Bozar Brussels: A Cultural Corollary for the European Narrative
Since your appointment in 2002, you utterly transformed Bozar and developed it into a phenomenal cultural forum. Could you elaborate a little on this journey?
Well, our only benchmark is quality! This is reflected in the institution’s cultural profile and realised via the team’s specific multidisciplinary nature. Writing on the European narrative, we create our own identity and profile. There are some places we could compare to Bozar but we are perhaps the most international of them all by the specificity of the Belgian reality. The Netherlands, Germany and France all border the country and offer an incredible cultural diversity. Brussels is atypical and unique, and I only used its leverage.
How do you see Bozar and Brussels within the Belgian, European and global context?
Brussels is the capital of the young Belgian Kingdom: independent since 1830 and surrounded by all these other countries. It has also become the capital of Europe. For my generation, growing up during the Cold War, the centre of Europe, the so-called Mittel Europa, lay more in the Berlin, Prague, and Vienna area. However, if you look at the world map and consider India and China as its centre, then Brussels and London are rather in the Far West and not quite in the centre. Now, there are of course many new opportunities and new challenges. The cultural world is no longer exclusively referring to the European countries, the US, Japan etc. Take for example the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, arguably the world’s best concert hall who just did a world tour for their 125th anniversary. Outside of Europe, European culture is seen as very attractive. Even if Europe is in a fundamental crisis and power is more and more shifting towards the regions and the cities. It is striking indeed that cities are becoming more and more important everywhere. We speak more about Seoul than South Korea, or about Mumbai rather than India.
Where does that leave Brussels and Bozar?
Brussels is an international metropolitan area of just over 1 million people. The size of its population has not changed since the end of the 19th century, with emigration to the countryside balancing out newer arrivals. Bozar is located where the borders of the city were in the middle ages; where uptown meets downtown. Since the Middle Ages we have witnessed an explosion of Flemish art with music and the Flemish polyphonists; with oil painting and Van Eyck. The area stretched from Combray up to Lille, Kortrijk, Bruges and Brussels. It’s another reality. Borders were totally different. Antoine Watteau (1684-1721), whose work we are currently exhibiting at Bozar, is in fact – in my view – the ‘most Flemish of French painters’. He was born in Valenciennes, now in France but part of Flanders back then. However, since that immensely productive artistic period in Flanders, it has been ruled by pretty much everybody surrounding it. On the other hand, that is also exactly what makes up this cultural diversity you find in current day Belgium. Belgium is where the Protestant North and the Catholic South meet; where, since Clovis the Frankish king, the borderline between the German and French languages runs.
In the 14/15th century, the Dukes of Brabant moved their capital from Leuven to the Coudenberg Hill in Brussels as they thought it was better to hunt here. With them the workshops of the painters followed suit and moved to Brussels. The Duchy of Brabant, surrounding Brussels, was the first real democratic space where democratic rules were in place since the Middle Ages. Today, you have 19 different communes in Brussels, managed by about 980 elected members! The reality of the compromise that is democracy…
How did the Bozar as building come about?
The first arts centre here was built in the 1880s, by the unions and the Labour party, as a so-called People’s Palace. It was destroyed later but this was the first building. After World War I, Belgium’s visionary Queen Elisabeth (1876-1965) and Brussels’ inspiring mayor, Adolphe Max (1869-1939), managed to persuade the local bourgeoisie to finance the building of the Palais des Beaux Arts, which opened its doors in 1928. The fabulous art-deco building was designed by Belgium’s Victor Horta (1861-1947), arguably the most important architect of his time.
What role was it meant to fulfill?
The main mission was ‘no more war’, symbolised by cultural exchange and a multidisciplinary approach. Don’t forget that new wars were being announced in Europe for nearly 1000 years! When, not long after the too often forgotten Franco-Prussian War of 1870, Antwerp’s Royal Museum of Fine Arts was being built, storage rooms were included as big as the actual museum to have somewhere to store the works when the next war broke out! They wanted to have somewhere to store and protect the precious collection of Flemish Primitives and the 17th century Rubens paintings from a next war. Nobody could know at the time of course that this was to be WWI, which turned out to be a particularly devastating war. Here in Flanders Fields, thousands of Indian and Chinese people and soldiers from a whole raft of different nationalities lie buried. The utopic idea behind Bozar was a vision similar to that underlying the United Nations later. In the 20th century, all the arts were brought together and we reached an intellectual and scientific level, only matched by the level of destruction and nationalism and populism. Some kind of destructive creativity, if you like. Today, we might witness a return of this duality with regionalism and populism being on the rise again, counter-balanced by a flourishing of art and culture, as reflected in Bozar’s creativity and dynamism of the last 10 years.
What’s on at Bozar now?
This year, we put on different exhibitions from Neo Rauch (1960-), Antoine Watteau, Francis Bacon (1909-1992), to contemporary artists such as Orla Barry, Willie Doherty, Dirk Braeckman and so forth. All these artists understand a new narrative about Europe. Neo Rauch was born in Leipzig and still lives there. After WWII, remember, Dresden was dead and Leipzig became Erich Honecker’s DDR’s stage to the world. The Leipzig Trade Fair had been in place for nearly 1000 years and became an immensely important fair to showcase the DDR to the world. Neo Rauch had the opportunity there to connect to the outside world and become exposed to pop art, graffiti and surrealism. He had to react against conceptual art in a way that Gerhard Richter (1932-) did not. Richter came a generation earlier, before the French said that painting or opera was dead. In France, painting was something you seemingly couldn’t do anymore in the 1970s. Rauch said to the press here how he would show his work in a country (Belgium) where painting was never dying (smiles). I discovered Rauch through some of our famous contemporary Belgian painters, Luc Tuymans and Michael Borremans. When you speak to senior European politicians – say Barroso or Merkel or Van Rompuy – 15 minutes into any discussion, they will start talking about war, religion, liberty of thinking, the problems they experienced, the drama of Europe with communism, fascism. Angela Merkel was living in East Germany herself of course and Rauch shares that reality. Antoine Watteau, similarly, shows that silence before the storm (French Revolution), and is another part of the European narrative. Bozar is not here in the first place as a museum to put on retrospectives of dead artists, but to offer a new vision of what these artists can tell us about the world we live in. Having realised an increase of the number of visitors from 300,000 a year in 2002 to over 1,000,000 per annum today, it seems we are striking a chord.
