Belgian culture is best known for its moderate manners, understated affluence and the polite decadence of the world's best chocolate. But what constitutes the content of the Belgian character for those inside the country? And while Brussels is the de facto capital city of the European Union, is Belgium itself a model of cultural harmony? Or is the multicultural home of predominantly Dutch-speaking Flemish, French-speaking Walloons and a small but strong German community a microcosm of Europe's larger struggles with unity and cultural identity?
Thoughts of Belgian identity often bring to mind the puckish conceptual artist Wim Delvoye, whose early work included football goals made from stained glass windows decorated with domestic scenes from traditional Flemish paintings. But there are others too. While it would be a stretch to call the most famous citizen of Belgium an artist, Jean Claude Van Damme (aka: "The muscles from Brussels") is currently trying to claim artistic credibility with the indie film JCVD. Filmed in his native city, JCVD deconstructs his fraught relationship with his role as his country's leading (though fading) national pop symbol.
In fact, a portrait of Van Damme by the Canadian-born, Berlin-based artist David Nicholson was recently on show at Aeroplastics Contemporary, Brussels' premier tastemaker space, as part of a wider exploration on the theme of identity titled Power to the People. With this broad array of insightful work from 48 local and foreign artists, the curator Pierre-Yves Desaive peels away Belgium's placid surface to reveal a heady brew of issues such as the cancer of colonialism, the nature of national symbolism, contention between different facets of Belgian culture and wider worries about defining identity.
Housed in Aeroplastics' charming Victorian walk-up, Power to the People features a wide selection of artists and generally manages to dodge didacticism and avoid the confrontational conventions of identity politics. The majority of the work takes a friendly approach towards inviting viewers to reconsider their regional symbols and assumptions about the construction of ethnic or national character. As the gallerist Jerome Jacobs explains, "Belgium is a peculiar land of plenty, where very different human communities nevertheless find that they have so much in common."
Christophe Bruno's internet installation Fascinum.be acts as a portal into potentially salient similarities and differences between Belgium's Dutch- and French-speaking populations by juxtaposing two columns calculating the top 10-ranking news pictures from two different yahoo portals in separate parts of the country. Since his study group is so small, the information doesn't disclose much about the demographics. For instance, despite a shared concern over Brangelina, the two areas displayed diverging interests. At one point, the French site featured separate images of Nicolas Sarkozy and Carla Bruni, while, on the other side of the screen, Dutch viewers were curiously more interested in local and international pop culture. Bruno's project is not science or journalism but is nonetheless a witty and interesting piece that offers a peek at two close but inherently contrasting, cultures.
The famous Belgian cartoonist Kamagurka takes a more socio-cultural approach to identity with colourful, faux-naive expressionistic portraits of people found in any multicultural city. They are part of a performance project titled L'accidentalisme, where Kamagurka paints portraits of imaginary faces and invites newspaper and internet readers to locate individuals that best resemble his images with the solicitations "Is this you?" or "Do you know somebody who looks like this portrait?" Viewers are then asked to submit photographic evidence that they "are" the person depicted. The winner is declared and photographs of the winners are displayed alongside the "accidental" portraits.
Kamagurka's faces are vague. Three of the "portraits" presented at Aeroplastics are of round-faced, bald, Caucasian men with generally genial expressions. One of the women, seen with an older man with a head shaped like a blob, wears a full burqa, revealing only her elegantly lined blue eyes. The other two women are blond with plain, passably pleasant faces.Kamagurka's project is a striking study. He plays with notions of identity by publicly encouraging strangers to critically consider how they fit within their city's diverse demographics. They ask the viewer to see themselves as part of a vibrant and diverse country were Europe meets to negotiate a similar harmonious union.