Don’t Call it a Scene: Belgian Art Gets a Fittingly Patchy Survey

by Eva Heisler on August 6, 2012 · 1 comment Reviews

Still from Eléonore Saintagnan, Un film abécédaire, video, 21 mn, 2010. Produced by Red Shoes, Paris. Courtesy Elaine Levy Project.

Un-Scene II, curated by Elena Filipovic and Anne-Claire Schmitz, is the second installment of what is to be a triennial inquiry into the practices of Belgium-based artists. It is not, however, a show about Belgian artists. Half the artists are non-Belgian. Rather, the ambition is to investigate art-making at this particular moment in Belgium.

Since its inaugural show in 2009, Un-Scene’s curatorial approach has been characterized by its resistance to any impulse to define a Belgian “scene”. Because Belgium is composed of two primary language communities, attempts to define Belgian art are dismissed as “mischievous” by curators Devrim Bayar, Charles Gohy and Dirk Snauwaert in the catalogue for the first Un-Scene. Stereotypes such as “French-speaking artists [tend] toward sardonic humour and language games, whilst Flemish artists … tend toward melancholic descriptions and mystifications” are avoided by including artists actively working in Belgium, regardless of citizenship.

For this installment, the curators selected 12 emerging artists who haven’t received much international attention. The works—including painting, drawing, sculpture, installation, and video—are spread across the open and light-filled upper floors of Wiels, situated in a former brewery built in 1930 by the modernist architect Adrien Blomme.

Three primary interests surface in Un-Scene II. There are works, like those by Vincent Meessen, Sophie Nys, Eléonore Saintagnan, and Peter Wächtler, that are preoccupied with language, narrative, and linguistic identity. Then there are works, like those by Nel Aerts, Harold Ancart, Olivier Foulon, and Steinar Haga Kristensen, that explore the conceptual or material circumference of art, or play with artistic personae. Lastly, there are whimsical works such as the imaginary landscapes of Abel Auer, the cartoons of Gerard Herman, the anthropomorphic birds of Dorota Jurczak, and the computer-derived imagery of Michael Van den Abeele.

Belgium has three official languages, Dutch, French, and German, so it’s not surprising that some of the more interesting works in Un-Scene II play with language. Eléonore Saintagnan’s 4-minute video Lacan the Caterpillar (2008) splices the voice of Jacques Lacan into a scene from the French version of Walt Disney’s Alice in Wonderland. Lost in the woods, Alice follows letter-shaped smoke rings and encounters a hookah-smoking caterpillar. Two quick close-ups of Lacan are cues that the caterpillar’s voice is sometimes Lacan’s The scene is very funny: Lacan’s cryptic, circuitous speech (from a 1972 lecture at the Catholic University of Leuven) issues convincingly from the mouth of Disney’s stoned caterpillar. Smoke rings take the shape variously of a dragon, alligator jaws, and a claw, not unlike Lacan’s description in his Leuven lecture of the “trap” of language that “never gives anything but things which have three, five, twenty-five meanings.”

Saintagnan’s 21-minute Un film abécédaire [An ABC film] (2010) is screened in a large black box, comfortably outfitted with couches and pillows. Set in the vicinity of the Vosges National Park, a spectacular landscape in the Alsace region of France, the film combines images of natural beauty with scenes of inhabitants telling jokes and anecdotes, recounting folk tales, singing ballads and, in one hilarious scene, imitating Keith Richards singing “It’s only rock ‘n’ roll.” Intertitles preface each scene, organized as an abecedary. The use of the abecedary—a form that employs the 26 letters of the alphabet as an ordering principle—is curious in a film that features a region where French, German, and the Alsatian dialect intermix. At Wiels, the film’s intertitles are in French, with subtitles in English, and a printed guide in Dutch, so alphabetic order dissolves across several languages. I like Saintagnan’s paradoxical use of the abecedary because it cleverly draws attention to the complexities of linguistic identity. Most engaging, however, is the artist’s documentation of the informal storytelling that animates daily life and fosters community.

