Ballon Rouge Collective curator Evelyn Simons on collective speculation

With last week’s opening of Belgium’s instalment of nomadic art collective Ballon Rouge Collective and Philip Janssens’ no needs an another mountain, we put a few email questions to Brussels-based curator Evelyn Simons about being at the forefront of an international movement, why she chose to work with Janssens in particular and why they needed a thousand tulips. Make sure to attend their special performance event this Thursday 19th April from 18h with Camille Lancelin, Stefano Faoro and Atelier Bildraum.

Photographer Lola Pertsowsky (c), courtesy of Philip Janssen and Ballon Rouge Collective.

Can you talk to us about the exhibition?

This show is Ballon Rouge Collective’s first Brussels-based presentation: after having organised the exhibition Driftwood, or how we surfaced through currents last year in Athens, I was approached by Nicole O’Rourke – who attended the opening – to be part of the Ballon Rouge Collective. Operating under a new gallery model, they have a nomadic approach in which they operate through an international network of curators in Sao Paolo, Istanbul, LA, NYC, Paris, London and Brussels, rather than having all their activities concentrated in one physical space. Each curator is asked to present a local artist they strongly believe in, to be part of the gallery roster and to be presented by the collective. I immediately felt that I wanted to work with Philip for this round: an artist who makes fantastic, cutting-edge and mysterious work with a strong potential for global resonation. It was perfect timing in terms of his career, so we’re all very happy with this opportunity. The idea is that in this first year, each curator-artist duo organises a solo-exhibition in their home-town. Next year, Philip will go to Istanbul for example, and I will welcome an artist from the other cities. Over the course of the following years, everybody will be involved in each other’s shows, boosting the visibility of the represented artists internationally.

How does the exhibition’s name help to evoke its content?

Philip’s work mainly deals with perception, imagination and co-existing multiple personal truths. It carries a certain metaphysical appeal, so the monolithic and iconic symbol of the mountain worked well. When he told the working title to his French girlfriend, she repeated it by accident with some English mistakes, and we eventually decided to go for this “mutated” version. The fact that it’s an interpretation of an interpretation creates some sort of uneasy but playful friction.

How would you describe the majority of the works on show? In a more general sense, how would you describe the artist’s work, his approach and aesthetic?

Philip’s work evokes a certain frustration with its spectators, teasing their gaze with materials that defy hierarchy in composition; that negate focal points and hypnotise. He distances himself from methodologies inherent to conceptual art in that he does not consider his objects as conduits for other meanings waiting to be revealed. Rather, his work questions the nature of the object itself, namely how its existence in time and space bears an essential contradiction – his objects are always subject to the subjectivity of perception. This results in a body of work that could be considered minimal, but at the same time is too confusing, mysterious and messy to fit into the clean-cut mathematical mindset of minimalism. You could say that his very appealing, hypnotising aesthetic follows a fascination from the artist himself for the materials he works with. As if the effect the finished works exert on their spectators is what triggered Philip to make them in the first place.

In terms of approach, how did you go about producing the show?

Philip is one of those artists with a very active studio practice, constantly testing out new materials and procedures, regardless of what the opportunities for presenting them are at hand. When I first approached him to be represented by Ballon Rouge Collective, about six months ago, he was already working on a body of work and had just received the good news that he would be supported by the VGC. This meant he could finally realise some of his anticipated projects – the show came together very organically. Based on the works at hand, I went looking for a suitable space. In return, based on the chosen locations, the final selection of works to show was made. I further worked on getting production arranged: fixing the lilac carpet, the inox wall plinths, a thousand tulips for the opening.

As a curator, how important is your relationship with the exhibited artist?

It’s essential. Of course sometimes you don’t have a choice, but I really prefer to – and also appreciate the work more – of artists I get along with personally as well. For this project especially, in which the collaboration is pretty one-on-one, I wanted to work with someone I appreciate, with whom it’s fun to work and with whom you don’t need to endlessly analyse and explain.

From research to scenography, can you discuss the various different 
people involved in the show?

The directors, Helene and Nicole followed everything from a distance, but gave us complete freedom – even though it’s a commercial show, we were encouraged to really play with the space, organise performances and install sort of scenographic interventions such as the lilac carpet and inox plinths. Besides that, we arranged technical assistance, and had an extensive collaboration with our photographer Lola Pertsowsky, who had the tricky challenge of photographing the impossible-to-photograph works.

What do you hope viewers will get from visiting the show?

To be confused yet hypnotised, so that they won’t want to leave the space. There is so much going on during the Art Brussels week, that we really wanted to evoke some kind of very dense, condensed immersive environment where you plunge into the aesthetics, in such a thick layer that it almost attaches itself to you when you walk out.

On a more personal level, how has working on this exhibition enriched your understanding of the artist’s work? And of contemporary art more generally?

It’s an exhibition of many firsts: a first solo-exhibition, a first commercial exhibition. But working with Helene and Nicole, and in the Ballon Rouge Collective mindset more generally, they luckily don’t emphasise the latter too much. Regardless of the fact that all the works are on sale, we do have a proper opportunity to create an exhibition that could be seen as such. This implies that production costs were made that won’t necessarily benefit sales, but that does convert this into a genuinely immersive environment. Something I found pretty important, especially taking into account our timing: Brussels is saturated with exhibitions during the sprintime contemporary art season.

My partnership with Philip evolved very naturally: we don’t need to explain ourselves to each other too much. Additionally, because I know his personality new insights on his work would just randomly pop up in my head, like while taking a shower or cooking. It gets under your skin, which is pretty rare but very inspiring.

As a curator, how do you select the artists whom you’d like to exhibit?

I’m generally more experienced in curating group shows, where indeed everything starts from a certain research topic – but I also want to refrain from presenting the artists’ work as an “illustration” of some sort of essay or narrative. At some point you have to let go, and have your research evolve through the work of the people involved – after all, we’re creating exhibitions, not writing scientific essays.

Would you say your shows all have somewhat of a common denominator to them? If so, what would it be?

Most of the exhibitions I curate are research-based, and relate to sociopolitical and economical topics of today’s society that occupy my mind. For instance, topics like consumerism, political correctness and double standards that were addressed in Driftwood, or how we surfaced through currents will be further elaborated on in the future, as I’m starting a space in Athens to continue the debate started there. Apart from that, I tend to look for work that actually performs in its appearance what it’s trying to communicate. I’m a bit sick of detached artworks in which the object stands completely loose from the “concept”, written down in an accompanying text. For the exhibition in Athens for instance, Jeremy Hutchison created an advertising campaign which was also installed in the city as a genuine advertising campaign, to comment on consumerism and our complicity with economic inequality. For Marres Currents #5, I Spy, I spy a little lie, me and my fellow curator Isabel Van Bos collaborated with Office for Joint Administrative Intelligence (Chris Dreier and Gary Farrelly), who commented and put into question our bureaucratic apparatus by functioning as an office themselves (including merchandising, an own radio podcast, and even a creation process that includes weekly meetings with reports and everything). Same for Philip: his works want to fuck a little bit with you. They are tricky to perceive, they make your imagination work and everybody starts guessing about what there is hidden under the black plexi, or what the tulips handed out during the opening are for. It’s collective speculation.