Its not the catchy, pop friendly A side that everybody falls for, but after listening to it a few times, you end up liking it even more. Brussels has always suffered from an underdog reputationits a place with a perennial identity crisis. Though mainly a French speaking city, its in the center of a Dutch speaking region. To add to the confusion, Brussels is the de facto capital of the European Union and also the headquarters for NATO, so almost two thirds of the citys population is composed of foreigners, many of them transient. The majority of the expats I met were quick to joke that the best thing about living in Brussels is that its only a Eurostar trip away from more freewheeling places like Paris and London.
Its the perfect place for a pied-a terre, one Norwegian creative director told me. I lived in Milwaukee for 10 years so I’m used to this strange city vibe, smaller city vibe, said the painter Tyson Reeder, who, after doing a solo show at the Office Baroque gallery last spring, continued to live within the city for several months during a sabbatical from his teaching job at the Art Institute of Chicago. Its sort of like: Where am I? Recently, despite the citys no there atmosphere, an enthusiastic circle of creative pioneersnamely, artists, gallerists, and curatorsfrom cities like Paris, Antwerp, and NY have silently claimed Brussels as their very own.
Its a very international city, Zoe Gray, a British born curator at Wiels, told me. She’s very optimistic about what could become or could become. It’s all the cultural possibilitiestheres a real apprecia- tion here of the arts like opera, dance, theatre, and film, just on a smaller scale. She walked me through Un Scene III, a summer group show of 13 emerging international artists, of which all, but one are based in Brussels. There are the David HockneymeetsJan van Eyck paintings of artist Leen Voet, which portrays the modern interiors of the countrys postwar churches as a means of documenting a time when the church had lost its power and was attempting to attract congregants again.
Theres German born photographer Stephanie Kiwitts Choco series, which consists of huge, glossy images of factory workers making fine chocolatea commentary on labor versus luxury. Even though, we wanted to avoid a show about just chocolate and churches, Gray pointed out. That could be too Belgium. Indeed, there’s nothing provincial about Wiels. That day, a handful of them ate lunch in the former brewery canteen, which still retains the brewerys huge copper vats. Others milled about in the bookshop, which is full of art zines and stacks of critical theory books. It does not feel stale, Gray said.