Tuesday, 14 June 2016

"Art is a lie that tells the truth" - "City Lights" group show, MIMA, Brussels

Sometimes I leave Paris. Here's one of those times.

European institutions seem to be becoming increasingly aware that they don't exist in a bubble, and they can be held responsible for the exclusion of certain groups. This can mean rectifying the exclusion of female artists and artists of colour from canonical art history, or it can mean rectifying the exclusion of certain social groups (young people, people without university degrees, people who aren't able bodied) as guests in their institutions. Museum attendance has gone up so much in the past years, but some groups are still unlikely to go. Why is that? How do you fix that?

City Lights is MIMA’s inaugural show, and the cultural policy behind the show bears consideration as much as the show itself does. The rule of thumb seems to be, in essence, “nothing too difficult”. This is a simplification, of course, but the museum is sensitive to its surroundings, and has built their permanent collection and opening exhibition on the philosophy that the space does not exist only for the art world to descend upon it, but also to welcome to local community. The building is a canal-side former brewery in the Molenbeek district of Brussels, an area that has become notorious in the past few months for its connections to Islamist extremism, compounding its local reputation for petty crime, intolerance and destitution. The question being posed by MIMA in the midst of this is not whether art has a role to play, but what that is. MIMA accepts that the onus is on an institution to appeal to the audience it wants, rather than the responsibility lying with the visitor to be suitably intellectually prepared for whatever the museum wants to do.


MIMA is not the only example of crusading arts professionals and local governments convinced that their interests can rescue those less fortunate, nor even the only one in Brussels. The WEILS museum is in the Forest neighbourhood of the city - another commune with links to extremism following the Paris attacks - but the difference is that WEILS doesn’t alter its programme to suit local residents and their needs. WEILS' programming can be really bloody difficult, actually – they show work that can be considered slightly niche even among art lovers (the Congolese branch of the Situationist International, for example). Where WEILS seems to have determined that culture can develop a neighbourhood by attracting new people, MIMA has gone down the arguably more difficult route of trying to attract existing residents in.

Street art seems to have become a go-to for slightly lazy museum directors and curators trying to bring in young people who want to see something that isn’t boring, and doesn’t require much explanation. Perhaps it’s not edgy or exciting anymore, but it is still accessible, and it can still be good. Even within institutions, it can also still be political, and transgressive, and visually arresting. It’s an art form that has its roots in an anti-establishment, anti-institutional philosophy, and clearly the quality varies as much as one would expect of a medium that is rarely subject to the market. The work here veers between being very political to approaching decorative, but it ranges around the building and is impressive and original. In some ways it feels like a series of solo shows because the spaces are so distinct from one another – Swoon’s work in the un-plastered basement feels a world away from Maya Hayuk’s neon cathedral at the top of the building. But the variation is complementary rather than jarring, and speaks to the breadth of skills within the US street art scene. It feels as though the artists have been curated, but the work hasn’t, and the artists have had something close to free reign. This means it comes across as both tight and neat but also pleasantly anarchic.

Swoon opens the show, with site specific work of abstract paper cut-outs alongside human figures, and the basement rooms feel labyrinthine – low-ceilinged and damp, with structural columns which make it impossible to see all of the work at once. The basement itself has added to the work in the time it’s been there, making the work more visually interesting, more profound, and emphasising the ephemeral nature of street art, even when it’s institutionalised. Pristine and beautiful white paper is yellowed and mouldy from its contact with untreated walls. Paper cut-outs flow from wall to floor, fitting themselves to the building.
Swoon's basement installation, MIMA

Duo FAILE take the next space – the room fits more in to the “white cube” aesthetic - but they’ve managed to construct their own environment. The installation of their work seems to flood down the stairs, overpowering the building in contrast with Swoon’s desire to work alongside it. The work includes common advertising slogans with their name added: “FAILE helps you live better…”, building a universe of their own. Their work on wood is the most interesting – a temple-shaped structure dominates the room, and carving pulp images in to wood gives them permanence and status that is reemphasised by the style of the construction. It’s Pop Art for a time when we have all completely internalised precisely the things that artists like the Independent Group worried that we would, and Street Art for a time when the market continues to dominate the conversation about art. Picasso’s famous maybe-quote “Art is a lie that tells the truth” appears on one panel – what could be more of a lie that tells the truth than recycled marketing slogans carved in to a wooden temple?
Momo, MIMA
Where FAILE focus on content and form, Momo comes with an emphasis on technique. In the next room, a video in the corner shows how his work is made – lush pastel stripes drawn directly on to horizontal surfaces with the help of a spray can, some nails and a rope. Once again, the work is on wood, but it's wooden boards of the type that would board up a house rather than be used to make fine furniture. In places you can see the back of the boards, props and buttresses, which interrupt the delicate colours and patterns. A wooden coil leaning against the work ties it together.

Maya Hayuk, MIMA
The final portion of the show is the largest transformation of the space, and the most impressive. Where Swoon works around imperfections in the building, Maya Hayuk and her team have turned a room near the top of this old brewery in to a shrine to neons and metallics in loose, dripping but still geometric forms. It’s simultaneously claustrophobic and expansive, industrial and hand made. The neon window filters make it completely immersive – even outside seems to be coloured highlighter-pink. Conceptually it doesn’t seem especially ambitious, but it’s stylish and simultaneously unsettling and really, really gorgeous.

The bringing together of these particular artists in itself is not so remarkable – they’ve never been shown in Europe together before, but how much is the audience that this show is targeted at going to care? The show itself, though, speaks volumes. Where museums like WEILS have outreach programmes that try to encourage the local community in, MIMA has put together the kind of show that will actually be interesting to young people who think institutional art might just be very expensive cows in formaldehyde.

City Lights runs until August 26th 2016

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