Thomas Bellinck on power, democracy and myth-making


The man behind the controversial House of European History in Exile brings his latest theatre piece to Brussels’ KVS, examining some modern-day moral dilemmas

Revolt and revolutions

He only graduated from Brussels’ RITS school of art in 2009, but director and playwright Thomas Bellinck has already created a stir. His fake museum, the House of European History in Exile, which he set up in 2013 in a dilapidated building in the EU quarter, fooled many into believing it was the genuine article – a history of the European Union. It became a hot topic in the international media. So much so, it even provoked a retaliatory speech from the vice-president of the European Commission.

The “museum” has just closed in Rotterdam and opens again in Vienna in May before, if all goes according to plan, travelling the globe. This work goes straight to the crux of our contemporary social and economic crises, encapsulating the issues in an informative, provocative and very entertaining nutshell.

It is also a calling card for an artist with a bag of creative tricks in hand and a perspective that could potentially generate a political tsunami.

De Onkreukelbare, Bellinck’s theatre piece, created with actor Jeroen Van der Ven (pictured), returns to KVS in Brussels this month. Based loosely on the ambiguous personality of Robespierre and his shifting moral stance during the French Revolution, De Onkreukelbare (a pun on the Dutch for “incorruptible”) examines some of Bellinck’s cherished moral dilemmas in a startlingly aesthetic form.

Over an early morning double espresso, I ask the Flemish artist if the attention from the international press has gone to his head.  “Oh, yes!” he says with a grin and resounding peals of laughter. “I’m even more of a megalomaniac than I was before.”

Maybe megalomania is the central theme of your work.  You don’t exactly shy away from controversial topics.

I wouldn’t say my work is overtly political – not in the sense that it’s like pamphleteering or agit prop. But I am intrigued by power and especially the relationship between power, history and myth-making. That’s largely what the “museum” is about, the way we have created fictions about our democratic processes and the relationship between EU institutions and nation states.

So many people came out of the “museum” and asked me if I was pro-Europe or a Eurosceptic. The over-arching perspective wasn’t clear, and that was the point. I really tried to steer clear of any kind of simplistic, direct point of view. I want to put the onus on the spectator to reflect on the material presented. I want my work to make people stop and think, especially about their responsibility in the democratic process and their understanding of how that process works.

Close to the bone

The House of European History in Exile cut so close to the bone that it was scary, but your use of irony is often hilarious. It shows how absurd some of our fundamental beliefs are and it’s difficult to remember that this “museum” is a fiction.

What is fiction and what is reality? What drives my creative work is the relationship between politics and history and the way we create mythologies that pass for reality. How many people will vote for someone who will represent them in the European Parliament because they’ve read their manifesto? No, we vote for politicians who are familiar, someone who was a mayor here or there, a known face at the local level. 

But we barely understand the relationship between national politics and EU policy-making. We’ve created this myth about the EU as this monolithic and bureaucratic weird monster dominating our national politics but in fact our national politicians play a leading role in dominating the EU through their membership of the Council of Ministers. 

Why did you choose the “museum” form rather than theatre? 

Theatre tends to neutralise the issues, even when the material is powerful. You can put reality on a stage and people will still think it’s fiction. The “museum” form fudged the boundaries between reality and fiction. Maybe one day I might want to make a movie or a documentary, because I choose the form that best fits the content and makes the maximum impact. But, equally, I don’t use my work to send messages. 

People came out of the museum saying to me “Ok! So, what do I do?” But I can’t tell them; I want to raise questions rather than provide easy answers. Nonetheless, I hope the exhibition conveys a sense of shared responsibility. Protesting and complaining afterwards isn’t really as effective as taking responsibility in the first place. But our educational system doesn’t teach us how to glean a perspective on our modern history, and it doesn’t teach us to deal with complexity. We tend to over-simplify, but I like to engage with complexity; it requires us to take time and pause for reflection.

De Onkreukelbare is about Robespierre. Why?

The play isn’t a biographical narrative. Robespierre started out as a modest lawyer in Arras.  He went to Paris as a Rationalist, a defender of human rights and an opponent of the death penalty, to fight for freedom, and he ended up creating the Supreme Being as well as the Reign of Terror. He sent thousands to the guillotine. Robespierre is an excuse to explore the mythology of revolution.

It took a hundred years and a chain of revolutions for the ideals of the French Revolution to become a reality. Our research evolved along with the media coverage of the Arab Spring. What’s the difference between revolt and revolution? Is the fall of a dictator the same as the transformation of a dictatorship into democracy?

What’s your next project?

We’re researching the forthcoming commemorations for the First World War. I think that gives scope for complexity.

21 February to 1 March
De Onkreukelbare (in Dutch with French surtitles)
KVS, Arduinkaai 9, Brussels     

Photos by Stef Stessel

More performance coming soon

Mind a Gap
Anton Lachky/Anton Lachky Compagnie/KVS/EA
Five dancers from Eastman, Les Ballets C de la B and Les Slovaks team up with choreographer Anton Lachy for a scintillating blend of virtuosity and innovative movement. 
20 & 21 February
KVS, Brussels

Some Use for Your Broken Claypots
Christophe Meierhans
Performed in English by Swiss Christophe Meierhans, this play is based on the ancient Athenian voting system in which a political leader who became too powerful could be banished. Meerhans looks at the way our identities are reflected in the type of constitution that governs us and asks the spectator to imagine what our lives would be like if we overturned the constitution. 
26 & 27 February
Kaaistudios, Brussels 

Tauberbach: A Hymn to Life
Alain Platel/Münchner Kammerspiele/Les Ballets C de la B/NT Gent/KVS
Alain Platel’s latest choreography has already delighted international critics as he looks at how to survive with dignity in almost impossible conditions. Also at KVS Bol from 30 April to 5 May.
26 & 27 February
Theatre 140, Brussels 

Solid Gold and Jolie
Caravan Productions/KVS/Kaaitheater
This performance brings the genius of Congolese hip-hop Dinozord back to Brussels in tandem with Ula Sickle, Jolie Ngemi and Yann Leguay. 
21 & 22 March
KVS Box, Brussels

Thomas Bellinck on power, democracy and myth-making

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