Last weekend, i went to Mechelen (Belgium) for Contour, the Biennial of Moving Image. I had loved the 2009 edition of the biennial and the theme this year was rather intriguing: Leisure, Discipline and Punishment. The venues of the exhibition were quite unusual: the prison, the football stadium of KV Mechelen, the Church of Our Lady-across-the-Dyle and the Museum Hof van Busleyden. Places that people enter for pleasure, necessity, belief or by force.
Besides, it was sunny and Mechelen (aka Malines) is a cute little city.
In this edition of Contour, curator Jacob Fabricius wanted to examines social roles and relations within society.
To serve their very specific purposes, prisons, stadiums, churches and museums are governed by specific rules, rhythms, hierarchies and regulations.
The three words of the exhibition title, Leisure, Discipline and Punishment, are also connected, but not to any of the specific venues. Rather, the theme Leisure, Discipline and Punishment is an attempt to tap into these institutions, to examine their possibilities, restraints, social function and relations within society.
Unsurprisingly, the first venue i wanted to visit was the prison but the access was very limited so all i saw was the facade of the prison (obviously) but also the Rules of the Prison, one of the posters that David Shrigley was commissioned and that lists the rules of conduct for the prison. A second one is inside the church. The last one at the entrance of the football stadium.
Off to the main exhibition space then, The Hof van Busleyden (Court of Busleyden.) Built at the beginning of the sixteenth century for ecclesiastical jurist, Maecenas and humanist Hiëronymus van Busleyden, thehe Hof is now the municipal museum.
That's at the Hof, that i finally got my bit of prison lurking with Mark Raidpere's static shots of ten violent criminals posing in front of the camera as they are serving time in a prison in Estonia. They move and grin slowly and the camera moves sometimes too close for the viewer's comfort. But the proximity and the voyeuristic slow motion also invites the viewer to feel empathy for the men: are they vicious criminals or victims of society?
The selection of posters of old films about women in prison is at the opposite spectrum. The women are depicted as sexual and hysterical creatures. The clichés about these women however are still the ones you can see in contemporary tv series about prison (Bad Girls, Orange Is the New Black, etc.) For Prison Score Liz Magic Laser extracted from these films a number of scenes showing inmates making hysterical movements. She then used them for a choreography filmed in Mechelen prison and developed with dancer and choreographer Lisbeth Gruwez which mimics the movements of the film characters.
Sarah Vanhee spent the Summer working with inmates at Mechelen prison. She describes this artistic project: 'For an outsider, the prison building is a warning or a reassurance. The prisoner himself doesn't have a face. He is reduced to legal matter, to government penal policy. Within the prison walls, there is only space for silent, obedient bodies. I Screamed and I Screamed and I Screamed challenges this silent body, and hence the normalizing society. The sterile anonymity of the prison wall is disturbed by the voices of the prison inhabitants. And centrally, in the midst of it all, stands a screaming body.' The video is just a vertical view of a wall and nothing else. Until you pick up the headphones and hear the screams of the inmates.
In Edgardo Aragón Díaz's Hunter an African man takes us on a tour of a Belgian zoo. He sings songs about hunting in his homeland. The artist draws attention to the contrast between the quality of life of immigrants from post-colonial countries and the protected life led by the animals in the zoo.
At this point i should say that most of the works in the Contour biennial are not about prison but more generally about regulated behaviour, institutional structures and society's codes.
My next stop in Mechelen was the Church Of Our Lady-Across-The-Dyle. I've seen my fair share of exhibitions and parties inside desacralized religious buildings but this one is still very much used by the local Roman Catholic community. Here's what greets the visitors:
More views inside the church on Sacred Space.
You actually have to embark on a hunt around the church to see all the works. They are not aligned nicely on blank walls like in most art galleries. Which made the visit a bit challenging but in a pleasant way. At least the space is manageable. I wasn't so lucky at the football stadium. While i was happy to be back in a stadium (the last time i was on a football field i ended up on the national news. Long story... and an embarrassing one at that), i quickly got frustrated in my attempt to locate the videos. I found the Shrigley one (hurray!) but otherwise the place was deserted and the few people i met there had no clue about the artworks shown on the premise.
