Happenings on the contemporary art scene in Brussels over the past six months could be seen as a prelude to the flurry of events scheduled for the coming year. Brussels’ growing reputation as a destination for contemporary artists, curators and collectors belies the fact that the city has been home to a thriving international art community for several decades. A case in point was the recent exhibition Being, in Brussels at the contemporary art and media centre, Argos, which featured work by 13 international artists based in Brussels. The list included Beat Streuli, Orla Barry, Pierre Bismuth, Dora García, Jota Castro and Peter Downsbrough—recent arrivals such as Lucy McKenzie would now be part of that growing list. These artists have chosen to settle in Brussels for a number of reasons, not least because the city has avoided the kind of hype that has been a something of a poisoned chalice for city-based European scenes such as Berlin and London. Its unique combination of high living standards, a growing galleries’ scene, a powerful tradition of collecting and an art historical legacy, ranging from Flemish medievalism to 1960s conceptualism, attracts artists to Brussels—and in many cases keeps them there. The city now seems poised to enter a new era, with increased funding for contemporary art, chiefly provided by the Flemish government, and a series of important innovations scheduled for the next six months, including a new contemporary art centre and a biennial for the city.
Being, in Brussels was the first exhibition to use Argos’ new 500m2 gallery, designed by Rotterdam-based architects MVRDV. The space preserves a number of the building’s original features, such as the peculiar rows of angular concrete arches, vestiges of its original function as a banana-ripening warehouse. Founded by Frie Depraetere in 1989, a distributor of film and video, Argos now performs a multitude of functions, and is an important presence in Brussels, a city that suffers from a paucity of new media organisations. Boasting the largest collection of audio-visual material in Belgium and an ever-growing media library, as well as maintaining an active role in distribution and conservation, Argos is well placed to fulfil its self-appointed remit: exploring the impact of media on art and society and examining the intersection of contemporary art and other disciplines. It is also editing an eagerly anticipated international artists’ reader to be launched in June, a book that will document a hitherto underexposed scene.
May will mark the long-awaited opening of Wiels, a contemporary art centre to be housed in the iconic Blomme, a 1930s modernist building in the district of Forest, designed by Adrien Blomme as the Wielemans-Ceuppens brewery. Work started in 2005 and during the final stretch, a commission from Simon Starling will premier in the space. Feedback Loop is an animated film, which pays tribute to the Atomium, Brussels’ iconic monument to the atom designed by André Waterkeyn for the 1958 World Fair. The film, in which a single molecule of silver is animated, is the result of a reduction of a complex mix of art, historical and scientific information linked to the Belgian artist Marcel Broodthaers, who worked as a labourer on the construction of the Atomium and photographed the structure, and the silver crystals that are part of the chemical backing of photographic negatives. Projected every evening from dusk, the film will be from the street as the finishing touches are made to the building.
With six exhibitions a year, nine artists’ residencies ranging from six to 12 months, as well housing a café-bar and cinema, Wiels’s activities are to be geared towards fostering an international network, and to attracting a wide public. Chief curator Anne Pontégnie cites the relaxed atmosphere and late-night openings of the Palais de Tokio in Paris and the regeneration success of Baltic in Newcastle as inspiration for the ethos of Wiels. To mark the opening of the space, local television stations will be broadcasting a series of newly commissioned short films by Hiraki Sawa, Paulina Olowska and Belgian artists Ann-Veronica Janssens and Francis Alÿs. The inaugural exhibition, Expats & Clandestines will explore notions of displacement and migrations in the work of seven multinational artists including Francis Alÿs again, alongside artists including Gabriel Kuri, Chen Zen and Moshekwa Langa.
At the last count, there are 103 biennials now registered around the world, and with such a proliferation of the format, it was only a matter of time before Brussels announced its own. That time has come, and in June this year, the capital of Europe will launch the 104th biennial, the result of a collaboration between Bozar, the city’s palace of fine art and Roomade, a curatorial office founded in 1997 by Barbara Vanderlinden. The biennial will be curated by Vanderlinden with Anselm Franke, the artistic director of Extra City contemporary art centre in Antwerp, and Katerina Gregos, artistic director of Argos.
Taking into consideration Brussels’ unique situation as an international capital housing the headquarters of the European Union, and as a national capital in a country with multiple internal borders, the biennial will address the notion of borderlands. Vanderlinden cites the work of French political philosopher Etienne Balibar as an inspiration for the project. Balibar’s key text We, the People of Europe? Reflections on Transnational Citizenship posits Europe as an entity that conceives of itself essentially in terms of borderlands. This concept will not only act as the theme for the first Brussels Bienniale, but will continue, over a longer period, to inform research and discussions within an ongoing biennial think tank. A permanent committee made up of a dozen or so artists, academics and curators will meet regularly to debate issues around contemporary art, biennials and borderlands and will select curators for each biennial. This year’s will begin with a two-week conference with invited guests, alongside exhibitions and events at the Bozar, Argos, independent gallery Etablissements d’en face, and the performance space Beursschowburg. It will also include 20-25 substantial new commissions and a further 40 contributions from an international list of artists. Vanderlinden sees the theme of borderlands as integral to considerations of the city of Brussels but also as particularly relevant to artists, whom she views as ‘special ambassadors who can speak the language of translation’.
Ellen Mara De Wachter is a writer and curator