Renderings of Paul Otlet’s Mundaneum project. Installation view, Anneessens Underground, Brussels. From “Horizons & Underground.” Photo: Manfred Jade.

Renderings of Paul Otlet’s Mundaneum project. Installation view, Anneessens Underground, Brussels. From “Horizons & Underground.” Photo: Manfred Jade.

Brussels Biennial 1

Various Venues

Renderings of Paul Otlet’s Mundaneum project. Installation view, Anneessens Underground, Brussels. From “Horizons & Underground.” Photo: Manfred Jade.

“BRUSSELS BIENNIAL 1: RE-USED MODERNITY” faces a high bar: One inevitably wonders what justifies its creation now, given the surfeit, apparent exhaustion, and perceived homogeneity of such exhibitions around the world today. The Brussels Biennial must confront both the skepticism of jaded audiences and the impressive sophistication that the best of these megaexhibitions have achieved. In fact, its inaugural version is precisely about this worldliness and its history. While the exhibition gets off to an uneven start, its rutted beginning sets the stage for a broader look at the irregularity and heterogeneity of internationalism itself.

Directed by Barbara Vanderlinden, the biennial defines its difference by considering Brussels’s status as the capital of the European Union, as well as the city’s long-standing relation to past waves of international modernity. Indeed, the exhibition’s founding marks the fifty-year anniversary of Expo ’58, the Brussels World’s Fair, the first such event following World War II and the capstone of an optimistic—albeit amnesiac—era wrought by the formation of pan-European institutions (not least the European Economic Community, established by the Treaty of Rome in 1957). Appropriately enough, the biennial is situated within imposing modernist buildings once emblematic of Belgium’s national identity, but which have lately fallen into disuse: The show’s two main sites are a former postal sorting center (a hulking industrial structure near the Gare du Midi) and an erstwhile cultural center located in the present-day metro station of Anneessens, while smaller outposts are situated in the city’s main train station and aging national bank. Mapping out a trajectory along the historic North-South railway axis that orients the city—initiated during the fin de siècle reign of notorious colonialist King Leopold II—the biennial’s dilapidated venues would seem to render visible the obsolescence of the nation-state in the context of today’s European Union (in Belgium’s case, it suffers the continuing antagonism between Flemish and Walloon cultures). With this attention to the fate of “re-used modernity,” the biennial asks: How might our present be reconstructed on the faltering legacy of international modernism?

This central question extended to the exhibition’s organization, as Vanderlinden invited seven modern and contemporary art institutions to curate their own shows for the biennial. Of these, the contribution of the Antwerp-based Museum van Hedendaagse Kunst (MuHKA), stationed in the cultural center, provided a useful starting point by presenting Belgian models of utopian modernism from the early twentieth century. Among the most intriguing were Juliaan Schillemans’s Corbusier-inspired Design for World City, 1928–31, which plotted a complex of forty-four interlinked cities, each engineered to support thirty-five million inhabitants by creating a series of radiating megastructures meant to harmonize with nature; and Paul Otlet’s interwar plans for his Mundaneum project, complete with World Museum, World University, and World Library. These designs give us the first glimmer of globalization, when infrastructures for mass mobility, networked communication, and economic integration were begun. Redolent of exhilarating ambition, such historical proposals all depended on vast central planning—an endeavor counterpoised here with the biennial’s horizontal cooperation between small-scale institutions at the subnational level, perhaps all the better to maintain local and international differences.

Additional participants came from Rotterdam, Utrecht, Antwerp, and Eindhoven—none, oddly, from Brussels—and, most surprisingly, Dhaka, Bangladesh, and Rabat, Morocco, suggesting a very arbitrary picture of regionalism and globalism alike. Why so many Dutch representatives and no French, German, or British ones? And why choose North African and Southeast Asian cities rather than, say, Beirut, Lagos, Mumbai, or Beijing? While the criteria for those latter selections was never in evidence, Vanderlinden’s European choices built on the analysis of Rem Koolhaas and Reinier de Graaf’s publication Hollocore © (2004), its pages presented here in a gallery vitrine in the postal sorting center. The text focuses on the super-region linking Brussels, Amsterdam, and the Ruhr Valley—an area that is, according to the authors, devolving into a postindustrial and depopulated “muddle of provincial sameness.” As if to ward off that threatening homogenization, the biennial pointed to the singularity of regional institutions by virtue of their competing displays, yet this exhibition of exhibitions nevertheless risked producing an experience of incoherence.

