IT MIGHT NOT HAVE the kind of blockbuster billing that lured Kendall Jenner and Bella Hadid into lending their names to the Fyre Festival, but the A-listers actually arrived at this year’s Brussels Art Week, which felt particularly front-loaded thanks to an ambitious Tuesday night served up by Mendes Wood DM and Clearing, both of which were opening new spaces in the “secondary city.”
The Brazilians (Mendes Wood DM and company) toasted their outpost, a generous townhouse, with a rambling group show titled “Neither,” curated by São Paulo–based curator and founder of Pivô, Fernanda Brenner. Brenner says in the press release that the origin of the exhibition was a line from her father describing his love for Belgium as “French food in German portions.” Mendes Wood embraced this theme of excess—spritzes and cigarettes for all. I tried to make it to the garden but the throngs were impassable, so I ditched the al fresco inauguration and headed to Clearing.
There was plenty of breathing room in Clearing’s new cathedral-like space, whose high vaulted ceilings made Bruno Gironcoli’s sculptures look extra heavenly. Of course, I found most of the parish outside fuming. The Clearing gang had shown up en masse for a celebratory dinner, which was held in one of the industrial transepts. The patron saints were there: Barbara Gladstone, Luc Tuymans, Maria Baibakova. “This is a night of pure joy,” dealer Olivier Babin said, lifting a glass to the room. Artists Marina Pinsky and Lili Reynaud-Dewar missed the champagne, having snuck in late following the Wiels’s tenth-anniversary artist dinner.
“The Absent Museum,” Wiels’s group exhibition, was, ironically, full during an early press conference on Wednesday morning. “The museum is a label that is assigned to us,” senior curator Zoë Gray explained of the exhibition’s theme. “We wanted to break down what it meant and what it might mean in the future, what it should mean.” The show enlisted the help of the institution’s longtime supporters as well as new voices. For her part, Reynaud-Dewar created Small Tragic Opera of Images and Bodies in the Museum, 2017—a pop opera looking at who has agency in the museum space. The work was performed in an unrenovated building on the former brewery compound. “I’m in the furthest space,” Reynaud-Dewar noted. “But it’s raw and it gives me the freedom to wild.”
I had to skip her dress rehearsal to make it to the Independent Brussels opening. In its second year, the fair had a more polished look, and the crowd to match. “The biggest change from year one to two was the noticeable uptick in the number of international collectors and museums present in Brussels, many for the first time ever,” Independent cofounder and exhibitor Elizabeth Dee said, when asked about its evolution. She recommended I start from the top and work my way down.
I was most intrigued by the offerings on the penultimate floor, where Darja Bajagić’s alarm-raising collages decked out Carlos Ishikawa’s booth. I was also drawn to the work of Jonah King, who was showing a piece called All My Friends Are in the Cloud with artist Sarah Meyohas’s gallery. It was her first fair. “There were really sweet moments when both very young children and elderly people were captivated by Jonah’s piece. Audiences I don’t usually interact with,” Meyohas said. “That was actually the most touching part—that the audience was expanded not only in the sense that it was international but also different ages!”
Rirkrit Tiravanija’s Untitled (Mount Analog) at Tommy Simoens’s booth provided a welcome moment of relief. The shaved-ice dish—inspired by the artist’s friendship with Yutaka Sone—served as a hangover remedy. Detox became retox with a wave of openings, including ones for Harold Ancart at Xavier Hufkens and Cyprien Gaillard at Gladstone. Those who didn’t merit invitations to dinner joined back up with the crowds at Cinema Galleries, a movie theater that plays nitery, come sundown.
By the opening of Art Brussels on Thursday morning, everyone was moving a bit slower, if with purpose. Art Brussels dealers echoed Dee’s sentiments, noting, “The Americans returned.” This was met by a surprising number of US artists, including Peter Halley, whose work appeared in no less than four booths throughout the fair. Alex Katz made several appearances, too. Canadian painter Manuel Mathieu’s presentation at Maruani Mercier stood out for its gestural vivacity. His paintings were all sold by Saturday, which must have been uplifting news for the artist, who had to limp around the fairs on crutches after a recent accident.
The only surprise to be found was “Mementos,” a show curated by Jewish Museum senior curator Jens Hoffmann and curator Piper Marshall. The exhibition avoided art entirely by focusing on the personal ephemera of seventy living artists: everything from teddy bears to pencil sharpeners. “I was thinking about how we could find a way to talk about value away from finance,” Hoffmann said during a discussion with Laure Prouvost. “One of the things I was thinking about was emotional value. It’s something that maybe one person feels for an object, but cannot be replicated by others.” Provost’s contribution, a series of used tea bags, exemplified Hoffmann’s thesis. Placed under the glass of an elaborate vitrine, the colorful wrappers were ready-made abstractions that seemed not too far afield from the art observed earlier in the day. The Americans may have returned, but Brussels has yet to capture the art world as a whole. For now, Brussels Art Week remains refreshingly intimate and delightfully human.