Brussels becomes an epicentre of contemporary art

Ceil Miller Bouchet

THE WASHINGTON POST – My journey began with five words: ‘Brussels is the new Berlin’. Clickbait phrase? Undoubtedly. But since I’m a fan of creative adventuring in new places, those words were like catnip when a young artist friend told me of her impending move from Brooklyn to the Belgian capital.

A year later, I rang the doorbell of her new studio, in Brussels’s working-class Anderlecht neighbourhood – the first stop on a week’s exploration of the city’s popping contemporary art scene.

Inside the cavernous loft, silvery light filtered through the tall windows of the former tobacco factory, nourishing a small jungle of plants as well as an artist’s soul.

“It feels really authentic here,” my friend Tessa Perutz told me, dabbing cadmium green oil paint onto one of her happy-hued abstract landscapes.

The 31-year-old British American was prepping for an upcoming show at Galleria Marie-Laure Fleisch, one of the city’s nearly 200 arts venues.

MIMA, a privately funded urban art museum, is housed in the old Belle-Vue brewery along the Brussels Canal. PHOTO: MIMA

The Magritte Museum, a tribute to the 20th-Century Belgian surrealist, is among the city’s primary tourist draws. PHOTO: AFP
A mural on the canal in Brussels; the city has seen an influx of international artists and gallerists over the past decade. PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST

“It’s such a change from Brooklyn,” she continued, crouching on a stool facing her work. “Brussels is cosmopolitan but small, and I can afford to have a nice place. That leaves me more mental space for painting.”

Perutz is among an influx of international artists and gallerists who have helped transform the city’s cultural fabric over the past decade.

Building on the regional strength of Art Brussels – the second-oldest art fair in Europe – in a country that many experts say has the highest number of collectors per capita in the world, Brussels has developed a near-perfect ecosystem for art production, acquisition and, for curious visitors like me, simple appreciation.

Using the handy Brussels Art Guide I’d purchased at the Visit Brussels office, it was easy to walk between the big-name contemporary art galleries in the city’s central Ixelles and Saint-Gilles quarters, where I lingered at Xavier Hufkens, Rodolphe Janssen, La Patinoire Royale and many others, absorbing museum-quality shows in gorgeous spaces.

But, this being Brussels, there were also plenty of quirkier places sprinkled about, especially in Saint-Gilles.

There, next to a comic book shop, I spotted a storefront gallery called Damien & the Love Guru.

How could you not stop at a place with a name like that?

And I was glad I did, because the co-founder, anthropologist Priya Shetty – as with all the friendly gallerists I met – was an excellent guide to her neighbourhood.

Later, at Café la Pompe, a bustling corner establishment Shetty recommended, I eavesdropped on a conversation between three girlfriends straight out of an Audrey Tautou movie.

Sablon, the third of the central-city trifecta of gallery-rich neighbourhoods, is home to gallerist Jan Mot’s latest iteration of a journey supporting conceptual art that began in his living room in 1992.

Anchored by lovely Egmont Park and two Gothic churches, the Sablon quarter is also a stone’s throw from the city’s major arts institutions like the multidisciplinary cultural centre, Bozar, and the Royal Museums of Fine Arts, which include the city’s main tourist draw, the Magritte Museum, a paean to the 20th-Century Belgian surrealist.

As in Magritte’s day, Brussels welcomes original thinkers, American Harlan Levey explained when I stopped by his townhouse gallery, near Sablon, on a Saturday afternoon.

“Karl Marx lived next door,” Levey said. “People here just have a penchant to be open to unusual ideas,” he continued, as we passed a meditative visitor silhouetted against a video screen plush with multicoloured images from Emmanuel Van der Auwera’s experimental documentary film The Sky Is on Fire.

Showing me out, he suggested I stroll over to Schaerbeek, a hip Turkish-infused quarter. But I was more interested in Molenbeek, a neighbourhood on the city’s fringes mostly populated by second- and third-generation Belgians of North African origin, where Levey would soon be expanding his gallery into an old warehouse that, he told me, had most recently been used as a mosque.

As I headed through tranquil Sunday afternoon streets to a Molenbeek artist cooperative and affordable co-working space the next day, a friendly encounter erased any unease I retained about the neighbourhood that harboured the terrorists behind the Paris and Brussels attacks nearly four years ago.