I was very excited by the theme of the biennial and the locations of the exhibitions but i wouldn't say that my expectations were fully met. Many of the works were a bit too dry and abstract for me and i struggled to engage with half of what i saw. On the other hand, i took the Eurostar back home with a bag full of dark chocolate. When you're a Belgian living in the UK, finding chocolate that lives up to what you're used to is nothing but a depressing crusade.
More images from the biennial:
Contour 2013, the 6th Biennial of Moving Image closes this Sunday 3 November so hurry up!
A new episode of #A.I.L - artists in laboratories, the weekly radio programme about art and science i present ResonanceFM, will be broadcast today Tuesday 4th December at 4:00 pm. There will be a repeat on Thursday 6th December at 10:30 pm. You can catch it online if you don't live in London.
The host of this episode is conceptual artist Koen Vanmechelen who has spent the past 20 years crossbreeding national species of chicken in order to create the ultimate 'Cosmopolitan Chicken Project.' You might or might not know it but each country has cultivated its own peculiar breed of chicken: the French, for example, have the Poulet the Brest. It's white and red with blue feet, the same colours as their flag. Americans like their chicken to be big and powerful. The Chinese have created a chicken covered in silky feathers.
I've been admiring Vanmechelen's work for several years but i only got to meet him a few weeks ago at Z33 House for Contemporary Art in Hasselt. That's where the interview took place. The conversation has moments of humour and moments of deeper reflection. There's something both humble and heroic about Vanmechelen's stories of the incestuous and infertile English Red Cap or of the rooster that underwent surgery to be fitted with a new golden spur. But Koen's research project is not just about chicken and egg. His work encroaches on the fields of science, philosophy and ethics to ask questions about biocultural diversity, identity, evolution and freedom of movement.
For a sneak peek of his work, check out this short video of Koen Vanmechelen summing up the Cosmopolitan Chicken:
Or this other one, showing the artist at work in Venice:
Image on the homepage: Koen Vanmechelen, Mechelse Bresse (M) x English Redcap (F), 2007
Artworks installed in public space might get the approval of local governments but that doesn't mean that they will make a good impression on passersby. Or on people genuinely interested in art. Too many public artworks i come across are bland and sad addition to the city or the landscape. I suspect that some of them 'dialogue' with the surrounding space only in the mind of the artists and/or the commissioners.
Fortunately there are exceptions to the rule (and the future might even get rosier.) Take the province of Limburg in Belgium where Z33, the house for contemporary art has launched pit - art in public space. A few years ago, the art space invited established names and young talents to visit several sites in the region, pick up the one they'd like to work with and then submit a project that would engage with the cultural background of the area and entice passers-by to look differently at the surroundings. The result is pit - art in public space.
Badeend (the Rubber Duck) by Florentijn Hofman kicked off Z33's art in public space programme back in 2008. Since then, the duck has been deflated, inflated again, turned into bright shoulder bags and resuscitated on several occasions. In 2011, pit commissions have spread all over the region of Borgloon-Heers and they might venture even further in the coming years.
The programme's most talked about public artwork is the see-through building of steel built by architects duo Pieterjan Gijs and Arnout Van Vaerenbergh in the middle of Borgloon's corn and apple fields. The 10 metre high structure has the archetypal shape of the churches found in the region. Because it is both almost transparent and highly visible, the construction provides an opportunity to have another look at the landscape. It also attracted tourists who would otherwise have never thought of visiting the area (some of them even came from Japan after the church had made the cover of an architecture magazine.)
The building is smaller than i had thought but it is just as stunning as on the photos above.
Wesley Meuris's Memento is a sculpture built by the Borgloon cemetery. The steel structure, with its peculiar acoustics and sci-fi whiteness, envelops the visitor while giving them a perspective on the sky and slices of the surrounding landscape.
I think it's the first time i entered a cemetery to see a contemporary art work.
Some of the works remain in place for several years, others can be seen for only a short time. Last Summer, Dré Wapenaar hung four tear-shaped tents on trees. People could book a tree and spend the night up there.
