Argos Centre for Art and Media, Brussels

By Gawan Fagard

Silver Bliss #2: Portrait of a City

How to make a portrait of a city? A city is a body that is bound to the ground on which it is built; it has deep roots into the soil. A city cannot be extracted from its surroundings and put in the neutral environment of, let’s say, a studio, where it can be manipulated, turned around, lit, and captured in its most ideal and flattering appearance. A city is itself: multifaceted, ungraspable, stubborn – and can only be experienced by an immersion within its fabric.
Still the title of the exhibition promises such an ideal vision, an overview and an exhaustive characterization of a city in all its aspects. No need to meet the city in person, in Argos you’ll find its essence, its intimate core, yes: its true face!

It is exactly the impossibility of portraying the city within the protected studio environment that has called artists in the 19th century to step down into the streets, first with their sketchbooks, then with easels and brushes, and then with cameras, microphones, and other reproductive media. The video camera, especially, has proved to be a satisfying medium for artists and tourists alike: by carrying it through the streets, the recording device captures indifferently the intricacies of sounds, visions and movements the city produces. The camera is the ultimate device of the modern flaneur: it captures the gazes thrown onto the city and by doing so captures its soul.

Argos, as a center for media art, especially focused on the production, collection and distribution of the moving image, possesses an exclusive collection of those ‘captured gazes’ on the city of Brussels. Collecting the gaze of artists (as privileged inhabitants of the city who have time to wonder, to zoom in, to stand still, to question and dream) might create a heterogeneous, complex portrait that avoids looking through one angle only. In the end, nobody can represent a city better than its inhabitants. Therefore, the exhibition is almost exclusively featuring work of artists living and working in Brussels.

Brussels: symbol of international administration, Babylonian confusion of languages, clashing ground of Latin and Germanic worlds, heart of freemasonry, ghostly center of imperial and colonial power, modernist disaster and surrealist paradise. And, most recently, a city bathing in a glow of ‘coolness’, creating a buzz in the art world. Is this exhibition part of a rising self-awareness, and even self-obsession, that characterizes ‘cool’ cities? Or is it rather a gesture full of irony, demystifying the hollow buzz and replacing it by the brittle subjectivity of fourteen quite dissonant artists?

An ironical gesture indeed, when the French artist collective Claire Fontaine places a twinkling red neon sign above the entrance door: “Please God Make Tomorrow Better”. Invoking God’s help when it comes to making Brussels a better place is not only ironic because it implies that Brussels is close to a disaster, but also because it would be anyone but God who could help with such a project: with its many minorities, communities, political colors, religions, geographic and linguistic diversities, Brussels would not know to which God to pray – let alone in what language.

Once in the exhibition space, the many kinetic screens immediately call for attention. The projections and television screens typically cover the surfaces of the walls, leaving a space in the middle. Here, Hans Haacke’s Blue Sail is suspended in the air: it waves softly in the breeze of a ventilator, creating a sense of oceanic life, a meandering aquatic movement, reminding us of the terrible lack of a river in the city of Brussels. Utopian gesture or act of cynicism – sometimes they’re remarkably close to each other. Mira Sanders' video installation The Journey opens the curious space of a world exhibition – a vaulted, indoor city where an accumulation of elements of the modern city appears as a collage of drawings and pictures. The camera slowly investigates the high-rises, whose windows are filled with postcards of touristic monuments, the ships and airplanes, hot air balloons and zeppelins. In the foreground, somewhat unsharp, are images of slavery and orientalism. A collapsed version of western history captured in one single tableau.

Reminiscent of Jacques Tati’s famous roundabout scene in Playtime, Ivo Provoost and Simona Denicolai subvert everyday life in the city by making six icecream trucks turn endless circles on a roundabout in the district of Saint-Gilles. Image and sound played in reverse; this carrousel brings us back into an illusion of harmless, yet absurd elements of modern life. The title No ice acts as its absolute disillusion: there’s nothing left to desire but turning around in circles. Harmlessness is the key of Sarah Vanagt’s Little Figures, a film in which she features three children of immigrants involved in an imaginary conversation with the statues of three historical characters on the Mont des Arts. Underlying these playful, fantasizing voices is the silent power of an unresolved colonial past that marks the lineage from Gottfried of Bouillon, through King Albert I and his wife Elisabeth. A moralist message of historical guilt disguised in a disarming appearance also marks Mara Montoya’s portrait of the Parc Royal, Memories of Glory. She investigates the history of the park through the alibi of a Congolese girl, reporting some facts about the interconnections between freemasonry, colonial power, and urbanism.

