50 years of Art Brussels under the sun

The year 1968 was marked by several political, ethical, sexual and behavioural transformations, from the Vietnam War and the subsequent student protests, to the Earth images recorded by Apollo 8 from the moon. That was also the year when the Belgium art market was shaken and one of the oldest exhibitions of contemporary art in Europe was born: Art Brussels, at the time known as Foire d’Art Actuel.

After 50 years, Art Brussels celebrated its 50th-year anniversary from 19 to 22 April, proving its relevance and centrality in the international art context, with significant sales and areas devoted to the discovery of brand new artists, in addition to a clear-cut involvement of a solid and knowledgeable base of collectors, who feed the ecosystem of the fair itself and the hosting city. In this edition, the artistic programme was varied, combining daring proposals with more established artists, where the different sections (Discovery, Rediscovery, Prime and Solo) allowed the 147 galleries to benefit from a greater visibility and a more dynamic movement of the audience.

But the Discovery section is the one that reflects the desire to sustain contemporaneity the most, besides attracting a younger kind of collector. As stated by the director Anne Vierstraete, “Art Brussels is still an exciting platform to discover the talents of tomorrow.” In this case, the 33 selected galleries incorporate this ambition and present works produced between 2015 and 2018, with the main intent of gaining recognition in a wider context. The SMAC gallery (Cape Town, Johannesburg, Stellenbosch), winner of the Discovery award for the work of the artist Georgina Gratrix, regards the choice of the fair as a reflection of the need to acquire “legitimacy in the European context, outside of South Africa, where the artist already has some visibility”. The Barbara Seiler gallery (Zurich), with the artist Bob Eikelboom, which presents a series of paintings made with magnets, where the viewer can intervene in the composition, is also looking to reach an international audience, but senses in Art Brussels the necessary confidence to take risks. Other highlights in this section go to BANK gallery (Shanghai) with the installation The Bearable of the young Chinese artist Chen Zhe, and the Exile (Berlin) and Polansky (Prague) galleries, which presented the work of Martin Kohout and Christophe De Rohan Chabot.

Comparing with the previous year, and given the celebratory context, the percentage of Belgian galleries increased and it was possible to notice a significant number of performative proposals, from the calligraphy store of Kwok Mang Ho (better known as The Frog King), which, for 200€, offered hand-made calligraphy, to Alice Anderson’s performance, which lasted the entire fair. The exhibition curated by Elena Sorokina, and this edition’s main artistic project, Mystic Properties, was a safe bet, while particularly relevant in a fair context. This exhibition addressed issues around the notions of possession and art exhibition, based on the 15th-century work Ghent Alterpiece of Jan and Hubert van Eyck, in a long-term collaboration with the HISK (Higher Institute for Fine Arts in Ghent).

Finally, the sunny and warm days reached the parallel events, which underlined the growing and sometimes a discreetly busy artistic area of Brussels, both for independent and institutional exhibitions. The satellite fair Poppositions deserves to be stressed, with emerging galleries and projects, and a blatant disruptive or transgressor willingness. These are the low values articulated with a strict selection, which bring to this fair, in the city centre, projects like the one of David Bernstein, Saunra, an open Fiat Multipla transformed into a sauna enwrapped by the sound of Sun Ra, or the project Wellness Center Future Proof, an attempt to draw a reflection from a hypothetical apocalyptic threat in an immersive audio. Laagencia, with Santiago Pinyol’s project, invaded several “beyond-stand” areas of Poppositions (including the warehouse of Art Brussels on the inauguration day), an insightful critique on art commodification and how it can be presented.

Still in the downtown, the art centre WIELS presented the exhibition Paroles of Saâdane Afif, an overview carefully assembled based on the artist’s work in the past 15 years, with a strong word influence in his practice. A few meters away, in the C L E A R I N G gallery (Brussels), the unmissable exhibition A workshop for peace: nowhere to go: let the song hold us: in a room filled with people with funny names 4, of the Thai artist Korakrit Arunanondchai, will be shown until May 26.Voici des Fleurs, in the alternative room La Loge, with artists Anne Hardy, Hanne Lippard and Caroline Mesquita, and the performance Le Bétyle d’ Ail of the young artist Nils Alix-Tabeling, in his own house, were other ingredients that contributed to the buzzing felt during those days.

Therefore, and despite this year’s clash between Art Brussels and Art Cologne, the city was full of artists, curators, collectors, museum directors and gallerists, proving that it wasn’t just a sunny week. Brussels is warming up and on the path to be an epicentre of artistic production and reflection, in a time when 2018 has yet to be claimed.

Carolina Trigueiros is a curator, writer and cultural producer based in Lisbon, Portugal. Carolina has a post-graduate degree in Curatorial Studies from Nova University, Lisbon (2017), and a bachelor degree in Cultural Communications from Católica University (2013), in Lisbon and Barcelona.

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