Japanese artist Tadashi Kawamata headed a workshop where students in architecture, interior architecture and visual arts designed and built Project Burchtheuvel, a wooden sculpture where people can walk up, observe the landscape and relax. The work also scored brownie points because it almost hid the nearby library, a building which hideousness i'd rather not comment.
Aeneas Wilder built a round construction with a 360º view on the landscape near the Monastery of Colen in Kerniel. Walking around the structure reminds visitors of a meditative promenade in the internal garden of a monastery. Not that everyone uses the space to collect their thoughts. When i visited children were using it to skate and cycle.
And the list goes on...
The artworks are also accompanied by workshops, side activities and public events. The smartest way to see them is to rent a bike and cycle from one to the other.
This post wasn't sponsored in any way by the local tourism office. Maybe next time i'll try and get a gigantic inflatable duck though.
If you think that the ongoing edition of the Manifesta biennale is not enough to lure you to the Limburg region of Belgium, how about an exhibition about the work of 30 artists who are looking for gaps in the ruling systems and structures?
Mind the System, Find the Gap is this year's Summer exhibition at Z33 and the concept of the show has been applied literally to the Z33 space. The artworks occupy every space available: they are in the usual exhibition spaces of course but also in the garden, in the reception area, and inside the little Beguinage houses.
Our society is governed by all sorts of systems and structures. No system, however, whether political, judicial, economical, socio-cultural or spatial, can comprise life in its entirety. Every system has loopholes, leaks and ambiguities.
The exhibition is uplifting and timely. In these moments of social inequality, austerity, cuts in culture budgets, low social mobility, loss of privacy, recession, it is reassuring to discover that the systems that govern our existences have flaws and spaces that we can infiltrate. Even if this form of resistance is often more symbolic than truly power-challenging.
Some of the participating artists merely reveal and document these gaps while others go further and demonstrate how to take advantage of them. The artworks are organized according to themes: political systems, spatial systems and socio-cultural systems with of course much overlap since many of the artworks confront several systems at the same time.
The clearest and probably most amusing introduction to the show has to be Matthieu Laurette's project. For 8 years, the artist ate, shaved, dressed and showered for free thanks to Moneyback Products, a method of shopping that pushed to the extreme the marketing system of the major food corporations which offer their product with a "Satisfied or your money back" or "Money back on first purchase" label. Similarly, Laurette's home was always equipped with brand new electrical goods which he sent back before the end of the guarantee - to replace them with brand new ones.
The strategy requires to be extremely well organised. Because most manufacturers ask you to send back a separate till receipts before they will refund items, you need to pay separately for each product.
Moneyback Products was an art project but also a life style that leaked beyond the walls of art galleries. Laurette became indeed a celebrity in the French media, he was invited to popular talk shows and his project appeared on the cover of mainstream magazines.
In Identity4You, Heath Bunting creates off-the-shelf new legal identities built up from a portfolio of unique legal relationships. The work - a continuation of Identity Bureau and the Status Project - draws on the fact that as a human being one can have several legal identities. These identities are constructed through a network of registrations: loyalty cards, bank accounts, phone cards, bills, government correspondence and other person related data. The vaster the network, the stronger the legal identity. Identity4You demonstrates that an identity depends mainly upon administrative systems, rather than personality or even a physical body.
The animation film What Shall We Do Next is presented as an "archive of gestures to come". The gestures refer to the patents for the invention of new devices taken out from the USPTO (United States Patent and Trademark Office) from 2006 to 2011. The functioning of upcoming tablets, smartphones, laptops, game consoles, medical instruments and other devices involves gestures that are defined and copyrighted even though the interface does not yet exist. In the video, the artist appropriates the gestures and separates them from their utilitarian function, letting them float in the air and follow a choreographic abstraction.
The work not only explores how technology shapes our behaviour but also questions the privatization of something as basic as a human gesture.
For her performance Bag Lady, Pilvi Takala spent one week in a shopping mall in Berlin, carrying a lot of cash in a transparent plastic bag. As soon as they spotted the content of her bag, sales personnel, security staff, shop owners as well as fellow customers, looked uncomfortable and unsure how to react. Although she behaved like a normal customer, Takala was both a security threat and a subject of protection. This slight intervention sheds controversial light on the fragility of the social order, where private property in the form of money or product is such a holy cow, that it is under constant intuitive public control.
