Unlike Brussels, where the homes and studios of Belgian artists are on the standard tourist itinerary, rural Belgium has a paucity of artist’s work spaces. Painters, sculptors, and musicians in metropolises typically inhabit lofts, and when they move on, others take over the spaces. A unique example of the artist’s atelier is an abandoned 18th-century farm in the province of Liege. The owner and author of this incredible art space is Bart Dewolf, an oracle of scrap metal installations, which he himself defines as ‘post-apocalyptic kindersurprises’. From outside, the studio looks like a classic old Belgian farm, smelling of aged bricks and hay, but inside it is a complex organ, made of lines of metal rods, rusty insects and alien creatures hanging, standing, lying, watching you in involuntary silence. We enter this mysterious, pristine building, an architectural heritage site with only one room, a large open space that accommodates dozens of corroded artifacts. The farm features spectacular high ceilings and covers a total area of 300 square meters, with solid brick walls about 70cm thick.
A wildly original artist, Dewolf has been living here for a few years already. It took him months and months to install all the basic commodities in the empty and destroyed barn. ‘I started with digging trenches for water and sewer connections and hired a company to install a water purification system for all the water going to the sewer. I closed the ceiling to make it heatable during wintertime and built myself a makeshift improvised kitchenette, bathroom with shower and toilet and a hot water system. Spartan, but good enough for living! I had to pickaxe through the building to get my water and draining tubes connected. It turned out to be a challenging job, since the foundation is from hard natural rocks,’ remembers Bart.
Now the barn functions as the home of the artist, an atelier, a work-in-progress exhibition area, and the site of huge metal waste storage and artist’s archive. Despite its industrial look, the farm feels inhabited by an amazing man who calls it home. In the farthest corner stands a small old caravan which functions as a master bedroom. The entrance zone starts with a small room used as a kitchen. An oven, a stove, a washing machine, lots of teapots and coffee cups, a smoothie maker, herbs and dried fruit, dozens of books and diaries fill the bookshelves, which reveal the breadth of Dewolfs’s interests.
‘I graduated from Sint-Lukas University Brussels, the department of visual arts, with specialization in advertising and graphical design in 1998. As a kid, I made lots of drawings, and have always been a big fan of comic books,’ says Bart. ‘That interest brought me to studying arts and ended up in developing a graphic novel, a storyboard of moods and atmospheres rather than a conventional narrative. Following this path, I began working on collages, illustrations and first installations with trash. The initial idea of mine was to visualize what archaeologists from far futures might think if they could find stuff out of our era’.
A sense that at any moment Angels of the Apocalypse might fly through the windows and ceilings is heightened by the atmosphere of dilapidation and passing time: unquestionably this place has to be seen by anyone who appreciates visual arts, history and anarchism. ‘I did research about the meaning and graphical strength of ethnic and prehistoric art, including bone carvings to cave paintings, but also the masks and totemic art works. Further on, I got inspired by the paintings of Francis Bacon, the graphic works of Dave McKean, the comic books by Enki Bilal, Tardi, Moebius, the animation by Jan Svankmajor and the works of Banksy,’ continues Bart. ‘Also the punk movement was an inspiration for me. The energy, the idea of ‘do it yourself’ and there is no government but yourself. Anarchism not as a reason to just do what you want, but the political state of mind where you claim your freedom till the point where you reach the freedom of somebody else.’
‘Furthermore, working together, collaborating with like-minded individuals to establish examples of proof that an alternative is possible – this is what inspired me. In that underground movement the combination of video, graphics, lyrics and texts and the hypnotizing music, with its raw and pure energy, were for a long time a cultural source. This experience taught me that if I wanted to be an artist I just had to make art works. That’s when I decided to go to art school, instead of choosing something that might be a good choice for the job market.’
95 percent of Bart’s barn is used for his artwork. He never throws anything out. That is why the collection of ‘metal-everything’ grows day-by-day. The more you know the works of the artist, the better you understand that the way he lives is very close to what he creates.
‘My work started as flat, printable collages, combined with pictures from laid out installations. These installations were only meant to be photographed. After my first exhibitions, I also started to show these installations and I noticed that I liked them a lot more, as they are. More direct and not a reproduction…For the first installations I used rudimentary techniques to get the found objects together. The materials were also simple: bolts, pieces of iron wire, screws, pieces of ropes – found and recuperated. One of the first big installations I produced is The Food Security Map. It had a very totemic, ethnographic look.’
