Introduction of a New Politician, 2016. Mixed-media installation, Mechelen Cultural Center. Photo: Courtesy the artist

Where Is the Art? A Conversation with Guillaume Bijl

For Belgian artist Guillaume Bijl, context creates meaning. While Marcel Duchamp changed the status of the mass-produced, banal object by placing it in an art gallery, Bijl modifies the status of space itself in his “Transformation” installations, turning galleries into a Garden Center (1983), a Casino (1984–2018), or a Secondhand Cars dealership (1984)—at least until we realize (if we do) that we have been tricked and that the space is still a functioning art venue, at which point the plethora of objects and the surrounding environment, which mutually reinforce each other in creating the illusion, become the work of art. Bijl tackles a vast array of subjects through his interventions, ranging from entertainment and fashion to illness, politics, utopias, and ideals, as well as a considerable emotional spectrum, veering from melancholy, dread, and boredom to hilarity.

Composition Trouvée, 2014. Mixed-media, dimensions variable. Photo: Courtesy the artist

Michaël Amy: Your work is little known in the United States. Could you provide an introduction?
Guillaume Bijl:
My work has developed different layers over the years. There are the “Transformation” installations (1979–ongoing), consisting of a reality situated within a non-functional—and thus fictional—art space; the “Situation” installations (1983–ongoing), consisting of a fiction situated within a reality, namely a public space; the “Compositions Trouvées” (“Found Compositions,” 1986–ongoing), which amount to fragments of reality; the “Sorrys” (1987–ongoing), which are absurd compositions or installations constituting abstract poetry; the “Cultural Tourism” installations (1989–ongoing), which are kitschy museums of sorts; and the “Sculpture–Sceneries” (2008–ongoing), consisting of realistically painted bronze sculptures placed in public spaces.

MA: In 1979, your first “Transformation” turned Ruimte Z in Antwerp into a Driving School. What led to this work?
GB: During the ’70s, I did many projects on paper, which I named “Project Pleasures.” They inspired my later work. The “Treatments” series, which proved particularly inspiring, consisted of plans for museum installations intended to intrigue and possibly activate the public. In the late ’70s, I wrote a pamphlet—allegedly “BY ORDER OF THE STATE”—titled The Art Liquidation Project. Art spaces without well-established societal functions would have to make way for hospitals, military institutions, driving schools, and stores. This idea led to the “Transformations.” Until 1984, I displayed the pamphlet alongside my installations, but I later left the text out of the equation, because the (fictional) bankruptcy of the gallery was clearly expressed through visual means.

Because driving schools were already present in the area around Ruimte Z, another one was visually plausible. Additionally Ruimte Z had a large, street-facing window like you find in many of these schools. I became aware of three layers of expression. The play between fiction and reality: Is this real, or not? Do both the art-lover and the casual passerby respond? Content: in this case, cars, our principal means of transportation, amount to big business, and thus impact all of us. Driving schools are inescapable. Context: décor becomes sculpture inside an exhibition space. I found these layers to be extraordinarily rich in potential and decided to continue exploring the “Transformations.” I must have realized 60 of them by now.

MA: How did you make this first exhibition happen?
GB: I had almost no money, so I borrowed seats and other elements from a real driving school. I use the loan system for my larger installations. For my smaller works, I purchase objects and materials.

Futon Store, 1989. Mixed-media installation, New Museum, New York. Photo: Courtesy the artist

MA: You select, order, displace, delegate, and orchestrate. Your tools are the telephone and the Internet.
GB: A lot of preparatory work is involved in my large installations, including an examination of the exhibition space and selection of the materials to borrow. I also have to find the right assistants—I am terribly clumsy with my hands. I’ve never had a studio; I work at the installation site. I occasionally produce a sketch. Yes, I am an arranger of sorts—of large and modest-size, realistic décors.

