Brussels Art Days 2013

J.J. Charlesworth encounters a more international art outlook in the Belgian capital

Kendell Geers, Ligne de Fuite 40 (The Occulist Witnesses), 2013, Galerie Rodolphe Janssen Sterling Ruby, installation view at Charles Riva Collection, 2013 Petrit Halilaj, Installation view of Poisoned by men in need of some love at WIELS Contemporary Art Centre, Brussels 2013. Courtesy the artist and Chert, Berlin. Photo WIELS Contemporary Art Centre / Laura Toots Joris Van de Moortel, Installation View, Galerie Nathalie Obadia, Brussels Art Days 2013 Simon Mathers, Milk, installation view at MOT International, Brussels, 2013

Art gallery open weekends are a clever idea. All the galleries open their shows on the same night, everyone makes an effort with their shows, then galleries keep to the same opening hours, making life easier for the dedicated art tourist. Berlin has had its Gallery Weekend Berlin since 2004, and Brussels Art Days has picked up the formula since 2008. And while Brussels is still a more low-key affair, there’s definitely a buzz growing in this, the most eccentric of European capital cities. Alongside an older generation of Belgian galleries, Brussels has seen the arrival of big galleries from Paris and New York. And while this may have a lot to do with the buying power of French tax exiles, Brussels is nevertheless starting to see a more internationalised scene develop, where once a less visible, more introspective world of Belgian collectors and institutions held sway.

The mix of commercial and independent activity is diversifying

Perhaps the problem is that sculpture currently seems vulnerable to swift shifts in fashion, or that the dialogue around it is extremely unstable and unsettled. There’s actually a fair bit of sculpture around; most striking is Swiss artist Manuel Burgener at Catherine Bastide, whose rough, low-key work is made on-site, from unglamorous materials – sheet glass, MDF, mastics. A large sculpture, several long boxes of glass arranged in an asymmetric cruciform, hangs in the space on a counterbalanced length of chain. It’s precarious, dangerous-looking and covered in dust and smudges, and it seems to embody a recent move to lo-fi among young sculptors, as well as an attention to production process and the trace of labour in otherwise shop-bought humdrum materials.

A similar broken-down, ad hoc look pervades the work of Joris van de Moortel at Nathalie Obadia. Cobbled-together assemblages that imply various unspecified functions, but incorporate the equipment of music making and art making (bits of guitar, microphones, drumkits, tubes of paint, amps), van de Moortel’s pieces cross the world of DIY rock with action painting. It looks dumb, then complicated, then it seems to start to test the question of where performance meets object, where making things meets performing – between Burgener and van de Moortel you could identify some kind of new ‘Grunge’ ethos taking shape, that wants sculptures to be about more than just good looks.

Alongside the more polished gallery operations, Brussels can boast the seriously quirky

Good looks aren’t what you get instantly from Kendell Geers’s work – the south African artist has carved out an ultra-stylised aesthetic of violence and aggression over the years, and at Gallerie Rodolphe Janssen he presents a slew of dark paintings on paper, out of whose surface is picked out elaborate patterns of razorwire, while other paintings are of mirror-symmetry texts in which are hidden various intense and nihilistic slogans. Elsewhere Geers presents white-and-black paint-spattered African nail fetishes. Echoes of racial conflict, coming from a white south African, in a city once the capital of one of Europe’s most barbarous colonial adventures.

There’s more than sculpture and painting of course. At the considered and austere Jan Mot, there’s a severe video by Manon de Boer, her one, two, many, produced for last year’s Documenta 13. In three parts, it’s a meditation on the gap between language and the voice, including an exhausting sequence of a flautist blowing a single note for countless minutes, using circular breathing to push a shrill ascending note from his flute, his throat rippling with the effort of keeping the air flowing.

Alongside these more polished gallery operations, Brussels can boast the seriously quirky Aeroplastics gallery, a difficult-to-define den of art-into-pop culture, whose artists are always happily on the margins of the sober good taste of much of the artworld, flirting constantly with the limits of collector-kitsch. Three floors of Aeroplastics’ grand townhouse gallery are filled with the crazy miniature model cityscapes of Tracey Snelling, which distort and accumulate finely-observed detail into claustrophobic narrative model-worlds taken from the urban sprawls of Japan, China, backwater America and global elsewheres. There’s craft-hobbyist’s charm to these internally illuminated places that could easily be dismissed, but there’s also an intense seriousness to the commitment to distilling a sense of the reality of the modern urban world that lingers long after you stop grinning.

The commercial gallery pomp is kept in balance with a number of smaller, aspirant gallery projects; Jens Haaning’s nationalism-baiting BELGIQUE & Other Works at D+T Project; the Kazakh artist Yerbossyn Meldibekov’s post-soviet musings at Josza. The increasingly international buzz of Brussels is manifest among some more recent arrivals on the Brussels scene. London’s MOT International inaugurates its fancy new space with a show of confident, playfully slight paintings by young Londoner Simon Mathers, whose images of naked people just standing around, looking relaxed, have a nonchalant poise in which everyday life is turned into a neverending cocktail hour. Shanghai gallery Feizi, meanwhile, presents the somber and symbolically charged work of Shi Jinsong.

Brussels, then, is upping its tempo. The mix of commercial and independent activity is diversifying. Independent spaces have started to make their mark – such as the curatorial collective Komplot, and the new arrival of the previously Antwerp-based NICC. All this is bolstered by the presence and energy of the publicly funded WIELS, whose consistently engaging programme (thanks in part to its Berlin-based curator Elena Filipovic), has given the Brussels artworld a fresh international profile. WIELS’s newly opened show, of Kosovar artist Petrit Halilaj, is a reminder of the complex European reality of Brussels’s situation. Halilaj’s dark and melancholic installation – based on the story of the destroyed taxidermy collection of the Kosovo natural history museum – provokes disquieting questions about the new political settlement of the expanded European Union, right here in its administrative heart. Brussels, a city long the destination for various North African immigrants, is fast becoming the next European city of artworld migrants. Less Belgian – but what is Belgium anyway?