We're getting used to read about architectural works that engages with the cracks in urban space. But we tend to forget that they come from a long tradition of 'gap exploration.'
In 1973 and 1974, Gordon Matta-Clark purchased, at New York City auctions, fifteen leftover and unwanted properties. Because these properties were too small or too oddly shaped, they were unusable or inaccessible for development. He got each of them for a few dollars.
Matta-Clark documented these urban voids with an archive of deeds, maps, photographs of every inch of his lands, tax receipts, videotapes and other documents. Unfortunately, Matta-Clark died before he could fully realise his plans, and ownership of the properties reverted to the city (the taxes to pay were too expensive.)
Dutch architect Anne Holtrop based the design of the Trail House not on gaps but on unofficial use of land. The building structure follows Elephant Paths, the shortcuts that people adopt and trace when they go through meadows, parks or city squares. Over time, the tracing of the Elephant Paths appears on the ground which reinforced the informal route. The architect simply shaped a house to further recognize its existence. Z33 shows the model and Bas Princen's always impeccable photos.
Tadashi Kawamata's Tokyo Project - New Housing Plan explores the possibility to squeeze the home of city dwellers into the overlooked spaces of the Japanese capital: between the fences of construction sites, behind vending machines or even billboards.
Kawamata actually build the houses, each of which was occupied on rotation over a one-week period by the artist and his associates. The inside of the guerrilla houses was surprisingly comfortable with wall-to-wall carpeting, heaters and CD players powered by electricity lifted from external sources such as the vending machines.
I probably don't understand fully what makes KALENDER a work that looks for 'gaps in the system' but i'm glad i discovered it at Z33.
Between 3 January 2009 and 2 January 2010, Benjamin Verdonck performed more than 150 actions in Antwerp. These actions related to traditional public holidays, the cycle of the seasons, geopolitical shifts and life as it is.
I particularly like the procession of oversized toilet sanitizer, lighter, mobile phone and soda can.
Also in the show:
In 'Based on a Grid', Esther Stocker creates a spatial system from a series of black painted wooden blocks in the entrance hall of the Z33 exhibition building. The visitor is drawn into the installation, as it were, and is challenged by the system, the grid that is there but not immediately visible. For Stocker, the system is implied as much by its gaps as it is by its contours. But do we want to look for the system or are we happy to loose ourselves in the chaos of scattered elements drifting apart?
Founded in 1998, Mejor Vida Corp. (Better Life Corporation) is a political and art organization that attempts to level social inequalities by injecting guerrilla art operations into capitalist structures. Mejor Vida Corp. provides free products and services such as international student ID cards, subway tickets for the Mexico City network, recommendation letters, fake barcode stickers to reduce the prices on goods sold by supermarket chains, etc.
Z33 has youtubed a series of introductions to the show as well as some interviews with artists participating to it. I'd recommend the one with Benjamin Verdonck because his accent is so lovely.
Previously: Mind the System, Find the Sukima (gap).
Previously: Manifesta 9 - The Age of Coal.
Let's head back to the mine for a quick review of the 9th edition of Manifesta, the European Biennial of Contemporary Art which is held this Summer in the former Waterschei coal mine in Genk, Belgium.
While floor one and two were focusing on the history of the exploitation of coal in the Limburg region and in the rest of the "western world", the top floor of the crumbling art deco industrial building is filled with contemporary artworks that address de-industrialization and post-industrialization. As you can expect, many of the works come with a sense of doom similar to the one experienced by local communities when the mine closed in 1987. The artists selected for the biennial confront issues such as the dematerialisation of production, new forms of labor, the loss or transformation of social ideologies, the challenges of creating energy, counterfeit luxury goods and the parallel economy it generates, etc. Unfortunately, post-industrial practices are more than the pretext for an art exhibition, they also crucial motors of the current socio-econo-political climate and they are affecting or will soon affect the life of every single visitors.
