Guillaume Bijl

Sala 1

In light of the conspicuous number of art exhibitions these days that involve artificial displays and ready-mades, one cannot help but be happily surprised by the honest correctness of the Belgian artist Guillaume Bijl. He creates installations, which he calls “pièces composées” (“compositions”); to date, he has made 26 of them, from the “driving school” installation of the Ruimte Z in Antwerp in 1979 to this recent installation of terra-cottas in Rome. These are dramatic constructions that present no theory, idea, concept, image, or vision of the world—that is, no logical or formal discourse—but present themselves for what they are: unsettling, out-of-place gods.

If René Magritte’s alien spirit and Marcel Broodthaers’ love of small signs constitute Bijl’s éducation (sentimentale), there is also a longer Belgian national tradition, from Jan van Eyck to Hergé (the creator of Tintin and of the ligne claire of Belgian comics), that informs his work. Bijl shares their curious interest in motifs and their passion for exactness, and has the same sharp, clear vision for details. In his installations, which often evoke the interior decoration of middle-class homes, objects are disposed according to their usual everyday relationships. But Bijl is not interested in achieving a realistic effect as much as a kind of lyricism. His interiors arc full of memories that he hopes are not only his own but those of viewers as well. Like his 16th-century counterparts, he sets the stage for an epiphany: the appearance of a new hero, the self-made man of the bourgeoisie, which in its decadent, 20th-century form can be found in the adventure of the young hero of the Sunday comics.

Yet Bijl’s installations also convey a sense of the disruption of bourgeois order, of the profound changes that accompanied the mass industrialization of the years between 1930 and 1960, the years of the middle-class hero Tintin: an extreme hanalization, and, beyond that, something like an obscure evil. We are dealing with an illness, the first symptoms of which appeared in late 19th-century Europe in the visionary ideas of the Symbolists and proceeded to be fully revealed in this century in the vast territory of Surrealism, where objects, multiplied by mass production and by the mass media, lose their own significance and crowd where they ought not to (think, above all, of late Magritte, from the ’40s on). All of the objects in Bijl’s works seem to be in their normal place, but each work as a whole is disconcertingly out of place. For example viewers who entered Bijl’s installation while visiting the Palais des Beaux-Arts, Brussels, in 1981, would suddenly have been in a tastefully furnished ward of a psychiatric hospital; or at the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, in 1985, they would have found themselves in an Oriental carpet showroom. Bijl’s installations completely displace the viewer. It is as if the material were reconstituted after a total disintegration, but in a different place and time. And in this total dislocation we find ourselves moving, we who have never moved from the prison of our spatiotemporal dimension.

Bijl created his emporium of terracottas and fake antiques in a part of an old ruin now used as a contemporary art center, at Piazza di Porta San Giovanni in Laterano, a short distance from the Scala Santa. The site is next to a very overgrown garden, where capitals and fragments of statues lie amid stunted banana trees and oleander. What has Bijl placed there? Rows of vases and jars of every style and dimension, fake antique amphorae and masks of tragedy, false archeological finds, miniature terra-cotta reproductions of famous classical statues, against an architecture of Roman brick, the arches filled in and closed off by plaster walls. A nightmare—but to whom have these images that BijI gives us appeared? If the first impression is captivating, like a courtyard or garden in Roman Holiday, we soon become aware of the fact that we are in another film, one that resembles the visions of André Delvaux, perhaps, and we are overcome by a sense of total estrangement, a mortuary aftertaste, as if the anarchic and crazy spirit of the grotesque processions of James Ensor or Pieter Brueghel had invaded an environment minutely and lucidly designed for Tintin.

Pier Luigi Tazzi

Translated from the Italian by Meg Shore.