15 Belgian artist talks (Part 1/3)

We talked artists showing artists, Belgium’s linguistic divide, what ‘making it’ really means, the undeniable impact of the web, the quality of Belgium’s art scene, frustrations, teaching, the country’s low-key demeanour and how Brussels fared in comparison to Berlin.

This article was first published in the Third Rate Edition of the magazine, with photography by Julie Calbert.

Gregory Decock

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Originally from Marseilles but has lived in Brussels since 2001.Studied graphic design at La Cambre, Brussels

More and more artists have their own galleries, to host and to curate the artists they know and discover and love. The reason that’s possible now and not before is because of the Internet. You can make an event without a lot of advertising costs. It’s the present, and it’s also the future. The art world is a little bit who you know but mostly you just have to work, work, work. It takes a lot of time to make good art. Young artists have to learn this. I have artist status from the government, but if I lose that – which looks likely – I’ll have to get a job. There is a time to make money and there is time to make art. It’s like inhaling and exhaling. You can’t do both at the same time. Even if you’re in a gallery, it’s still a job.

Benoit Platéus

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Originally from Liège but has lived in Brussels since 1996. Studied at ERG.

Emerging is not about age, it’s about the process – the process of trying to achieve something. Success for me isn’t about money or being represented by a gallery; it’s about having time and space to work. It’s also about having an audience because if you’re working and nobody cares about your art, it can be painful. I certainly don’t want to be overexposed. I should travel a bit more, get more international shows. It’s not that difficult. You just have to do it. Take that step out of the Belgian scene. Some people say there is no scene here, probably because it’s so spread out. Maybe they’re right, maybe there’s no scene… or maybe it’s just the beginning of a scene. It’s hard to say when you’re so buried in it. But there’s a special connection between people, and that’s what’s great about being an artist here. It’s not the same as London or Paris or New York. It’s Belgium, it’s totally different, and maybe it’s a good thing. I’m not sure I would be happy if Brussels became a super big art hot spot. I think it’s fine just the way it is.

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Karen Vermeren

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Originally from Ghent. Lived in Brussels for six years but moved back to her home-city in 2012. Studied at Sint-Lukas in Ghent and Karel de Grote in Antwerp.

I don ‘t really have any goals, except that I just want to continue, to get better and better all the time. But it’s not like there’s a particular end point that I want to achieve. It’s good to be a little ambitious. Anything that gives you more opportunity to be free in your work is good. It’s also good to be selective. Every exhibition I do is a little bit better than the one before – so the current exhibition is my best so far. I’m doing a phD in fine art on the representation of landscapes, which is what a lot of my practice is. I like teaching because it gives you this connection with colleagues and fellow artists and I can invite guest teachers or artists or curators or people you want to hear, so you never stop learning. I love it. If I quit my job I wouldn’t be able to survive. I need a little bit extra for rent and production costs, but not much. I get some help from the government also. It’s a combination of support. I just moved back to Ghent so I am rediscovering it. I feel like people are moving the opposite way –  from Ghent and Antwerp to Brussels – because there are a lot of nice small initiatives that don’t have that much support but that are good quality with good curators. It’s easy to connect with other artists in Brussels and Ghent, but in Brussels you still have a separation between French and Flemish speakers. It’s not like it’s done on purpose, it’s just natural.

karenvermeren.be

Sofie Muller

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Originally from Sint-Niklaas but has lived in Ghent since 1997. Graduated fromKASK in Antwerp and Sint-Lukas in Ghent.

I count myself among the group of “late bloomers”, because right after graduating from the academy I couldn’t invest all my time in my art because I needed to work a full-time job. That led to severe frustration. But the irony is that it’s exactly this frustration that forced me to focus on establishing myself as a full-time, independent artist. So maybe I needed those hard unsatisfying years. For the past seven years I have been a full-time artist, before that I held a teaching position at Sint. Lukas in Ghent. Internationally, of course, I am still an emerging artist. I am one of those rare artists who still creates everything themselves, starting from preliminary studies to the final, detailed sculpture. It’s very time intensive, and there are times when I need a break from my studio. That’s why a couple a times a year I spend several days in silence. That may seem like a luxury, but because of the nature of my work, which revolves about psychological portraiture, I need those moments. So far I’ve managed to make a living. People often criticise the prices, but that’s because they can’t see the bigger picture. The investment in an exhibition is huge. Every new work remains a major financial risk. But that holds for many independent jobs. You should have enough confidence in yourself and try to take calculated risks. It’s horrible to see how some artists are milked, how they are forced to create the art. If you give in to this as an artist, you lose an awful lot of your authenticity, as well as your liberty. It is well known that there are of lot of good artists in Belgium. Foreign curators often talk about it, and they acknowledge that our country scores much higher on that front in comparison to the Netherlands or France. Our museum circuit, on the contrary, doesn’t follow in that same line of quality. That’s because most museums don’t want to take risks and only the top names get the big opportunities. For such a small country, there are too many museums that want to focus only on the top level. Only one or two museums in Belgium are able to keep themselves relevant on an international level. Today there are more and more smaller projects, without big budgets, organised by young curators and artists themselves. This has been a clear trend in Ghent, but it’s also happening in Antwerp. They usually don’t get the big press, but thanks to Facebook and social media they have an impact. Even the smaller towns are able to bring something very high level.

sofiemuller.be

Tom Liekens

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Originally from Bonheiden but today lives in Antwerp. Graduated from the Royal Academy in 1999.

When I was younger, I dreamt of being in this a beautiful gallery, het Zwartepanter, one of the biggest galleries in Belgium. At 22 I had my first solo show there. Another childhood dream was to see a painting of mine hanging in a museum. A couple years ago I was part of a group show in the Museum for Contemporary Art in Antwerp, and they bought a large painting of mine. I felt great for about three weeks. I went drinking and partying, I was so happy. But that’s the thing with realising your dreams: three weeks later, the feeling was gone. The world is so big. There’s so much to do. Everyone in Belgium has paintings on their wall. Sometimes kitsch or bad paintings, but everyone has some sculpture or painting, it’s very much in the culture. It’s not like that everywhere else. I’m very ambitious about where my work should be and conquering the world but I try not to make that the priority because that’s the recipe for frustration. There was a time when I was constantly comparing my progress with other artists. You start thinking, “Why him and not me?” But I decided to stop thinking like that. I stopped thinking about where my work should be or what the next move in my career should be. A lot is outside my control anyway. Instead I start focusing more on the here and now. I’m trying to find fulfillment in making the best paintings I can. My happiness lies in the total freedom to paint what I want, when I want.  I have several interesting shows and projects ahead of me, and I have a nice big studio in the middle of the city. For the moment, that’s success for me. Maybe it’s not established as far as the rest of the world is concerned but for me, it works  for now. I can more or less survive on my work, but I still teach 12 hours a week. It helps to me get by because some months I earn a lot and other times I earn nothing. It’s for stability. In Flanders or Belgium the majority of the artists will teach at some stage in their career. Antwerp has a very vivid art scene, on every level. Apart from a lot of interesting galleries, there are also lots of small independent initiatives. Because it is relatively small, it’s easy to meet a lot of the artists living here. It’s also still affordable to rent a good studio here. I used to have an urge to go abroad, but now I am more chilled. I have a privileged position, in the centre of the city in a huge studio above a theatre, it’s the best studio I could dream of.

tomliekens.com