When you walk into the majestic La Patinoire Royale-Galerie Valérie Bach in Brussels, a former 19th century skating hall (which has been beautifully restored and transformed into an art gallery by the French architectural firm Jean-Paul Hermant and the interior architect Pierre Yovanovitch), the first thing you see on top of the stairs is a flag attached to a pitchfork. It reads ‘Revolution je t’aime’.
Is this art space, founded by a rather well-off couple of French art collectors/entrepreneurs/gallerists, suddenly preaching about the revolution? This impression seems to be reinforced when you enter the main venue, the so-called Grand Nef (‘great ship’), which measures 890 sq metres and is characterised by huge wooden beams, a rose window and an elegant S-shaped staircase – a contemporary extension that is perfectly integrated into the historical venue. Inside, various props of what seem to be part of a mysterious play are scattered throughout the space. There is a giant version of a megaphone from which one can now and then hear the sound of demonstrators, finishing with a bang, and a decapitated sculpture of Karl Marx.
Big grey curtains open and close at several intervals to reveal or hide modernist-looking artworks – somewhere between paintings and sculptures – deploying a geometric formal language but pastel coloured. Intermittently, lights point towards the works while some elements within the composition, like a red circle, start revolving, accompanied by a cinematic sound. A bit further on, there are more flags attached to shovels, brushes or rakes, with texts reading ‘Ni robot, ni esclave’ (Not a robot, nor a slave) or ‘Enragez-vous’ (Get enraged), slogans that bring to mind the protests of May 1968 but which have been sometimes slightly altered to suggest issues of today: like the automatisation of our society, as the title of the show suggests.
‘For this exhibition, we appropriate the technology and robotics that are used in our daily life and in buildings, industry or traffic lights,’ says Martine Feipel. ‘It was a way to get hold of this apparatus and use it for something else. It is a form of taking the power of this technology back for something non-productive: art.’ The devices are not hidden. Rather the contrary. A big black table with a glass lid containing circuit breakers, junctions and countless cables, reveals its secrets. On the wall are drawings with the different phases of the light and movement choreography.
‘When you write these programmes, you must first have kind of an idea of what you want to happen, how it will happen, how long, etc.,’ says Jean Bechameil. ‘It is almost a statement to show all this,’ adds Feipel. ‘It is part of the concept and the way we conceived the exhibition. We really appropriated the system and use it to make everything in the show work: the light, the music, the movements… Everything is connected in this table. Every time an object moves, it is accompanied by a sound and the lights switch on. It is really a kind of a theatrical choreography.’ The result is simply breathtaking, to a big extent also thanks to the impressive venue.
The duo has made impressive works before. In 2011 for example, they were invited to represent their country at the Venice Biennale. Since 1999, the Luxembourg pavilion takes place in Ca’del Duca, a palazzo that does not seem to have real angles. The artists started from this peculiar architecture, designing a disorientating dream house with crooked walls where everything seems to get blurry: a ceiling that could be confused for a floor, bendy chairs, columns of seemingly different heights… Everything was realised in pristine white, adding to the unreal atmosphere of the house. In general, the work of Feipel & Bechameil is more of a haptic than an intellectual reflection on architecture, more specifically on modernist architecture.
Un Monde Parfait, 2013
What attracts them to that period? ‘In a way, it is the last manifestation of an ideology or utopia in which people strongly believed they could change the world. It still contains the notion of a dream.’ But instead of a utopia, some of their works seem to express a dystopia, like the series Un Monde Parfait (2013), which consists of scale models of iconic utopian French modernist buildings from the 1950s-1970s. The models are realised in acrylic resin. But unlike those one can see at architecture firms, they look damaged, abandoned or in ruin. ‘We don’t want to present this architecture as a dystopia,’ says Bechameil. ‘We still believe in it. I find it strange that when such buildings are no longer occupied, they are immediately destroyed. That is a pity. Because their decay also has its beauty.’
Automatic Revolution, La Patinoire Royale-Galerie Valérie Bach, Brussels, until 23 March, prvbgallery.com