11 must-see public artworks in Belgium

Far from the all too intimidating allure of contemporary art galleries and museums, art also exists – and often at its best – in the natural habitat, engineered and enacted in such a way as to add to the environment, as opposed to standing in contradiction to it. This is no more true than in Belgium, a country that counts a long-standing tradition of publicly commissioned artworks that began in the late 19th century and was, and still is, made possible in part thanks to the state’s realisation of its power to strengthen cultural awareness, engage with the wider public and reinforce a national identity heavily reliant on its support of the arts. Indeed, a wide array of works-for-all-to-see is peppered throughout Belgium’s cities and countryside, sometimes popping up in the most unlikely of places, as is evident in this 11-strong selection we’ve put together with the aim of shining a light on some of the more striking examples of the genres.

Los Marolles (Hollywood) by  Grégory Decock & Pierre de Belgique

When taking in the sprawling, 180° skyline view of the capital’s northern districts that extends from Place Poelaertplein, right at the bottom of the city’s imposing Palace of Justice, your gaze is easily pulled towards the underlying working class neighbourhood of The Marolles, where an adjoining apartment block sports a familiar yet displaced spray-painted Hollywood sign on its rooftop. Installed in 2011 and without a doubt one of French multidisciplinary artist Grégory Decock’s most poignant street incursions, Los Marolles is the result of a longstanding collaborative endeavor with typographic artist Pierre de Belgique. In just six short years, the work has gone on to become an essential contemporary counterpart to Brussels’ must-see tourist attractions, with Decock, when speaking to us for an interview back in 2015, even going as far as calling the oeuvre the highlight of his career. Simple, subtle, yet radically profound.

Best to see: Looking north from Place Poelaertplein (1000)

Equilibrio Sospeso by Florentin Mauro Staccioli

Florentin Mauro Staccioli’s Equilibrio Sospeso – literally translated to ‘Suspended balance’ – is a sight for sore eyes, welcoming those entering the Brussels Region by Chaussée de la Hulpe / Terhulpensesteenweg, through the forested areas of the city’s south-eastern suburb of Watermael- Boitsfort / Watermaal-Bosvoorde. At the centre of what is dubbed the “European roundabout,” the giant, suspended and inclined window frame – made entirely out of weathering steel – was erected in 1998 along the borders of this leafy commune. A prime example of the Italian sculptor’s body of work of tense, gravity-defying and spatially symbiotic installations, the sculpture matches calculated precision with artistic flair. Having been left in bad shape after an ill-fated car accident in 2007, plans were made to take down the sculpture, yet an online petition managed to convince the city’s politicians to replicate the sculpture – initially poorly received – making it stand strong to this day. Well worth the forest drive, if you ask us.

Best to see: On the roundabout at the end of Chaussée de la Hulpe/Terhulpensesteenweg and Avenue de la Foresterie/Vorsterienlaan (1170)

De Maagd by Michaël Borremans

A Ghent local, painter Michaël Borremans gifted his hometown with De Maagd (The Virgin), the artist’s first-ever public artwork, in 2014. Attached on the northern wall of the city’s belfry, the minuscule fresco somberly depicts a dark-haired girl with a down-turned and sideways glance towards the adjacent city hall, with beams of light emitting from her eyes. Inaugurated around the same time as Borremans’ widely acclaimed retrospective exhibition As sweet as It Gets at Brussels’ Bozar in 2014, De Maagd quickly rose to fame thanks to extensive national media coverage, and sparked efforts from Ghent’s council to integrate more contemporary public art into the city. For example, to express their gratitude for De Maagd, the city’s administration offered Borremans the four plinths of the neighbouring city hall, hoping that one day he might use them as blank canvases for new works.

