The Absent Museum

WIELS, Brussels, Belgium

What radical potential does the contemporary art museum hold? How should a museum be shaped by and, in turn shape, the various communities that form its audience? ‘The Absent Museum’ revolves around these questions, provoked by the astonishing fact that Brussels, despite being the capital of Europe, has no such institution – a situation addressed by the controversial new Centre Pompidou, which will open in the city in 2020. This show is therefore WIELS’s response to a cultural lack amidst the urgent need to challenge ideas of nationhood in the face of rising right wing politics in Europe. It also marks the 10th anniversary of an institution that is often mistakenly called ‘the museum’. Appropriating this misnomer, the exhibition takes the form of a speculative collection that addresses the perceived needs of its audiences. It emphasizes critical engagement with the social and political present and renegotiates the past to meditate on who is left out of narratives of national culture. Works have been selected to revise art histories, reflect on museological processes, propose practices of decolonisation or dwell upon the ethics of representation. The latter is most forcefully brought to bear in Thomas Hirschorn’s series ‘Pixel-Collage’ (2016), which unflinchingly portrays bodies mutilated in military conflict.

03._oscar_murillo.jpg

Marcel Broodthaers, 1. David 2. Courbet 3. Ingres 4. Ingres 5. Wiertz, 1971, painted vacuum-formed plastic plate, 120 x 86 cm. Courtesy: Collection Thieck, Paris and Wiels, Brussels

Oscar Murillo, Human Resources, 2016, wood, fabric, papier mâché, variable dimensions. Courtesy: the artist, David Zwirner, New York/London and WIELS, Brussels

 

Featuring works by 47 artists, many from outside Belgium, the show draws on the vitality of a local scene that has been shaped by globalization and migration. The neighbourhood surrounding WIELS is itself particularly diverse, this audience is spatially addressed through the tentacular creep of the project into further nearby venues, including BRASS and Métropole, a public work by Lucy Mckenzie and offsite performances. BRASS housed one of the show’s strongest works – Otobong Nkanga’s Contained Measures of Shifting States 1/4 (2012-17), in which water evaporating from a hot plate, offers a metaphor for transitional states such as memory and perception. Nevertheless, spatial expansion as a means of audience outreach seems limited, and in the case of Métropole draws more on the theatrical effect of showing art in abandoned spaces, than responding to those specific sites. 

11._jo_baer.jpg

Jo Baer, Tis Ill Pudling in the Cockatrice Den (Là-Bas), 1987, 244 x 244 cm, oil on canvas. Courtesy: WIELS, Brussels

Jo Baer, Tis Ill Pudling in the Cockatrice Den (Là-Bas), 1987, 244 x 244 cm, oil on canvas. Courtesy: WIELS, Brussels

The real heft of the show is located at WIELS. Here the building’s open concrete spaces have been carved into elegant intersecting white cubes by Richard Venlet. Through exposed slices in the otherwise pristine plasterboard Venlet reveals the contingency of museum scenography, that otherwise appears timeless. These exposures visually dovetail with Christopher Williams’s rent museum walls, which are part of a broader installation that includes open letters from the artist to the exhibition’s organisers and fabricators that articulate the friction between studio process and public display. Luc Tuymans’s paintings Doha I-III, (all 2016), also dwell on the museum space, depicting the Qatar Museums Gallery Al Riwaq, the venue of his recent retrospective. Its cavernous empty halls offer a bleak vision of the sterile white cube that is indiscriminately cloned worldwide. 

08._jimmie_durham.jpg

Jimmie Durham, In Europe, 1994–2011, variable dimensions. Courtesy: the artist and WIELS, Brussels

Jimmie Durham, In Europe, 1994–2011, variable dimensions. Courtesy: the artist and WIELS, Brussels

One of the exhibition’s most powerful moments is the presentation of works by Felix Nussbaum. A German-Jewish painter, he and his wife Felka fled to Ostend in 1935, only to be interned as aliens and ultimately transported to Auschwitz, where they were murdered. His haunting portrait of the couple, Soir (Selbstbildnis mit Felka Platek) ((Evening (Self-Portrait with Felka Platek, 1942)), attests to the merit of the renewed interest in his work. Its inclusion feels particularly poignant in the face of the refugee crisis that has seen thousands arrive in Belgium. Nearby is Francis Alÿs’s text piece 1943 (2017), adapted here to include the painter in its listing of the imagined activities of artists in times of war – their responses ranging from resistance to resignation. These works, amongst others, speak to the show’s strength, namely to be critically engaged without sacrificing aesthetic impact or sensitive play with spatial poetics.

