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While the sensational is not a term commonly associated with Belgium, the country’s art scene has managed to produce some remarkably flamboyant personalities. From notorious pie throwers to foulmouthed bestselling writers, here are five Belgian artists that enjoy challenging the status quo.
The fact that this artistic jack-of-all-trades owns the biggest celebrity panty collection in the country — available for everyone’s viewing pleasure in his underwear museum — makes him quite the peculiar figure. Throw in Bucquoy’s regular coup d’état attempts and association with ‘entarteur’ Noël Godin, and you’ve got the most infamous artist in Brussels. While he appears fully aware of the eventual fruitlessness of planting a communist flag in the palace gardens or planting a pie in the face of former French Minister for Culture Philippe Douste-Blazy, Bucquoy relishes every symbolic act of defiance. Society shouldn’t take itself too seriously, is Bucquoy’s point. Fans of this anarchistic teddy bear should check out the nude calendar Bucquoy published in 1998, for which he himself did all the posing.
His pal Bucquoy may have gotten arrested for ‘tarting’ Douste-Blazy, but the mastermind behind this and many other humorous pie attacks on prominent members of society is Noël Godin. This author and critic rose to international infamy after his coup de grace in 1998: the pie-ing of Microsoft chairman Bill Gates. Yet you don’t have to be a billionaire businessman to be a target, as Godin doesn’t take occupation or gender into account when selecting his victims. Cultural greats like French novelist and playwright Marguerite Duras and legendary filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard have both met the same humbling fate, as have high-ranking politicians such as Nicolas Sarkozy. The characteristic they all share, according to Godin? An unhealthy degree of self-importance and self-seriousness. Godin and his band of pie cronies (getting Gates took more than 30 people) do practice pacifism, however: if and when the humiliated victim lunges, they refuse to fight back. After all, the damage has already been done.
The ‘cloaca,’ pièce de résistance of conceptual artist Wim Delvoye, has been reproducing human faeces in museums all over the world, in many incarnations. The machine, named after the Roman sewer system, is only one of the works by Delvoye that leave people pale-faced. The Global Action in the Interest of Animals association has routinely protested his work with pigs, which he has tattooed with elaborate drawings – Disney princesses and logos of fashion brands – to put on display in his ‘art farm’ project. The appalled reactions he receives don’t seem to hinder him; the uniqueness of his work means his work can fetch e can demand enough to earn him a pretty penny. Jarred turds from the cloaca machine are sold for €1,000 each, and tattooed pig hides for up to €70,000. Delvoye has even managed to sell the skin of a living human being, promising the buyer the man’s tattooed back when he dies.
A sort of embraced embarrassment, Flanders loves (to hate) long-haired writer Herman Brusselmans. As the enfant terrible of the Flemish literary scene, candor is the name of the game in his books, columns, and public appearances. The slandering of other famous Belgians, such as fashion designer Ann Demeulemeester, has gotten him in trouble before, causing his book, Publishing house Guggenheimer, to be taken out of stores. Despite regular appearances on television, Brusselmans is actually quite the hermit, not leaving his loft in Ghent very much and living at night while spewing his inner turmoil onto the page. The prolific writer’s autobiographical presence looms large in his books, as he often uses foulmouthed and intellectual protagonists not unlike himself. Lately, Brusselmans has enjoyed mixing his crude remarks with rather tender or profound comments as a judge on the game show The Smartest Person on Earth, taking the public by surprise.
For Luc Tuymans, 2015 was a year spent forcefully defending his work. One of the most influential European painters alive today found himself caught in the eye of a media storm when convicted of plagiarism. In fact, the allegation led some to call into question his oeuvre. The canvas in question, A Belgian Politician, shows the upper half of right wing conservative Jean Marie Dedecker’s face, his forehead shimmering with sweat. If not a copy, it is a clear representation of the photograph by Katrijn van Giel for the Belgian newspaper De Standaard in 2010.
Heated discussions followed Tuymans’s conviction, as the Belgian art scene was in turmoil. Defenders of the Antwerp painter pointed to the context of his other work: it has been his M.O. from the start to source from other media, revealing the inability of an image to represent any real truth. Critics jeered at the arrogance of claiming that a portrait becomes political satire merely by painting it. Detractors were spurred by the defiant attitude of Tuymans himself, who once walked into the courtroom carrying another painting while grumbling: ‘It’s a copy.’ When the dust settled, both parties went their separate ways: Van Giel without a public apology but slightly richer after the amicable settlement, Tuymans with his pride intact but a slightly tarnished reputation.