One of the most impressive and colossal pieces in the show is Carlos Amorales' Coal Drawing Machine which draws what looks like elegant electronic circuits continuously throughout the run of the exhibition. Well maybe not 'continuously' because it wasn't turned on when i visited. Long strips of print-outs are cut and hung from the ceiling to form a delicate and fascinating maze.
The machine receives transmissions from an unseen and unknowable source but instead of synthetic toners or dyes, the machine draws with charcoal. The Coal Drawing Machine questions the tension between the hand made quality of the traditional coal drawings and the fact of these being industrially produced by a machine.
A couple more images because that machine was one of the highlights of the show for me:
Some of the artists took the walls, corridors, floors and other architectural elements of the Watershei building as the point of departure of their intervention. They did it so unobtrusively and delicately that visitors run the risk of walking by them or over them without even realising it. Takes these three artworks for example:
Rossella Biscotti's Title One: The Tasks of the Community is part of the floor of the exhibition space and you're free to traipse all over it. The material use comes from a disused nuclear power station in Lithuania. On December 31, 2009, despite popular resistance and economic consequences, Unit 2 of the Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant was closed under pressure of the European regulatory bodies. As part of the dismantling process, materials from the site were put up for auction as what the Ignalina plant's website described as "unnecessary property." Biscotti attended two public auctions, acquired lead and industrial copper cables, and used them for her installation. The lead is part of the floor-based sculpture, the copper was recycled into new electrical wires to supply electricity to the show. These gestures allude to the climate of social concern around the role of nuclear energy in post-Cold War Europe, but they also create a short circuit between distant social processes that typically remain opaque to the citizenry, physically inserting art, its institutions and audiences into the complex life cycle of the productive system.
Nemanja Cvijanovic's work The Monument to the Memory of the Idea of the Internationale starts with an unasuming music box that will remain silent unless a visitor comes closer and activate its handle (the contemporary art world calls that 'interactivity'.) The instrument plays the Internationale anthem. The music is picked up by a microphone, travels to the speakers in another room where it is in turned picked up by other microphones, etc. The music ends up being played outside by a big pyramid of speakers. The revolutionary anthem gains in volume as it travels through the site but somehow, some of its power also gets diluted in the process. Video.
Oswaldo Maciá collaborated with a perfumer to fill a dark and humid corridor with a smell that is meant to evoke failure. But because Maciá's installations also make use of sounds to synaesthetic experiences, he didn't just create a smelly corridor, he made an 'auditory olfactory composition.' There is a sound element to his work and it nods to the rise of heavy (and noisy) machinery of the Industrial Revolution. The sounds of five different anvils being struck by hammers in distinct echo in the corridor across ten separate channels of sound arranged along the corridor.
Manifesta might have a one and only focus (industrialisation in all its pre-, post and de- forms) and a unique venue but its breadth runs wide. Hopefully, i'll find more time in the coming days to come back to it. If i don't, here's a shortlist of the works i discovered:
The story begins in an unspecified Asian country where an entrepreneur (whose face is concealed) describes how he founded a clandestine, million-dollar business that exports fetish wear, with a small start-up investment from his father. The women who work as seamstresses in his small factory believe that they are sewing body bags for the US Army, straight jackets, and accessories for circus animals, though they do have their doubts. The video continues with testimony from an educated textile designer who found herself unwittingly designing for a business with which she does not personally identify, a white collar professional man who is open about his sexual identity and finally, from a woman who performs role play services using the paraphernalia in question.
Based on archival research, observations, and interviews, the video investigates the relationships between entrepreneurship, labour, use value, and the production of both commodities and subjectivities in the current global cultural economy.
Claire Fontaine's work The House of Energetic Culture is an adaptation of the neon that once overlooked the House of Culture in Pryiat--nowadays a ghost town located within the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. The sign that was once a symbol of modernity, comfort and culture acts now as a reminder of the blessings and dangers that progress brings upon society.
Tomaž Furlan's Wear series of strange contraptions and performances gently deride the routines of modern workers. Their work -whether in office or factories- might be assisted by technology but it is nevertheless as alienating, repetitive and disrespectful of the human body as ever. Video.
Manifesta 9, The European Biennial of Contemporary Art, is on until 30 September, in Genk, Belgium.