MA: Is walking through the city part of your creative process? You admire Vito Acconci’s Following Piece (1969), in which he followed random individuals through New York City until they disappeared into buildings.
GB: I go prospecting when there is no other alternative. I set up four Marriage Offices over the years, for instance, without having seen one in the flesh. I make stereotypes, with a twist. Following Piece intrigued me greatly, especially with regard to my interventions between fiction and reality. I wanted to come closer to reality in terms of the viewer’s perception. At the theater or in a cinema, the public knows that it will be viewing fiction. When confronted with many of my installations, one does not immediately recognize that—if ever.

MA: The hyperrealist décors in the “Transformations” give viewers the impression that they have landed in the wrong place. We enter the gallery to look at art but do not find the expected space or the expected objects—because, unlike other artists, you radically transform the nature of the exhibition space.
GB: That’s the concept: Where is the art? What is this doing in a kunsthalle? Did the gallery go out of business? Was it turned into a discount mattress store? Confusion arises. The viewer sees a fragment of societal reality in an unsettling way, by encountering the unexpected in the wrong place. I occasionally see my transformed spaces as an alien would. I sometimes say that I show the archaeology of our “civilization” as it now stands.

Caravan Show, 1989. Mixed-media installation, Le Magasin, Grenoble. Photo: Q. Bertoux, Courtesy the artist

MA: Each “Transformation” is a Gesamtkunstwerk in which furniture (sculpture), architecture, color, and light work together to make the viewer believe in an empty illusion. Is this a metaphor for how our societies function? I can’t buy shoes at Chaussures Icécé (Internationaal Cultureel Centrum, Antwerp, 1980); I cannot obtain advice at the Career Guidance Center (De Warande, Turnhout, Belgium, 1980); and I cannot be treated in the Psychiatric Hospital (Paleis voor Schone Kunsten, Brussels, 1981).
My oeuvre is a kind of Gesamtkunstwerk, though it is not as empty as you suggest. The viewer unknowingly becomes an actor within the décor, and I have occasionally featured tableaux vivants—opening performances of sorts at the “Transformations” in which I sometimes play along; these accompanied Hospital, Fitness Center (Breda, the Netherlands, 1985), and Casino (Kortrijk, Belgium, 2019).

MA: Leaving aside the absence of personnel, once the participants leave, one notices that something is not right. Isn’t there always something missing? The spaces are too tidy and clean, and they seem frozen in time.
GB: My installations suggest new companies, stores, or events on the verge of opening—the launch is occasionally announced by posters. That’s why the materials look new. You will notice packing materials lying in a corner, a torn poster—if you look carefully. The spaces are not that tidy.

I aim for clarity and straightforwardness within the realm of realistic expression, but I am occasionally confronted with incomprehension. In 1984, Galerie Média in Neuchâtel invited me to transform its stand at Art Basel. I opted for a Lamp Store. My dealer had not yet arrived, and as my assistant and I installed the lamps, we got some funny looks. The fair director came over to ask what in God’s name we were up to. She believed that we were at the wrong fair—which was, of course, part of my plan. I showed her my portfolio illustrating earlier realist installations, including Hair Salon (Paris Biennale, 1982), and she asked to take it along to a board meeting. I subsequently learned that Zwirner père wanted my work removed, probably because he considered it borderline blasphemous. In that instance, my work offered a critique of the commercialization of the art market. However, my gesture also took part in the early ’80s revival of the readymade. The astounding and hilarious thing was that Galerie Zwirner was then featuring works by Man Ray, Picabia, and Duchamp. Lamp Store became a smashing success and the first work I sold.

MA: The gallery context raises the objects to the level of art, as does the fact that they are not activated— today, art is rarely allowed to carry out a function.
GB: I have never allowed the “Transformations” to function—for instance, by selling a lamp. That would be too playful, and cheap. Presenting an installation in isolation amounts to a much stronger statement.

Lustrerie Média, 1984. Mixed-media installation, Art Basel. Photo: Courtesy the artist

MA: Your assemblages become trompe l’oeil still-lifes of sorts. By selecting and displacing objects, you
have succeeded where many others have failed, making artworks that seem “true to life.” Who could have imagined that making illusions would be so easily achieved? Thousands of artists have struggled with marble, bronze, and oil paint to achieve “life-likeness.”

