The site occupied by Mechelen Cultural Centre today is steeped in history. It was once home to a large monastery complex with inner courtyard, guest rooms and infirmary founded by Wouter II Berthout in 1231 and rebuilt in 1342 after a fire. Following destruction and plundering, in 1606 building work started on a new church. With the help of the city and its citizens, the church was embellished with (among other things) Margaret of York’s mausoleum, sculptures by sculptor Frans Langhemans and paintings by the Flemish baroque painter Antoon Van Dyck. In 1796 the Order of the Friar Minors was banished and large parts of the monastery were demolished. Today the Cultural Centre houses the remains of the seventeenth-century church reminding the people of Mechelen of the Order.
Grazia Toderi takes as her starting point the view at night from the tower of the Sint-Rombouts Cathedral in Mechelen. For her, this place is an imaginary vantage point from which Thomas More observed, studied and drew the Island of Utopia. She also makes reference to the legend of the drunkard who saw the reflection of the moon on the glass of the tower and thought the tower was burning. In her video, projected onto the ceiling of the rotunda of the Cultural Centre, the contours of Mechelen blur into a suspended luminous island, a rotating horizon, making Belgium appear as one large city. A recurring formal element in her videos, the rotation also suggests the movement of celestial spheres, transfiguring the physical lights of the city into a spiritual and existential dimension.
The 1960s counter-culture often resorted to music as a way of expressing social contestation. Music was seen not only as an elevated and harmonious aesthetic experience, but was used to voice anger and discontent. The quintessence of that tendency was the destruction of an instrument. It’s not only guitars that have fallen victim to this creative-destructive drive, but, surprisingly, pianos too. Andrea Büttner invites new consideration of this tendency in her bold piece entitled Piano Destructions. On the video shown next to historical footage of artistic performances focusing on the destruction of pianos, female musicians perform several piano pieces. While both piano performance and piano destruction are typically seen as male activities, these female pianists are intently oblivious of that charged history. Counterbalancing the weight of that legacy, they invite us to enjoy music in its pure beauty.
Gilberto Zorio proposes a singular perspective on the question of utopia. The installation, consisting of partly fluorescent letters on a metal bar lit by two different types of lights, is reminiscent of the visual minimalist characteristic of Arte Povera. While the three terms ‘utopia’, ‘reality’ and ‘revelation’ are continuously lit by spot lights, halogen lights are turned on and off at regular intervals, revealing a fluorescent inscription: ‘it’s utopia, reality is revelation’. It is the reality, taken in its richness and simplicity, which may reveal itself as the source of epiphany, or even the utopia. Here, we find the most affirmative voice in the whole exhibition. It suggests that sometimes the answers should be sought in the ordinary and the mundane, because ultimately that is where everything begins and ends.
In a TV studio a girl named Lili (played by Belgian actress Maaike Neuville) is asked to serve as a so-called China Girl. China Girls, used in cinema history since the 1920s, are women with Caucasian skin who are filmed alongside a colour-chart in order to adjust the colours of the film. They have no dialogue to memorize or character to impersonate. Their only role is to have an impeccable white complexion. Their skin – white as porcelain – is used as a reference for the colour grading of camera and printing, ultimately excluding people of colour who do not conform to this implicit norm. Lili tells the story of a China Girl through archival material, found footage and documentary recordings. It questions the tradition of China Girls, contextualised in a society which, according to anthropologist Michael Taussig, exemplifies chromophobic uneasiness with colour.
Gilad Ratman’s multiscreen installation Swarm transports us into a strangely unreal world populated by small drones (remotely operated electronic devices) flying haphazardly around Styrofoam constructions. Drones not only resemble insects, but are modeled on their mechanics and behaviour. They sometimes appear to behave as a swarm. Without any central decision making, members of a swarm act in a similar way, thus creating a self-organizing system. Even when there is no visible hierarchy, they communicate and connect, which allows them to act together. The installation evokes an ambiguous human world, where cooperation fluidly transforms into competition.
Javier Téllez revisits an old, nineteenth century medium called ‘panorama’ to address one of today’s main political issues, namely migration. A panorama is a monumental, circular painting that once held the promise of transporting the spectator into the middle of historically or geographically distant events. The Bourbaki Panorama in Luzern, the location of Téllez’s film, depicts an episode from the end of the Franco-Prussian war of 1871, in which the defeated army of general Bourbaki surrendered to the neighbouring Switzerland. In Téllez’s 35 mm film, the painting is made even more real through the addition of actors impersonating some of its scenes. All participants are refugees currently living in Switzerland. Instead of telling their particular stories, the film invites us to revisit the principles of humanitarianism. At the same time, it recuperates the concept of realism by featuring real people in need of help.