Philip Aguirre y Otegui, Matrasdrager (The Mattress Porter), 2001, concrete, foam rubber, 82 5/8 x 42 1/8 x 70 7/8".

Philip Aguirre y Otegui, Matrasdrager (The Mattress Porter), 2001, concrete, foam rubber, 82 5/8 x 42 1/8 x 70 7/8".

Philip Aguirre y Otegui

Philip Aguirre y Otegui, Matrasdrager (The Mattress Porter), 2001, concrete, foam rubber, 82 5/8 x 42 1/8 x 70 7/8".

Even before entering Mu.ZEE, the museum hosting the latest exhibition of the work of Belgian artist Philip Aguirre y Otegui, the approaching visitor could see the epoxy sculpture Fallen Dictator, 2005, which looked like a knocked-over prop or a showroom dummy behind the building’s ground-floor windows. This association seemed particularly appropriate, given that the building was once a department store; these very same windows formerly showcased the latest fashion trends. But while the windows were designed for commercial promotion, Aguirre’s sculpture is meant to criticize power. It is hard to look at Fallen Dictator without thinking of the TV images broadcast around the world showing Iraqi citizens tearing down the statue of Saddam Hussein. But perhaps there is also a resemblance to Belgium’s King Leopold II, of whom there happens to be an enormous statue near the museum, in front of the beach. Leopold is now infamous as the cruelly exploitative ruler over Congo, once his private property and later a colony of the then rather young kingdom of Belgium. While today a ruler as violent as Leopold might be brought to trial in The Hague for crimes against humanity, his brutality went largely unchecked and unquestioned during his reign. This problematic episode in Belgium’s history is still not taught in school and remains taboo for many people, especially politicians.

Inside the museum, on the ground floor, a multitude of sculptures, drawings, and small objects were displayed in cabinets under glass. This installation, too, seemed to be a reference to goods for sale in a shop or wholesale warehouse, even as it also evoked displays in an ethnological museum. Indeed, in recent years Aguirre has traveled to different parts of Africa to collaborate with local artists, producing works such as these, which combine his signature and their craftsmanship. Given their display here, however, one might have imagined that Aguirre had merely found and collected them, rather than initiated their making.

Aguirre’s installation 15 augustus 1942 Lange Kievitstraat Antwerpen, 2012, was presented in a photograph. The work, which depicts a family hiding under a table, is named after the street in the heart of the Jewish quarter in Antwerp, and is per-manently installed at the Kazerne Dossin in Mechelen, Flanders, where Belgian Jews were collected before being transported to concentration camps throughout Europe. This image was juxtaposed with three drawings for a sculpture honoring St.phane Hessel, the recently deceased French writer whose little book Indignez-vous! (Time for Outrage!, 2010) inspired protesters around the world. The artist seemed to be saying that the time for fear is over and the time for outrage is here.

Upstairs were bigger sculptures, including one that is familiar to travelers from around the world. In Brussels Airport each day, thousands of people pass one of two identical versions of Matrasdrager (The Mattress Porter), 2001, (the other was included here) which depicts a man with a mattress on his back—a traveler on the run with his only possession carried like a shelter, a roof above his head. Aguirre’s most recent and ambitious project is site-specific; here it was presented in the form of a scale model. In the Republic of Cameroon, he is building what can be best described as an amphitheater. In one of the poorest neighborhoods of that country’s largest city, Douala, the most important gathering point for local people is a well. In collaboration with doual’art, a contemporary art center, Aguirre will build a monument with stairs and benches, making the area around the well a place where each day up to a thousand families can gather together to get water for drinking and for washing their clothes. If art is often mediocre as a form of social commentary, making it a tool to genuinely improve life is even harder. Aguirre reminds us that art really can change the world—beginning with one neighborhood in Douala.

Jos Van den Bergh