Best to see: Belfry’s northern wall

Zellik Sign Post by Jacques Moeschal

Jacques Moeschal’s immense Zellik signpost can be spotted at the interchanging junction of Groot- Bijgaarden, between the E40 to Brussels-Ostend and the capital’s Ring road. Commissioned in 1959 by the Ministry of Public Works and finalised in 1963, the architect-cum-sculptor relied heavily on constructive engineering and modern materials such as reinforced concrete as well as stainless and weathering steels to produce this simple yet abstract monument. Towering at 23m high, a massive hollow concrete column splits into two complimentary yet evasive curves. An emblematic example of Moeschal’s impressive career making monumental landscape beacons, an equally head- strong reaction on humanity’s long-spanning history of leaving traces on pathways through the use of landmarks, and symbolic of Moeschal’s affinity for new motorways – which he reaffirmed with his Hensies Sign Post (see below).

Best to see: Alfons Gossetlaan (1702)

11 Kunstenaars tegen de muur, various artists

No stranger to open-air art spaces, Lieven Segers already acted as a guest curator for our nation’s much-loved Middelheim Open Air Sculpture Museum during Art Brussels before he decided to put his mark all over downtown Antwerp in the summer of 2016. Inviting 11 local artists to create interventions in the city centre and dubbed 11 Kunstenaars Tegen de Muur’ (11 Artists Against the Wall), the extensive art route brings together an eclectic mix of both emerging and established artists: Luc Tuymans, Guy Rombouts, Fred Bervoets, Dennis Tyfus, Denie Put, Nadia Naveau, Nick Andrews, Michèle Matyn, Guillaume Bijl, Nel Aerts and Segers himself. The open-air exhibition successfully showcases the crème de la crème of Antwerp’s art scene, from Nadia Naveau’s suspended sculpture (Green) Silverscreen to Fred Bervoets’ Adi Adieu, a highly expressive life-size painting in the city’s pedestrian tunnel, depicting the artist himself carrying his paintings to his gallerist in a wheelbarrow. On display for just one year, this is one you absolutely do not want to miss before before the whole thing ends this summer.

Best to see: spread out around Antwerp’s city centre

Hensies Sign Post by Jacques Moeschal

Found on the Brussels-Paris highway on the edge of the border village Hensies, the immense 57-metre high, concrete dual pylon sculpture complete with stylised handshake was installed in 1972 and is meant to symbolise the diplomatic friendship between Belgium and France (the pylon pillars are found in each nation), acting once again as an abstract greeting card to both incoming and outgoing travellers. A keen advocate for monumental and symbolic architectural sculptures, Moeschal was a remarkable – and arguably the most well- known – Belgian sculptor of grand, public scale art. Regardless of the post-Schengen eradication of borders, Hensies’ Sign Post now serves as a historical relic from the Western European era of human flow control and cross-nation entente.

Best to see: Along the A7 in Hensies (7350)

Altar by Kris Martin

An ever-changing tableau vivant, and without a doubt one of the most emotionally stirring oeuvres we’ve seen in a while, Kris Martin’s Altar stands stoically on the beach bordering Ostend’s sea wall. A tribute to the legendary curator and S.M.A.K. founder Jan Hoet, it was part of the curator’s last large-scale international exhibition ‘De Zee’ before his tragic passing away in 2014. Referencing one of Hoet’s personal favourites – the Van Eyck brothers’ Lam Gods (‘The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb’), a near-mythical 15th century early Flemish altarpiece located in Ghent’s St. Bavo’s Cathedral – Martin adopted an identical paneling form. The Ghent-based artist delivers a highly poetic reinterpretation of the polyptych painting, inviting visitors to view the sea from this open metal window that’s meant to remind us of the eternal force of nature, and humanity’s fleeting transience by contrast. A humbling and thoughtful masterpiece that perfectly blends into its natural habitat.