After a while, I started using more sophisticated techniques. I bought a welding machine to work more efficiently (to make bigger and stronger connections to widen up the possibilities), which increased the artistic possibilities. But, in some time, I started noticing that with this, I also lost an interesting and creative aspect in the installations, as the making of the installations became somehow a bit too easy, too evident. Lately, I carefully look at how connecting objects can form an installation, with a specific eye for the connections themselves as well,’ explains Bart.
The artist proved himself to be an experimenter, probably a little isolated, but enlightened and well-informed, who knows how to keep in step with the most advanced visual and technological research of his time. ‘Outside of arts I’m interested in old and lost techniques, mostly building techniques. The techniques that are getting lost because of industrialization. I love technology, but I regret that we are losing so many skills. That’s why I really appreciate that I studied in the era when computers just showed up. I did work with desktop publishing software, but mostly it was still real printing, illustrating with paint and crayon and real physical touch with the creation. The modern technology offers new possibilities. I would love one day to make an animation movie with some of my installations and even with stop motion. Modern cameras offer a lot of possibilities that old cameras that worked with footage did not have.’
Nature is certainly an inspiration for the creation of most of Dewolf’s works, but it is often evoked through a fantastical or poetic vision. Some of his sculptures are just biomimetic, insect, animal, plant-like, sometimes they are a 3D presentation as a cartoon, surrealistic combinations of objects that induce a new idea. ‘The surroundings of rural Belgium give me the rest and the quietness that I need in the creative process. I can’t imagine myself dragging metal up and down the stairs, welding and grinding metal on a top apartment in Brussels.’
Years of ‘friendship with metal’ made him think in depth of different sounds produced by objects, according to their size length and the material. ‘Music of things’ is a substantial part of Bart’s art experiments. The artist, together with Jeroen Demeyer (who helped with the electronics) and Bart Demelker (who helped on the concept), let his sound installations vibrate and recorded their ‘voice.’
Most of the Dewolf’s artworks are large in scale and complexity. For some installations, the planning is more complex than the execution. ‘When starting a new work, I mostly begin from some found object that almost asks me to make something else out of it. Most of the time, I know very soon which objects out of my collection will work perfectly with it, or the kind of things I need to look for. Sometimes objects stay untouched for years, till suddenly, I discover an object that perfectly fits and finishes (partly) a started project.’
‘On the whole, I try to change the form and appearance of the object as little as possible. I try to respect and reuse the original forms and shapes, for new combinations of parts of objects, after dismantling. I try to reuse the original holes from the screws that once hold it together. During the process of checking which combinations of objects works best for me, I also use a lot of sketching.’
By the time Bart Dewolf bought his dream atelier in the countryside, he was already known in the Belgian and European underground art circles. He never worked with galleries, but organized his own exhibitions in the barns where he used to live, or together with friends in abandoned factories or derelict buildings. He also collaborated with squatters, and used their places for artistic interventions. He supported the Robodock festivals, the ADM in Amsterdam (2004) and the NDSM shipping wharf in Amsterdam (2005), both by his creative input and application of his work experience in the entertainment industry.
Currently, to maintain his artistic freedom, Bart works six months a year as a contractor for the stage building company Stageco, based in Flanders, and then takes the remaining six months off and creates new artworks at his farm-atelier. For 15 happy years he has travelled around the globe with a Stageco technical team, helping to coordinate projects for the biggest and most popular performers as clients. ‘Here, I learned a lot about working with metal as well as how to organize events, build solid structures and work with and in strange conditions and climates (mental and weather-wise). With these trips, I sometimes have the opportunity to use and bring back leftovers or thrown away parts from far away continents, as long as there is a place in the container back to Belgium,’ laughs Bart.
At the moment Dewolf is working on an installation that came out of a word play. ‘I had to write a short presentation text for ‘TRASH deluxe,’ an upcycling project and exhibition in Leuven. So I described my works as ‘post apocalyptic kindersurprises’ and welded the famous (in the US forbidden) plastic chocolate egg container, by using the old discarded petrol tank out of my garden. Just as a stand for an installation.’
‘It was an exhibition on the third floor, so enough struggle to get it there, to make it a temptation again. Suddenly, one day I found back two chicken feet I made once. I stopped the moment I realized I needed a forklift to start building the rest of the damned thing; indeed, with reorganizing my stock, and immediately I saw a new idea, the birth of a new chick, out of a Kinder Surprise, but only the feet visible. Hopefully, the installation will be interactive by the time it’s finished.’