Artist Dirk Braeckman on the long road to the Biennale


Flemish photographer Dirk Braeckman is featured in this year’s Venice Biennale with a selection of works that defy easy interpretation

Shadows and fog

When photographer Dirk Braeckman was selected to represent Belgium at this year’s Venice Biennale, it was a dream come true. “It also comes at the right moment,” he says. “In 10 years’ time it would have been too late, and 10 years ago I probably wouldn’t have been ready for it.”

He certainly is ready now, as the impressive exhibition on view at the Biennale convincingly shows. Bringing together more than 100 exhibitions, Venice is the biggest, the oldest, the most popular and probably the most influential of all art biennials.

Some of the smaller shows at the Biennale require no more than a 10-minute visit; a few of the bigger ones take a couple of hours. Although the shows are spread across the venerable city, a majority are concentrated at two key locations: the Arsenale complex and Giardini garden.

In addition to the central pavilion, the Giardini hosts nearly 30 smaller pavilions, each of which are generally curated by a single country. The Belgian pavilion, the oldest on the Giardini grounds, is shared by Flanders and the French Community, with the two alternately choosing the participants.

Artist vs artist

Two years ago, artist Vincent Meessen curated an exhibition for Wallonia; in 2013, Ghent artist Berlinde De Bruyckere presented her impressive “Cripplewood” sculpture. Braeckman’s selection for the current Biennale edition makes him the third Ghent-based artist chosen to represent Flanders in its last four selections.

It’s the opening weekend of the Biennale, and I’m sitting with Braeckman (pictured) and curator Eva Wittocx on a bench in front of the Belgian Pavilion, in the shade of one of the huge trees that line the pathways of the Giardini gardens.

Braeckman, 58, is happy to have a moment to catch his breath now that the three preview days reserved for press, collectors and curators are behind him, and he no longer has to give dozens of interviews a day.

It’s not just creating a show on location. Participating at the Biennale means becoming part of a huge machinery

- Curator Eva Wittocx

Let’s go back in time first. Just over a year ago, the Flemish minister of Culture, Sven Gatz, launched an open call for the Belgian pavilion. The selection process until then had been a closed procedure.

“That open call felt weird,” Braeckman admits. “It makes it into a competition. But I decided to contend. And the first thing I did was send a text message to Eva.”

Enter Wittocx, a senior curator at M Museum in Leuven, where she focuses on contemporary art. Wittocx curated an impressive retrospective of Braeckman’s art at M Museum in 2011, and previously worked with him while serving as a curator at Ghent’s contemporary art museum SMAK.

Wittocx also had a trump card up her sleeve: in 2001, when Luc Tuymans represented Belgium at the Biennale, she organised the exhibition. SMAK director Jan Hoet was the official curator for promotional purposes, but his collaborators did much of the curating work.

Sacred rites

“Because of my experience I could tell Dirk what to expect,” Wittocx says. “It’s not just creating a show on location. Participating at the Biennale means becoming part of a huge machinery. I know artists that are scared of this.”

Of the 35 artists that applied to be considered for the Belgian Pavilion, five were shortlisted. In July 2016, the jury chose Braeckman over the other four artists, which included the painters Michäel Borremans and Jan Van Imschoot.

Wittocx and Braeckman travelled to Venice with some 40 works, 23 of which they ultimately included in the show. Designing the exhibition was like putting together a puzzle, which the two completed over two 10-day periods, with frequent changes to the selection of works.

When I create an exhibition, I always keep changing and rethinking everything

- Artist Dirk Braeckman

“That always happens when I create an exhibition,” Braeckman explains. “I keep changing and rethinking everything.”

The majority of the works on display are new, made this or last year, but a number of older works are also included. “Most of the people visiting don’t know any of my work, so it’s nice to give them some context,” Braeckman explains.

