Days of Being Wild

Julian Elias Bronner at the 6th annual Brussels Art Days

Left: Phung Vō, dealer Chantal Crousel, and artist Danh Vō. Right: Dealer Rodolphe Janssen, curator Jan Hoet, and artist Wim Delvoye. (All photos: Julian Elias Bronner)

LIGHT AND EASY, the sixth annual Brussels Art Days—three days of openings, dinners, performances, and parties kicking off the Belgian art season—provided a smooth transition from les grandes vacances as collectors, artists, and dealers alike exchanged espadrilles for leather, python, and crocodile footwear. The first day’s temperatures reached upward of eighty-six degrees as galleries opened up their spaces (and champagne) to welcome and work that miraculous creature known, as one local artist put it, as “the legendary Belgian collector.”

Our journey began at the preview of Petrit Halilaj’s show at the Wiels Centre for Contemporary Art, a surreal menagerie of taxidermic specimens from the Natural Museum of Kosovo, reconstructed out of dirt, hay, and excrement. Everyone was in high spirits, though one dealer admitted he’d just had to call off his dinner. “Someone stole all of our guests!” he blurted out, as a manurial calf, precariously balanced on four rods, stared down at us with a quizzical expression.

Thankfully, everyone seemed to have a place to go, and soon I met up with the golden caged captives at Xavier Hufkens Gallery’s much anticipated dinner for Danh Vō and Tim Rollins & K.O.S. Hosted at Le Châlet de la Forêt, one of Brussels’s two-star Michelin restaurants, the lush setting provided irresistible refuge from the sweltering heat that had enveloped the day’s previews. One collector donned a bright blue Australian necktie cooler, while Xavier and the more conventionally suited Hufkens team abandoned jackets and formality for a breezier feel. Champagne and aperitifs were served on the terrace, as guests arrived in pairs. French-American collector Charles Riva, one of the more flamboyant invités, made his entrance in a gray matte SLS with Russian model Olga Elnikova, while on the more filial spectrum, Vō entered accompanied by his father, Phung.

Left: Dealer Xavier Hufkens and artist Tim Rollins. Right: Curator Elena Filipovic and Kunsthalle Basel chairman Martin Hatebur.

“My father and I have more of a working relationship,” Danh told me after dinner, donning a cool white T-shirt and smoking a cigarette. For the show, Phung Vō had engraved THE RECTUM IS A MOLD onto a traditional wooden Nigerian chair purchased at a flea market in town. “Xavier’s been a sort of adoptive father these past three weeks,” said Danh, at that moment flanked by a group of the gallery’s employees. Blood ties or not, a certain familial openness suffused the air as collectors, artists, and Hufkens’s dealers chummed over coffee, dessert, and cigarettes.

“Peter was kind enough to sponsor one of my first works,” Danh informed a crowd, softly laying his hand on the shoulder of Swiss collector Peter Handschin. “Although it’s a shame he was so cheap.”

“I would have been even cheaper if I had known how you really are,” Peter retorted, returning the gesture ever so delicately, to Danh’s and the surrounding group’s amusement.

Later on, I got schooled by Tim Rollins on life and music back in the day. “Hip-hop was originally about elevation,” he stressed, using both hands to lift up the imaginary ceiling over our heads and reminding us that we could all get a little higher. Soon, music—or rather its absence—was on all of our minds. “I’m obsessed with Frank Ocean,” Maureen Paley confessed to Angel Abreu and Rick Savinon of K.O.S. While others solicited for an afterparty at a more boisterous location, most called it a night and began to cluster together for a free ride home.

Left: Dealer Isabella Bortolozzi and collector Mimi Dusselier. Right: Dealers Maureen Paley, Brian Marks, and Markus Rischgasser.

The next evening, a smaller group of guests gathered at Gladstone Gallery for champagne and a private dinner to celebrate a new series of sculptures and paintings by Swiss artist Claudia Comte. Named the “Cocktail Paintings”—each work titled after different concoctions from her favorite mixology bar in Berlin—their bright, intoxicating colors had some wondering where the stronger liquor was hiding. “I wanted cocktails! I should have asked for them,” said Comte, wearing a bright, multicolored minidress and holding an empty wineglass.

The Gladstone dinner was scheduled on the same night as the official ceremony for all the galleries participating in the Art Days, providing respite for guests who preferred a quieter, more discreet evening. “The official dinner is for people who didn’t get invited to a private dinner,” explained one collector. Those who’d made it to Gladstone were certainly on the chicer side of the Belgium art scene: Collectors Mimi Dusselier and Isolde Pringiers chatted agreeably, and there was Sylvie Winckler with Herman Daled, who sold his collection of Conceptual artworks on paper to MoMA last year.