“Good, isn’t it?” a man asked me in French, as he and his wife approached the Moroccan corner bakery where I’d just bought a piece of doughy flatbread. “Oui!” I mumbled, returning their smiles and swallowing quickly. “Where are you from?” his wife inquired, adjusting her gray headscarf. When I replied I was American, the man switched to flawless English, and told me his uncle lives in Chicago.

Just another typical cordial Brussels encounter, I was coming to realize. With 183 nationalities at last census count, one-third of Brussels’s inhabitants were not born in Belgium.

French, Dutch and German are the official languages, which makes English the lingua franca, and cultural exchange a part of life, for those who seek it out.

Wandering through the open gate of LaVallée, where 150 early-career creatives occupy low-rent studios in a former dry-cleaning plant, I was looking for the weekend exhibition I’d read about on the place’s Facebook page. Near the back of the courtyard, I spotted a table by an open door on which, next to a cluster of pink carnations, stood a handwritten card: “Take a left at the far door. Follow the arrows leading to the end of the long corridor. Enjoy!”

That’s how I met 34-year-old floral designer Larissa di Pietrantonio, a Belgian of Polish-Italian parents, whose show with her studio mate, Polish painter Hanna Ilczyszyn, merged bird images, branches, dried flowers, sketching and painting. “This is a super place for people like us,” di Pietrantonio told me. “We can collaborate across disciplines and have a real open-minded approach.”

A few streets over, I located an artist-run space called Société, reflecting the building’s first life as a substation for the Société Bruxelloise d’Electricité. Again, I had the friendly English-speaking gallery attendant to myself. She helped me understand the show, called “Encountered Error,” in which, for example, the floor of one room was strewn with crushed fluorescent light tubes. “Our exhibitions put well-known older works in dialogue with new installations like this one,” she said. “Société is the kind of raw place you would have seen in New York in the 1980s.”

Brussels’s cultural ferment crystallized on my way out of Molenbeek, as I crossed the Brussels Canal – a slender thread of water expanded in the 1800s to link the landlocked city’s burgeoning heavy industry to the nearest seaport at Antwerp. After three decades of postindustrial decline, the canal now holds the nexus of the city’s creative renaissance along its banks.

To my back was Tour & Taxis, the spectacularly Victorian, newly renovated transportation compound in Molenbeek where Art Brussels occurs every April. In front of me, the hulking concrete shell of Kanal-Centre Pompidou, a former Citroen car factory slowly morphing into the region’s largest publicly funded cultural venue. And several blocks down, along the canal’s street-art-splashed concrete embankment, there was MIMA, a privately funded urban art “museum for the millennium”.

I found that art and beverages also merge in the city’s Forest neighbourhood, at the Wiels Centre for Contemporary Art.

Designed by avant-garde architect Adrien Blomme in the 1930s, the loca juts up like a five-story art deco ship’s prow on a corner not far from the Gare du Midi train station, where, incidentally, you can reach London, Paris and Amsterdam in around two hours. The Wiels, widely viewed as the most dynamic of the city’s contemporary art venues, nourishes multidisciplinary creative expression through world-class expos by established living artists and residencies for emerging artists from around the world.

A block away, I spotted a waffle sign hanging above the doorbell of Clearing, like a colonial-era blacksmith shop’s anvil. Just another signal that Belgians – like Olivier Babin, who started the artist-funded space in Bushwick in Brooklyn a decade ago – try not to take themselves too seriously. Inside the stylishly rehabbed former shutter factory, there’s a cathedral-like exhibition space for large-scale sculptures and even a cozy eight-table restaurant for lunch or weekend brunch.

On my last day in Brussels, a kaleidoscope of experiences merged when, outside Notre Dame de la Chapelle church, I mistook an artist for a saint. As I approached the bronze statue, I noticed the bearded giant wielded a paintbrush instead of a sceptre. On his shoulder perched a monkey with a funnel hat, rather than an angel. Near the statue’s base, I located, with difficulty, a faded metal plaque set into the cobblestones that read ‘Pieter Bruegel, 1525-1569’. The Flemish master, who revolutionised painting in his day, was buried inside the church.

Belgians, it seems, have a reverence for artists past and present. But what about the monkey? That, I later read, represents Brussels-based sculptor Tom Frantzen’s nod to his compatriots’ irreverent streak: a unique Belgian quality that then, as now, embraces creativity of all kinds.