The Absent Museum

In homage to Marcel Broodthaers’s fictitious museum, this exhibition addresses Belgium’s identity crisis

By Sam Steverlynck

Felix Nussbaum, St. Cyprien (Gefangene in Saint-Cyprien), 1942, oil on canvas, 68 × 138 cm. Collection Felix-Nussbaum-Haus, Osnabrück

Wiels, Brussels 20 April – 13 August 

In 1968 the Belgian artist Marcel Broodthaers set up the Musée d’Art Moderne, Département des Aigles in his living room in Brussels, a fictitious museum with various ‘departments’ intended to mimic the functioning of museums while simultaneously denouncing the lack of a decent institution in his home city. Almost 40 years later, Brussels still has no museum for contemporary art. Hence, the Wiels Contemporary Art Centre has engaged in the hypothetical exercise of imagining what such a museum would contain, while subtly referring to the debate about the actual planned new museum in the city, a franchise of the Centre Pompidou – criticised by a substantial proportion of the Belgian art scene as French cultural imperialism. Via The Absent Museum, Wiels artistic director Dirk Snauwaert, who instigated the show, wonders why inhabitants of Brussels who immigrated there – the city has the world’s second-highest percentage of residents born abroad – are, according to him, surprisingly absent in its museums. At the same time, the show temporarily tries to fill this gap (and others), and to put forth a blueprint of the museum of the future.

Belgium’s own identity crisis and problematic attitude towards the concept of the nation-state is addressed with the self-deprecating humour the country is known for

One of these absent voices was the German-Jewish painter Felix Nussbaum, whose work has been rediscovered of late. During the 1940s Nussbaum was a refugee trying to escape the Nazi terror by hiding in Brussels, but he ultimately ended up in Auschwitz after being denounced. In a series of striking paintings, both expressionistic and allegorical, that occupy a central position here – the main building of this exhibition, and two smaller venues adjacent to the art centre – Nussbaum’s paintings seem to eerily anticipate his horrible destiny by depicting, among other things, a snitch on the lookout for Jews. The video Être et pas avoir (2014) by Younes Baba-Ali, meanwhile, sheds quite a different light on immigration. The artist filmed a Belgian resident with immigrant roots explaining offscreen how to obtain as many social benefits as possible via all kinds of schemes. This is a work that could easily be co-opted by the far right, and hence it represents a bold move: not only avoiding the normal, politically correct way of portraying immigrants as victims, but also trying to open up a genuine debate – as museums should do – by tackling uncomfortable issues and not only ‘critical’ topics about which the art-world agrees.

Belgium’s own identity crisis and problematic attitude towards the concept of the nation-state – the country is often seen as an artificial construct – is, naturally, also addressed, with the self-deprecating humour the country is known for. Le Mur (1968) is a black-and-white 16mm film, attributed to Henri Storck, that starts like a news feature in which a Congolese journalist reports from Brussels divided by a wall to separate French and Dutch speakers. After a while it becomes clear that this is a fictitious account to warn voters participating in the then-upcoming national elections – characterised by growing tensions between both language communities – about the dangers of a ‘Berlin scenario’. (This in turn is evoked in a nice cluster of works dealing with Germany’s loaded history by Gerhard Richter, Martin Kippenberger, Dirk Braeckman and Luc Tuymans.)

Tuymans is also represented by a recent body of work, Doha I–III (2016), for which he made paintings of the empty rooms of the Qatar Museums Gallery Al Riwaq after his retrospective there, the only visual reminder of his show being the stainlike outlines that mark the spaces his paintings used to occupy: a rather literal reference to the absence in the exhibition’s title. Though that epithet could suggest otherwise, the amount of works referring to the museum as an institution is actually rather limited: besides the inescapable Broodthaers, there are prints from Guillaume Bijl’s 1977 art liquidation project and drawings from the ongoing Zoological Classification project by Wesley Meuris, who makes architectural designs for various animal species while drawing parallels with museums, illustrating the conditioned gaze in zoos and museums alike. Hence the exhibition rejects navel-gazing institutional critique, delivering instead a genuine reflection on museums’ role in civic society. The result is a clever show that is not only highly relevant to the current moment, both in Belgian and international contexts, but also leaves room for humour and a sense of relativism – as illustrated, for instance, by the aforementioned Le Mur – in a spirit that feels, appropriately, true to Broodthaers himself. 

First published in the Summer 2017 issue of ArtReview