Mechelen Stars

Gökcan Demirkazik on the opening of Contour Biennale 9’s “Full Moon Phase”

Theatermaker Bart Van Gyseghem reciting a poem from Rzoezie as part of Robin Vanbesien’s The Wasp and the Weather, 2019. Photo: Lavinia Wouters

IT’S GOT TO BE THE FULL MOON clouding my judgment. Otherwise, I would not have had a mini heart attack each time the French information screens on the Brussels-Antwerp intercity line read: “This train is headed to Anvers.” As far as I knew, I boarded from the correct platform in the direction of Antwerp just in time to catch the press tour of the Contour Biennale 9’s “Full Moon Phase,” and I would have been pissed if I ended up in Anvers (a sad little corner of Wallonia bordering France?) or Malines, which certainly could not be the Latinized name—look at it!—of the Flemish town of Mechelen. In this part of the world, where the nation-state fad first caught on, I had already discarded the possibility of liberal acts of translation and was not prepared for such radical championing of multiculturalism.

Overjoyed to not have been flung to a distant corner of Wallonia, I entered the main hub of the biennial, kunstencentrum nona, as curator Nataša Petrešin-Bachelez was wrapping up her spiel about the first installation—architect-writer-editor Léopold Lambert’s forensic exposé of the violent police response to the “Affaire Théo” demonstrations in Bobigny, on the periphery of Paris. Next door, Daniela Ortiz offered blueprints for new stained-glass windows for the nearby Saint Rumbold’s Cathedral to rectify the presence of the Belgian king Léopold III—a successor to the genocidal King Léopold II of Heart of Darkness fame—by beatifying activists of color recently murdered by the Belgian state and depicting Frontex officials ablaze in hell as a tribute to the so-called illegal immigrants sailing across the Mediterranean (On Your Knees You Will Receive the Anti-Colonial Spirit, 2019). In the lead-up to the European Parliament elections this week, which Petrešin-Bachelez expected to “turn really bad,” the six artistic propositions here seemed to converge in a call for remembrance, accountability, and decolonization of public and private life.

Standing: artist Maria Lucia Cruz Correia, artist Ana Vaz (COYOTE), Voice Mechelen cofounder Nesrin Shoubat, curator Nataša Petrešin-Bachelez, artist Sara Sejin Chang, artist Elida Høeg (COYOTE). Crouching: Artist Tristan Bera (COYOTE), Voice Mechelen cofounder Basim Akasha, agricultural engineer Louis De Bruyn, artist Nuno da Luz (COYOTE). Photo: Gökcan Demirkazik

To my surprise, I was not put off by the appearance of one text-heavy presentation after another, since each installation was “activated” by a public program that rendered the language’s urgency tangible. For instance, Robin Vanbesien’s research into Rzoezie—a Mechelen community center run by and for individuals with Amazigh or Moroccan backgrounds in the 1980s and ’90s—was beautifully complemented by a poetry walk, during which Mechelenites read verse from the youth center’s progressive zine and responded to the authors’ reflections on racism, alienation, and loneliness at locations they saw fit, including the panoramic rooftop of a car park. (Unlike some, I was not very troubled by the predominantly white Belgian profile of the readers but remain convinced that the main audience of this tour should be not art-world folks but Mechelen residents from all walks of life.)

Petrešin-Bachelez’s “Full Moon Phase” was, refreshingly, a far cry from “a triangle, a stone, and a sentence on the wall” kind of art (one participating artist’s description of contemporary art in Berlin) or, for that matter, that of most other biennials I’ve attended. This relates not only to the yearlong duration of the biennial—scheduled across three “moon phase” nodes—but also to its community-oriented curatorial disobedience against the biennial regime, its gestures modest in scale and execution but not in sensibility and wit. A stone’s throw from the Mechelen headquarters of the far-right Flemish party Vlaams Belang, one could see Sara Sejin Chang’s Dutch Cabinet, 2010–12, line the main axis of the Mechelen Art Academy, which is full of studios named after white male American and British artists (the exception: Louise Bourgeois). In an attempt to “bewitch” the liberal-conservative coalition featuring the anti-Islam, anti-immigration Party for Freedom (PVV), Chang made one watercolor drawing every day of an antique Dutch cabinetoccasionally fashioned from wood imported from the colonies or boasting exoticized motifs—from the inventories of the Rijksmuseum or Christie’s, among other places. She stopped when the coalition collapsed 558 days later.

Artists Christian Nyampeta, Laura Nsengiyumva, and Sara Sejin Chang. Photo: Joachim Ben Yakoub.

Before leaving Mechelen on Sunday, I attended the launch of Maria Lucia Cruz Correia’s Common Dreams, 2019. In collaboration with the Straathoekwerk Mechelen association, Cruz Correia conceived of a community space and a soon-to-be edible garden floating on the Dyle for the town’s homeless population (part of which already builds and floats rafts, styling themselves as the “Pirates of the Dyle”). A confusing medley of music—from Take That to Mumford & Sons—soared from the top of the embankment, so I went to check out the festivities. Amid all the calamari, oysters, and beer, I spotted campaign posters for Mechelen’s mayor, Bart Somers, who in 2016 famously won the “World Mayor Prize” (!) and, a few minutes later, to my astonishment, the man himself. He appeared likeable in person and smiled profusely, just as he did above the words “Choose a positive Flemish parliament” on the poster. But I was also told in these couple of days that “choosing the positive” entailed minimizing the negative through advocating against the public funding of activist organizations and making it as hard as possible for religious minorities to have their own schools, even though I heard that 75 percent of the schools in Mechelen are Catholic. While Somers might have taken steps toward better integration of immigrant communities, one well-intended Straathoekwerk employee’s reluctance to comment on the mayor’s shortcomings spoke volumes about the hypocrisy of Europe and its self-delusions of safeguarding utopia: “He’s the one paying for the association!” A perennial problem, no matter what phase of the moon we’re in.