TO START, THERE WAS little dialogue between the biennial’s components, which were generally installed as self-enclosed presentations. Curator Anselm Franke’s contribution for Extra City, Centrum voor Hedendaagse Kunst, Antwerp, “Letter to Leopold,” for instance, critically complicated the utopian futurism of MuHKA’s show by exploring Belgium’s repressed colonial past—but it did so from a different venue. Franke invited critic Jochen Becker to select pieces dealing with colonialism, such as Dierk Schmidt’s The Division of the Earth: Tableaux on the Legal Synopses of the Berlin Africa Conference, 2005–2008, a somewhat convoluted pedagogical installation of historical documents that nonetheless importantly charts the notorious Berlin “Congo” conference of 1884–85 and its demarcation of colonial territories, pointing to a sinister origin for the subsequent establishment of Brussels as capital of the EU. Likewise, Ulrike Ottinger’s Diamond Dance: Excerpts from the Shooting Script, 1989–98, offers a research archive of photographs and magazine images as source material for a “musical thriller” that will dramatize the diasporic diamond trade of Jewish merchants in New York. Such combinations imply fascinating, if bizarre, connections between networks of conquest and trade, but because “Letter to Leopold” was staged within a closely grouped cluster of walls, the exhibition bore little obvious relation to surrounding displays.

Yet one curatorial disconnect, between adjacent displays in the postal sorting center, became provocative for its very antagonism. On one half of the third floor, Mária Hlavajová of Utrecht’s Basis voor Actuele Kunst (BAK) and Charles Esche of Eindhoven’s Van Abbemuseum collaboratively presented “Once is Nothing,” which reinstalled curator Igor Zabel’s 2003 Venice Biennale exhibition “Individual Systems” without any of the art—leaving only the identification labels on empty white walls (designed, as in Venice’s Arsenale, by architect Josef Dabernig). Free booklets, offering reproductions of the original works plus Zabel’s catalogue essay, were available at the entrance. Positioned behind that display was Nicolaus Schafhausen and Florian Waldvogel’s contribution for Rotterdam’s Witte de With, an elegant and nonthematic selection of recent art, including the highlights of Alexandra Bircken’s colorful and fragile textile constructions and Edith Dekyndt’s mesmerizing video of a clear, translucent flag waving in the wind, intimating a symbol of postnationality to come. The show’s material abundance—particularly Bircken’s and Dekyndt’s formally powerful pieces—seemed to contest Hlavajová and Esche’s ascetic curatorial conceptualism. Implying that the latter amounted to no more than pretentious didacticism, the walls of Witte de With’s display entrance were emblazoned with the plea SHOW ME, DON’T TELL ME.

To dwell on the implicit abstemiousness of Hlavajová and Esche’s presentation, however, would be to overlook the timeliness of their gesture. “Once is Nothing” keenly reimagined the biennial as a space of remembrance rather than one of consumption—resonating with Rirkrit Tiravanija’s bare-walled exhibition, “A Retrospective (Tomorrow Is Another Fine Day),” 2004, which staged the recollection of past installations via a narrative sound track; and with Okwui Enwezor’s recent Gwangju Bienniale, which reanimated and thus historicized various exhibitions from the past two years (including the Whitney Museum’s retrospective of Gordon Matta-Clark, whose Office Baroque, 1977, was also in MuKHA’s display in Brussels). Most importantly, Hlavajová and Esche’s withdrawal of visual pleasure seemed particularly timely against the backdrop of our present financial crisis, as their show shut down the business-as-usual engine of biennial production.