GB: The trompe l’oeil effect is extremely important in my work: the Supermarket will be opening soon (Galerie Littmann, Basel, 1990); Miss Hamburg will be elected Monday evening (Forum, Hamburg, 1988). In the ’80s, I began working with mannequins—mostly in the “Sorrys” and the “Compositions.” In 1992, for a large window display at Documenta, I had wax figures made in the style of Madame Tussauds. It was quite an adventure for the people making the statues. You see realistic figures everywhere now, but back then, this move was considered odd. I subsequently had polyester statues made, including for The History of Prehistoric Man (Museum of Contemporary Art, Antwerp, 1996). Since 2008, I have had humorous scenes featuring realistically painted bronzes made for outdoor spaces, including in Wuppertal, Amsterdam, Antwerp, Hasselt, and Ostende. So, I also work beyond the readymade.

MA: Many of your works act as social critiques, using humor to question capitalism and bureaucracy, the military, politics, mass production, and consumption. They also touch on questions of appropriateness. A Gym has no place inside the Provinciaal Museum of Hasselt (1983), and a Rug Store cannot be placed inside the Stedelijk Museum of Amsterdam (1985).
GB: I do my best to avoid an in-your-face approach. Installations like Introduction of a New Politician (Mechelen Cultural Center, Belgium, 2016), Atomic Bomb Shelter (Espace 251 Nord, Liège, Belgium, 1985), and Shooting Gallery (Het Apollohuis, Eindhoven, the Netherlands, 1985) are loaded with meaning and strongly critical of Western society. Other works amount to lighter tragicomedy and are kitschier in nature, including Travel Agency (Franklin Furnace, New York, 1984), Shell Shop (Mu.ZEE, Ostend, Belgium, 2015), Dog Salon Daisy (Antwerp, 2019), and Extra Hair Shop (Établissement d’en face, Brussels, 2012). These are realistic spaces frequented by people living in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Those who have atomic shelters occasionally visit travel agencies to book trips.

Many of my installations are rather subtle and minimal. They are inspired by the architecture of the art space, which has to be at least 50 percent right. I do not engage in large architectural interventions. I occasionally have someone lay down linoleum or carpeting and fix the lighting. The city and the neighborhood hosting the work are important. I also consider how someone wanders into the space and what they see first. The choice of theme has to be just right in relation to the space’s content and context. Superior decision-making is key.

MA: Your work also deals with class, poking fun at the petite bourgeoisie and conformity. You know this subject well: your father was a workman, your mother a Bell Telephone employee. You worked at a bank for two years, and later, as a part-time employee at a chain bookstore.
GB: That’s true, but I’ve also poked fun at Trump, and at those who voted for him. My parents were nice, working-class folks who met as teenagers in a weapons factory in Braunschweig, Germany, during World War II. I was their only son, and I am proud of being a kind of working-class hero. My parents considered art-making to be a hobby. For fledgling artists, any day job amounts to too much work. Pursuing profit, the psychology of selling, hiding from the boss—who needs this? At the bookstore, I was chosen as my colleagues’ union representative. The social engagement in my work may have originated there.

Bidet Museum, 2002. Mixed-media installation, De Koninck, Mechelen. Photo: Diane Bertrand, Courtesy the artist

MA: You mentioned that you occasionally invite participation. How does that work?
For Bidet Museum (2002), a “Cultural Tourism” installation made for the 75th anniversary of a beloved bathroom store in Mechelen, I found old bidets in the storage rooms and decided to design a museum featuring bidets that had (supposedly) belonged to Maria Callas, Edith Piaf, Anita Ekberg, Shirley MacLaine, Ornella Muti, Grace Kelly, and Vanessa Paradis, among others. The owners wanted a Belgian celebrity as well as the Mayor of Mechelen to be present at the opening—the latter would officially open the museum. I invited Véronique de Cock—a former Miss Belgium, TV presenter, and distant relative of mine—to add some sparkle to the event. This turned into a hilarious tableau vivant alluding to Duchamp’s attempt to feature a urinal in a group exhibition (Fountain, 1917). For Gym (1983), I invited a group of exercise buffs to work out on the equipment during the opening.