Main Image: Ellen Gallagher, Abu Simbel, 2005, 62 x 90 cm, photogravure, watercolour, colour pencil, varnish, pomade, plasticine, fake fur, gold leaf and crystals. Courtesy: Private collection and WIELS, Brussels

Natasha Hoare is a curator at Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art, Rotterdam. 

Issue 189

First published in Issue 189

September 2017

Most Read

Ahead of ARCOMadrid this week, a guide to the best institutional shows in the city
A report commissioned by the museum claims Raicovich ‘misled’ the board; she disputes the investigation’s claims
In further news: Jef Geys (1934–2018); and Hirshhorn postpones Krzysztof Wodiczko projection after Florida shooting
If the city’s pivot to contemporary art was first realized by landmark construction, then what comes after might not...
Ignoring its faux-dissident title, this year's edition at the New Museum displays a repertoire that is folky, angry,...
An insight into royal aesthetics's double nature: Charles I’s tastes and habits emerge as never before at London’s...
In other news: Artforum responds to #NotSurprised call for boycott of the magazine; Maria Balshaw apologizes for...
At transmediale in Berlin, contesting exclusionary language from the alt-right to offshore finance
From Shanghai to Dubai, a new history charts the frontiers where underground scenes battle big business for electronic...
Hauser & Wirth Somerset, Bruton, UK
Zihan Karim, Various Way of Departure, 2017, video still. Courtesy: Samdani Art Foundation
Can an alternative arts network, unmediated by the West's commercial capitals and burgeoning arts economies of China...
‘That moment, that smile’: collaborators of the filmmaker pay tribute to a force in California's film and music scenes...
In further news: We Are Not Surprised collective calls for boycott of Artforum, accuses it of 'empty politics'; Frida...
We Are Not Surprised group calls for the magazine to remove Knight Landesman as co-owner and withdraw move to dismiss...
Paul Thomas Anderson's latest film is both gorgeous and troubling in equal measure
With Zona Maco opening in the city today, a guide to the best exhibitions across the Mexican capital
The question at the heart of Manchester Art Gallery’s artwork removal: what are the risks when cultural programming...
In further news: Sonia Boyce explains removal of Manchester Art Gallery’s nude nymphs; Creative Scotland responds to...
Ahead of the India Art Fair running this weekend in the capital, a guide to the best shows to see around town
The gallery argues that the funding body is no longer supportive of institutions that maintain a principled refusal of...
The Dutch museum’s decision to remove a bust of its namesake is part of a wider reconsideration of colonial histories,...
At New York’s Metrograph, a diverse film programme addresses a ‘central problem’ of feminist filmmaking
Ronald Jones pays tribute to a rare critic, art historian, teacher and friend who coined the term Post-Minimalism
In further news: curators rally behind Laura Raicovich; Glasgow's Transmission Gallery responds to loss of Creative...
Nottingham Contemporary, UK
‘An artist in a proud and profound sense, whether he liked it or not’ – a tribute by Michael Bracewell
Ahead of a show at Amsterdam’s EYE Filmmuseum, how the documentarian’s wandering gaze takes in China’s landscapes of...
In further news: Stedelijk explains why it cancelled Ettore Sottsass retrospective; US National Gallery of Art cancels...
With 11 of her works on show at the Musée d'Orsay, one of the most underrated artists in modern European history is...
Reopening after a two-year hiatus, London’s brutalist landmark is more than a match for the photographer’s blockbuster...
What the Google Arts & Culture app tells us about our selfie obsession
At a time of #metoo fearlessness, a collection of female critics interrogate their own fandom for music’s most...
A rare, in-depth interview with fashion designer Jil Sander

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

November - December 2017

frieze magazine

January - February 2018

frieze magazine

March 2018