Mons, Belgium

Jack Whitten, Atopolis: For Édouard Glissant, 2014, acrylic on canvas, 10' 4 1/2“ × 20' 8 1/2”. From “Atopolis,” 2015

Jack Whitten, Atopolis: For Édouard Glissant, 2014, acrylic on canvas, 10' 4 1/2“ × 20' 8 1/2”. From “Atopolis,” 2015


Manège de Sury

Jack Whitten, Atopolis: For Édouard Glissant, 2014, acrylic on canvas, 10' 4 1/2“ × 20' 8 1/2”. From “Atopolis,” 2015

One of the two European cultural capitals of 2015, Mons was the perfect place for “Atopolis,” an awesome exhibition of twenty-three artists, organized by Wiels Contemporary Art Centre in Brussels. The show’s theme was the possibility of an ideal city in a globalized yet fragmented world. Mons was one of the first European cities to play a major role in industrialization; huge territories in and around the city were devoted to mining—and to housing the many foreign guest workers who were brought there. Around the coal mines, various nationalities lived together in specially designed communities, as if in a dress rehearsal for globalization: the whole world in one neighborhood. The exhibition venue, the Manège de Sury, was once a civil-guard barracks and a school, furnishing an apt metaphor for an independent community living in a micro-city. The title itself—combining Greek words meaning “nonplace” and “city”—is taken from the Martinican writer Édouard Glissant, a pioneer in thinking about hybridity and in arguing for an open society.

Functioning as an exhibition within the exhibition, Globalization Reversed, 2015, was a massive installation by Thomas Hirschhorn that looked like an abandoned research center. On sheets of paper lying amid a total chaos of furniture, television sets, and defunct computers, visitors could draw or write their comments, advice, or reflections on the theme of the exhibition or the artist’s proposal. Or as Hirschhorn described his intention in his notes for the installation: “The form of my exhibition will be a corpus, a critical corpus that wants to give life to Glissant’s ideas. . . . My competence and my ambition are to create a visual experience of his concepts.” A more lyrical approach could be seen in Atopolis: For Édouard Glissant, 2014, a grandiose abstract painting by Jack Whitten. From a distance, this painting looked like an aerial photograph of an illuminated city, but knowing that Whitten is a great admirer of John Coltrane, I found myself equating the artist’s circular strokes of acrylic with the looping dynamism of jazz. Although the brushstrokes seem to be painted randomly, going in all directions, the general feeling is harmonious and the painting functioned as the perfect sound track for “Atopolis.”

Not all the works on view referred directly to Glissant. Meschac Gaba’s contribution, Glo-Balloon, 2013, was a big, inflatable balloon composed of flags, a bold statement about the ways in which individual identities are vanishing into a faceless, anonymous whole. The most powerful work presented was Francis Alÿs’s installation Don’t Cross the Bridge Before You Get to the River. Produced between 2005 and 2009, this ensemble is as topical today as when it first appeared. On August 12, 2008, on the Spanish side of the Strait of Gibraltar, a group of children carrying boats made out of flip-flops and sandals formed a line and headed into the water in the direction of Morocco. At the same moment, a similar group did the same in Morocco, heading toward Spain, thus symbolically bridging Europe and Africa. This poetic yet powerful action is documented in various media, but the photographs in particular are breathtaking.

As one walked out of this former schoolhouse, a glance back to the text by Lawrence Weiner painted on its facade took on a particular poignancy, considering the ongoing immigration crisis in Europe, centering on refugees crossing the Mediterranean. Three decades ago, Weiner could probably not have imagined that We Are Ships at Sea Not Ducks on a Pond, 1985/2015, would one day assume such topical resonance.

Jos Van den Bergh