A non-existent national government for over one year; along-lasting rivalry between two communities: to represent the other side of Belgium, however, the enthralling political and artistic point of view of a Flemish-speaking Belgian and of a French- speaking Belgian who, by brush strokes, express their love for art and decry the corruption of the political power. Don’t miss your appointment with Feuilleton, a painted video that is going to be screened during the Venice Biennale.
An exclusive interview for an outstanding event: this year, the spaces of the Belgian pavilion at the Venice Biennale will be occupied by a unified Belgium, to represent the major Belgian communities, whereas in the past there has always been a traditional rotation with Flanders and Wallonia. A passionate chat in ‘double-quick time’ with the two hosts of the pavilion, Luc Tuymans (born in 1958 in Antwerp, where he also lives and works), considered one of the most influential artists of his genera- tion, who is also the curator of the project, and Angel Vergara (born in 1958 in Mieres, Spain, currently based in Brussels), famous for his live paintings, which are created in sync with the flow of images running on the screen by his avatar Straatman (streetman), a nickname gained out in the field, by dressing up as a ghost and enjoying art closely with the viewer. Despite their differences, none of them works with art as a purely formal mean, but as a way to investigate the relationships between the power of images and the prevailing socio-cultural order. This “alliance between the Spanish and Flemish painting”, quoting Vergara’s ironic words, by overcoming the complex political claims, manages to unify the Belgian culture and to launch together substantial messages on the truthfulness of the ‘reality’.
We met them in Paris, during a warm spring afternoon, and then we saw them again at the last edition of Art Brussels in the Belgian capital.
DROME: Venice Biennale will officially open its doors on the first days of June: what can we expect from the Belgian pavilion?
ANGEL VERGARA: The installation resembles a very big frieze, made of 7 synchronised videos, edited with the same time and speed as a soap- opera, and I painted over these images. My work is mostly based on the current affairs and these videos deal with the most significant political, social, economic and cultural events in the last 10 years.
D: Do you use the same technique as in your painted films?
AV: Yes, every episode is screened in sync and is inspired by the theme of the seven deadly sins. Obviously, the message is in the plot and is subliminal, the artwork is not a moral exercise. We are just interested in ‘painting’. My work is a sort of attack and, at the same time, of union between painting and the moving images.
D: Traditionally, during the Venice Biennale, Wallonia and Flanders take turns to represent works in the spaces of the Belgian pavilion, but this year, and beyond any expectations, the pavilion will be hosting an art- ist selected by Wallonia, who has invited a curator from Flanders. In the light of the current political situation, how can we interpret such a strong act?
LUC TUYMANS: The political situation in our country is more than dreadful, and when Angel asked me to be the curator of his exhibition, I was very surprised but, at the same time, I grasped the symbolic meaning of his proposal: I belong to the Flemish community and by such collabo- ration we will show to our country that culture can do something that politicians are not able to do.
Angel’s work is based on the current affairs and his message is very intense. My artistic work is also committed, and the union of our two personalities will prove to be really interesting with regard to the form and content. Indeed, the Biennale has always been extremely politicized as all the pavilions claim the idea of nation. And, in fact, this year’s edi- tion is marked by the union of Belgium. We should not forget that under King Baudouin, the Belgian pavilion was very politicized, as the king used to impose his ideas, thus it brought to light the ambiguous relationship between Lumumba and him.
D: Do you think that the current situation may lead to some real change?
LT: The Flemish community had a very strong reaction and the current situation got even worse as they are creating the good and the evil Flemish. That’s why we should never mix art and politics.
D: In sum, Angel Vergara was chosen by the Minister for Culture and Luc Tuymans was called by Angel Vergara…
AV: Actually, this is such an amazing thing. When I proposed the col- laboration to Luc, I was not sure that the Minister would have approved it. The government in fact had just collapsed when I got the news of my selection to propose a project for the Belgian pavilion and I immediately thought to call Luc. I wanted an artist to accompany me in this venture and, because of the political situation, I wanted an artist from the other community. At the same time, I knew that me and Luc would have found a perfect accord with regard to the project. This separation seems so absurd, the distance between Antwerp and Wallonia is just like from here (Gare du Nord, EN) to the Bastille… we are so close.
