Global Entry

Left: Maarten Vanden Eynde's ‘Brick Era’, +/- 2013 AD. Right: Artist David Claerbout, Art Brussels director Katerina Gregos, and artist Hans Op de Beeck. (All photos: Cathryn Drake)

THIS IS A LOVE LETTER TO BRUSSELS, despite—no, because!—of its myriad contradictions. From the moment I arrived for Art Brussels weekend, everyone was trying in vain to define the city, the latest to be touted the “new Berlin.” But Brussels is hardly Berlin, or it’s all that and more—or maybe it’s just . . . the new Brussels?

I headed straight from the airport to a buzzing dinner hosted by artists Beat Streuli and Marie Le Mounier, where scores of other artists living in Brussels, both foreign and Belgian, mixed with visiting curators: Dobrila Denegri, Antonia Alampi, Elena Sorokina, Chris Fitzpatrick, Maria Artusoo, and Luigi Fassi among them. (Globalization check: Only one of them currently works in her own country.) The relatively inexpensive monthly rent on the spacious and elegant three-story home-studio was discussed in tones of awe. Real-estate advantages and influx of artists aside, the evening presented the first claim against the “new Berlin” theory: The chef bragged that his coq au vin had been heartily complimented by a Frenchman. Indeed, Brussels has not just great beer but very good food. Ta-dum.

Left: Artist Zin Taylor and curator Chris Fitzpatrick. Right: Dealer Barbara Cuglietta and Kunsthalle Basel director Adam Szymczyk.

The whimsical introduction to the fair the next day was Maarten Vanden Eynde’s ‘Brick Era’, +/- 2013 AD, a cluster of brick-and-concrete boulders scattered outside of the entrance, one of several commissioned projects. Inside, artist Walt Van Beek and designer Tom Mares had transformed the halls of the Brussels Expo according to an airport concept, which was introduced by lovely fresh-faced hostesses in bright blue uniforms and pillbox hats (created by Belgian fashion designers Natacha Cadonici and Miss V., respectively). The “Young Talent” booths were up first. “Last year we were in ‘First Call,’ ” said one of the chosen, Berlin dealer Michael Krome. “It seems you can stay young for some time here.” But keeping a fair fresh is more than just placement and categories. “I like Brussels because you can actually discover new things,” said collector Patrick Letovsky. Art Brussels is the best of both worlds: an established market with a youthful frisson.

Solo shows at various booths, selected by Katerina Gregos in her first year as artistic director, created a nice pace. First-time exhibitor Kalfayan Gallery presented Hrair Sarkissian’s timely photographic series “Execution Squares,” 2008, portraits of ominously empty places in Syria; among other disquieting landscapes at the booth were Vartan Avakian’s extreme close-ups of spam. Galerie Perrotin dedicated its booth to shimmering minimal paintings by Pieter Vermeersch, evidence of the new generation of young Belgians returning to painting.

Left: Curator Tim Goossens and dealer Candice Madey. Right: Dealer Alexandre Daletchine.

Not only are established artists such as Kendell Geers relocating to Brussels, but many galleries are as well, and I stopped by the panel “Brussels: Marriage of Convenience or Love Match?” to gain insight on the weekend refrain relating the two Bs. Reportedly Belgium has the largest concentration of collectors in Europe, one reason being the more advantageous tax laws compared with surrounding countries, France and the Netherlands in particular. Motive Gallery’s Petra Kuipers explained her move from Amsterdam to Brussels in terms of the city’s central location within Europe. Another plus: “Amsterdam and Paris are cities that are more or less finished, and Brussels is not,” she added. The discussion turned to the proliferation of privately funded and nonprofit spaces, such as Wiels, Komplot, and Argos, making up for the lack of public institutions. “There is a great energy and support from the private sector for creative initiatives,” noted Anne-Claire Schmitz, director of recently established La Loge. “However,” moderator Virginie Devillez said, “it is not naturally organized, and it is fragmented by official policy.” That underlying instability and conflict arising from Belgium’s cultural duality—coupled with money, taste, and a well-developed sense of irony—provides an ideal dynamic for art. Fair director Gregos provided the coda: “I feel so lucky that I moved here in 2006, before the Greek crisis. It is not the new Berlin, though!” Over lunch in the courtyard—accompanied by Belgian fries, natch—a French collector provided an alternative: “Brussels is a Paris suburb.” Voilà!

