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.
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.
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.
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