Adrien Tirtiaux, A tort ou horizon, 2013/2019, Courtesy Galerie Marin Janda, Vienna

Amberes, Roberto Bolaño's Antwerp - Talking to curator Nav Haq

Issue no5
Oct-Nov 2021

Displaying a raw energy that he would later develop to establish himself as one of the most original writers of his generation, Roberto Bolaño’s early experimental novella Amberes (English: Antwerp) is a source of inspiration for a homonymous group exhibition at M HKA in Antwerp. Sofie Crabbé had a conversation with senior curator Nav Haq about the creativity, power and relevance of Bolaño’s writing and how it resonates in both contemporary and historical art.

—Sofie Crabbé Why did you choose Amberes as a source of inspiration for an exhibition?

—Nav Haq When I moved to Antwerp several years ago, a friend gave me a copy of this novella. I liked the fact that the prose’s actual relation to Antwerp remains elusive. The book is not about Antwerp. It would be really uninteresting to make a straight ‘Antwerp’ show. This exhibition is a way to do something more ambiguous. I am interested in the blurring between places in Amberes. Some places are like alter-egos for other places. Most of the scenarios in fact take place in Barcelona, Blanes and Castelldefels in Catalonia, where Bolaño was living. I am quite sure he came to Belgium, but it’s not clear if he visited Antwerp. Somehow, it’s like a projection or a dream of another place. In Amberes, Bolaño thematises everyday reality in a way that feels highly contemporary, as expressed through topics such as crime and corruption, sexual violence, relative truth, memory and erasure, marginality and urbanism, the male gaze, and the sea as a metaphor, all of which also resonate with the history and reality of Antwerp. To do this, he uses a range of character archetypes - detectives, victims, artists, poets, alter-egos, hunchbacks and vagabonds. The vagabond for example is quite interesting for me, because the life of a lot of artists is a bit like this, moving from place to place, making projects, etc. and taking inspiration from the places they visit. The experimental structure of the book is intriguing as well. It feels a bit like the fragmented way in which some television series such as True Detective are structured nowadays. We took these themes, character archetypes and the experimental structure as modes to reflect in this group exhibition. It was a way to ‘translate’ the book, rather than illustrate it.

Bart Prinsen, Convergentiepunt (Point of Convergence, 2019, Courtesy of the artist 

—Sofie Crabbé Even though Bolaño is one of the significant, well-known writers from Latin America, and Spain, he is not so well-known in other countries like Belgium.

—Nav Haq Bolaño is only a little bit known over here for his more famous books The Savage Detectives and 2666. His writings have, relatively speaking, only recently been translated from Spanish. We are grateful to the Roberto Bolaño Estate for allowing M HKA the privilege of printing the Dutch translation of Amberes for the first time. Our hope is that this exhibition can bring greater visibility and understanding to the work of this exemplary author.

—Sofie Crabbé Amberes marks a transition in the oeuvre of Bolaño. Can you explain this?

—Nav Haq The novella was completed in 1980. It is a detective story that displays a deep irreverence to the form and tradition of the novel. Avoiding linear narrative, it progresses using a multiplicity of perspectives, with images, scenes and characters called up in different forms each time, which lends itself nicely for a playful, though also serious group exhibition. Almost every page in Amberes is one chapter, and the whole remains elusive. Writing Amberes was the curious result of pragmatic thinking that led him to decide to focus on novels as a more reliable source of income than poetry to support a family. So yes, Bolaño wrote Amberes in a sort of transition from a free, avant-garde practice to something he wanted to publish and distribute. I also notice a sort of mirroring of this evolution in visual arts, where there was a transition from avant-garde to a market-oriented approach. But in the end he decided to keep hold of it thinking it was too radical a book for any publisher, and in fact it was only eventually published just before the author’s death.

—Sofie Crabbé In Amberes Bolaño quite often refers to real places and real people, like the Belgian poet and graphic artist Sophie Podolski that he mentions in chapters 2 and 7.

—Nav Haq Sophie Podolski was largely forgotten over here, until last year when there was the large overview Sophie Podolski: Le pays où tout est permis at WIELS. There is a sort of rediscovery of her work. Bolaño was a great admirer of her writings and drawings, and he mentioned Podolski in quite a few of his stories. The literary journal Luna-park issue 2 - which we have on display in the exhibition - provides the link between Bolaño and Podolski, as it was where he came across her writing for the first time, which he actually describes in another short story titled Vagabond in France and Belgium.

