Since 2018, Brussels Gallery Weekend has developed its own exhibition, aiming to highlight young artists from Brussels which are not yet represented by galleries. For 2020, ‘Generation Brussels’ will be reinventing itself by connecting private and public spaces. Evelyn Simons (1989) is curating this year's edition, proposing a colourful urban exhibition.
Sue Spaid: How wonderful to take as your exhibition’s inspiration Maurice Maeterlinck’s 1889 book of poems Serres chaudes, which not only frames ‘lockdown’ as a fecund exploration period, but it casts artists as visionaries, envisioning our future. However fruitful these months have been for artists, I think the public might be curious to know about the difficulties facing younger artists as a result of Covid-19. Do you have any relevant stories?
Evelyn Simons: Of course many artists were faced with sudden economic precarity. Many of them work part time in restaurants, shops, bars, etc., often with day contracts – so once that fell out, some of them had to revert to savings and couldn’t rely on state-funded compensation, like many others could. However, most kept their spirits up. What I heard very often is that quarantine didn’t change life dramatically for artists. They’re used to working on their own, for long stretches of time, immersed in their own universe. The sunny weather and the overall calmness proved to be rather inspiring for them. This is quite the opposite for me, since I’m generally constantly surrounded by people to do my job. And 30 hours of zoom per week definitely doesn’t make up for that.
In addition, we’re so used to working from project to project, from exhibition to exhibition. What structures our work is the externalization, dedicated moments of display and sharing with audiences. So when all ongoing engagements came to a halt, it could have been extremely demotivating, yet I think we’re all aware of the shared responsibility needed to combat the virus. Before the summer, there was less frustration and more a sense of fear, but also acts of solidarity and generosity. Now however, with the current measurements feeling rather random (taking overcrowded flights is ok, but organizing cultural corona-proof events isn’t), people are getting tired of the lack of perspective. Also, the economical crash that will follow might be the ultimate blow-out for smaller arts organisations and emerging artists. This is why it was so amazing that the organizers of BGW opted to experiment with adapting this show in order to avoid cancelling it.
SS: Your online exhibition essay outlines several of the visions for our future proposed by these artworks. Could you reiterate several that you hope actually come true?
ES: I don’t think they should be seen as visions for the future, or hopes or ambitions for the long run. For me, the exhibition speaks more about survival mechanisms. The artists struggle with their current anxieties, but find tools to put things in perspective, to comfort themselves, to soften the hard edges that society is serving us, for themselves and for others. However, what surfaced throughout this exhibition’s preparation was that many artists gave expression to some sort of guiding agents, such as Tom Hallet’s intricate drawings of LGBTQIA+ heroes; Carlotta Bailly-Borg's androgynous, anthropomorphic creatures engaged in sensually embracing one another; Jot Fau’s enigmatic warriors protecting each other; Naomi Gilon’s outcast elves inhabiting a fantastical universe; or Simon Demeuter’s grandfather who passed away, but who’s present in the masks he once made for Binche’s carnival, in the series Ghosts.
It might be in the air du temps, but I also like to think that Covid-19 and the imposed stillness of quarantine-life has something to do with it. Perhaps artists had to dig deeper into their imagined landscapes to find sense in what is currently going on. I suspect that these guiding agents can also be of comfort, offer support and guide others through these difficult times.
SS: The artists, who are mostly painters and sculptors born between 1984 and 1996, are thus all millennials. Does this artistic generation have a particular voice yet?
ES: The abundance and diversity of these guiding principles lays bare a self-governed reality. The heroes arising today to save us are not the white cis-gendered straight males who still run everything. This is the system we no longer believe in, since it doesn’t represent us. It’s so outdated. By letting a myriad of other creatures take center stage, the artists, including myself, proclaim that a different kind of future is already in reach.
SS: You have had quite a busy schedule this year, first the female minimalist survey at Fondation CAB, whose opening was delayed two months; then this show which required you to identify multiple sites rather than one exhibition in a giant space; then your sudden decision to transform the Horst Arts & Music Festival into a Restaurant Club with weekly dinners, DJ’s and performances, and the contemporary art center Kunsthal Ter Rijst that you and Isabel Van Bos have been developing that is scheduled to open next year. Since you’ve been so crazy busy, did you even notice that the artworld came to a screeching halt, perhaps with the surprising exception of high-dollar art fairs squeezing into ‘viewing rooms’?