“Barbara texted saying how much she wished she could be here,” Gladstone director Gael Diercxsens informed the group—BlackBerry in one hand, the gallery’s landline in another—as we all admired the splendid arrangement of the table. “This space was really a dream of hers. It’s so easy in Brussels. You can have a cab in five minutes; you can go where you want; delivery is easy. It’s not like in Paris when someone calls the police because a truck is parked out front to unload artworks.”

Left: Almine Rech Gallery director Jason Cori and dealer Almine Rech. Right: Museum Dhondt-Dhaenen director Joost Declercq.

In spite of the dreamlike setting, we left after the first course to check out what was happening at the more inclusive event of the evening. “One has to give it to Barbara for hosting two dinners on the same night in absentia,” my friend said as we slipped into Gladstone’s other table at the official Art Days banquet, held at Le Cirque Royal, Brussel’s only permanent circus. (Think a medium-size concert hall.) Guests were clad in everything from denim to linen. Candles illuminated the entire foyer, while Billie Holiday’s voice filled the auditorium with a soft and intoxicating ease; but what the setting lacked in intimacy it made up for in conviviality.

“This is the first time in history that the older generations must learn from the younger,” preached my seasoned neighbor as we chatted about art and technology. Shortly after, guests young and old clamored onstage to snap photographs of dealer Albert Baronian and his wife, Françoise, who will later this year celebrate four decades since the opening of their gallery. “Theirs is one of the oldest, most important institutions in Brussels,” dealer Sébastien Ricou told me. As a present, he had given the couple replicas of the T-shirts that they wore at the gallery’s opening in 1973.

The night was replete with flashbacks as more ambitious partygoers met up again at local artists’ bar Midpoint, where an enthusiastic crowd could be seen drinking and smoking with gusto. A vivacious drag queen played electro and house, while the watering hole, overflowing with Brussels art-world personalities, spilled out into the streets. Music and dancing continued well past 3 AM, weary patrons leaned outside on parked cars, and for a moment it felt like summer was only just beginning.

Left: Dealers Françoise Baronian, Sébastien Ricou, Albert Baronian, and Elaine Levy. Right: Dealers Olivier Meessen and Jan De Clercq.

The next evening, an hour’s drive from the city brought me to the Museum Dhondt-Dhaenen’s annual Tuinfeest (“garden party”) and auction hosted by Christie’s, where the fresh, bucolic air and bar tops covered with cocktails were a tonic for the vagaries of urban life. “We are really in Flanders now,” a Francophone collector told me as the sound of Flemish slowly filled the large white tent housing the works.

There was a light dinner, followed by a general hush while the auction took place. “We are at the playground of Belgium’s richest collectors,” one dealer whispered as works were snatched up like hors d’oeuvres. Sold without reserve, the prices were a steal. Collector Bernard Ruiz-Picasso, sitting at an adjacent table with his wife, Almine Rech, bought an acrylic and mixed-media work on canvas by Art & Language for 7,500 euros, while a glazed ceramic frog, covered in handmade pink lace by Joana Vasconcelos—the most expensive piece of the evening—went for 14,000 euros.

After the evening’s salutary sales, those whose appetites for excitement weren’t fulfilled drove back into the city to celebrate art adviser Vincent Matthu’s birthday at a costume party. Shrouded in a haze of smoke, the dancing continued well into the night, and the elaborate get-ups had some of us wishing that we’d made more of an effort. “There’s such a healthy attitude toward art here,” said artist Peter Scott outside as he rolled a cigarette. “Who needs New York when there’s this kind of energy?” As a cold drizzle of rain began, the more finely plumaged guests retreated to the dance floor for shelter. The rest of us remained outside, enlivened and intrigued by the first signs of fall.

Left: Artist Matt Mullican. Right: Artist Danh Vō, collector Peter Handschin, and Kunstmuseum Basel curator Scott Cameron Weaver.

Left: Collector Bernard Ruiz-Picasso. Right: Artist Tim Rollins and K.O.S. members Angel Abreu and Nelson Ricardo “Rick” Savinon.

Left: Dealer Jan Hoet Jr. and curator Jan Hoet. Right: Dealer Sébastien Ricou.

Left: Collector Charles Riva and model Olga Elnikova. Right: Artist Adam Helms.

Left: Artist Jens Haaning. Right: Dealer Micheline Szwajcer and WIELS Contemporary Art Centre director Dirk Snauwaert.

Left: Collector and designer Isolde Pringiers. Right: D + T Project Gallery’s Gregory Thirion and Alexandre Daletchine.