Another artist preoccupied with language and cultural identity is Vincent Meessen, whose installation Ritournelle (2005-2012) is indebted to Raymond Roussel’s Impressions of Africa, a 1910 novel that was later dramatized. Roussel (1877-1933) was a French writer whose experimental novels, plays, and poems were admired by the Surrealists and who had a major impact on many writers, including Alain Robbe-Grillet and John Ashbery. Roussel’s work is characterized by a density of bizarre details and multiple, convoluted plot lines. Not until after Roussel’s death, with the posthumous publication of How I Wrote Certain of My Books, was it revealed that the eccentricities of Roussel’s narratives had little to do with imaginative flights of fancy or self-expression but were the result of word-play “procedures.” (For example, one of his most frequent procedures involved structuring a narrative according to homonyms.)

Meessen’s black-box installation features two turntables, one of which plays the rap song À Rebours, by the Burkina Faso-based Wem Teng Clan. The song was commissioned by Meessen, who requested that Wem Teng Clan compose the song according to Meessen’s instructions, based on the procedures of Roussel. A grainy black-and-white video loop, played in reverse, shows the band performing the song before an enrapt audience. At the entry to the installation, a vitrine displays a metal plate incised with the letters “ooRRss” and 6 punches in steel; the font was designed by Meessen and the letters are said to be cryptic references to Roussel. On the wall outside the black box, 2 inkjet prints advertise Meessen’s recordings; even the prints, according to curatorial staff, were designed according to Roussel-inspired limits.

Technically, Meessen’s installation was disappointing. When I visited Wiels on July 4 and 5, the sound system was too loud for the small space; one of the vinyls was scratched and at times skipping so badly that the noise drove visitors out of the installation, and the second vinyl—apparently a sound piece using Michel Foucault’s essay on Roussel—couldn’t be played at all because the record player arm was broken.

Conceptually, I have difficulty grasping the relationship between Roussel’s bizarre texts and Meesen’s work, and the catalogue essay is not helpful. For example, the recording À Rebours is described as “an encrypted rap that keeps its secret while ‘machinating’ its linguistic constraints from within.” “Encrypted” implies a secret, but Roussel’s work isn’t encrypted and wasn’t written in code. It’s true that his procedure was only revealed posthumously, but it wasn’t because of coded content. The catalogue claims Meessen’s choice to have an African band record a rap song produced with Roussel-like techniques “revisits in an African context the sound dimension of Roussel’s conceptual poetics.” Roussel’s so-called “impressions” of Africa, however, are not attempts to record the experience of a particular place; “Africa,” in Roussel, is a word, not a continent, and Roussel is resolutely neither representational nor expressive. I’m not complaining that Meessen is misreading Roussel—certainly misreadings, deliberate or otherwise, are often wonderful and productive. It’s just not clear what Meessen is doing with Roussel, and the curatorial claims are not borne out by the installation itself.

Installation view of Veronica, by Walter Swennen, and Le Souffleur ou L‘Homme assis dans (le carré de) la peinture, by Olivier Foulon. Image by Ghislain Amar - White Project.

Several artists explore the conceptual and material circumference of art, including Olivier Foulon, whose contribution includes work by two older artists, Walter Swennen and Jacqueline Mesmaeker. Foulon’s work Le Souffleur ou L’Homme assis dans (le carré de) la peinture [The Prompter or The Man sitting in the (square of) the painting] (2008) consists of 43 slides projected onto a corner of Swennen’s 2007 oil painting Veronica. Swennen’s painting depicts a woman hanging a painting, as if a tea towel, onto a clothes line. (The painting-as-household linen is an allusion, I’m assuming, to Veronica’s cloth, a piece of linen offered Jesus who, when wiping his face, left an imprint of his features, said to be the first image of Jesus upon which a true icon—vera icon—is based.). Foulon’s slides are reproductions of reproductions; they are grainy and bleached, even more so for being projected in daylight. The images, shifting in and out of visibility, include images from artist notebooks and studios (with abstract painters Blinky Palermo and Kasimir Malevich as frequent references). To the right of Foulon’s projection, on an adjacent wall, are the words “17 Doutes” [17 Doubts], a 1992 work by Mesmaeker. “Doubt” and “double” share etymological roots, and this framed text is a wonderful accompaniment to the click of Foulon’s slides—anxieties of influence, perhaps—advancing through the carousel. I loved this corner of Un-Scene II, an artist-curated intervention that insists on the presence of an older generation within a show of “emerging artists.”

Installation view of Troll Pavilion for the Fermented Historicism of Context Fetishism, and the Dysfunctional Sphincter of the Sick Prophet by Steinar Haga Kristensen. Image by Ghislain Amar - White Project.

