Art in Brussels
I spent the weekend in Brussels visiting Art Brussels and the Wiels Museum. I don’t have a lot of experience with big contemporary art fairs so this was somewhat unchartered territory for me. Jason Graham, an artist and good friend from Sarah Lawrence, was working the fair with Fifty One Fine Art, and happily invited me to come check it out.
I really enjoyed myself at the fair but I will first try to (quickly) get my negative impressions out of the way. The most obvious difficulty is the overwhelming quantity of everything. 172 international galleries presenting selections of their best work to over 30,000 visitors in a confined space is enough to make your head spin. I was lucky to get in early with Ms. Graham one day and see the show with less of a crowd, but even then the amount of work to see (and the diversity that comes along with a contemporary fair) was a challenge. In addition to this quantity factor, the commercialization of art is inescapably in the air (not to mention around the centralized champagne bars). In entering booth after booth you are presented with what often comes off as a hastily “curated” display of work and a gallerist (or sometimes a team of gallerists) to go along with it (gallerists who are not always the most inviting people in the world). This can have an isolating and distancing effect, which does not complement well a contemporary aesthetic that already involves plenty of conceptual opacity.
Despite these aspects, as I said, I really enjoyed myself at the fair. Contemporary art, as a general practice, goes off in so many different directions, and it was a good experience to see so many drastically different manifestations in one setting. I felt more acutely connected to the work I saw than I expected, perhaps because I’m reading all these art theory books (currently Rosalind Krauss) which are giving me a more developed structure of concepts and vocabularies that I can in turn apply to this work. Contemporary art is exciting to me because it gives and takes significations in and out of objects. Ambiguity is every where, and with it comes opportunity for your own interpretations. Often I perceive wide gaps between the object and its meaning; even in the more explicit pieces there are usually things going on that work to undermine the “obvious” message.
As I said, there was so much work and so much of it that I liked that there is no way I can go through all of it. I will highlight two things that struck me as particularly unique. One, a multi-room installation by Peter De Cupere geared towards your sense of smell. Disgusting at times, with, for example, a room made of 750,000 cigarette butts, it seemed to me a novel concept to move viewers by smell. There was a room covered in toothpaste where the minty smell was so strong that it actually affected my eyes, and a room with “medical patients” made of different kinds of woods that just had an overall unsettling effect.
The second was an installation of 64 mirrors all with unique sensors that reacted to people as they approached. All of the sudden, as you get close, all of the mirrors turn abruptly to focus their attention on you, which in turn causes you to focus your attention on yourself. They hold their position for a few seconds, and then little by little start to flutter around, as if they are fickle and have forgotten about you, or perhaps as if they are talking about you in this gossipy way. It is a lot of fun to walk through it and overall I think the concept works on different levels, not least of which is that, while you are among the installation, a version of your own identity is carried along with each of the external objects. It was designed by a group called rAndom International, and I got the opportunity to chat briefly with one of its makers, an artist and designer named Tom Metcalfe (who, if it suits your fancy, you can follow on Twitter here).
In addition to Art Brussels, I also saw the Wiels Museum, a beautiful old brewing factory turned arts space in Brussels. The current exhibit of Felix Gonzales-Torres was for me a nice occasion to better familiarize myself with this artist, who’s work seems to challenge a lot of established ideas of what the role of a work of art is in a museum and who should have access to such works. If you are ever anywhere near Brussels, I would recommend this museum, the space is beautiful and their programming is strong, no to mention their frequent book sales where individuals come with rare issues and a good cafe on the ground floor.
Four Images from the Felix Gonzales-Torres exhibition at Wiels in Brussels
Donc voila Part I of a little Belgium series. Stay tuned for Part II on Antwerpen in the next few days.