Best to see: Koning Boudewijnpromenade (8400)

Blinde Muur by Michel François

Supported by the City of Ghent, several academics from Artevelde College set up the Cultuur Maakt School working group in 2006, which sought to establish more cultural activities within their school specifically, and in the city as a whole, entirely re-imagining their workings and urban environments. As such, the team selected the Jongenstragel, a pedestrian and cyclist-friendly, tranquil location along the Nederschelde, in proximity to an Artevelde College campus, for Michel François’ Blinde Muur (Blind Wall). A large wall studded sporadically with different sized holes, it marks the border between the campus garden and the adjoining riverside, yet strangely remains open and transparent. Furthermore, the Brussels-based artist paid close attention to functionality, as the holes are created at easily-accessible heights, allowing for both natural light and passers-by to play with the artwork, as well as creating tiny seats with the leftover pieces of brick from the wall – turning the Blinde Muur into a perfect visual representation of the working group’s ethos. An absolutely stunning piece of work.

Best to see: On the Jongenstragel and Arteveldehogeschool Campus St.-Annaplein (9000)

Doorkijkkerk – Reading Between the Lines by Gijs Van Varenbergh

In 2011, Hasselt’s contemporary art museum Z33 initiated the public art exhibition project Z-Out, with its first offshoot entitled Pit, an artistic promenade inviting ten artists from the Borgloon-Heers region to leave their mark on the landscape. What is surely the most striking example of the lot is Doorkijkkerk (Reading Between the Lines) by Leuven-based experimental architect duo Gijs Van Varenbergh (Pieterjan Gijs and Arnout Van Varenbergh). A contemporary re-interpretation of a local church in the heart of Looz’s surrounding countryside, the monumental artwork is constructed out of 30 tons of steel, 2,000 individual columns and a concrete foundation. The horizontal plating creates a familiar yet deceptive transparent church: from one external angle, the installation appears to be your standard village church, yet if you shift your position even slightly, its appears to dissolve into the landscape right before your eyes. Its interior is just as deceiving, with the church appearing to re-shape and alter the landscape when looked at from different perspectives. True to its name, the church’s multi-layered playfulness invokes a reflective yet intriguing opportunity to ponder on the ambiguous subjectivity of structures and landscapes. An absolute must-see.

Best to see: Along the bike path in Looz (3840)

Memento by Wesley Meuris

Also part of Z-Out’s sister project Pit, Wesley Meuris was invited to add his flair to the Borgloon region. In 2012, the Mortsel-based artist built a giant memorial structure in the Central Burial of Borgloon, taking advantage of the surrounding slopes to locate it at a natural focus point. Clearly visible from a distance, the cylindrical beacon innocently lures you in through two openings and, once inside, the white steel walls seem to enclose you from the outside world whilst paradoxically remaining agape, suggesting an inspiring ascension towards the heavens above. Both inviting and secluded, it’s a space for disorienting reflection and meditation, minus any ominous claustrophobia. All made more apparent when considering the wallpaper made of seemingly levitating lamellae – shinier than that of the base wall – meant to anonymously represent the numerous deceased. A beautiful and inspiring memorial to all the gentle souls resting in peace.

Best to see: Central Burial of Borgloon, Lambertusstrat (3840)

Sart-Tilman Open-Air Museum

Liège’s lesser known sister to Antwerp’s widely loved Middelheim Park, the Sart-Tilman Open-Air Museum was founded in 1977 and serves to this day as an impressive collective exhibition space, assembling a variety of contemporary public art. Initiated by the University of Liège and the Ministry of Culture, it was later taken over by Belgium’s French Community and became a firm representative of the country’s francophone art history, presenting artwork in a symbiotic way to its surrounding environment, and resulting in a critical awareness of the relationships between urban and natural spheres. Boasting an impressive collection spread out over an outdoor sculpture park and an indoor museum, Sart- Tilman also hosts regular exhibitions, inviting the likes of Word-favourites Xavier Mary and Samuel d’Ippolito to showcase their artistic practices. The roster of artists does hold an impressive amount of big-shot names, but also, and more importantly, dedicates a section to the more experimental and younger generations. Essential for lovers of the local contemporary art scene.

Best to see: Château de Colonster, B25 building (4000)