D: Did you have problems in convincing the Minister?
LT: No, I don’t think so, because it was a very fast decision and, indeed, we presented a project with a very strong content, as it deals with the seven deadly sins, the biggest and most important part of our life. Seven deadly sins that have been part of the history of painting since a very long time and that rule our relationships, from the viewpoint of a Manichean society. A Feuilleton of the world, revolving around political, economical and environmental topics, inspired by the images from the latest news- paper stories, by an iconography from the web. And thanks to a virtual presentation, we have provided a very precise idea of the form that this project would have taken. Moreover, I think that the Minister was very impressed by Angel’s proposal and by the fact that I agreed to become its curator. It had a great impact.
D: So this proves that things can change…
AV: The French-speaking community made a step forward towards some political changes, four years ago such a thing would have been impossible. The idea to overcome the political claims and not to remain culturally divided proves that there’s been a political evolution.
D: How is your relationship with Flanders?
AV: I have always worked with people from Flanders, where art is much more supported than in Wallonia. In Wallonia there is a strong tradition of the ‘word’: the cinema, the theatre, the literature. Historically, it is Flanders that gave birth to the famous artists, and not Wallonia. At a certain point, in the French-speaking region there was no contemporary art museum left and the only museum of modern art was shut.
D: You have mentioned your common path in painting, can you tell us something more about it?
LT: My work is much more classic, because I use oil painting on canvas; on the other hand, Angel’s work starts off from the images in motion over the glass: he wants to immobilize this image and leave a mark of his action. I want to totally immobilize the image: it is the phantom of the image.
D: The boundaries between artist and curator here seem to blur, leaving space to a committed teamwork. Each of you, though in a different way, questions the current status of reality: what is the final result of your collaboration for the Biennale?
LT: We are both artists and each one of us knows very well each other’s work. When Angel sent me his proposal, I thought it might have been something really enthralling. On this point, I remember that on my comeback from New York with my wife, two weeks after September 11th, we were in the hall of the Brussels airport and in the light box we saw a painting by Bruegel cut into pieces. So I said to myself: “That’s the immanent image of this disaster, of this cataclysm, of this catastrophe.” Therefore, the idea of the seven deadly sins has to do with the history of painting of our country.
In my opinion, Venice Biennale is anachronistic. In 2001, I represented Belgium and I was shocked by its Eurocentrism. Because with such pavilions that look like many mausoleums of the nations, we get stuck in the idea of territory and politics. It is not a chance that the German pavilion is just opposite the French pavilion: the French rationalism as opposed to the German passion.
With regard to the exhibition, the focal point is the killing of Pasolini, a political death, which represents the death of reality, the murder of the poet, the Italian current political situation. In the Seventies, Pasolini announced the death of reality. The production of the images has be- come a privilege subordinated to the political-economic (capitalism) and of the mass media system. Reality has been trivialized in the name of mediocrity and conformism. We have conceived a paper, inspired to the ‘Frankfurter Allgemeine’, which will be distributed across the city, so that the pavilion and the gazette become the work of art. Obviously, it can follow two ways: either you first find out the pavilion and then the gazette, or vice versa.
D: This issue of DROME deals with the theme of supernatural and, on this point, I would like to play a game: if you are asked to create a govern- ment composed of four artists, who would you choose?
LT: Nobody. It is very dangerous to mix art and politics. We already had the experience of Adolf Hitler, who was an artist.
D: But Hitler was a failed artist…
LT: Yes, but the danger also comes from successful artists. Art deals with truth in a meta-realistic way. Such combinations should be avoided and one cannot have a double talent: either art or politics. That’s bullshit…
D: …and in an ideal or supernatural world?
LT: An ideal or supernatural world does not exist… I have always refused that slogan of the May 1968 student riots in Paris that goes: ‘Power to imagination’. That’s another bullshit, because imagination is part of reality and it isn’t the opposite.
