Francis Alÿs once did a walk from the Museum of Science and Industry to the Nordic Museum in Stockholm, mapping the journey with the unraveling thread of his blue sweater.
The Belgian native is known for his “walks”, performative perambulations numbering too many to list here. They link sites separated by space and time; they chart national and political histories onto landscape; they open onto questions of surveillance and urban existence; and perhaps most importantly, they playfully highlight the subjective journey of the individual in time and geography.
Miriam Böhm, Interlude IV, 2012, Chromogenic color print, 31 x 35 inches, courtesy Ratio 3.
If I’d been feeling cleverer and less exhausted from standing for an entire train journey from Rotterdam to Brussels, I might have planned an Alÿs-style walk on a recent trip to the EU capital. As in the artist’s Stockholm walk – and in the paths of so many visitors – one could map Brussels within and between its museums. Wander through the palatial Royal Museums of Art, stroll in a southwesterly direction to the modernist industrial building of Wiels, Brussels’s best-known contemporary art center, all the while charting the route with a trail of powdered sugar blown from a street vendor’s waffle. Or perhaps you could let loose one French and one Flemish speaker into the city. One carries a cone of chips, the other a bottle of mayo. When they meet, they must speak to each other in English.
Eddie Martinez, Dream Scape, 2012, oil and spray paint on canvas, © Eddie Martinez, courtesy Sorry We're Closed.
I pose these truly terrible (or at the very least corny) ideas only to bring up the notion of adding further poetic – if bad poetry – meaning to what is essentially the under-informed wandering of a tourist. You could make yourself feel more singular of purpose – as you follow the throngs of people from the Grote Markt (Grand Place), past numerous chocolate and waffle shops (roll your eyes at me, but I’ve been there and I’m not making this up), to the Mannekin Pis (the oddly famous peeing boy fountain) – if you envisioned your movements as art. Stopping to indulge in overpriced mussels and chips along the way might not be the best financial decision, but it is a tasty one. And one in which another famous Belgian artist, Marcel Broodthaers, would have approved. In addition to le/la moule’s wordplay, in which mussels sculpt themselves, the artist exploited the Belgian gastronomic stereotype, equating culture with cuisine. Food can be poetic, touristy, and delicious. Triumph of the Mussels indeed.
Mike Kelley, Buttered Colored Vision of the Land O’ Lakes Girl, Peche Island, piezo pigment paint on rag paper, framed, edition of 5, © Mike Kelley, courtesy Patrick Painter, Los Angeles.
Whether the journey is your destination or you’re just there for Art Brussels, prepare to do some legwork in Brussels. Despite the tight spiral of tourist attractions in the center, the city is pretty spread out, and if you’re there to check out the art scene there’s no go-to neighborhood or destination. Small clusters of galleries do pop up, but a map of their locations reveals no conclusive patterns.
My own recent trip looped me up and around from BOZAR and the Royal Museums, where I found David’s The Death of Marat, plus key works by Rubens, Bruegel, and James Ensor, plus the aforementioned mussels. Lest you think they missed something hiding under a bowler hat, Magritte’s work has its own museum in the compound. Leaving the museum area, I attended Johan Gelper’s show at Ricou Gallery before my trajectory sent me north through a residential neighborhood to the Vanhaerents Art Collection, a truly impressive private collection of contemporary art which admits scheduled visitors on Saturdays. Further north still, I stopped into recommended galleries Jan Mot and VidalCuglietta, showing newly installed exhibitions by word artist Ian Wilson and Lisa Tan, respectively. Nearby, I passed Hopstreet and Crown Gallery off the Graanmarkt. While I chose the downtown offerings, I could have headed uptown instead where about a dozen galleries straddle either side of Avenue Louise, what begins as an upscale shopping boulevard and turns into the city’s southbound thoroughfare. There I would have found prominent galleries like Meessen De Clercq, Baronian Francey, and Almine Rech, all of which have openings corresponding with Art Brussels, plus a solid collection of emerging and established galleries alike.
Alex Verhaest, Character Study - Helene, 4 minute animation loop on framed screen, © courtesy of the artist and GRIMM.
There is, quite simply, a great deal going on in this city of dichotomies, where global meets local; art nouveau meets concrete monstrosity; and English meets French and Flemish somewhere in the middle. It is a cultural, linguistic, culinary, and architectural melting pot. And while Alÿs could no doubt envision some great walks in Brussels – highlighting art or not – you should go ahead and make your own.
For it is on our own journeys that we discover the strange lack of sculpture and prevalence of graffiti in Royal Museum’s “sculpture garden”. That we come across larger than life Tintin tableaux snaking up the sides of buildings. That we find the peeing boy fountain transformed into a peeing vampire. That we drink a great local beer and are denied waffles by a cart purportedly selling the modulated confections. That we avoid an old man in a fedora shooting the air with an unloaded rifle. That we come across a townhouse cum art center we didn’t know existed. Map your own travels as art lover, tourist, or better yet as someone who doesn’t see these things as being mutually exclusive.
(Image top right: Kati Heck, Entführung der Mutter mit Hase, oil, charcoal and toilet paper on canvas, courtesy Tim Van Laere Gallery.)