VANDERLINDEN DID INCLUDE several “inserts” throughout the biennial, individual works that tempered the sense of incongruence between constituent exhibitions. One of the most challenging was Renzo Martens’s Untitled (fragment of) Episode 3, 2008, on view between “Letter to Leopold” and the Drik Picture Library’s archive of photographs of Bangladesh—as if mediating between imperialist past and postcolonial present. Martens forces ethical questions onto audiences that interrogate the economic aspects of humanitarian photojournalism by enacting an awful, if simple (or, some would say, twisted), exercise. Observing that local professional photographers in the Congo are barely able to sustain themselves on their everyday commissions for birthday parties and village weddings, he introduces them to another, terrible trade commonly practiced by their European counterparts: the documentation of heart-wrenching scenes of raped women and starving children—images which, Martens points out, sell at top dollar to international news agencies. One disturbing passage shows the artist leading his newfound “students” around a hospital for sick children; the most lucrative subjects, Martens explains, are the worst cases. Next to Martens’s call for the Congolese to “profit” from their “natural resources,” the nearby display of Drik showcased a group of photographers who might be seen as the positive realization of Martens’s doctrine of self-determination. But instead, Drik’s focus on Bangladeshi female political activists and dramatic images of militants reflected an engaged model of reportage, a struggle for self-representation and political transformation by those excluded from global visibility and Western media monopolies. As Drik’s curator, Shahidul Alam, writes, “Differences. Exclusion. Resistance. Boundaries. Freedom. These are words that circumscribe our existence.” Alam’s commitment reads as the polar opposite of Martens’s advocacy of the sensationalist commercialization of misery. Even if Martens is ironically deconstructing the techniques and styles of humanitarian photojournalism, à la Santiago Sierra, his obvious gesture fails to account for the neocolonial causes of the Congo’s misfortune, nor does he offer any real solutions.

For all the promise of Vanderlinden’s curatorial collaborations, the best of the biennial’s inclusions were those individually installed outside of the show’s forced juxtapositions. Indeed, Els Opsomer contributed another of Vanderlinden’s “inserts,” which occupied its own floor in the postal sorting center. Two captivating 16-mm films were projected on separate screens, one film portraying Istanbul’s Atatürk Kültür Merkezi, the city’s opera house and symbol of modern Turkey; the other, several outmoded mid-twentieth-century buildings in Brussels, including the national library and national bank, all positioned along the North–South axis. Slowly panning through their seductive interiors—the opera house’s labyrinthine grid of sparkling lights and reflective windows, for example—the film delivers architectural portraits with a meditative, perceptual sensitivity. By juxtaposing these two cities, Opsomer relates the capital of the EU to a nation that aspires to be an EU member, underscoring their historically shared commitment to secular modernism.

While the Brussels Biennial evidenced moments of organizational and financial breakdown (the most egregious failure being L’Appartement 22’s nearly empty exhibition space, which comprised only a single projection of unidentified videos and a messy pile of newspapers containing reproductions of its selected artworks, all without convincing curatorial justification), the show nevertheless presented an important staging of institutional vitality. It not only differentiated kunsthalle-like contemporary art venues from collecting museums—both of which appear to be thriving, at least for the moment, despite the waning of the traditional European welfare state—it also creatively reinvented the biennial institution. The biennial posed itself against exhibitions founded on national competition (as in the Venice Biennale’s federation of national pavilions), as well as the antidemocratic constitution of the EU (the financial imperatives of which, as historian Perry Anderson has recently argued, resemble a multinational corporation more than a representative political body). If the biennial came off as unresolved, this very quality reflects the show’s promise, articulating a cultural moment of uncertainty, a time when new exhibition models are up for grabs. Perhaps, then, it is best to view this first installment of the Brussels Biennial as a pilot for future forms of institutional collaboration, ones we cannot possibly predict.

T. J. Demos is a lecturer in the department of art history, University College London.