Genk is a city almost entirely devoid of any grace but it is also the site of the 9th edition of Manifesta, the European Biennial of Contemporary Art. And who needs grace and glamour when you have an exhibition as sensational as as the one that Cuauhtémoc Medina curated in a disused coal mine at the outskirt of the city?
To be fair, i suspect that the spectacularity of the Manifesta 9 show owes much to the venue. The art deco architecture of the ex-headquarters of the André Dumont mine is so stunningly dilapidated, it silences any flaw in the show.
Instead of showcasing exclusively the latest and the very best in contemporary art, the exhibition, titled The Deep of the Modern, is articulated as a triptych. The first floor pays homage to the cultural and social heritage of Limburg mining industry. It had its surprises and joys but maybe my enthusiasm comes from the fact that I grew up in an ex-coal mining region and other visitors will probably have a very different experience of this section of the show.
Upstairs is an 'art historical section' with works from the 19th and 20th Centuries that looked at the coal industry. From the figure of the miner Alexey Stakhanov and the "Life is Joyous Comrade" slogan to Marcel Broodthaers' critique of Belgian mussels & coal identity. From Bernd and Hiller Becher's b&w photographs of mining units and buildings to Mike Figgis and Jeremy Deller's Battle of Orgreave. Some of the works in the space --such as Deller and Figgis' re-enactment of the 1984 confrontation between miners and police, the documentary about the shooting of Belgian miners during a 1966 strike and the photo documentation of picketing miners in England in the mid-80s-- find a sad and direct echo in this week's news of the police opening fire on striking miners at a platinum mine in South Africa.
The top floor hosts the work of artists who were invited to extend the mining theme and explore the legacy of industrialization and global systems of production.
The result is a very literal, very dark exhibition. But Manifesta 9 managed to devise an inventive formula at a time when most art critics question the raison d'être of the (mushrooming) art biennials.
I'm going to cover the contemporary art section of the biennial in another article. This one is merely an introduction and a quick / copy paste of some of the works i liked in the two 'historical' parts of the show. In no particular order, mixing modern art, anecdotes, and historical figures.
First the setting:
1200 coal sacks were hanging from the ceiling, an homage to Marcel Duchamp's 1938 installation 1200 Coal Sacks, intended to trash the ambiance of an art gallery and bring dust and dirt inside the 'white box'.
Speaking of dirt....
Victorian barrister and writer Arthur Munby is famous for his photographs of working girls who posed, with dirt on their face and soiled clothes, in front of the white backdrop of his studio. Munby might have been a mysophiliac, a person who finds dirt sexually attractive. Munby secretly married Hannah Cullwick, a maid who posed for him scrubbing the floor, as a chimney sweep or as a farm girl.
Igor Grubic's Angels with Dirty Faces is an homage to the Kolubara miners' strike that eventually brought down the Miloševi´c regime, and sparked the end of socialism in Yugoslavia. At the time, the Kolubara mine was the largest supplier of lignite coal in Serbia, producing almost half of the country's electricity. The workers are portrayed against the backdrop of decommissioned factories or industrial sites.
Oh! God! Even Rocco Granata was participating to the biennale. Granata was born in Italy but immigrated to Belgium when he was ten and later briefly worked in the mine. In 1958 Granata wrote and released the song Marina. It became an international success. The song has subsequently been performed by such artists as Louis Armstrong and Dalida.
A whole area of the first floor was dedicated to Granata. Click on the video below at your own risk. I did that 3 days ago and the song hasn't left my head ever since.
I might have danced on the late '80s remix version back when i was a growing up in that other mining region of Belgium.
In the mid-80s, Keith Pattinson documented the miners' strike in the Easington Colliery
I found the video below very moving: For Sounds from Beneath records a male colliery choir singing the subterranean sounds of a working mine. A colliery in East Kent, once populated with workers, machines and the sounds of their activities transforms into an amphitheatre haunted by a stranger, resonating sounds of explosions in the ground, machines cutting the coal-face, shovels scratching the earth and the distant melody of the Miner's Lament, all sung by the choir grouping in formations reminiscent of picket lines.
Manifesta 9, The European Biennial of Contemporary Art, is on until 30 September, in Genk, Belgium.