What do you think of the increase in Euroscepticism? Is that reflected in Bozar’s programming?
Belgium has one of the largest sized middle classes in the EU and the world. The penetration of Belgium’s classical music radio station is 3-5%, whereas for BBC Radio 3 that would be 1-1.5%. I think we need to protect and build on that difference in participation in the changing society of the coming decade. Bozar is putting a new vision and mission to work on the future of Europe against this reality of Euroscepticism from countries like the UK. This cynicism in certain intellectual circles is also why Bozar decided to be a platform for dialogue, inviting politicians like former Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti, but also philosophers like the Slovenian Slavoj Zizek, to give lectures and participate in debates. It’s interesting to see the younger generation come to these events. Note also that the European Union has declared 2013, the European Year of Citizens. Turning the question of ‘what Europe can do for you’ around to ‘what can you do for Europe.’ Belgium is like a big cultural Sufi house with many rooms, and cultural dialogue can flow through Bozar. Think also for example again about the incredible diversity of Brussels as a counterpoint to this Euroscepticism. St Josse, one of the 19 communes, is only one square kilometre large but it is the most densely populated area in the country and in Europe. Located aptly close to the Berlaymont (home to the European Commission, sic), about 85,000 people are living and working on that one square kilometre and more than 152 languages are being spoken there. At Bozar, we identified an interesting conceptual space that people want to be part of. We will never be Paris or London in terms of cultural diversity, but we are not a regional town like Bordeaux in France or Utrecht in the Netherlands, or even smaller places in the north or south of Europe either. There is a very interesting cultural dynamic there too but we are somewhere in between: atypical, unique. Brussels has a very interesting group of highly educated civil servants, lobbyists, journalists etc from all over Europe. Bozar offers interesting complementarity to the economic and political integration of Europe. The multilateral cultural diplomacy within the local, regional, Belgian and European context is a unique challenge and the dialogue with non-European partners is particularly enriching.
Can you tell our readers a bit more about the actual Bozar building?
Of course, we all know, since the 1960/70s, an in-cre-di-ble number of arts centres, museums and theatres have been built. Not many people will know though that the Centre Pompidou’s architect Renzo Piano spent a month at Bozar, studying Horta’s building’s architecture in detail before proceeding to build the Pompidou. Even the Barbican in London shared the utopian vision behind the Bozar, in their case to transform an area devastated by World War II. Architecturally and conceptually, we are a benchmark and reference for what you see in a lot of arts centres in the States too. All our six spaces were adapted to the specificities of the project. For example, we have our Blanc et Noir (BN) rooms for photography. However, those were from a time when photographs were still invariably small in size, so we have to be flexible. Two years ago, we were the first to put on a major retrospective of contemporary Canadian artist Jeff Wall, the founder of the Vancouver School. In the 1960/70s, Wall fundamentally changed photography as an art form by making 7-8 meter large scale photographs. These had been seen in advertising (e.g. Marlboro posters) and fashion but were until then certainly not integrated or seen as important in the art world. We had to show him in the ‘Grands Galleries (GG)’, where we now have Neo Rauch’s large size works on display. We have to strike this incredible balance between all the different disciplines: sculpture; photography; the enormous paintings of Rauch; the intimate 18th century salons we built for Watteau; the large concert hall for the works of Stockhausen, Mahler, Boulez. There are 3 priorities to the Bozar: exhibitions, music and the Cinematek.
Is the Cinematek accessible to the public?
Yes, it is a really unique and incredibly diverse collection of 180,000 films, including a huge silent film collection and a library with about 2 million books on film. Every day there are pianists coming in to perform to the silent films we put on. We even built a new film studio for silent films.
What’s the role of the web for a 21st century cultural hub like Bozar?
I like what you are doing at The Culture Trip with mixing galleries (selling art) and museums (showing art). These lines have been blurred historically but now a website can perhaps do that even more effectively. It’s important also for The Culture Trip, that you adapt yourself to the local reality and stakeholders. Every city is different. There’s a lot of competition. We have a certain monopoly here at Bozar because of the enormous hinterland with the big port area of Rotterdam/Amsterdam, Antwerp, Paris, and the Ruhr. All of these lie within a 300-400 km radius of Brussels and Bozar. It is a very well organised area with high mobility and a clustering of about 60% of the wealth of Europe. It offers us such a fantastic opportunity. Even if I started the interview with the idea of the Far West, it’s certainly the Far West with a certain level of development (smiles). Yes, certain people may be sceptical and cynical about Europe but outside of Europe most people are looking at it with fascination, and we want to build on that. 4-5% of the GDP of Europe lies in the cultural industries, which is more than what the car industry or IT or biotechnology sectors contribute. It’s impressive. Innovation is essential!
Images Courtesy of Bozar.