Last week at Kunsthalle Wien Belgian artists Jos de Gruyter and Harald Thys presented their first large solo show in Austria under the title “The Miracle of Life“. I met Bart De Baere, director of M HKA (Antwerp), and he explained why this is an exceptional exhibition and shared his thoughts on the definition of good art, its value, and the contemporary art scene in Vienna.
About the exhibition “Das Wunder des Lebens” (The Miracle of Life)
Speaking to a local. Jos de Gruyter and Harald Thys are key artists in Belgium, they are artists’ artists, here everyone knows their importance. So if you don’t know them, they are worth knowing.
Second thing I could say – they are very precise and deep, in a certain way they find and open up a capacity there, where you cannot speak anymore. They offer a possibility to open up the space of visual art, which I think is rare, and they do this is in an extremely convincing way. It is great generosity to not play one of the many tricks (which one can play and that you can see a lot) when you say it is a good exhibition. This is not a good exhibition – this, in a certain sense, is an exceptional exhibition. Means you have to except it or not.
The whole exhibition is completely silent, but in the middle there is this incredible sound of falling water, which is a little bit like you have in zen Buddhist gardens where you the water falls, which is a kind of offer to clean away your expectations for a moment.
About the contemporary art scene in Vienna
For a long time, Vienna has been, per se, a place with considerable importance. Why does it happen? I think there is a lot capacity here. There is a depth both in the art scene and in the artistic scene, and there are a lot of amazing people, who I would like to have in Belgium. People who take care of the scene, care about its quality and its validity. And, of course, there are institutions. I find it fantastic, that there are people like Nicolaus Schaffhausen now in Kunsthalle, doing very interesting things. And there is a notion of art, which has a seriousness, taking the art scene and trying to formulate it, standing for it in a traditional, art historical framework.
About good art
I would have a tendency today to say that the main problem of the contemporary art scene is good art.
And what I would define good art is all art that is intelligent in a certain respect, both discursively and visually, and is aware of what is happening and makes construction out of it, which sort of fits into the world and into the contemporary art scene. For me, art is about any kind of position that has an internal logic that is also externalized. It’s a bit like a good position in philosophy; it has a capacity to respond to all the other good positions in the philosophy.
The art I go for has its own position, in a sense it has its own vision, necessity, and as a consequence of this behavior, most of the expression, forms, and elements we can communicate with. And from any such position you can see it as the center of art in a certain way. And from such positions you can validate all the other art inside this and it will have a different position. But it will all be there and have its value. So, from an artist who is in a system that is deemed formal, but who I would value because it’s not formalist, it wants to take the form beyond the form. From such a position you will see that the artist in that kind of art system will be called engaged, also has severeness, dedication, and convenience. And conversely, you will see from a position we call engaged that every artist who is formal but not formalist also has capacity of meaning in the world. That’s more how I am approaching things.
About the financial value of art
It’s not like any artist would have this capacity to go to the extremely high level of financial value. This can happen for a short time with more artists, then it can be for a longer time with a much smaller amount. And artists know that very well actually. Some artists are very rich and some are extremely poor, however they might be of the same artistic value.
One funny example I have now is one of of my hobby activities. I sometimes do things just because I think it’s interesting to do (I do it not as an art professional or museum director but as as art amateur). I’m now guiding a survey exhibition of Ricardo Brey, a Cuban artist, to the National Museum of Fine Arts in Havana, where he goes back for the first time in 20 years. And he has been a part of a key historical generation in an important art scene: Cuba is a very important art scene within America, it has a proper quality. And this generation, except for the people who passed away, who left Cuba and have been left out by the Cuban government (they now realize that they’ve made a mistake, so they want them to come back); this government, together with the American art market, created the follow-up generation. The people of this follow-up generation, they are a variation on the theme. They are much more rich than Ricardo Brey, but he is the source, so he is my point of interest. And now he may become very expensive as well.
Since 2002 Bart De Baere has been the director of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Antwerp. Before that he was involved in policy-making for two years, developing a policy for cultural heritage that envisages the whole as immaterial activity. Prior to that, he was chair of the Flemish Government Council of Museums, and now he is chair of its Council for Culture. He was, among other things, an advisor to the City of Johannesburg for the foundation of the Biennale of Johannesburg and a member of the International Board of the network of Soros Centers of Contemporary Art in Eastern Europe. He was a curator of Documenta IX in Kassel.
The works by Jos de Gruyter and Harald Thys are dedicated to the absurdity of everyday life. In their first solo show in Austria, they challenge the public to find orientation in-between truth and fiction: Around 400 drawings which, according to the artists show everything we can imagine, are mounted on a formation of numerous room divider “barricades”. Whereas the order of the pictures follows no specific principle, effectively declaring all things in the world to be equal, the system on which they are mounted is strictly organized. At the center is a sculptural fountain with three faces cast from styrofoam heads found in a German shop window, which have a complete overview of a colorless and soundless scenario.
Jos de Gruyter (*1965) and Harald Thys (*1966) live in Brussels and have been working together since the end of the 1980s. Exhibitions in 2013 include: Museum van Hedendaagse Kunst / M HKA, Antwerp; 55. Biennale di Venezia.
In cooperation with the Museum van Hedendaagse Kunst / M HKA, Antwerp
Curators: Lucas Gehrmann, Nicolaus Schafhausen
An artists’ book to accompany the exhibition will be published by Sternberg Press.
The exhibition is accompanied by an audio guide developed by the artists.