Sculpture in Belgium: The Legacy of Broodthaers

For the generation of artists born after WWII, Marcel Broodthaers was a hard act to follow. He irrevocably changed the process for viewing and understanding art. Today, young Belgian artists are adapting his strategies.

Although he produced art for only 12 years, the Belgian artist Marcel Broodthaers initiated a critique of post-war Modernist art practice that remains central to the concerns of Belgian sculptors who have emerged in the two decades since his death in 1976. Broodthaers began his career making sculptural objects from the discarded materials of the good life. Mussel and egg shells-containers or molds that shaped their contents over a period of time-became for the artist apt metaphors for the process of making art and the pleasurable rewards of middle-class taste. Fragile and without function or value, these shells were paired by the artist with materials from the art world such as paint, geometric forms, canvases, frames, and pedestals. To make art out of life was not unusual in this period. Broodthaers’s contemporaries Piero Manzoni, Joseph Beuys, George Segal, Jim Dine, and Claes Oldenburg also drew inspiration and materials from everyday life. But the Belgian artist exposed the rupture between the artwork and the aesthetized object as well as calling attention to the lack of originality or uniqueness within artistic production, which gave his art its peculiar parodic thrust.

Marcel Broodthaers, “Musée d’Art Moderne, Département des Aigles, Section Publicité” 1968-72. Mixed-media installation.

Broodthaers’s investigation of the role that presentation plays in the discourse of modern art practice gained complexity and political force with his numerous installations, collectively titled “Musée d’Art Moderne, Département des Aigles, Section Publicité”. First shown in his home in 1968, then in several museum versions, and finally installed at the 1972 documenta exhibition (after which it was disassembled), Musée d’Art Moderne exposed the way in which the arrangement of things inscribes objects with both market value and ideology. Constructing a fictive narrative based on strategies of collecting and exhibition, Broodthaers entangles the museum audience in a never-ending circuit of looking that both reveals and obscures underlying networks of power and control. As he wrote in a text published in conjunction with the documenta version of this piece: “This museum is a fiction. In one moment it plays the role of a political parody of artistic events, in another that of an artistic parody of political events.” Yet even as he exposed the deceit of placement and the fiction of artistic production, so attuned was Broodthaers to the way the art world functioned that he even anticipated and celebrated his own co-option by the museum and gallery system.

The physical products of Broodthaers’s poetic explorations-his mussel shells, eggs, eagles, mirrors, and faux museum environments-continued, after his death, to circulate their ironic meditation on the troubled and political role of art practice, while providing later generations of Belgian artists with a manner of working and presentation. Combining wit and word play in his installations with an ironic inversion of scientific or documentary display, Broodthaers accented the activity of looking and interacting with fictive or artificially constructed narratives. In turn, these arrangements raise questions about the ways in which social and cultural values are formed.

For the next generation, those born after World War II and presently in their 40s and early 50s, Broodthaers was a hard act to follow. Knowing that he had irrevocably changed the very process for viewing and understanding art, these artists incorporated Broodthaers’s ideas and manner of working into their own strategies for engaging the public in discussions of the role and function of art in contemporary life.

Panamarenko, TTahama, 1996. Steel, 6 x 7 x 3.5 m. Ronng van de Velde.

Like Broodthaers, Panamarenko promotes analogies between science and art. For the last 20 years he has created mechanical “objects to fly” that immerse the viewing public in the process of production, from invention through fabrication to completed project, via documented plans, technical drawings, maquettes, installations, and performances. The objects he produces, elaborate “flying machines” and mechanical birds made from industrial materials and stoked by simple piston-driven motors, are capable of flying but never get off the ground, nor were they intended to do so. For Panamarenko, flying is a paradigm that encapsulates both the heights and limits of human aspiration. In these works and in his more recent submarines, Panamarenko examines the ways that thought is transformed into action and the manner by which systems of production and exchange operate within everyday life. By drawing attention to the beautiful, albeit dysfunctional, role of machines, Panamarenko reminds his audience that technology can never truly fulfill its utopian promise or liberate the world.

The strategy employed by Broodthaers and Panamarenko, the invention of a model which serves simultaneously as a perspective for observing the world and as an avenue for cultural critique, is utilized by a number of artists in this generation. Guillaume Bijl also works exclusively with installation, but his focus is on the discourse of display. Most of Bijl’s projects are built and placed in galleries and museums and titled “situation-installation” and “composition trouvé.” Paying great attention to detail, Bijl serves as a sort of visual archeologist whose historical dioramas reference the world of leisure, entertainment, and shopping. Functioning as sites for social and mercantile exchange and not as actual spaces where social interaction takes place, Bijl’s displays speak to the ways in which collective fantasies and fetishes are advertised and sold. In a sense, as a recent survey of his work, organized by Antwerp’s Museum of Contemporary Art (MUKHA), demonstrated, all of Bijl’s installations are elaborate still-lifes, reflecting back through the artifice of their arranged presentation how consumer goods package and sanction desire. Like Broodthaers, whose museum mirrored unstated social relationships and systems of power, Bijl’s stratagem of ironic verisimilitude works only when the audience recognizes that these familiar environments have been emptied of meaning due to their installation within the aestheticized space of the museum.

