Art and the body: Group show explores physical interactions


A new show at contemporary art space Emergent in Veurne showcases eight artists whose work is all about the physical

Written on the body

Most galleries in Belgium are on summer break, but that’s not the case for Emergent, a privately funded initiative located in a historic building in Veurne, a charming town minutes away from the Flemish coast.

Frank Maes, a former curator at contemporary arts museum Smak in Ghent, founded the arts space in 2013. It hosts up to six exhibitions a year, looking to offer a platform for contemporary art away from Flanders’ usual cultural centres.

While almost all artworks can be bought, Emergent was never meant to be a commercial gallery. The visitors are a mix of locals, tourists and art enthusiasts with a summer home at the coast.

“Many local collectors are at the sea during the summer, which is great for us,” says Roxane Baeyens, Emergent's general director. Still, because it’s located away from the usual art hubs of Brussels, Antwerp or Ghent, Emergent needs to go the extra mile.

“We have to do something a bit more special to make people come over here,” Baeyens explains. “We need to be different from what you get to see elsewhere. That’s why our focus lies on young and emerging artists who are at the beginning of their careers, or deceased artists who have been overlooked.”

Will to power

That’s what the current show Kunst om het lijf (Art for the Body’s Sake) aims to do. Spread over four floors, the large-scale group show puts features mainly young talents, some of whom had never sold any work.

“It’s incredibly rewarding to be able to help them,” says Baeyens, who is curating the show. “This is why I do what I do.”

The starting point for the exhibition is Friedrich Nietzsche’s idea that art is a bodily, physical experience. But to what extent is his theory still relevant to present-day artists? Do they feel their art is connected to the body?

With so many artists using the internet and digital elements in their work now, I didn’t expect this at all

- Curator Roxane Baeyens

Baeyens put the question to eight local and international artists. They all responded with a wholehearted “yes”, which came as a surprise to the curator.

“With so many artists using the internet and digital elements in their work now, I didn’t expect this at all,” she says. “But even Noor Nuyten, who works with virtual reality, sees her pieces as a bodily experience.”

The Dutch artist’s interactive work “Eyes take several minutes to get used to the dark” dangles from the ceiling in Emergent’s spacious entrance hall. It invites the visitors to don the virtual-reality headset Oculus Rift. With the device strapped to your head, you stroll through a virtual room, but the experience is very much physical.

Art is personal

All of these artists relate to the theme in their own ways, making Kunst om het lijf a genre-crossing, multifaceted show that combines installation, painting, video, sculpture, drawings and performance.

Flemish artist Hannelore Van Dijck, who was nominated for the Belgian Art Prize in 2015, says she felt immediately attracted to the theme. “Physicality is something that plays a big role in my work, in so many different aspects.  That’s why it almost didn’t matter which of my works I selected for the show.”

In the end, Van Dijck chose a series of her signature charcoal drawings. “Even while working on a new piece,” she says, “I’m already thinking of the viewer and how their body moves through space, changing their perspective and thus their relationship to the artwork.”

Your body, my canvas

Her pieces, she adds, “have this tactility to them, and become a body in a way, which often makes viewers want to touch them. My drawings are mostly 100 by 70 centimetres, which is easy for me to handle – meaning that my body determines the size of the artwork.”

Arian Loze, a video artist from Brussels, takes a completely different approach to her work, but says she feels an equally strong connection to the theme: “My body is my paint, my clay, my hammer, my instrument.”

There’s no image-making method that is more physical than painting

- Robert Devriendt

She’s showcasing Chez Nous, a gripping film about a family Christmas party in which she plays all the characters and acts as the editor, director and technician.

Her view is shared by Bruges-born Robert Devriendt, who is best known for realistic, cinematic paintings: “There’s no image-making method that is more physical than painting.”

But the most obvious choice is probably the Spanish artist Almudena Lobera, who actually uses bodies as her canvas. For now, Kunst om het lijf is showcasing one of her drawings, but in a few weeks the art will be tattooed on a volunteer’s body.

According to Baeyens, four people have already expressed interest. When that happens, she says, the drawing will be destroyed and the person will become the artwork.

Until 17 September, Grote Markt 26, Veurne (West Flanders)

Photo: Portadores by Almudena Lobera (2011)