Planning a trip to art fairs – plural because, let’s face it, where one art fair goes, others are sure to follow – is an exercise in strategic thinking. Tactical decisions balance hopes, dreams, and opportunity costs, and every choice you make could lead you to find, or miss, the best deal, most worthwhile elbow-greasing, sickest party, most enlightening roundtable, or tastiest canapé.
The simultaneity of fairs and events within a short time generates a perfect choose-your-own-adventure situation. And Brussels, with its decentralized art scene and occasionally bipolar, international ethos is ripe adventure-choosing territory. Stay downtown and check out the galleries or head south to the upscale Avenue Louise? Brave the crowded museums or stick to smaller venues? Rent a bike or buy a metro pass? Chips or waffles? Ale or lager?!
In the infamous Choose Your Own Adventure books from the eighties and nineties, more than a few outcomes have you meet rather sudden and unceremonious ends. I can’t pick your path for you – this is your adventure after all – but here are some tips to help you make the most of your Brussels visit, stop worrying about what you’re missing, and just maybe avoid an untimely demise.
Brass, venue of POPPOSITIONS in Brussels; Photo © Sarah Suco Torres.
1) Skip the Atomium.
Not least because you will sidestep opportunities for falling from great heights. Listen, the Atomium is kind of neat – like a retro-futuristic Eiffel Tower with exhibitions – and Brussels Expo, Art Brussels’ venue, is basically in the shadow of this giant World’s Fair (Expo ‘58) centerpiece. Its outsized molecular structure might beckon to you, but skip the entry fee and admire it from afar. For a more edifying experience, check out The Stage, Art Brussels’ lecture theatre, which will host a diverse program curated by the fair’s Artistic Director, Katerina Gregos. Artist performances (Kendell Geers, Francesco Cavaliere) will meet roundtable discussions and debates over such topics as art in Brussels, collecting and presenting video, and the economic realities of being an artist. The Cinema, with its two looped programs of short video and film, is also worth a visit.
2) Spend a day (or two) in the forest.
Southeast of central Brussels is Forest, where seven art organizations gathered under the Kunst Promenade banner offer up a loaded program not to be missed. First stop: WIELS Contemporary Art Centre, which, in addition to its current Tauba Auerbach and Thomas Bayrle exhibitions, will host the performance and live art platform Experienz #2. The program is packed (and free!), and leaves no excuses for dull evenings. Also worth visiting is the itinerant, pop-up art fair, Poppositions, featuring galleries and artists working with site-specificity. With so many performances and art spaces, plus two art fairs (Poppositions and Slick), you might just choose to get lost in the woods.
Installation view of the exhibition Thomas Bayrle: All-in-One at WIELS Contemporary Art Centre, 2013; Photo by Sven Laurent (let me shoot for you); Courtesy of WIELS Contemporary Art Centre.
3) Hit up the galleries….
Brussels has a fantastic, if sometimes underestimated, gallery roster. Extended hours (6-10pm) during Friday’s Gallery Night will let you see more. Your toughest choice is whether to stay in the center (Dansaert) or head south to the cluster of galleries straddling Avenue Louise. Both promising options, but remember: one path could lead you to wake up Saturday in a dry dock in Ostend with a bunch of gallery interns and little memory of the night’s proceedings. Perhaps these tips from my colleague Georgia Haagsma will help you decide.
4) … but don’t forget about the collectors!
Cut to the chase and art fairs are really about showing (well, selling) art to collectors. But sometimes the collectors show art to us. Belgian collectors are a thoughtful and well-respected bunch and Brussels is a great place to celebrate these patrons. If you can arrange tickets to the impressive, if prohibitive, Vanhaerents Art Collection go for it, but the down to earth townhouse Maison Particulière – a sort of collectors’ collective – is more accessible and has a refreshing and convivial take on sharing art.
5) Stay OFF the beaten path.
Spending a day downtown? Forget about peeing boy statues and waffles, and save your time for the second edition of OFF-Art Fair at Tour & Taxis in the unique former Royal Depot. Fifty international galleries (travelling locally and from as far away as Japan and the DRC) will present their top artists. Combine your visit with some gallery hopping around the Rue Antoine Dansaert and Fish Market area and you’ve made a wise choice indeed.
Don’t stress too much about your decisions. Art fairs aren’t really like Choose Your Own Adventure novels. I doubt any choice you make will leave you poisoned by a butler, eaten by a zombie, ransomed by art thieves, or in the clock tower in Bruges with Hans Ulrich Obrist in a Tintin costume. Just promise you’ll look both ways before crossing the street.
Go to page 17.
(Image on top: Sebastian Stumpf, Highwalk #4 , 2010, c-print , 70 x 70 cm; Courtesy Sebastian Stumpf and Galerie Thomas Fischer/ At Art Brussels, booth 3C-06.)