre Fort’ excels at. Located in the basement of a former jewelry workshop in downtown Brussels, ‘Coffre Fort’ regularly sets up exhibitions within the spatial constraints of a vault.

For their current project, they invited Amsterdam-based visual artist James Beckett, who in turn appointed a professional, registered dowser to investigate the space using an angular rod, looking for a treasure that is supposedly hidden behind the walls. The whole process is recorded by the artist and played back in the vault on a reel-to-reel tape deck, almost summoning the dowser’s presence. After the investigation, Beckett decided to do the proof by digging into the wall on some of the indicated parts - obviously without result, but that’s beside the point. Beckett managed to develop a proposal that fits the space so well, it feels like it has always been there. And which, at the same time, makes ‘Coffre Fort’ well worth another visit.

With just a few snapshots of the Brussels art scene, it is hard to do justice to its sparkling variety. In a series of articles and interviews, we will continue this ongoing exploration, in order to slowly make you believe the hype.


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