Exhibition Review: No Context- Dirk Braeckman’s Belgian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale
by Madeleine Leddy
If pictures could talk, Dirk Braeckman would want his to say very little. Unfortunately for Braeckman, reality is difficult for most audiences to completely de-contextualize (and perhaps this is just the kind of intellectual gymnastics that he hopes his audience will attempt), and even the monochrome, unassuming film prints he has prepared for the minimalistic Belgian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale are bound to say something to the curious viewer. Braeckman himself, in an interview with Mousse Magazine, has denied being “opposed to dialogue” between his images (especially given that they are displayed adjacent to one another, with few surrounding distractions, in the Pavilion); what he does not appear to want, though, is for viewers to impose their own narratives onto them.
Braeckman’s Biennale show represents a climax for him on several levels, and the sheer magnitude of the host event may not even be the highest among them. Years ago, he fell in love with the Belgium Pavilion building, which was originally designed by Belgian Art Nouveau architect Léon Sneyers in 1907—and remodeled three times over the course of the 20th century.
Originally an arts décoratifs-style gallery, with a series of frescoes and sculptures implanted in its very structure, the pavilion was progressively stripped of its gaudier features and pared down, with each renovation, to a more “modern” layout and décor. In fact, the first renovation was overseen by none other than Sneyers himself, in 1910; the architect retraced his steps and set the standard for later remodelings by eliminating some of the busier frescoes and rendering the façade more “sober,” according to Belgian architectural historian Bart Verschaffel. Today’s pavilion is larger and starker than the original, and, in a progression that mirrors the movement towards minimalism from late modern to contemporary art, Braeckman’s taste for simplicity may be what led him to Venice.
Venice is a city that seems to have been built for extravagant — even kitschy—storytelling: a literal island unto itself, its back-alleys are murky canals where lovers and tourists glide in flocks of funny-shaped boats, disappearing into colorful stucco houses and indulging in a nostalgic smorgasburg of over-the-top masks, opera buffa, and glass ornaments. Italy’s notoriously less ostentatious Northern European neighbors bring a fundamentally foreign element to the city in their Biennale pavilions, and this foreignness is perhaps nowhere more evident than in Belgium’s (which is, notably, also the oldest national pavilion on the Exposition grounds). Austere white walls and a stoic concrete exterior make it a temple to minimalism, but also the perfect space for giving the exposing artist a voice. Braeckman is, of course, an artist whose work matches the building as opposed to overpowering it: he, too, gives the space room to breathe, in return for the most ambiguous atmosphere possible in which to let his photographs waft their...well, ambiguity.
Braeckman’s film images in this collection look almost accidental. Some are blurry, some are grainy, some are overborne by the camera flash reflecting messily on a surface: many, in fact, are pictures of pictures—on-the-fly, experimental-looking snapshots of glossy Kodak prints where Braeckman’s flash indicates his presence. The subjects of the photos-within-photos are consistently banal, their contrasts muted, and their angles unruly.
Even referring to any specific image is an exercise in acknowledging ambiguity: Braeckman gives his photos incomprehensible names such as “F.E.L.S. #1” or “N.P P.O-04” or names them after a date (without specifying what the date signifies—we don’t know if it even has anything to do with the date on which the photo was made, or developed, or printed). There are, intentionally, no hints at a story, or message, or even an aesthetic theme. There are only the outlines and grainy shadows of life’s minutia: bedroom doors, plaster walls, fronds that could be tree branches or strands of hair or bits of dust—we aren’t supposed to know, and every possibility is so apparently insignificant that it almost feels like we aren’t supposed to care, either.
But perhaps the very idea is that we are supposed to care: not about the stories behind the images, or the stories we might be tempted to make up about them (why is the poster in “L.V.-V.L.-(3)-2016” askew? Where is the beach in “E.N.-C.K.-12-2013”?). Braeckman represents a country barely visible on a map—Belgium is one of the smallest countries in Europe, at only about 30,000 square kilometers—that boasts, nonetheless, one of the most monumental art history traditions in the world.
From the Flemish Masters to the Brussels Surrealists of the early 20th century, Belgian art has consistently surpassed its birthplace’s boundaries—and is notorious, through the centuries, for turning the boring and mundane into extravagant dreamscapes. Perhaps it is Belgium’s own precocious self-consciousness that make it, a tiny coastal nation, the perfect incubator for subversive and strange art. A seemingly inexhaustible lineage of fine artists has turned, generation after generation, details and banalities—reflective of Belgium’s grey skies and flat landscape—into explorations of the absurd, of the unbeautiful, of the existential.
Braeckman continues this lineage in that his art is as unique as that of the van Eycks and Magrittes and Nougés that came before him. His silent pictures needed no inspiration from majestic landmarks or raging conflicts or ostentatious urban cultures; they needed only Belgium, a man, and his camera, the simplest of subjects and the most profound of beginnings.