Open Spaces, Secret Places,
Bozar, Brussels, until Sept. 16
Every two years, Brussels’ Bozar art centre stages a Summer of Photography, comprising a series of events all over the city around a central theme.
This year, curator Gabriele Schor has focused on the relationship between people and the public space.
It’s a particularly close bond at the noble Bozar, designed by Belgium’s great art nouveau architect Victor Horta, which hosts the key exhibition: Open Spaces, Secret Places – a first-rate, international collection of conceptual art and photography in a co-production with the Sammlung Verbund gallery in Vienna.
It builds around the premise that beginning in the 1960s, collective spatial awareness deepened and art would never be the same again as artists and their public gained a heightened sense of themselves in relation to the space around them.
At the same time, the focus on individual private space has denied us the public intimacy of the bath-house, the hammam or the public latrine.
Tom Burr takes us into the most private of spaces with Split (2005), which splits a very wholesome wooden privy in two. He also devotes a series of black and white photographs to public toilet buildings in various stages of ugliness and decay — Unearthing the public restrooms (1994) — that somehow do not preclude affection.
In their way, these buildings have atmosphere and it is not far removed from the quiet feeling of abandonment captured by Danish conceptual artist Joachim Koester in his exploration of Immanuel Kant’s walks through his native city of Königsberg, renamed Kaliningrad by the conquering Russians.
As he thought his great thoughts, Kant never strayed more than a few miles from the city traumatised in 1938 by a particularly brutal “kristallnacht”.
The routes of his wanderings is unclear. In Koester’s imaginings, the Kant Walks (2003-4) took him past crumbling, brutally modern buildings and through wintry skeletons of trees standing in carpets of long-shed autumn leaves.
The German pair of conceptual artists Bernd Becher and Hilla Becher also focus on the unlovely, but their series of photographs of industrial buildings and structures – confronting us, for instance with a gasometer (2003) from every conceivable angle — are more purposeful than depressing.
Melancholy is nevertheless the exhibition’s predominant mood.
Simryn Gill’s My Own Private Angkor (2007-9) could be an ironic reference to Angkor Wat, or Capital Temple, the temple complex in Cambodia, which claims to be the largest religious complex in the world.
It documents an abandoned housing estate in Malaysia, full of shadows, shafting light and fragments of the anonymous, unceremonial lives once lived there.
Iranian photographer Tahmineh Monzavi sets her work Tehran’s Brides (The brides of Mokhber al-Dowleh – 2006-9) in a similarly neglected setting. The bridal gowns, symbols of so much romantic hope and aspiration, are raggedly displayed, as if violated, on dummies in ruined buildings.
If all this seems too downbeat, other works provide humour and whimsy.
Minimalist artist Ceal Floyer’s Light Switch (1992) is a very much illuminated switch in a wordplay that makes us re-examine the space around us.
Canadian-born Jeff Wall makes large colour images that purport to capture people engaged in their daily affairs, but are mostly staged and then displayed on wall-mounted light-boxes that make them seem larger than life.
His Boys Cutting Through a Hedge (2003) appears to depict petty criminals making off with their booty in sports bags through a rather badly maintained surburban hedge unobserved by anyone but us and the camera lens.
U.S. architect-turned anarchitect Gordon Matta-Clark who died tragically early of pancreatic cancer in 1978, cuts through not hedges but houses.
For the 1975 Biennale de Paris, his Conical Intersect was based on cutting a large cone-shaped hole through two 17th-century townhouses, which were to be knocked down to make way for the Pompidou Centre.
His work Splitting, used for the exhibition’s publicity shots, depicts a soon-to-be-demolished ordinary, two-storey house in the suburb of Englewood, New Jersey, which Matta-Clark cleaved in two from the top to the bottom.
The cut has its poignancy as the death of the building, but witty social commentary on the fragility of suburban lives is also implied.
Eleanor Antin’s 100 Boots (1971-3) also hints at a range of issues as they march their way through cow fields, stride in the opposite direction from a gaggle of geese, circumnavigate a traffic island, call in at a casino and even wait patiently in the entrance to a dance studio. The sense is they are very male boots.
Antin’s format is a series of black and white post-cards. Other works include video installations, such as ?ener Özmen’s and Erkan Özgen’s Road to Tate Modern (2003) in which the two artists, posing as Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, rove on donkeys through the barren mountains of Anatolia, asking for directions to the Tate Modern. They are not so much spatially aware as lost.
Barbara Lewis © 2016.