MA: You must have had some adventures.
Yes, especially with the “Transformations” and the “Situations.” In Fashion Store, people were trying on clothing in the changing rooms. People wanted to purchase items from Shoe Store, Wig Store, and Shell Store. One of the most amusing experiences was with Travel Agency at Franklin Furnace. A woman stepped in and asked for a plane ticket to Miami. The director explained that this was an art installation and not a real travel agency. The woman replied, “I will not leave until I have my ticket,” and she took a seat and stayed there. After a couple of hours, the director went around the corner to a real travel agency and purchased a ticket for the woman, who paid and left.

MA: How do you make a living from this kind of work?
GB: I sell my installations mostly to museums and collectors with a lot of space. In galleries, I usually show “Compositions” and “Sorrys.” A 20-year hiatus from galleries beginning in 1992 has kept my prices reasonable. I taught for 20 years at the Jan van Eyck Academy in Maastricht, was a guest professor at the academy of Hamburg, and have worked for the last 10 years as a full-time professor in Münster. In recent years, I’ve received many public commissions, and I’ve been enjoying a revival of interest—also among my fellow artists. And over the last 15 years, I’ve also participated in the Christchurch Biennial, Skulptur Projekte Münster, the Istanbul Biennial, the Busan Biennale, Manifesta 11 in Zürich, and the Lyon Biennale.

Sorry, 2019. Mixed-media installation, Van Schaijk Gallery, ’s-Hertogenbosch, the Netherlands. Photo: Courtesy the artist

MA: The “Transformations” are both historically and geographically determined. An installation made in one location has a local relevance that it can’t necessarily communicate somewhere else.
GB: Yes, and that’s not usually the case in our globalized capitalist societies. I had to make a drastic intervention in Neuer Supermarket when the group show “Shopping” traveled from the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt (2002) to Tate Liverpool. The SPAR chain sponsored the original 1990 version at Littmann Gallery in Basel. In 2002, the Kaiser’s Tengelmann chain took over the sponsoring of the products and furniture, and most of the texts were written in German. Obviously, this German supermarket could not be installed in a trompe l’oeil, Situationist fashion in Liverpool, so Tesco became our lender and sponsor. Supermarket was placed near the entrance of “Shopping.” Vegetables, fruit, and meat were regularly replaced and gifted to charities. I hid the names of the sponsors as much as possible and named this iteration Your Supermarket (2003).

MA: What are the “Cultural Tourism” works about?
GB: They are banal fictional museum installations such as The Lederhosen Museum, The Voting Booth Museum, The Bidet Museum, The Erotic Museum, The Nun of Bruges, The Found Meteor, and The Chair in Art from 1980 until Now. A good example is Composer Memorial Room in Vienna, which mimics touristy “death rooms.” I produced the death room of a fictional composer, Johannes Vogl, who lived around 1900. It included a didactic space, with metronome and musical scores, followed by the composer’s living room and bedroom, with grand piano. Vogl had interactions with Alban Berg, died at a relatively young age, and is not famous.

MA: The “Compositions Trouvées” assemblages resemble riddles. What are they about?
GB: They came out of the manipulation of objects while I was working on Chaussures Icécé, Psychiatric Hospital, Gym, and Garden Center. The series was inspired by the Dadaist objet trouvé, though my compositions include more than one object. They amount to a kind of archaeological still-life of our time: lost corners, store fragments, consumption on display. When they become more absurd, they often become “Sorrys.” Do not look for too much symbolism behind these works.

Neuer Supermarket, 2002. Mixed-media installation, part of “Shopping,” Schirn Kunsthalle, Frankfurt. Photo: Courtesy the artist

MA: The “Transformations” suggest an interest in anonymous spaces. Is that because anonymity makes these spaces universal? Is this about Everyman?
Yes, my work is about, and for, Everyman. I provide humoristic commentary bordering on mockery as far as our “civilization” is concerned. We are all being conditioned and controlled: don’t do this, don’t do that. And soon, none of us will be safe on the Internet.

“Installation,” Guillaume Bijl’s new show, is on view at Meredith Rosen Gallery in New York, September 10–October 23, 2021.