That evening the Wiels commenced “Experienz,” a series of weekend performances organized by collector Nathalie Guiot. I arrived just in time for Antonio Contador’s Tu te Tus, in which a local police brass band marched in and then out again, before sitting down to their payment in beers and burgers. My favorite, though, was Oliver Beer’s powerful, spiritual symphony of voices. Part of “The Resonance Project,” which uses the building as an instrument, it featured singers arranged up and down the massive stairwell, improvising (within established parameters) while projecting their voices into the corners.

Around the way was the Paris-based Slick Art Fair, now celebrating its second edition. The standout for me was the Revue Noire booth, showcasing the work of African artists, where Joël Andrianomearisoa had installed a luscious Labyrinth of Passions constructed from scaffolds supporting black-tissued canvases. The night ended with a dinner for curators at La Loge and a viewing of the site-specific exhibition “Six Possibilities for a Sculpture,” an ode to art’s “post-medium condition” through a performance-driven ensemble created by several artists that resembled the orgiastic aftermath of a cult ritual. The quirky space, a former Masonic temple, is itself a force to be reckoned with.

Left: Dealers Renato Cardi and Nicolò Cardi. Right: FIAC director Jennifer Flay and artist Harold Ancart.

The next morning, on the way to the Argos Centre for Art and Media, we cruised past the royal palace. “It looks empty,” curator Francesco Stocchi observed. “Maybe they could rent rooms to offset the government debt.” He had been told earlier that there were no police in Brussels because it is too expensive. (Perhaps this explains why the police band was willing to perform for food at Wiels.) Never mind: The country recently seemed to function just fine for more than a year without a government. We made our way through Harun Farocki’s “In Remembrance of Times Past” and then on to Frédéric de Goldschmidt’s permanent collection. “He made the walls speak just as I make buildings sing,” said Beers, looking at Belgian artist Harold Ancart’s starkly sensual installation of black pigment highlighting the texture of a surface. Serendipitously, this was where, two years ago, Xavier Hufkens had encountered Ancart, whose solo show would inaugurate the dealer’s new space that evening.

We all piled into Goldschmidt’s car, only to get lost in the upscale suburbs on the way to the home of collector Nathalie Guiot. There, Emmanuel Lambion had installed his masterful Found in Translation, Chapter M, an iteration of a traveling site-specific series that plays with how a work’s meaning changes in different contexts (in this case, an austere modernist domicile surrounded by woods). We decided to eschew the uptown openings for downtown that evening, our final destination a cozy dinner party at Galerie Greta Meert in honor of exhibitions by painters Michael Venezia and Koen van den Broek. The dealer’s son, Frédéric Mariën, showed us upstairs to the penthouse apartment, where you could view the city through a giant, stunning Isa Genzken picture frame, perched “perilously” over the edge of the terrace. For a moment, the dynamic city seemed to surrender to our own skewed perspective, just one facet of the marvelous panoply.

Left: Art Brussels check-in. Right: Artist Harun Farocki and curator Francesco Stocchi.

Left: Artist Benjamin Sabatier, curator Selina Ting, collector Frederic de Goldschmidt, and artist Oliver Beer. Right: Art fair designers Walt Van Beek and Tom Mares.

Left: Artist Koen van den Broek. Right: Critic Simon Njami, curator Elise Atangana, and artist Joël Andrianomearisoa.

Left: Dealer Chris Hammond. Right: Dealer Johan Berggren and artist Veit Laurent Kurz.

Left: Artists Maartin Vanden Eynde and Beat Streuli. Right: Curators Luigi Fassi, Dobrila Denegri, Antonia Alampi, and Elena Sorokina.