Air, land and sea

Imagine a tour of Antwerp that ignores Belgium’s finest Gothic cathedral, the diamond district and Rubens. Imagine a tour that focuses only on contemporary, cutting-edge art. At the same time, keep in mind that most of what is said about contemporary art is hype, tosh, a hard sell and ego-driven narcissism. Usually one finds at the centre of the jargon generated by galleries, dealers and curators there is a vacuum.

At the centre of this tour we are taking of the contemporary Belgian art scene is a man. Depending on which day of the week it is, he could be called a mad inventor, a dilettante, a great Belgian eccentric, a failure, or a national mascot. His house has been turned into a museum. He is the subject of a retrospective at the M HKA (Museum of Modern Art Antwerp). Performance art, Sixties happenings, conceptual interventions, sculpture, drawings and collages. Panamarenko has done it all. He has been active since the mid-1960s, organising street performances and printing an avant-garde magazine: Happening News. As the Cold War heated up Panamarenko started building flying machines. They fill this airy space with the grace of butterflies.

In his work one finds a latter-day Icarus, a storyteller, a little boy lost, a poet and artist. He wants to fly. So he builds a flying machine. Not content with this, he models it on the wings of a fly. The man is literal to the point of autistic. He spins images and words with the ease of a circus-act juggler. The dazzling feats proliferate. Room after room of unworkable, ethereal motors and bi-planes and even a submarine seduce the viewer with the artist’s vision. Videos accompany a lot of the works. They portray the man as a young strapling and later as a grizzled elder. But he is always the same deadly earnest, infinitely playful, slightly deranged artist.

Air, land and sea


On the next floor of the boxy, white M HKA is a significant exhibition by Olga Chernysheva. She mostly draws, which is a bit of a relief after the showman downstairs. In the New Cold War she has taken up the cudgels for social realism. Moscow’s sleeping homeless are depicted in charcoal. They have the stillness and dignity of 18th-century Japanese woodcuts. She draws the selfies that tourists take and photographs manual labourers. M HKA is collaborating with this line in social engagement by showcasing other Russian artists working with the themes of “image”, “action” and “society”. At the centre of the jargon there is some heart.

For a pastoral interlude there is Middelheim Museum. Set in lush, wooded grounds, sculptures that date back to the 1950s are dotted around like garden gnomes, or stately giant oaks. Tree canopies overlap to form a continuous parasol.

Air, land and sea

The art seemed almost to get in the way of exploring this enchanting coppice. But Kader Attia’s installations acknowledge the lack of hierarchy in visual delight. In fact, they lead the way back to nature. The leaves were so thick on the ground it was like walking on a well-sprung mattress. In between the busts inspired by victims of the First World War were small, woodland creatures carrying red plastic buckets, and wearing yellow, rubber gloves. These were not performance artists. They were children from local schools cleaning the permanent exhibits. But these woodland folk stole the show. And it was the mosses, ferns and lichens, with plenty of rotting wood and decaying leaf litter, who gave it substance.

Air, land and sea

From Antwerp to Oostende and De Zee: salut d’honneur Jan Hoet, an exhibition that, just like a wave, has its own momentum. It builds up, it breaks on the shore and leaves its flotsam and jetsam for the next wave to carry away. Hoet was a renowned curator who did not live to see the completion of his project. So the silvery sadness that the sea carries with it washes over his show. It starts with a comprehensive exhibition in the Mu.Zee, drawing on classical art history as well as the contemporary scene. Hoet then cast his net over various locations in the city. From the pond in the Leopoldpark, to the boats in the Mercator Marina, on to the Capuchin Church, before climbing rickety steps to a lighthouse at the top of De Grote Post.

Bill Viola’s filmed drowning in the spooky Cinema Capitole points the way to the Thermae Palace and the show’s finale, Kris Martin’s empty frame of the horizon. Hoet has shown us the sea in all its moods. Martin provides a viewfinder but Turner has the last word. In order to produce Three Seascapes (c.1827) which features at Mu.Zee, Oostende, Turner had himself tied to the mast of a ship during a violent storm at sea. “I remained tied up for four hours and I did not expect to survive. But I felt obliged to capture it on canvas if I did survive it.” How fitting to end this tour with the intense scrutiny of a limitless prospect.

Air, land and sea

by Lilian Pizzichini

Panamarenko Universum at M HKA and  closes February 22, 2015

Kader Attia is Middelheim Museum at until March 29, 2015

De Zee: salut d’honneur Jan Hoet at Mu.Zee closes April 4, 2015