D: But what are the features that a politician should have?
LT: He should be a Statesman, he should have a public spirit and responsibility, whereas the artist can do without them: the politician lives in the society and not inside a work of art.
D: For Angel Vergara, on the other hand, art blends with life…
AV: I draw my inspiration from life and reality. I do not try to stage my performances in a theatre and, however, they do not have to be necessarily defined as performances: in order to create my paintings, I look for the most appropriate situations. I dive into reality in order to be completely soaked by it, just like a photographic plate, covering myself with a white canvas. Differently from a photographer covered with a black sheet and who lets through light to colour the film, I am totally opened to light. I wrap myself with a white canvas and I go on the street with my nomad studio, to draw and paint in the midst of street life, I am ‘in the centre of the painting’, so people call me the Straatman, because they think I make public performances. When I started, I did not know exactly what I was doing, so I lost control over the situation. I did not understand that while I protected myself to better concentrate and focus on the canvas, I was performing. Indeed, I have always tried to devise something that upset the ideas of performance and of audience. I have always tried to approach reality as close as possible so as to be always involved with what I thought is interesting in painting: I am looking for new undiscovered territories in order to develop it further. In Feuilleton, I paint over videos. Paradoxically, I paint a world in motion. Painting allows a pause in a complex environment; but such search for stability may also assume the form of a performance.
LT: I think that people have a strange idea about Belgium: it is the ‘country of different cultures’, the ‘young country’, with a different sense of nationalism compared with other big countries. It is a country that witnessed different powers for a long time. That’s why there has never been time for sentimentalism or for poetry, in its most traditional meaning, but just the time to survive and a great sense of ‘reality’. And that’s what Angel wants to convey with his work: he works on reality. Of course, his images are a simulacrum, that is they are shaped by the mass media, but they have almost become a kind of meta-reality. They are also politically interesting as they show their great responsibility and engagement.
D: Actually, you raise questions to images shaped by the mass media…
LT: Our work has many things in common: we are both intrigued with the concept of power relations and with the way poker are structured, that’s why reality is important, because beyond any wish there is a desire as well as interests.
When people ask me why I paint, my answer is always the same: ”Because I am not naive.” Painting has been the first conceptualised image that we have known, either in a cave or wherever. The message conveyed by painting is that they are unique, anachronistic images, though traces left by human beings. They have a stronger impact on our memory. The role of the artist as we know it today developed during the Renaissance age: there’s not much difference between Tiziano and a contemporary artist. Even the relationships between the leading players in the cultural sector: it was in this age, in fact, that the first mafia bosses, that is those who had the power and money, started making deals with those who ruled the culture.
D: How is the relationship between the Belgian people and power? Do you think that in Belgium it is different compared to other countries?
LT: We have never had a definite national identity, Belgium is a small country with many different cultures. The Flemish identity is a different story and dates back to Middle Ages.
D: Do you think it would have been possible that a Flemish artist invited a Walloon curator?
LT: Not with the Flemish ministry currently in power. For the first time, the Flemish are claiming more power over the French-speaking community, and this is the real Flemish nationalistic point of view. And they do not even want to unify culture, because they claim to own it.
D: How do you think the political event in Belgium will evolve?
LT: Actually, such situations do not change straightaway. The team plays an important role, and now we are at a dead end because the politicians of my generation do not want a change and the young people do not have enough experience.
ANGEL VERGARA – Feuilleton
Curator and Commissioner: Luc Tuymans 54th International Art Exhibition 2011 Belgian Pavillion – Padiglione ai Giardini – Venice – Italy – 4 June – 27 November 2011
- Angel Vergara, Feuilleton: Les sept péchés capitaux, 2011, stills from the video Feuilleton (composed by seven simultaneous projections), ©Angel Vergara
- Angel Vergara, Feuilleton: L’orgueil, 2011, still from the video Feuilleton (composed by seven simultaneous projections), ©Angel Vergara
- Angel Vergara, Feuilleton: L’avarice, 2011, still from the video Feuilleton (composed by seven simultaneous projections), ©Angel Vergara