It all started with a text message from an artist to a curator: ‘What do you think, are we going to do this together?’ About a year later, the opening of Dirk Braeckman’s and Eva Wittocx’s exhibition in the Belgian Pavilion at the Venice Biennial is but a few days away and is a well-deserved next step in the duo’s ongoing collaboration of more than 18 years. Belgium’s contribution this year will definitely be one to see, not in the least because it will offer a modest momentum amidst the busy Biennial.
Eva Wittocx, senior curator at Museum M in Leuven and curator of the show, looks delighted. “The show is turning out great, everything is coming together. We’ve got a few loose ends to tie up but overall, we’re ready.”, she explains. The building of the Belgian pavilion in Venice has been renovated over the winter, new skylights were installed and the rooms received a fresh coat of paint. “We don’t have a specific scenography, so the building needed to be in perfect shape for the focus to be on the work. It’s part of Dirk’s practice to create every exhibition anew, within the environment.”, Eva continues, while mentioning that they sent over quite a large shipment to Venice, one that included more works than they could show. “That way, we were able to explore several options and had the freedom to see what worked in the space and which combinations of works we would eventually show.” Working with neither themes nor series, Eva points out that this exactly why Braeckman’s old and new work seamlessly fit together, that the magic of the show is all in the combinations of autonomous works.
This won’t be Eva’s first time in Venice: as an art history student she spent one semester in the Italian city with the Erasmus exchange program. In 1999, while working as a curator at Ghent’s S.M.A.K., she returned to work with Jan Hoet, the museum’s founder and artistic director, on an off-Biennal show presented the collection of the Flemish government and which included work by Dirk Braeckman. In 2001, Eva found herself at the Biennial once again, this time as the coordinator at the Jan Hoet-curated Luc Tuymans’ exhibition at the Belgian Pavilion.
With our exhibition, we will perhaps make our mark precisely by not partaking in an extravaganza of sorts.
To our global minds, the idea of national pavilions in the Giardini can feel somewhat archaic so it doesn’t come as a surprise that several artists react upon this incentive by working with their country’s national history. Both Luc Tuymans and Vincent Meessen have done so during their Biennal exhibitions. Braeckman, on the other hand, abstains from doing so. “We are of course aware of the fact that we will, so to speak, represent Belgium,” explains Eva, “but to us, an outstanding exhibition is the most important thing. Dirk doesn’t work with references to specific topics, so we don’t refer to Belgian history. What we proposed to the jury was to make an exhibition with a focus on his newer works, adapted to the rooms of the Pavilion. Some are specially made with the exhibition space in mind and include some subtle references to Venice.”
Asking Eva if she notices a general trend amongst other countries’ contributions, she mentions that there will be 84 national presentations, and that, evidently, she isn’t familiar with every single one of them. “Considering the shows at Giardini, I do seem to notice a tendency towards the spectacular. Denmark and France are turning their pavilions into huge sculptural installations. France and Germany will bring live performers as part of their show, some of which will last for the entire 7 months of the Biennial. Japan will propose an impressive installation by Takahiro Iwasaki, and Erwin Wurm (who will be one of the two artists in Venice for Austria), will present one of his monumental sculptural works. These interventions might say something about art today and are possibly also inspired by the context of the Biennal; there is so much to see, it makes you want to stand out to be noticed. Actually, there might be some similarities with the Eurovision Song Contest”, she grins. “Maybe this wish to do something special is stronger than the idea of national representation. With our exhibition, we will perhaps make our mark precisely by not partaking in an extravaganza of sorts.”
Eva explains how somebody once described the work of Dirk Braeckman as ‘unexploded bombs’: each picture appears to be silent while simultaneously containing a lot of energy. Another reference, often quoted by Braeckman himself, is the practice of documentary photography used by police forensics in crime scene investigations: the crime has taken place, the body is gone, but the eerie sense that something happened remains very present in the room. The tension is there, up to the point that it’s almost palpable. It’s a similar tension that is implicit when you stand in front of one of Dirk’s works. “His work is not straightforwardly spectacular,” Eva continues. “It doesn’t captivate you at first glance in the same way many other artworks do. It is precisely because of this subdued nature of Dirk’s work, that I believe it has an important place within today’s art world in general, and in the circus that the Venice Biennial can be specifically.”
Unlike most photographers, where the centre of the image contains the most important information, Dirk constructs the images from the edges of the composition inwards.
Indeed, the work of Dirk Braeckman doesn’t shout. It offers images that take some time to be seen. “The work has always been subtle and subdued,” says Eva. “Already in the nineties Dirk Brackman’s work offered a reflection on and an alternative to the way images are consumed. Today, his quiet way of looking at the world is more relevant than ever — although it’s worth noting that it’s not a reaction to contemporary visual culture, as it has always been present in his work, since the very beginning.”
“The biennale comes at a perfect moment in Dirk’s career,” Eva states. It’s true that his work is quite well known in Belgium, and he’s had a couple of institutional solo exhibitions, mostly in our neighbouring countries – but, as Eva puts it: “His work is on par with some of the best contemporary artists out there, but Braeckman isn’t as internationally renowned yet.” When asked what could be behind this lagging notoriety, Eva argues that it might be because of the fact that his work is often seen simply as ‘photography. “I believe some people see his work online or in publications and think they know it” Eva replies. “One has to experience the work in real life to feel and appreciate what he is trying to achieve. The size of the work, the silver gelatine prints on baryta paper; the physical aspects are very important to the work and cannot be reproduced outside of an exhibition context. The exhibition in the Belgian Pavilion can be seen as a mini-retrospective. We’re showing about eight older works, functioning as anchors that help contextualise the new images, which largely make up the exhibition. It will be the perfect opportunity for a diverse audience to get to know Dirk’s work.”
The exhibition demands visitors to take their time to properly look at Dirk’s works, as the images reveal themselves slowly. “Unlike most photographers, where the centre of the image contains the most important information, Dirk constructs the images from the edges of the composition inwards. The way the picture is framed is very crucial to his work and is an indispensable way to create an image that manages to hold one’s attention,” explains Eva. “Another important element to construct the image is his use of the photographic flash. It guides the gaze of the viewer and reminds him or her of the artist’s presence, of the fact that what we see is registered by someone, it is more than a representation of the world. This flash sometimes blocks part of the image, and often sheds light on the materiality of what is being photographed. This reflecting on the medium photography itself, in the way how Dirk constructs the image, using the technicalities of photography as a medium and not just a means to an end, is for me one of the reasons why Dirk is a true artist.”, Eva concludes.