Rinus Van de Velde, Given only one life,…, 2019, courtesy Tim Van Laere Gallery, Antwerp

Walter Swennen, Zij die hier zijn zijn van hier, 2007, Courtesy of the artist and Xavier Hufkens

—Sofie Crabbé The exhibition presents the artworks of 33 artists. There are a couple of historical, exemplary works that engage with the contemporaneity of the themes in Amberes. Can you give an example?

—Nav Haq I selected the work Office Baroque by Gordon Matta-Clark (80 diaslides, radically dissecting of an empty office block of a former sea-freight company, sc). As an architect-turned-artist, Gordon Matta-Clark is interesting for different reasons. As mentioned, Bolaño had a disrespect to the form and tradition of the novel, and Gordon Matta-Clark showed a similar irreverence to architecture. Matta-Clark’s father, Roberto Matta, was a well-known modernist painter from Chile, where Roberto Bolaño also came from. Matta was an inspiration to Bolaño, who was an active member of the Infrarrealismo poetry movement during the mid-1970s, in the period when he lived in Mexico. The movement used a motto from Matta - they wanted to “Blow the brains out of the cultural establishment”. Beside Gordon Matta-Clark, we show historical artworks made by other artists like David Lamelas and Stephen Willats, that they made in response to their experience of Antwerp.

—Sofie Crabbé Were there also new works produced for this exhibition?

—Nav Haq Yes, several new works have been produced. Rinus Van de Velde made a new charcoal drawing, together with a series of hand-made ‘props’. Just like Bolaño, who placed himself as an alter-ego in Amberes and in many of his later books, the carefully crafted self-portraits of Van de Velde, exploring the personas constructed by figures of the Western artistic canon, should rather be seen as being an alter-ego as well. The self can be a space to explore fiction and how we might want to see our narratives in the world. Bart Prinsens also made a new installation Convergentiepunt (Point of Convergence). Made of metal rod, this work depicts a certain crossroads in Antwerp that Prinsen is familiar with. It is a particular landmark that has been partially erased and reconstructed over time.There are also a couple of fantastic new works by Mathieu Verhaeghe who has a philosophical, existential way of thinking. We are presenting, for example, works from his ongoing Sausage Series. The work is a nod to Bolaño’s most direct reference to Antwerp in chapter 49 of Amberes. It reads: “In Antwerp, a man was killed when his car was run over by a truck full of pigs. Lots of pigs died too when the truck overturned, others had to be put out of their misery by the side of the road and others took off as fast as they could.” Paul Hendrikse has made a new installation as well, named Quiet Signs, looking at the legacy of Lode Craeybeckx, a former mayor of Antwerp, who from 1947 until his death in 1976, oversaw the city’s rapid post-war era expansion. For this exhibition, we also commissioned photographer Eva Donckers to create a series of images for the visual campaign. Her images, shot around Barcelona, Castelldefels and Blanes in Catalonia, Spain, are based on specific locations in Bolaño’s novel. Depicting campsites, cafés, beaches and other settings, the images give a sense of incidents and encounters that have happened in seemingly innocent places. The images she created are really impressive, and it felt appropriate to include them in the exhibition rather than use them purely for the visual campaign. It has been highly rewarding to bring these different generations together for this exhibition.

AMBERES - ROBERTO BOLAÑO’S ANTWERPEN, M HKA, Antwerp, 07.06.2019 - 15.09.2019.

Artists include: Anne-Mie Van Kerckhoven, Imogen Stidworthy, Sophie Podolski, Cevdet Erek, Michèle Matyn, Andrea Fraser, Luc Deleu, Georges Smits, Allan Sekula, Laure Prouvost, Luc Tuymans, Bart Prinsen, David Lamelas, Jimmie Durham, Katrin Kamrau, Ruth Sacks, Walter Swennen, Chantal Peñalosa, Nicolás Uriburu, Stephen Willats, Paul Hendrikse, Marlene Dumas, Rinus Van de Velde, Danny Devos, Eva Donckers, Alain Ayers, Mathieu Verhaeghe, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Adrien Tirtiaux, Laurie Parsons, Gordon Matta-Clark, Hugo Roelandt, Ria Pacquée and items from the Roberto Bolaño Archive.


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Metropolis M Magazine for contemporary art No 5 — 2021