Galerie Vilenne, Liège, Tokonoma (titre provisoire) Suchan Kinoshita, Aglaia Konrad, Willem Oorebeek, Eran Schaerf, Olivier Foulon, Walter Swennen, Kris Kimpe, Joerg Franzbecker. And guests. 2012

So close, yet so far away
Contemporary Art in Wallonia

Issue no2
April - May 2019
Magisch Realisme
Espace 251 Nord, Liège

Though it is important to think in relativistic terms for all things in life, it is also sometimes healthier to look at things purely for what they are in isolation. This, I believe should be the case for the situation of visual art in the Walloon region of Belgium. It is a region that tends only to be considered in direct comparison with the flourishing scene in Flanders, giving it the appearance, just like with its economic situation, of being the poor cousins.

It is also unfair to compare within such limited frames of reference like this, given the modest size of the nation, and if you might also wish to see that it arguably offers more contemporary activity than other similar sized regions in Europe, such as say Cornwall or Burgundy. For this reason, it is ultimately worth viewing the situation for what it offers, and to ignore it in terms of policy-based infrastructure as this is more or less negligible. Rather, it is good to look for the various significant ‘presences’ of visual art – the places where it is given an opportunity to support and exhibit the work of artists, and create a kind of scene.

Liège

It is perhaps in Liège where there are a number of prominent initiatives. Aside the rather sedate BAL (Musée des Beaux-Arts Liege), there is Espace 251 Nord, an organisation founded by Laurent Jacob and located at a large venue combining an old house, along with one of Wallonia’s ubiquitous post-industrial spaces and a newly constructed complex of apartments. The physical structure of Espace 251 Nord, in all its forms, is impressive in scale, and has all the functionality appropriate for the different activities of the organisation. There is a large exhibition space, the artists’ studios for local and international artists and a set of apartments for those in-residence. It is a place focusing on production, presentation and discursive practices, and for this reason it is easy to see it as Wallonia’s most important place for supporting the artistic scene the region, as well as the city, along with making connections with the outside world.

Galerie Vilenne, Liège, Tokonoma (titre provisoire) Suchan Kinoshita, Aglaia Konrad, Willem Oorebeek, Eran Schaerf, Olivier Foulon, Walter Swennen, Kris Kimpe, Joerg Franzbecker. And guests. 2012

Elsewhere in Liege, there is Galerie Nadja Vilenne, a commercial gallery which again utilises a former industrial space. They are a rare presence for the art market in Wallonia, working with an established rostrum of artists, including the likes of Jacques Charlier, Aglaia Konrad, John Murphy, Suchan Kinoshita, and Walter Swennen. They have successfully managed to carve out a space for exhibiting contemporary artists’ work in a rather residential district in the north of the city.

Despite Liège historically being a key centre in the region for art, being the place to live for many conceptual artists from the avant-garde period, including Jacques Charlier and Jaques Lizène, there are only a mere smattering of other initiatives to consider, except perhaps the MADmusée, which displays temporary exhibitions of “outsider” art, and a handful of other more modest initiatives such as the vitrine gallery of Galerie Les Drapiers.

Charleroi

The post-industrial desolation of Charleroi automatically makes one feel like you are partaking in a kind of destitution safari. Something that artist Nicolas Buissart has taken on board by organising Charleroi Adventure, taking visitors on an alternative tour of city, where you can visit the “the place where Magritte’s mother committed suicide, abandoned factories, and the “most distressing street in all of Belgium”, much to the distress of the local authorities. This kind of urban interface with the city is a clear impetus for artists like Buissart, as well as the initiatives such as Hotel Charleroi, initiated in 2009 by the artists Adrien Tirtiaux, Antoine Turillon and Hannes Zebedin.

Hotel Charleroi, site 2013

Consciously non-institutional, Hotel Charleroi is a residency programme intended to utilise Charleroi as a site-specific context for reflection and intervention. They invite numerous artists at certain points annually, to spend time there and develop in-situ projects that consider post-industrial space, and its de facto socio-political conditions. These artist–led projects together form a kind of tendency for psycho-geography in Charleroi, which seems to be a way of dealing with working in such a place. Alternately, there is the Museum of Photography in the city, hosting a historic photography collection with the more typical universal white-walled museum-like spaces. It remains distinct in ‘feel’, also as the photography tends to be mainly in the photo-journalism tradition rather than visual-art photography.

Mons

Closeby to Mons, this year one of the two European Capitals of Culture, is the MAC Grand-Hornu, which is Wallonia’s official museum of contemporary art. It is the largest contemporary art space in the region, once again repurposing a row of former industrial buildings. It’s activities mirror that of other contemporary art museums in Belgium like the MuHKA in Antwerp or SMAK in Ghent, building a collection and organising temporary exhibitions that are mainly monographic.

MAC Grand-Hornu, Mons

Stavelot & Eupen

The space for these exhibitions is substantial, forming prime opportunities for the invited artists. There are of course numerous other contemporary art spaces in Wallonia, including Le Triangle Bleu in Stavelot or the IKOB Museum for Contemporary Art in Eupen at the heart of Belgium’s German-speaking community, amongst others, all developing interesting programmes, yet, like generally is the case for initiatives in Wallonia, they lack the real visibility that they deserve outside the region, perhaps because of localising quite definitively their communication to the regional audience. It seems fair to say though, there is space for more initiatives of all scales in Wallonia, which could arguable be the case for the nation as a whole. But evidently an understanding is growing in the region of the role exhibition-making plays in the development of artists’ practices.

So, what can be seen from looking at Wallonia from the perspective of the outside? Most vividly, you can see how post-industrial spaces are utilised and re-energised there. Art, it seems, can be like the phoenix from the flames for places conscious of their former glory. But, ultimately there is a scene there that has clear potential. Artists, both established and emerging wish to live there, if we think about practitioners such as Eric Duyckaerts, Edith Dekyndt or Gert Robijns amongst many others.

So it is a question of the willing to produce a scene. There remains a rather curious psychological distance between Flanders and Wallonia, though some affinity with Brussels exists. But there is strong disconnect, and thus few avenues for development through any discursive relationship or partnerships. Perhaps then we see a kind of reorientation in Wallonia. We can see a pivot, towards other parts within the region described by Rem Koolhaas as “Eurocore”– the dense region of Benelux and the Rheinland combined. We see already some initiatives that link up mentally Wallonia with southern-most parts of the Netherlands and the Rheinland. There are for example, the two periodicals. Firstly, the bi-annual Very Contemporary, which presents the activities of institutions within the curiously named “Association of the Meuse-Rhine Euregio”, placing Liege within as axis incorporating Maastricht, Heerlen, Hasselt, Eupen, Düren and Aachen. There is also Cahier, published quarterly, that focuses more broadly on “Eurocore”, but as something published in the Rheinland, it has a more direct perspective into Wallonia. These initiatives are important as they are helping Walloon organisations become part of a broader ecology, and from there we will see it develop further, and watch it become more visible.

Nav Haq is curator at M HKA, Antwerp

THIS ARTICLE HAS BEEN PUBLISHED IN A DUTCH TRANSLATION IN METROPOLIS M No 1-2015 WORLD OF INTERIORS & ANTROPOCEEN

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Metropolis M Magazine for contemporary art No 2 — 2019