ESSAYS, INTERVIEWS & REVIEWS
Contemporary Art in Belgium - 2014 [EN, essay]
Contemporary Art in Belgium
About the dream of a national identity
Works of art become readable through the way they differ from other works, acts or objects. Their right to existence lies in that difference, in their specific nature. Parallel to this, artists try to impose their right to be different. In an interview given to Donald Kuspit, Louise Bourgeois expressed it as follows: "Art is about the difficulty of being a self because one is neglected. Everywhere in the modern world there is neglect, the need to be recognized, which is not satisfied. Art is a way of recognizing oneself, which is why it will always be modern.” Works of art show us how people, events and objects can be different and how this difference is allowed. They give form to the dream of "being different". They are a tribute to diversity and ambiguity. I think that for this reason "national art" cannot exist. Art is always itself. Maybe that's why so much contemporary art is created in countries with a long democratic tradition. For Karl Popper democracy is not an absolute value, but it is preferable over every other government system, because it is the best guarantee against a dictatorial regime. This conviction starts from the fundamental unknowability of reality, inviting us to adopt an open attitude with respect for other viewpoints. Because we live in a complex, fragmented and changing reality, political systems where different opinions can coexist are probably the most viable. They also offer more opportunities for development to citizens in general and artists in particular. As a result, artists can break taboos and create a fertile soil for developing new ideas.
I have the impression that the reception of contemporary art is often characterized by two errors: the international importance of artists is overvalued in their own countries, and spectators imagine that there is something like a national concept of life, manifest in art.
The first error springs from the fact that we are so confident with the national art landscape and hierarchy that we begin to believe that it is also visible to foreigners. However, of other countries we only know the most famous artists, or artists who occasionally have a relationship with our country.
The second error is in believing that there is something like a national culture or soul. For instance, many literature experts have considered Nikolai Gogol as an eminent draughtsman of the Russian soul. I've looked with curiosity at what things Gogol described as typically Russian in his novel 'Dead Souls': arrogance, mercy, insults, a tendency to eat big appetizers, inventing aliases, enjoying life, not wanting to die a natural death, the preference for large sizes, the frequent ineptitude of bureaucratic meetings, the real Russian inventiveness and so on. Evidently Gogol was ironic, but that escaped his 'Slavonic' followers. In a similar manner some people seem to believe that there is something like typical Belgian art, which would be characterized by humour, self-criticism, and a little DIY or, in other words, a surreal approach to things. Precursors would be artists like Brueghel, Jeroen Bosh of the Southern Netherlands, Ensor and Magritte. Currently this approach would be visible in the work of Marcel Broodthaers, Panamarenko, Guillaume Bijl and Walter Swennen. Obviously, neither the humour, nor the self-criticism, nor the DIY are Belgian qualities. They are universal. Art quickly becomes surreal and funny, because it has to ignore or transcend rules if it wants to visualize things in a new way.
Belgium is a small country created as a buffer state between bigger countries like Great Britain, Germany and France. It has eleven million inhabitants. That's about the same population as Cuba, Rio de Janeiro or Buenos Aires. The country has four museums of contemporary art, funded by the government. The task of these museums is to create a collection, conserve and display it, organize exhibitions, making possible new creations and conducting educational projects. None of these museums has a sufficient budget to acquire artworks of international importance. The administration of the various museums is not coordinated. Each director acts independently, which guarantees diversity, but prevents a coherent purchase and exhibition of artworks. Together with a few hundred galleries and a few dozen art centres, supported by the government, these museums create a favourable climate for young artists. According to a newspaper article, about fifty thousand people consider themselves artists in Belgium; approximately five hundred of them are engaged in what is called contemporary art; a hundred are known in the country within the art world and are supported by the government, and about twenty artists can sometimes exhibit their works in New York. Probably two Belgians have international fame in the context of art: Luc Tuymans and Francis Alÿs who, however, does not live in Belgium but in Mexico.
I guess in Belgium, in relation to the total population, there are many contemporary artists. I also assume that we can be happy that among these, twenty of them have been able to exhibit their works in a large gallery or a renowned art institution in New York in the last fifteen years. (Not that I consider this the ultimate goal of a life dedicated to art, but I use it as a criterion to assess the international relevance of a work of art.) The reason for this relative success is probably due to the presence of a large number of wealthy art collectors, who sometimes lend works to museums, and to the existence of some very good galleries like the Wide White Space Gallery in the sixties and seventies, which, very early, brought the work of a few outstanding artists to our country (Carl André, Joseph Beuys, Daniel Buren, Christo, Lucio Fontana, Yves Klein, Bruce Nauman, Sol LeWitt, Richard Long, Piero Manzoni, Gerhard Richter, Niele Toroni, etc.). This presence of money and galleries enhanced the possibility for a talented young person to come across an impressive work of art. Contact with real works is essential, images are not enough. Apart from this, the relatively large number of museums, galleries and art centres makes a life dedicated to art seem a real possibility for many young people, although very few contemporary artists can live on their work before the age of fifty.
Innovative, provincial, frank and ambiguous
Every country at every age has many artists who do not create innovative work, but produce something that looks like art. Sometimes these people are very successful, because the public and its political representatives give preference to simulators. They do not like the unpredictability of real innovative art. They prefer to grant subsidies to conventional works. What is contemporary art then? It is a way of laying bare visual, technical, emotional, existential, spiritual, ethical and political possibilities within a plural atmosphere. On the one hand this requires an idea of all the things that already exist and secondly the guts to be provincial. Art of international importance is always provincial and personal. A good example is the work of Luc Tuymans. The works Tuymans produced in the eighties did not look at all like the paintings that were fashionable at that time. They were small sturdy objects. They seemed to have very little colour. At first glance they were too simple. They were not large or showy. They were not postmodernist. Another example is the work of Francis Alÿs, which seems to spring from the poverty and oppressive heat in Mexico City. It consists of small and cumbersome movements because moving is exhausting. It grows slowly in the shade. And the movement always seems in vain, as in those novels where heroes bravely begin to walk, but never can escape the Valley of Prague.
"It's an unspeakable pleasure to experience that an image is impenetrable and won’t reveal its true meaning”, wrote Andrei Tarkovski. The openness and ambiguity of contemporary works of art spring from the strange circumstance that a work is first a material, no matter whether it is an act or an object. It’s a new texture attached to reality, as Victor Sjklovski said. A work is not the translation of an idea, but a new form that evokes images, thoughts, feelings or stories. The particular value of such a form consists precisely in that it escapes every attempt at a discursive definition and so is left open for interpretation. This openness implies a tolerance that we, if we are lucky, also find in the scientific and political world.
Perhaps the most amazing thing about Belgian art is not its surrealist character (especially when compared to South American literature), nor the humour, the self-criticism or the DIY, but the simultaneous existence of many different approaches. The contemporary art world is like a decadent and neurotic occupation that at first sight seems to have little moral meaning or political relevance, but on review seems to be a way to give form to a spiritual life that is based on openness and plurality. Of course, contemporary art wouldn’t be possible without the existence of the market, which is undoubtedly cynical, but lots of works will transcend the market and give new shapes to the dream of individual freedom.
Montagne de Miel, November 20th 2014