In contrast to Foulon’s slide collection of ghostly reproductions, Steinar Haga Kristensen’s Troll Pavilion for the Fermented Historicism of Context Fetishism, and the Dysfunctional Sphincter of the Sick Prophet is a sprawling collection of two-dimensional works and objects, including a large canvas depicting two blue figures peeing on either side of a giant orange face. The installation’s centerpiece is a video in which two blue figures stand behind a painting and slice its surface in order to step through the canvas. Kristensen’s “pavilion” includes abstract paintings, expressionist paintings, folk objects, photographs, and props from the video. Apparently some objects are the artist’s early works, but I find it impossible to tell what is a “prop” and what is a “work.” Perhaps that’s the point. This is a collection of hackneyed “expressions”: the works aren’t really works as such, but props in a staging of “artistic expression.” The installation’s title, with its pseudo-theoretical jumble, is clearly meant to be sardonic, and the installation, like its title, is a jumble of histrionic gestures, but I couldn’t tell if the awfulness was a parody or if the artist really thinks that blue forms breaking through the surface of a painting—the skin of painting personified as a latex body suit—counts as critical engagement with the history and practice of painting.

Installation view of Organization to Come by Harold Ancart. Image by Ghislain Amar - White Project.

The circumference of drawing is beautifully explored in Harold Ancart’s installation Organization to Come. Nylon wires form columns in space, visible only where they have been blackened with soot. (I wouldn’t have noticed the delicate wire configurations if a docent hadn’t come running, waving wildly as I was about to step into Ancart’s “drawing.”) Wires also project from the wall to form pyramids that, from a distance, create the illusion the wall’s surface is puckered. In contrast to the fragile, nearly non-visible wires, a thick, ragged line of soot, looking like the residue of a fire, runs high along the wall. Ancart’s installation shares a room with Michael Van den Abeele’s abstract paintings as well as Gerard Herman’s comic sequences. The meditative quality of Ancart’s installation, however, is not served well by being placed with Herman’s slapstick animations. Moreover, Ancart’s three-dimensional drawing shares important affinities with his oil and pencil drawings, but the installation and works on paper are on different floors, making it difficult to appreciate the material reach of Ancart’s practice.

Although I find the work of several artists in Un-Scene II engaging and thought-provoking, I am disappointed, overall, in the exhibition’s uneven range of conceptual and material sophistication, and a curatorial framing that does a disservice to several artists. For example, Michael Van den Abeele’s contributions include three-dimensional objects, paintings, and an animation, all of which have affinities in terms of form and tone, but it was difficult to get a handle on his practice because the works are dispersed over two floors. In addition, Kristensen’s sprawling installation absorbs other works placed within its vicinity. For example, Auer’s fantastical landscapes and one of Jurczak’s surreal works, hung near Kristensen’s installation, look quite at home in the “troll pavilion,” thereby reducing their works to props in Kristensen’s theater. Also, the loud foreboding music of Kristensen’s piece makes it difficult to hear Saintagnan’s Lacan the Caterpillar; this is unfortunate because the video relies on nuances of voice.

I understand that the curatorial purpose is to highlight practices rather than artists or objects, but the dispersal of a given artist’s works across floors sometimes seemed evasive rather than purposeful. Disseminating Peter Wächtler’s works—ranging from sculptural objects, a sound piece, a print, and a video preoccupied with contemporary occult discourse—across three floors avoids addressing the coherence of Wächtler’s larger intellectual project. Likewise, the scattering of Jurczak’s works throughout Un-Scene II seems to serve no conceptual purpose and has the effect of turning the artist’s anthropomorphic birds into a decorative motif. I am struck by the marked difference between the conceptual and material reach of artists such as Saintagnan and Foulon, and the whimsies of artists such as Auer and Jurczak; the exhibition, claiming its focus is on “idiosyncratic practices,” attempts to deflect this unevenness with its dispersal of artists’ projects.

  • http://twitter.com/ZERO1_ART 2012 ZERO1 Biennial

    Great article, this sounds like quite the show.  It is quite unfortunate when technical mishaps condemns an artist’s piece to be shunned as was the case with Meessen.  It appears as though many of these pieces relied on some form of technology to be displayed, notably projection.

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