Poetic zooms into the subtle texture of the city’s life is offered by Jan Vromman: he followed a garbage picker in the nightly streets of Brussels and calls him the Knight of Saint George – after the logo of the city’s patron saint printed onto his jacket. Also, Vromman focuses his lenses on the “Pagode Japonaise” and reflects on its status as an ‘almost authentic’ copy within the world exhibition. Berlaymont Dreaming also consists of a nearly abstract zoom image, this time focusing on the center of European legislature. In one fixed frame, a transparent building is navigated by occasional passers by: anonymous administrators moving from the one meeting to the other; their physical movement being an excuse for a moment of dreaming and contemplative gazing into Justin Bennett’s lens. DATA-COWS is a slide show by Franky DC featuring the cables that connect the city to the rest of the world by means of the high-capacity fiber network. Just like cows did in another century, these cables provide us with the essentials of 21st century life: an unlimited capacity of virtual communication.

Alexandra Dementieva penetrates the high ranks of Belgian cultural life when filming – hidden-camera style – the opening reception of the city festival Brussel 2000. While the illustrious guests walk through the premises of the Royal Palace in Laeken, two simultaneous voices – one French and one Dutch – read the official invitation letter and the whole protocol attached to it. What once was the center of majestic power is now reduced to a set of absurd rules and empty distinguished manners. Bernard Mulliez’ investigative documentary about the Ravenstein Gallery uncovers the many frictions within a multilayered urban society: snack bars, trendy art galleries, folkloric cafés and cultural institutions all have to cope with each other in an environment that is increasingly controlled by the spirit of merciless entrepreneurship within public space. The artist penetrates this world in the guise of a security agent, his camera as a weapon uncovering the many aberrations and contradictions of urban development. Such is Emilio Lopez-Menchero’s position as an ultimate player of the city’s contradictions and imaginary borders. Instead of advocating a politically correct vision of inclusion, he underlines the existing segregations. On the bridge over the canal separating the trendy Dansaert quarter and the popular immigrant area of Molenbeek, he erected a copy of the famous Checkpoint Charlie. Neither a tourist attraction nor a commemoration, this symbol of 20th century ideological and territorial segregation is reactivated to force those who cross the checkpoint to reflect on the socio-economic discrepancies within the city’s structure. Documentation of this intervention found its way into a silent film, as well as in text and images.

Zooming out is the strategy of Marie-Françoise Plissart. With Occupation des sols she managed to give a highly meditative, abstract vision of the city as a complex network of lines, shapes, textures and volumes, in which the human being is downsized to a small and simple existence. Indeed, Plissart’s approach comes the closest to making us believe that there is a God caring about the city of Brussels: her picturesque bird eye view, recalling Pieter Breugels compassionate humanism, observes small humans trying to claim their very own spot of happiness within the complex infrastructure of the city: they stretch out on the grass in the park, sit and dream on a bench – but also fight for their rights in severe demonstrations. Plissard’s tele-lens, located on the highest peaks and summits of the city, overlooking its fabric, is at once far away and extremely close. It realizes the dream of an overview, the desire for maps, and feeds the illusion of the portrait of a city.

The exhibition closes with a triumphant but bitter gesture by Angel Vergara: The Joyful Entry of Straatman in Brussels. Straatman – a ghostly alter ego of the modernist artist – enters the city center on a firemen’s truck. Referring to a longstanding tradition of joyful royal entries in Brussels under the rule of the 16th Century Duchy of Brabant and County of Flanders, culminating in James Ensor’s ironic painting, Christ’s entry into Brussels, this multilayered video investigates the decaying myth of the artist in the public realm: nobody is hailing or applauding him – in fact: no single person looks up from his daily routine to witness the spectacular appearance of Straatman. 

Thus the exhibition does not propose a portrait of a city; instead it offers a portrait of the artist as a man of the street – a Straatman.