Brussels is not the first city to come to mind when thinking about summer shows. When all the world is in Venice, it seems more likely to imagine oneself there, or at least, a little bit closer to sand and surf.
Yet, despite its propensity for slate streets and gray skies, I returned to this windless and landlocked city one weekend in August to visit a few of the shows opening up there.
At Jan Mot on Saturday August 6, an exhibition at curated by Heidi Ballet around a Levinas-inspired theme of ‘the Encounter’ served up warm-blooded philosophy. New works by Nina Beier, Karin Schneider and Francisco Camacho, joined existing works by Jiri Kovanda , Tino Sehgal and the surprising inclusion of Yoko Ono’s ‘Telephone’ piece, (1964/2011), which was being revived in a back room.
Like Beier’s shoe, which held the gallery door open, Sehgal’s performance ‘This is About,’ was as unexpected as it was activating. After having each of the works in the room described by the exhibitions curator, visitors were asked what they thought the show was about in a precise zombie-like voice, working Sehgal's proposal for a guided tour, originally conceived of in 2003 for a museum setting, into the concept of the exhibition. It was chilling to hear it performed in such a minimal setting.
Though it was never quite clear exactly what kind of encounter this exhibition was aimed at, as in the end, it seemed to evoke several, the thoughtfulness with which each of the works was selected only benefited from this levity. There were no pious pieces here, only works that like Ono’s had to be lived out in some way, in real time.
The evening before I'd been to see a curious three person show at dépendance gallery, where the title of the exhibition in an email announcement had somehow been miscommunicated to me as a participant, so I arrived expecting to see works by a new collective formed by three artists: Francois Curlet, Gerald Domenig, and Harald Thys called 'La Ricotta'. No such thing. But rather, a screening of the Pasolini film (1962) that accompanied watercolours by Curlet, black and white photographs by Domenig and an installation of tires filling the gallery which made for an interesting walk around as well as walk-thru of the space.
Earlier in the day ‘Text Me Faster’, by Shelly Nadashi and guests at Etablissement d’en Face projects was so crowded that about thirty or so people had to stand on the sidewalk watching what could be seen of the evenings performances through the storefront window from the street outside. As Giles Bailey, Cliff Laine and Nadashi performed three distinct original works, two of which either incorporated or worked directly with historic performance material, the storefront, and the performances unfolding inside it, provided an invigorating backdrop for several conversations. I peeked in once and saw a bucket of water being tossed from a ladder (Laine’s re-enactment of George Brecht’s, ‘Drip Music’).
The following day brought the weekends highlight: a presentation of work by the collective Jochen Schmith at the Brussels Mariott Hotel, featuring an intervention by the artist-run WCW gallery of Hamburg. This was one of several presentations WCW will host in Brussels in the coming months. On this particular occasion visitors were greeted by twice: once upon arriving in the hotel lobby by an actor that introduced himself as Johnny Rotten, and then again after exiting the elevator, by an actor who presented himself as Tino Sehgal. This minimal performance involved brief choreographed gestures as visitors were first given access to the lift with a room pass, and then met as the elevator doors opened on the correct floor to be guided to the room containing works by Jochen Schmith—the final gesture of which involved spelling out the letters of the gallery’s name (W-C-W) on one hand.
Like the view from its windows, the suite was old world Brussels-elegant with a few modern updates, and looked out onto le Bourse, the city’s old stock-exchange. A look around the room would reveal a small reproduction of William Morris-like design framed and hung over the hotel’s existing wallpaper, from which it was not completely dissimilar. Beneath this, a small sculpture of cigars collected from various art fairs and cast in bronze on the night stand, a pair of paint splattered Ralph Lauren ‘Painter Pants’ on the bed, along with one of WCW’s gallerists / artists who seemed to be doing everything he could not to recline there to the left of all this, a sound piece emanating from a flat-screen on a small piece of furniture, pieced together from several conversations with official advisors at the city of Hamburg’s employment office (the Agency of Labour). The difficulty and confusion in offering advice to collective producers (‘three artistic painters’ as the agency describes them) was at times humorous and revealing to listen to as was the collective’s assertion that they are not unemployed but self-employed.
As part of WCW’s project involves the dissolution of a traditional gallery space and its operations into something virtual, it seemed fitting to stage this presentation of work in a temporary location of rest and retreat, a space well-suited to a collaboration that used as its tender the working relationship between galleries and artists.
Though it was not intentional, the weekend seemed marked by re-visited figures and works. The interchangeable figures of Rotten and Sehgal, along with this understated, 'from out of town' presentation evoked the image of exhibition as traveling theater with Brussels as the perfect host.
The weekend of openings ended with a sort of politically inspired, 'fight the tyranny that is European immigration' party thrown by Steinar Haga Kristiansen and myself at D.O.R gallery, where a version of Gordon Matta-Clark's bone soup was made. There had been an allusion to nationalism as a ‘great big dinosaur’ in there at one point, that got lost in the dancing, which was also the point. Though I doubt it would have happened if we were on Wooster street where Matta-Clark and Carol Goodden’s restaurant ‘Food’ was, the music was repeatedly interrupted by calls coming in to Skype on the computer the playlist ran from.
As Kristiansen played Ono’s ‘Why?’ for entranced but still dining attendees who were promised they could wear their bones home, (and some did) Nick Oberthaler, Zin Taylor and Sophie Nys danced with several former residents of the city who has recently relocated to Berlin, including Boy Vereecken of Slavs and Tartars and artist Jürgen Ots. Seeing that several like myself several émigré’s like myelf had returned for these shows after a small exodus out of the city – I was reminded me of a sentiment that I’d had when I first moved here: having a city so gray and tense as a backdrop makes it that much easier to see and appreciate what is happening at the forefront.
(i) Jiri Kovanda, ‘XXX I asked a woman artist to participate in a performance with me: I was seated with my back facing her camera so that I could not see her and she photographed me while she was naked. January 19th, 2011, Le Plateau, Paris’