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Views on Brussels

Spike Art Quarterly, issue 52
Summer 2017

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The Absent Museum, WIELS
Bruno Gironcoli, Clearing
Neither, Mendes Wood

“The Absent Museum”
20.4. – 13.8.2017

WIELS is not a museum, but everyone in Brussels calls it one. To honour its tenth anniversary, the institution’s director Dirk Snauwaert embraced this acquired moniker by temporarily turning it into a stand-in for the Belgian capital’s nonexistent museum of contemporary art. Rather than institutional and structural questions, however, there is a clear emphasis on content: works by the likes of Monika Baer, Isa Genzken, Thomas Hirschhorn, Sammy Baloji, Francis Alÿs, Otobong Nkanga, and Mekhitar Garabedian take on political and social problems spanning from immigration and colonialism to gender and race. On the top floor of the WIELS building, Marina Pinsky has covered the walls with wallpaper printed with motifs that represent four landmarks in Brussels, drawing attention to the museum’s relationship to social, economic, political and legal institutions. Many rooms are dedicated to the work of a singular artist, as in the case of Jean-Luc Moulène, whose colour photographs of household goods made in the West Bank, Produits de Palestine (2002–2004), point to a larger geopolitical situation: exporting these objects is forbidden, though they can be represented as images and made visible again in the museum. In Lili Reynaud-Dewar’s performance and installation Small Tragic Opera of Images and Bodies in the Museum (2017), a series of mannequins representing conflicting opinions draws on the difficulties of discussing certain topics, such as political violence against black communities, in the art context. This fictional museum thus represents a proposal for the museum as a space of speculative reinvestment in democratic values and community. And yet – however admirable in appearance and intention, “The Absent Museum” could have benefitted from a more critical examination of the politics and ideologies of institution-building. If the works in this proposition were to be part of a real collection, who would take care of it and with what resources? Aren’t the values propagated by “The Absent Museum” – such as internationalism, radical diversity and community-building – the very ones you find in most major art events, like Documenta or, on a more local scale, Kunstenfestivaldesarts? What would (have to) be different if one were to enact the curatorial proposition of the show on an institutional level, rather than just for the duration of a single exhibition? And is that what we need, or should museums become more collaborative, a space for commoning – or perhaps more immaterial? In any case, art is inseparable from the obscured structures it is guided and contained by. In that sense, the blueprint of “The Absent Museum” leaves many questions unanswered.

Mendes Wood DM
18.4. – 17.6.2017

The São Paolo–based gallery Mendes Wood DM recently moved into one of Brussels’s finest gallery spaces: an elegant turn-of-the-century townhouse designed by modernist architect Adrien Blomme. Curated by Fernanda Brenner, director of the independent art centre Pivô in São Paulo, this inaugural exhibition takes the building and its architectural specificity as its subject, while its concept is based on Roland Barthes’ concept of the Neutral. The show features work by forty-seven artists, spread across the gallery’s two floors. In the downstairs hallway are shoes by Jason Dodge, apparently made for someone with three legs. On the adjacent wall, a squiggly coat rack by Franz West creates a sense of domesticity from the start. In the adjoining room, Katinka Bock’s composition of slabs of limestone evokes the architectonics of a landscape or garden, while Nina Canell’s Brief Syllable (2017), a piece of cable installed in a niche, points inward, exploring the usually invisible material base of communication, speech and human relations. On the second floor, a mannequin wearing an outfit by designer Dries Van Noten looks toward an embroidery made by Alexandre da Cunha in an unusual collaboration with his gallerist Luisa Strina. Many other artists in the exhibition – among them Adriano Costa, Joëlle Tuerlinckx, Kasper Bosmans, Neïl Beloufa and Otobong Nkanga – also dissolve the separation between contemporary and applied art; together their works explore what it means to create a home or a space of belonging, albeit from very different angles. The show neither fits the definition of a classic gallery presentation following market trends, nor does it simply serve to decorate of the house. Rather, the works on view seem to adjust slowly to the gallery’s architecture, location and identity, exploring its corners and functions, showing the way for many future possibilities for the Brazilian gallery in its new location. Although the invocation of Barthes comes over as a little pompous in the context, and it’s never quite clear how it applies, the works are brought together in a seductive and elegantly installed exhibition – the kind you rarely get to see in commercial galleries in Brussels.

“Bruno Gironcoli: One Body, Two Souls”
20.4. – 15.7.2017

A large, somewhat sinister, cast-aluminium structure looms in front of me. It looks like a batmobile fused with a Fordist production line. The top of the sculpture evokes a conveyor belt, carrying amorphous matter about to be moulded into the small cyborglike children who adorn the sculpture’s base. Titled We the Children of Villach (2003– 2004/2005), this work by Bruno Gironcoli (*1936–†2010) captures the unsettling nature of the body’s entanglements with technology. Even as the futuristic monolith is cast in a cold and hard material, its smooth, treacly surface and rounded shapes give it an organic appearance, conveying a sense of humanness in a hostile environment. Associations with the political climate of the Austrian artist’s childhood in Villach under the Nazis seem implied in the larger ecology of works in this exhibition, where the war machines, mechanized bodies, and edelweiss flowers that keep reappearing in different forms communicate an undertow of violence. Is it their fierce repetition within Gironcoli’s oeuvre, frantically alerting us about times that might return in another form, that makes his work so compelling today?