ES: I generally start my day browsing, reading articles for hours and hours and then checking in with people on what’s happening. So it’s not as if I’ve been shying away from confronting myself with what’s going on. Personally, I initially thought ‘what’s the point of desperately trying to push all these projects through?’. It didn’t feel like a priority. There’s this meme in which an image of the sinking Titanic is used as an illustration for the current state of things, and then a bunch of violinists continuing to make music on it with the satirical caption ‘we need art now more than ever’. I related to that joke a lot. It’s really absurd to hear galleries and institutions scream that contemporary art can save us, while people are being evicted from their homes, hundreds of thousands of people have died, others have ended up in poverty, domestic violence is rising and numerous families are confronting psychological distress caused by their being packed together in tiny apartments. It’s completely out of place. Unfortunately, contemporary art currently doesn’t hold that place in society, it’s not generally really something that people can get aligned with, though that doesn’t mean that it won’t in the future. There have been some interesting examples of contemporary art making a public statement following the most recent Black Lives Matter protests, such as Amy Sherald’s striking portrait of Breonna Taylor on the cover of the latest Vanity Fair issue. But for contemporary art to resonate a bid more widely, we will have to honestly confront and restructure the current system. Digital exhibitions don’t do the trick. To be honest, that endless, desperate sequence of online shows numbed me out. I didn’t ‘visit’ one.
It’s been mostly damage control over the past months, indeed acknowledging our responsibility towards the artists, and trying to make most sense of what we could do with the current collaborations already in place. I reconsidered my initial impulse to sit it out, and acknowledged that to completely abolish what we’re doing, is much more damaging. When the safety measures became ever more inconsequent, illogical and absurd, the situation turned political for me. It’s very easy for a society to become passive and a-critical if you take away cultural and nightlife. So yes, I want to continue producing, mediating and getting art out there, but I also want to identify ways that better match the current circumstances and climate.
At Fondation CAB we pretty much stuck to our original proposition. The location is spacious enough to allow for safe visits, and we’ve stretched out the duration of the exhibition. For Brussels Generation, we decided that an exhibition taking shape as a route throughout the city, free and accessible for all to visit, made the most sense, both in case of a second lockdown, as well as a reflection on this new ‘public garden’ that our city streets have become. For Horst, we had to cancel the festival and postpone the exhibition until next year. However, we have all these big warehouses at hand, a dedicated and flexible team, and a network of artists and DJ’s who we knew would be thrilled to do something for an audience – how small or adapted it may be. So we decided to make use of that, trying to generate some warmth in these bleak times, and opened up a restaurant where you can stay safe in your bubble, while enjoying good food, live music and performance. Kunsthal Ter Rijst in the Pajottenland is still under construction, so we’ve been using our time to apply for numerous grants and to further consolidate conversations with partners in the area.
SS: You mention that Generation Brussels has 12 participants, spread across four sites. I thinkit’s wonderful to give artists who lack gallery representation a chance to get their art seen. What is their view? Do you anticipate any unintended consequences?
ES: When the decision was made that Generation Brussels wouldn’t take place in the Vanderborght building, we were all a bit disappointed, including the artists, the organization and me. We weren’t sure yet what the alternative would be. Luckily, the organization has worked like crazy to find suitable and intriguing new places throughout the city. The network of Sybille Du Roy has helped a lot, as well as the hard work of project manager Clemence Belisson, intern Marie-Aline Gueurts, as well as the other interns. Finally, the artists were pretty excited with the sites they identified, so we found a way to adapt the exhibition to this new format. Some of the artists actually felt inspired to produce new artworks in response to the venues.
SS: Tell us a little about the process, the fact that there is an open call which made it possible for totally unknown artists to gain exposure as part of your exhibition. How did you decide to split the artists between the four sites?
ES: For me, this exhibition was about bringing together a community. I didn’t begin with a concept or research topic. I began with a group of artists with whom I wanted to work, because I noticed that their approaches overlap. In fact, their artworks prompted my memory of Maeterlinck’s poems, not vice versa. For this exhibition, I am working with several artists with whom I’ve worked before, a few friends, artists who I’ve been following, and indeed, some applied with their portfolio through the open call and were invited to participate, since their art amplified aspects of how the exhibition had evolved up to that point. Laying out the puzzle comprised of the artworks the artists are keen to show and the types of venues we eventually received – which required us to keep logistical aspects in mind, as well as the goal to create distinct atmospheres in each venue – so that artworks and practices reinforce one another.