Guillaume Bijl

In 1979 Guillaume Bijl wrote a fictitious pamphlet in which the Belgian government dismissed art as “superfluous.” The perverse but logical conclusion was that all art spaces needed to be transformed into useful social institutions. Ironically, during the next decade the very opposite of what Bijl had predicted occurred: in Ostend a former warehouse was transformed into the Museum for Modern Art, and in Antwerp an old factory was transformed into the Museum for Contemporary Art—the very same “museum” in which Bijl’s recent installation was exhibited. More than anywhere else, in Belgium reality beats fiction.

Such reversals only serve to show that Bijl’s critiques of institutional constraints have begun to fall somewhat short of their mark. Where earlier installations, such as the “fitness center” he recreated inside a gallery, or the “auction house” he set up at the Castello di Rivoli, actually seemed to pose questions about the role of context in determining the value of an art object, they have spawned numerous recent projects that are almost formulaic—as institutional as the structures they set out to critique. Wherever you go in the small, somewhat surreal country of Belgium, you encounter would-be Bijl installations. And yet I have to admit that the artist’s own attempts to confuse or unmask are still effective, although it is getting harder to evoke a powerful sense of looking at reality from a different perspective. One of the strongest installations so far was his complete TV Quiz Decor (originally constructed for the Lyon Biennale in 1993), which involves two small platforms for contestants, blinking lamps, a Ford convertible for the prizewinner, cameras, and so on—the ultimate Trojan horse of low culture in a highbrow environment. The mockery is complete when you look at the wall of TV screens that reveal the name of the quiz: “Le Jeu de l’art” (The game of art). This is very funny until the moment you realize you’re part of the game.

The same can be said about Driving School Z, 1979–88. In fact, I overheard one visitor’s surprised remark about “driving lessons being organized in a museum.” Only seconds later the unfortunate victim of this gigantic illusion corrected himself, more or less claiming that he had seen through the trick. It is for these few initial seconds that Bijl’s installations are legitimate. What is bothersome about his attempts to put art into perspective, however, is the inevitable arrogance of crowning the jester as king of irony.

Whether the hunter will eventually be ensnared by his own trap remains an open question, but it certainly speaks for the state of art in Belgium where for nearly two decades the kind of confusion that Bijl’s work addresses has remained the rule. Can it be a coincidence that next year the city of Ghent will finally have its own building for contemporary art—in a former casino?

Jos Van den Bergh