Last winter, the Belgian Pavilion received a makeover. The walls were repainted in what looks like white, but is actually “museum grey”. The combination of artificial and daylight has been fine-tuned, and it changes depending on the conditions outside. (Sadly, a chance was missed to finally install air conditioning.)

Women and waves

With a floor plan that resembles a cross figure, a tight interior design stripped of all decoration and the white(ish) walls hung with Braeckman’s photographs, the pavilion exudes an almost sacral atmosphere.

Braeckman travelled to Venice soon after the open call was launched, and it’s where he starting writing his project proposal. But he stresses that his exhibition is not about the city.

Still, the first thing you see upon entering the pavilion are three prints made from the same negative of a wave, creating the appearance of a triptych. “It’s not a Venice reference,” the artist insists. Wittocx adds: “A change in Dirk’s work in recent years is that he is taking more photos in nature.”

His dark, greyish photographs are shrouded in mystery … his subjects looming like ghostlike shadows through a fog in the images

Braeckman also trips up the triptychreference by adding an adjacent picture of a fourth wave, which you don’t see it at first and which also isn’t of the same wave.

It might be obvious by now: Braeckman’s Biennale show, like his oeuvre as a whole, defies easy interpretation. Of course, as a viewer you tend to combine, sometimes unconsciously, the images on view.

His dark, greyish photographs are shrouded in mystery. At first sight, his subjects seem to be women, waves, interiors and other subjects, which all loom like ghostlike shadows through a fog in the images. The photographed objects aren’t readily recognisable, and enigmatic titles like “U.M.-V.P.-16” aren’t much help.

As fascinating as this elusiveness is, it can also be slightly irritating – at least at first. But once you surrender yourself to it, the mystery that emanates from the works fades away, and you’re ready to see them for what they are: abstract compositions.

That’s when you start to enjoy Braeckman’s geometrical patterns, the interplay between planes and lines and his variations in light.

International Art Exhibition, Venice Biennale, until 26 November, across Venice

Photo top: Dirk Braeckman in the Belgian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale
©Mirco Toniolo Errebi/AGF/BELGA

Photo above: Installation view of the Belgian Pavilion
©Dirk Braeckman

More Flemish in Venice

Glass and Bone Sculptures 1977 - 2017
Antwerp artist Jan Fabre has staged shows at the Venice Biennale several times in the past, but his inclusion in this year’s official programme, the so-called Collateral Events, is a first. Thanks to a great location – the old San Gregorio abbey in the shadows of the Salute basilica – his show has so far been enormously popular, even with unsuspecting tourists, most of whom didn’t recognise the artist as he quietly surveyed the courtyard when I visited.

The works on view combine skeletons of dead stray dogs with serpentine streamers in Murano glass. Another highlight of this intriguing exhibition are the silhouettes of monks made out of thin slices of human bone and iron wire.

For over a decade now, the Antwerp antiques dealer, entrepreneur and collector Axel Vervoordt has organised an exhibition at the Palazzo Fortuny at each Biennale. Intuition, his latest, explores how intuition has influenced artists across centuries and geographies. The works on show are presented in a crisscross fashion that transcends temporal and cultural lines.

As ever with Vervoordt’s Fortuny exhibitions, it’s all a little bit too much at times. Still, there’s plenty of great art on view, and works by Flemish artists like Thierry De Cordier, Koen van den Broek, Berlinde De Bruyckere are among the show’s highlights.

And the rest
Koen Vanmechelen and Fabre are both included in Glasstress, the Biennale exhibition focused on artworks made of glass. Van Mechelen also built a 12-metre-high installation that can’t be missed when navigating the city’s Grand Canal.

The Antwerp-born, Mexico-based artist Francis Alÿs is included in the Iraq Pavilion with work inspired by several trips to the country, including to refugee camps and travels with a Kurdish battalion on the frontline in Mosul. Meanwhile, painter Guy Van den Bulcke is included in the weird hodgepodge that the Biennale’s Personal Structures exhibitions always are.