THE FORECAST FOR THE THIRTIETH ANNIVERSARY of Art Brussels was an unpromising series of raindrop icons all lined up in a row. But fortunately the local weather is as undependable as the country’s collectors are dependable, and when I arrived for the opening day of the fair, April 19, the sun was actually shining on the silver lining.
At the fair that evening, I stopped by Peres Projects to get the scoop: “The high-octane beer here is dangerous!” a director informed me. Otherwise everything was going well: Javier Peres himself was off at a meeting with an important collector, and the Rubells and the Schwartzes had been spotted making the rounds. Before long, art adviser Francesca Ferrarini rounded up a group of artists and dealers, including Magnus Edensvard of London’s Ibid Projects, and Swedish dealer Johan Berggren, and we all headed for dinner in the city center on the Metro. “The transportation system here is confusing—well, it’s very Belgian,” artist Sammy Ben Yakoub explained. “It’s like they want to organize it so much that they make it too complex—bad for transportation, but good for art.” At the elegant Art Deco brasserie Taverne du Passage, most of us ordered the house specialty, eel with green sauce; when asked if it came with fries, the waiter replied: “Everything in Belgium comes with fries, even the men.”
The next day I walked to the Sainte-Catherine quarter for a private tour of collector Frédéric de Goldschmidt’s exhibition “Subject/Matters.” The refrain among dealers at Art Brussels is always, “Belgium has very good collectors,” and de Goldschmidt is a good example. The show’s skillful juxtapositions worked at the perception of physical textures, materials, or sensations: Rosemarie Trockel’s white wood painting doubled a drawing of wood grain by Carine Altermatt; the lines on the sinewy back in a Robert Mapplethorpe photo mirrored winglike double swoops by Thomas Bayrle.
Romanian artist Magda Amarioarei and I commenced Brussels Gallery Night with a tour of the downtown neighborhood’s galleries, starting with Dépendance, where Thilo Heinzmann showed all-white paintings with luscious porcelain glops. The German artist himself was more interested in a couple hundred vintage records he had just purchased; taking a Bobby Bland reverently out of its transparent sleeve, he declared, “The greatest singer who ever walked the earth.” Amarioarei observed: “It is interesting to talk to artists, but not about art.” The Alice Gallery, a “temple of street art,” presented the multiple-city incursions of French artist Invader in the form of “Space Invader” mosaics; later we came upon one on the front of a café without even trying. I finally made it to Gladstone Gallery for “Prima Materia,” a compelling show of ceramics by nine artists.
A bunch of us then took the shuttle uptown to MSSNDCLRCQ, where the group show “Particles” continued the theme of the duplicitous nature of reality. At Xavier Hufkens, Evan Holloway’s curious shamanic exhibition “Trees, Heads, Molds” included metal sculptures of branches formed into geometric grids and totem poles of stacked heads with lightbulb noses. Upstairs, collectors Karel and Martine Hooft considered works by two Belgian artists: Michel François’s totem of goose eggs anchored in a chunk of coal, and a wall composition representing a poker hand by Jan Vercruysse. When I asked Martine what she thought a “good collector” was, she replied, “One with a personal outlook.” And that right there seems to define the Belgians.
With 182 exhibitors, Art Brussels is a big fair, but it is deceptively laid-back and manageable, and on Saturday the place was busy but not as frenetic as expected. When asked how it was going, one dealer replied succinctly: “Not good enough.” The Young Talent and First Call sections comprised an intriguing and diverse selection of galleries, and the sales (and attitude) seemed to pick up there. Brussels is the only non-Asian fair Indian dealer Abhay Maskara plans to do this year. “Even before asking the price the Belgian collectors really engage about the art,” he said. “You know that for those five minutes they are really with you.” First-time exhibitor Kerry Inman agreed: “The collectors here are very curious and willing to look at artists they’ve never heard of.” Italian dealer Geraldine Zodo blurted, “They know everything!” But another dealer was not so enthusiastic: “We did much better in Mexico and Dubai. Europe is a disaster!” Perhaps all of this is simply a confirmation of the crisis market, where the middle suffers.
Somehow we made it from there to a screening of Pierre Huyghe’s hallucinogenic The Host and the Cloud. We were back in the lobby after an hour. Someone mentioned its similarity to Eyes Wide Shut, at which curator Natacha Carron-Vullierme said, “You should watch the ending; it gets very erotic and transgressive.” Then it was on to Komplot, just down the street from the Wiels Contemporary Art Center. Komplot’s exhibition spaces were dedicated to a group show celebrating the launch of the 2012 edition of the annual art zine Year. Yann Gerstberger had assembled whimsical sculptures out of various evocative materials, including cow dung, economically appealing but logistically challenging. “The weather has been too damp for it to dry, and the other artists were complaining about the stink.” Dorothée Dupuis, director of Marseille’s Triangle France, arrived and announced that she and Gerstberger are moving to Mexico City. We toasted their trip with glasses of organic wine and set off for the fair party at Wiels.
There, Rosemarie Trockel’s exhibition “Flagrant Delight” was ruled by memento mori. The uncanny juxtapositions in the artist’s collages, with titles like Nobody Will Survive, rip open pop culture to reveal the discontent seething just under the surface. A wall covered in hot stovetops hints at modern household horror. Downstairs the party was definitely hot, and decidedly heaving, with large quantities of Belgian beer cooling down the crowd. Peres Projects’ Nick Koenigsknecht was gamely keeping up with the locals; dealer Hannah Barry was jubilant, having sold a monumental sculpture at her first fair; and all the young dealers seemed to be there and up for anything.