Patrick Corillon, Les points de vue d’oskar serti, 1995. Balustrades and text. Galerie des archives.

Drawing upon Broodthaers’s strategy of examining a system through the discourse of its presentation, Patrick Corillon investigates the tenuous relationship between reality and fiction. Over the last 10 years, the artist has developed a cast of about a dozen different characters. Assuming the role of an imaginary biographer, investigative reporter, or careful archivist, Corillon chronicles, from exhibition to exhibition, the seemingly insignificant and incidental slices of these lives with official plaques, informational displays, title cards, catalogues, and occasionally, an object. Molded to their sites and thus invested with a certain concreteness, these biographies, which may be real or pure invention, are transformed by the act of viewing into material moments that construct the present even as they reconstruct the past. The fragmentary, serial, and incomplete manner by which Corillon presents these histories calls into question their ultimate significance and meaning, thus allowing speculation and other imagined meanings or scenarios to interact with the assembled texts. Not knowing whether that which is represented is fantasy or documentary, but persuaded by the pseudo-scientific and official language of the presentation and the reality of its placement, viewers become enmeshed in Corillon’s dialectic and their own activity of reading, imagining, and constructing meaning. With the installation serving as a magnifying glass upon reality, Corillon involves his audience in analyzing the relationship between language and perception, imaginary reality and real fiction, and the manner in which experience transforms the fragmentary incidents of life into knowledge and history.

Patrick van Caeckenbergh also makes inventories of things, but his installations are intent on revealing the instinctive and random beneath the rational ordering of things. Once again the artist takes on a persona, that of an anthropologist or ethnographic explorer, whose job it is to make an inventory of total reality. More interested in the realm of ideas than in making objects, van Caeckenbergh often destroys his work after it is exhibited and then transforms these destroyed parts into photographs or models to be catalogued and stored. By repeatedly creating and then dismantling, van Caeckenbergh argues for the sculptural object as ruin, a form whose trace memory with the past is used to shape current meaning. Injecting uncertainty into the notion that the object is the end result of artistic process, van Caeckenbergh puts forward, as had Broodthaers, the tenuous position of sculpture as bearer of meaning.

Michel François, Cycle Papier Frigolith, 1996. Paper and Styrofoam, 24 x 24 x 2 in. Curt Marcus gallery, New York.

For Michel François, the sculptural object is both an extension of the body and a record of his daily activity. Endlessly recycled from earlier exhibitions and installations, François’s objects are mutable, constantly expanding or contracting arrangements of things that accent the experimental over the contemplative. As the viewer wanders through collections of marbles, stones, clay and plastic forms, bottles, string, or bars of soap, she or he must pick and choose which elements among the assembled objects, photographs, and videos have significance. Joined together and given a history or narrative continuity by the activity of the viewer, François’s installations become in turn intermediaries between the intimate and private realm of the body and its public role as medium of communication and processor of memory.

Of all of the artists discussed here, Philip Huyghe draws most directly upon Broodthaers’s working method. As had Broodthaers, Huyghe utilizes molds as surrogates for exploring the way in which the artist generates ideas, but his focus is more personal, concentrating on issues of resemblance and exchange. Instead of mussel and egg shells, Huyghe fabricates figures out of metal cookie cutters. Titled “Charlotte, Joly, or Jacqueline” (1991-94), they are imperfect replicas, dissimilar in size, color, or materials, yet identical in form. Through their arrangement they create reciprocal relationships of presence and absence, of solidity and void, functioning in various installations as clothing, islands, and even coffins. Huyghe’s figural models invite questions about the nature of originality, inheritance, and identity.

Like other European countries, Belgium supports contemporary art with grants for individual artists, subsidies for museums, and numerous outdoor exhibition sites in local and regional municipalities. The recent reorganization of the country into a federal model which gives equal representation to both the Flemish- and French-speaking populations has resulted in a factionalized cultural sector, with religious, language-based, and reactionary policies often influencing funding. In addition, the ongoing economic recession has led to budget cuts, decreased corporate funding, and a 20-percent sales tax on purchased artworks.

Thus, while most of the first generation discussed above have found gallery representation in Belgium, for the generation now in their 20s and 30s the possibilities for exhibiting are much more limited. As in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and other American cultural centers, the worldwide slump of the art market has forced galleries to maintain international stables of artists and many are reticent about taking on new artists. In addition, the gallery scene, centered in Antwerp, Bruges, Ghent, and Brussels is quite small and younger artists are often hard-pressed to find spaces to show their work. Even if events like the annual collaboration between writers and artists at Watou, the biennial installation of sculpture at Antwerp’s Middleheim Park, or the temporary exhibition held every three years at the Domain of Zoersel keeps the public informed on the state of contemporary sculpture, the installation-based, conceptually oriented, and socially critical art inspired by Broodthaers’s work continues a tenuous relationship with official avenues of support.

