The Imaginarium Of Vincent Meessen

Vincent Meessen | © Wali Issa Lee
Vincent Meessen | © Wali Issa Lee
Photo of Yana Pargova
28 February 2016

Fueled by stories of the past and searching for new possible realities in time and space, Vincent Meessen is one of the most intriguing artists in the contemporary Belgian art scene. By mixing video, installations and prints, Meessen re-creates documents into experiences. While uncovering a variety of stories, Meessen is able to construct other possible narratives, allowing him to become a master storyteller through his own artistic world.

Looking for Hidden Meanings in the Past

Born in Baltimore, Meessen lives and works in Brussels. His works have been shown in solo and group exhibitions in Venice, Brussels, Mexico, Ghent, Amsterdam, Paris, Basel, London, Madrid, and New York, among others. He is also a founding member of the artist collective Potential Estate and of the platform for artistic research and production, Jubilee. The longing for interdisciplinary collaboration with artists or simply with people can be seen clearly in his career – through his exhibitions, but also his creative process. You can sense that the collective creativity, the inspiration and the drive that can only happen in a group is intoxicating for him. This can also be interpreted as a need to belong – an idea that he explores relentlessly.

His work is based on archival investigation with a strong affinity towards cultural theory. The themes that run throughout his art projects and curatorial practice touch upon realism, modernity and the post-colonial past. All preconceived knowledge and concepts are called into question. In his piece Walker-on (2008), he takes the idea of truth in realism to expose it as flawed from the beginning, by way of inclusion or omission, or a simple change of perspective. The artist recovers three photographs from the archives of one of the most influential photographers of all time, Walker Evans (his works are currently displayed in the exhibition Walker Evans, Anonymous in Fondation A Stichting, Brussels). The images shot by Evans show several men loading a street sign displaying the word ‘Damaged’ into a truck, which the artist suggests is most probably the second part of a promotional sign for the movie Not Damaged (1930) by Chandler Sprague. Meessen re-creates the sign in its original size and relocates it in different public spaces around Belgium – art fair, city festival, exhibition, and public park – to alter the setting, the context and, thus, to propose different possible interpretations.

Walker-on, relocated at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Egmont Palace, Brussels, 2013 /Courtesy of Vincent Meessen

The form of fictional dialogue with an author is also explored in his exhibition My Last Life where Meessen embarks on a mythography trip through the work and life of the French critic and author Roland Barthes. The artist assumes the role of a co-author and becomes an active participant in the literary exchange – an invitation made to the reader by Barthes himself in his famous essay ‘The Death of the Author’ (1967). The visitors are also engaged in the conversation through the use of interactive media. Ten different works pick up existing or imaginable pieces of his biography and speculate, look for hidden meanings, and open up for new creations.

Vita Nova (2009), video still. One-channel digital video. Courtesy of Vincent Meessen and Normal, Brussels

Deconstructing the Grand Narrative of Modernity

Many of Meesen’s projects aim to deconstruct the Eurocentric view of modernity. He takes the metanarrative and replaces it with small, local narratives, disturbing the grand idea of modernity in postmodernist fashion. It is as if he reclaims the legitimate role of artists in history – the avant-garde protesting against the status quo and trying to revolutionize the world only to recreate it from nothing. Although captivated by this concept and even a bit nostalgic about the end of the avant-garde art movements of modernity, he also questions it repeatedly.

Ocelles à rosettes (Eyespots with rosettes) (2012), Posters, inkjet prints outs, variable dimensions,"Ritournelle", Exhibition view, Un-scene II, WIELS, 2012 /Courtesy of Vincent Meessen

These ideas take different forms in Patterns for (Re)cognition I (2013) and Patterns for (Re)cognition II (2015) where he examines the colonial psychology in relation to Western abstract art through the work of one of the first modern Congolese artists, Tshiela Ntendu. The title refers to the cognitive tests in psychology designed to measure our capacity for abstraction and memory, thus, problematizing the way the Western narrative functions as a whole. Meessen continues his investigation into colonial practices in Ritournelle where he turns to the figure of the writer Raymond Roussel and together with the rappers of WemTeng Clan (WTC) from Ougadougou creates a musical composition. In this way, Africa becomes a performer looking for new meanings.

These notions are also central to the concept of Personne et Les autres (2015), selected to represent Belgium at the 56th Venice Biennale. Challenging the tradition of national representation at the Biennale and that of solo exhibitions, he invited international guest artists from different continents and together explored the unheard stories of colonial modernity through forgotten documents, sounds and connections.

Now, Meessen reimagines his video installation One, Two, Three, created for the Biennale, in a new context in Brussels, adding another layer of space and meaning. His biggest solo exhibition to date Sire, je suis de l’ôtre pays can be seen in the contemporary art center WIELS until April 24, 2016. Four separate works are intertwined to reveal a research project mapping an unknown connection between the last international avant-garde movement Situationist International and Congo. And it goes way beyond that into contemplations of the present and the idea of reshaping situations and places for another possible world.

One.Two.Three (2015), video still. Three-channel digital video installation (looped), surround sound. Courtesy of the artist and Normal, Brussels /Courtesy of Vincent Meessen

The visitor is invited to begin the exploration into re-writing history by going over a series of textual and visual artifacts (‘Index’), drawing the invisible connections between international avant-garde movements from dadaism to the situationists and their links with Africa during colonial times. Each print is visually presented with a letter from the alphabet set in an open source font called Belgicka, which is designed to be endlessly modified, just like history.

Another room expands the view in three screens, which project in synchrony the video One, Two, Three. It all started when the artist discovered in the archives of the Belgian Situationist Raoul Vaneigem the lyrics to a protest song that Congolese Situationist Joseph M’Belolo Ya M’Piku composed in May 1968. Meessen manages to find M’Belolo and, together with amateur female musicians from Congo, produces a new rendition of the song set in the famous rumba club ‘Un, deux, trois’ in Kinshasa. Colors, dancing people and musicians trying to get attuned to each other lay in contrast with flashing images of riots that broke out during the filming. The experiment manifests in unexpected ways, showing the unfulfilled promises of the revolution and the never-ending yearning and search for emancipation.

One.Two.Three (2015), video still. Three­channel digital video installation (looped), surround sound. Courtesy of Vincent Meessen and Normal, Brussels

The second chapter of the exhibition adds another layer of meaning by elaborating on the ultimate mission of art – to go beyond what is given, to go further than art itself and to propose another possible scenario. As a starting point, Meessen uses the plan of the situationists for an experimental city Utopolis, on an island somewhere in Italy. He builds on that through the prism of psychogeography (approach aiming to reinsert the drift into everyday life) and proposes an architectural installation in the symbolic form of the labyrinth. The labyrinth embodies both the notion of restraint and openness; it has the potential to unleash the mind. The artists goes a step further by announcing that the construction is up for sale for anybody who is ready to build it on an Greek island and use the site to facilitate the politicians’ solution for the recent wave in migration and to negotiate a citizenship that goes beyond Europe to include Africa and Asia.

The final touch is an anonymous video letter to the artist that tells the story of the Situationist International, their dreams and personal quests. The phrase ‘working beyond inside outside by seeing within’ echoes as a leitmotif for Vincent Meessen’s work, where the imagination is continually called upon to create a new dimension.

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