Until Colin Farrell brought it back to the international public’s attention, outside of the Lowlands, the picturesque medieval city of Bruges had rather drifted into the realms of a tourist destination for the elderly and the niche domain of medieval historians.
But with a massive exhibition project curated by the legendary painter Luc Tuymans and Tommy Simoens, Bruges is currently an essential stopover for anyone with a keen interest in contemporary and modern European art.
The exhibition, ‘A Vision of Central Europe – The reality of the lowest rank’ stems from Luc Tuymans’ ongoing fascination with Poland and Warsaw in particular. Like Warsaw, Bruges was once a key strategic city. During the Middle Ages and following centuries, it was constantly prone to the machinations of those who wished to wield power over wealthy and important domains. Unlike Bruges, however, Warsaw’s crafty strategies – or simple luck- for dealing with the age-old ebb and flow of siege, occupation or invasion did not protect it into the more recent Modern age. Warsaw was raised to the ground during World War II and entirely rebuilt to reflect its difficult and ambivalent status as an Eastern bloc capital after the war.
It is in the context of an almost unlikely –some might say inevitable- historic comparison of two cities, wholly separate in so many ways, that Luc Tuymans and Tommy Simoens insert a comparison through the intuitive modus operandi of the visual arts.
A sprawling cast of some seventy artists, many, though not all, of central or eastern European cultures, literally invades what was once considered the ultimate metropolis of the 13th century. The tension of historic scale – what was once considered a vast urban settlement now seems a pocketsize city- is an almost unspoken player in the dynamic. The exhibition literally spreads across five key locations in this important UNESCO World Heritage Site, including both contemporary and the ancient buildings. Yet, in this city that can easily be traversed on foot, the scale of Bruges, connecting the various exhibition sites, becomes both a physical and metaphoric paracours.
Anyone who has seen an exhibition curated by Luc Tuymans will not expect a traditional art historic approach. Yet the key to this is in the notion of ‘traditional’: here as in previous exhibitions nothing could be more ‘art’ or more ‘historic’. This is an approach that, whilst deeply informed by both theory and historical knowledge, eschews curatorial practice as an exercise in dry cataloguing and, instead, insists that, in order to truly understand developmental processes in art, the intuitive gateway through which art passes, not unlike the medieval gates of Bruges, needs to be open in order to grasp a series of truths that, whilst perhaps unlikely when voiced, become self-evident when viewed in structured arrangement. The narratives and meta-narrative that arise inevitably distill to a self-evident series of truths.
Thus, the tendrils that spill out from the starting point of Warsaw and Poland, make tangential, though strong, connections to the highest levels of the international contemporary art scene – Neo Rauch, Gehard Richter, Isa Genzken, Maria Lassnig and Takashi Murakami, amongst many others- in addition to other key figures in the post-war art firmament that are more expected; Andy Warhol, for example. All are simultaneously interwoven with numerous lesser-known artists of varying eras, ranging from hot young talent to those who, whilst readily known in their native central and eastern European nations, remain somewhat obscure on the international scene.
The exhibition and various concomitant programmes of related media such as animation is part of the overarching citywide arts festival Brugge Centraal. Both will continue until the latter half of January 2011. This is just as well since it affords us time to plan to take in the triple treat of the cultural significance of Bruges, the specific intelligence of an exhibition curated by Luc Tuymans and the sheer experience of the works of art themselves.