De Vierkantigste Rechthoek: Rockstar Tom Barman’s Greatest Hits
Earlier this year, Lotte Haagsma wrote in Metropolis M No 3 of the celebrity-curator boom recently embraced by institutions around the Netherlands, citing exhibitions curated by writer Joost Zwagerman at the Teylers Museum, philosopher Alain de Botton at the Rijksmuseum, and singer/composer, Daniël Lohues at Museum Drenthe as three of the more recent examples. In each of these cases it is clear that the celebrity curator is chosen not for his special expertise or wealth of knowledge in a particular area, but for his unique sensitivity to art, his unorthodox perspective, and, of course, for the attention his notoriety will bring to the exhibition. In keeping with this model, Tom Barman – filmmaker, DJ, and singer of dEUS, one of Belgium’s most successful rock bands – has curated an exhibition of Belgian art in the recently relocated Kunsthal KAdE in Amersfoort.
The exhibition, in connection with a series of events to commemorate the influx of Belgian refugees prompted by the outbreak of WWI, has a historic premise: Belgian art created since 1914. Yet Barman’s approach is anything but chronological. Taking a stab at the question of what ‘typifies’ Belgian art, De Vierkantigste Rechthoek peers into the (dark) corners of Belgian art to show the “best” it “has to offer” [het beste laten zien dat België te bieden heeft], art that is “spicy and vital” [pittig en vitaal].
Given this claim, much of the art selected by Barman is remarkably understated. One need not go further than the first three galleries to find relatively restrained works by three especially pittig en vitaal artists: from the notorious pig-tattoo artist Wim Devolye, a red motorcycle with a made-to-fit carrying case; from Marcel Broodthaers, the quintessential commentator on typifying Belgian-ness, side-by-side prints that remind the museum visitor – in several languages – not to smoke; and from Panamarenko, a petite mechanized butterfly that gives but a lithe nod to the artist’s zeppelin-sized efforts at imitation flight. While not particularly pittig, these less-than emblematic selections are justified by Barman’s expressed goal to avoid Belgian art clichés (most importantly Magritte-laden Surrealism).
The exhibition is a series of dizzying moments presented rather programmatically, building to crescendo. Amidst more than a few abstract geometric paintings, Lili Dujourie’s sculpture, Nobody Enters My Night (1985), a velvet green curtain draped over a golden mirror, is a dramatic pause at the foot of the stairs. On the same wall as a Guy Mees collage, a photograph by Pierre Bismuth shows Dan Flavin’s name written on the back window of a snow-covered sedan, setting the stage for two works to come in the main gallery: a large fluorescent light pentagram (2014) by Xavier Mary, and a path of crushed neon tubes by Michel Francois entitled, Piece of Evidence (2003-2014). Thierry De Cordier’s Gargantua (1996), a giant hairball on a pedestal, is a surprising centerpiece for this gallery – made all the stranger surrounded by, among other works, a dripping, hanging mattress, and a looped digital projection of a strolling donkey. Finally the show ends, rather prosaically, with one of several works by Peter De Mayer: a projection against the wall that reads, “End of slide show, click to exit” (2014).
Some key figures, though not featured, are cleverly acknowledged through the works of others. There is, for example, a reference made to James Ensor through the short film, James Ensor in Oostende ca. 1920 (2000) by Guillaume Bijl. Disguised as found-footage from the 1920s, the silent black and white film shows an Ensor-like figure dressed in the belle époque style carousing through the seaside town with his friends. One of Bijl’s rare works of film, it is a highly convincing replica from the period that Bijl fittingly classifies as ‘cultural tourism’, a popularization of cultural history reduced to the form of cliché; a work in critique of cliché through its performance.
Yet despite the inclusion of work by more than fifty artists, many substantial figures (and movements) in Belgian art are strikingly absent. Where is Constant Permeke (and Flemish Expressionism)? Pol Bury? Jan Fabre? Sven Augustijnen? Are these artists not pittig enough? While the exhibition is successful in steering clear of overwrought characterizations of Belgian art, there is a notable imbalance in favor of art created in the last decade, much of which appears to be on loan from commercial galleries. Seeing as Barman is an art collector himself, these are ostensibly the works, and artists, with whom he is most familiar. This, in combination with Barman’s mode of feeling then thinking – which is to say his erratic leaps between styles, mediums, and generations of artists – serve to make De Vierkantigste Rechthoek simply a selection of art that Tom Barman likes best.
De Vierkantigste Rechthoek
Kunsthal KAdE, Amersfoort
28 September – 4 January 2015