Some artists in this younger generation have returned to Broodthaers’s strategy of showing in their own spaces or organizing exhibitions in temporary sites at places outside of the established gallery system. Such is the case with Toni Geirlandt and Carlos Montalvo, who, under the name Dialogist-Kantor, have initiated a series of events and actions which promote community and collaboration. In addition to their own installations, performances, posters, and books, whose witty images and word puns provide an ironic and satirical commentary on contemporary life, they have also organized exhibitions in their Brussels studio and collaborated with other artists in Belgium and Germany. As part of their ongoing “Laboratoire Patacycliste” series, Dialogist-Kantor rented for a year a former hat shop on a commercial boulevard in Ixelles, one of Brussels communal subdivisions, and invited artists to make installations or performances that they then advertised with posters printed at a local commercial shop. The most intensive collaboration of the E.V.A. Malibran store was an event titled “Fermé/ Gesloten” (the title means “Closed” in French and Dutch) in which each day for a month a different artist set up, displayed, and then disassembled an installation. The local community, familiar with the store’s previous occupants and having no idea of the artistic nature of the current enterprise, daily discovered a freshly renovated shop, complete with new “merchandise” and open for their perusal.

Honore d’O, Van Weg Naar Omweg, 1995. Mixed-media installation.

This quest for community and for sculpture that engages the public in a dialogue is also found in Honore d’O’s installations. D’O’s pieces often assume the shape of a visual labyrinth that adapts its form and function to the spaces it inhabits. For an installation in Rotterdam a few years back, d’O snaked a pipe through a three-story villa. The installation remained unfinished until a visitor blew a marble through a pipe opening. Fueled by breath, the marble took a speedy tour through the changing spaces of the interior while schematically retracing the artist’s activity of construction. In a 1995 piece, d’O subdivided the rehearsal room at the State Theater in Ghent with pull-down shades. Within each of these artificially inscribed spaces, the artist placed a chair, glasses of beer or wine, and reading materials. Once seated in a chair, the spectator could choose to raise or lower the shade, participate with others in the space, read a paper, have a drink, or close off his or her section to others. Acting in concert by pulling on ropes, d’O’s “public” could also assert their power as a group and raise or lower stage props in the main theater space.

This interplay between private and public space and the unscripted participation of the spectators is central to d’O’s desire to create social sculpture. Berlinde de Bruyckere also makes work which seeks public engagement. For the last several years she has made sculptures and installations with blankets. Worn and second-hand, draped and folded, laid out over haystacks, and covering hanging or seated human figures, these commonplace and functional coverings are utilized by the artist to signify not only the shelter and safety of the home but also the stifling claustrophobia of narrow vision and social isolation. Actively connecting the ambiguity and anxiety of these associations with the complex and often contradictory nature of contemporary experience, de Bruyckere seeks to have her sculpture function as a vehicle for social consciousness. Evoking memories of the warm protective hearth as well as the precarious lodgings of refugees and the homeless, de Bruyckere’s sculptures meld private contemplation into environments that directly engage the public in the collective order.

Berlinda de Bruyckere, I never promised you a rose garden II, 1996. Ice and roses in refrigerated area, 33 x 2 x 16 m.

Working with hand-built sculptures of wood and mud, the installations of Els Dietvorst and Veronika Pot, at first glance, seem far removed from Broodthaers’s carefully orchestrated meditations on art practice, yet they too are involved in the ways presentation and reception influence interpretation. Several years ago the two covered an alleyway with red clothing gathered from secondhand stores. Three sculptures resembling cows huddled together for protection or warmth were mounted on tall poles, creating a space where the aesthetic pleasure derived from gazing at these evocative forms was joined with thoughts about the quest for shelter and the loss from slaughter. The distancing of experience achieved by placing the sculptures high above the spectator in this piece was continued in an installation Dietvorst and Pot made in the closed garden of the Antwerp cathedral.

For this project, the artists fashioned sculptures that represented the Virgin Mary descending in stop action from her pedestal. This startling image, a modern “miracle” that transformed the sacred into the profane, could be seen, however, only by spectators peering through a telescope on the observation deck of a nearby corporate tower or by patrons watching television at a local bar.

Joining dissimilar publics and different classes into a conspiracy of looking via voyeurism and surveillance, Dietvorst and Pot examined the ways in which the mediated nature of contemporary experience reduces even miraculous events to commodified spectacles packaged for the evening news.

Working independently and often unaware of one another, these young Belgian sculptors argue for the continued viability of sculpture that challenges social and cultural values even as it comments upon art practice. No doubt even Broodthaers would have been pleased with what his egg and mussel shells have hatched.

Susan Canning is a critic and art historian living in New York.