Considered one of the more modish practitioners in Belgium, Richard Venlet has been a relatively established artist internationally for well over a decade yet somehow has not quite managed to attain the level of recognition of some of his Euro-Conceptual contemporaries. Always working in context-specific situations, he has produced numerous installations that incorporate the work of other artists and collaborators, forming composite and circuitous environments that are often whimsical reconfigurations of architectural space. Venlet’s practice has always been analytical, implicating much contemporary and modern art within each of his highly self-reflexive configurations. For his most recent project, organized by the renowned Etablissement d’en Face project space, an ambitious exhibition was held over two venues – at the Etablissement itself and at Galerie Jan Mot – located on opposite sides of the same street. Defined by the artist as an abstract index of information, both parts of the exhibition were heavily infused with frames of reference that acted as a biographical lexicon of Venlet himself, offering links to individuals, locations or beliefs somehow connected with each other and with the artist.
CIT. CIT. 1 Image Bank (all works 2005) was the title given to the presentation at Galerie Jan Mot, which consisted of a large raised platform in the centre of the space, covered in grey felt carpet, on top of which was a small room of photo-booth proportions containing a TV monitor. For the duration of the exhibition a different film was presented each week on the monitor, ranging from artists’ films to obscure documentary shorts, all of them by other practitioners. The experience was intended to be a solitary one, but it was also unique and perplexing. It was a highly cryptic set-up, permeated by an awareness that it added up to more than the sum of its parts. The installation was a modest construction, but the mild awkwardness of viewing it was curiously enigmatic and somehow beguiling. Leaving the gallery and walking across the street to see the other half of the presentation was only ever going to be a pensive experience.
The second part of the show, CIT. CIT. 2 Platform and Treasury, at Etablissement d’en Face, offered a similarly extraordinary encounter, providing calculated ‘difficulty’ and intrigue in equal measure. Another raised platform was placed in the space, in the centre of which was a rectangular hole, out of which protruded the top of a metal ladder. This provided access to a lower chamber, presumably the ‘treasury’ of the work’s title. This lower space, a rarely used room in the basement of the building, had also been fully clad in the same felt carpet (offering easy associations with Joseph Beuys), and presented within it was a mock museum-style display. The works of numerous other artists selected by Venlet were shown together, cramped and uninviting. Pieces by renowned names such as Dan Graham and Marcel Broodthaers were placed alongside works by Venlet’s occasional collaborator Ann Veronica Janssens and Belgian artists such as Joëlle Tuerlinckx and Jeff Geys. There was even one of Giovanni Battista Piranesi’s trademark atmospheric-ally rendered drawings of complex architectural settings. Again only one or two visitors could enter this lower space at any one time, and with the space effectively filled from all angles with art works it offered another claustrophobic, introverted experience.
Putting to one side discussion of all the contemporary tendencies that this exhibition misleadingly seemed to touch on – artist-curated exhibitions, museological critique, archival impulses, ambitious architectural interventions, free-associative settings – the show was not exactly an open-ended display of various art works but a truly impenetrable network of associations. Venlet’s premeditated froideur with visitors, specifically an art-savvy audience, was clearly a form of confronting the ‘baggage’ of art-world knowledge that was brought to the show, almost mocking you for attempting to analyse its various contents. Akin to artists such as Mark Manders, constructing installations that are a combination of somewhere unknown with somewhere psychologically exacting, the two halves of the exhibition culminated in a contorted yet actually playful situation. Your participation was acutely restricted, with your own level of inquiry taking you deeper into a swelling vortex of vexation. Venlet’s work is required viewing, but be sure not to think about it too much.