Artists go in search of Utopia at Mechelen biennial


The seventh edition of Contour, the biennial of the moving image in Mechelen, is dedicated to the utopian ideas of English humanist and author Thomas More, who lived in the city 500 years ago

Less is More

Late morning, early September. Out-of-office replies have made way for reminders to please not forget this meeting or that event. The new school year has started with high hopes. And so has the new cultural season.

Outside Mechelen railway station, near the canvas cube that announces all the artists participating in this year’s Contour biennial, a group of students gathers. They’re on their way to a Thomas More info day, where they’ll find out more about what higher education has in store with regard to their futures. Perhaps they’ll hear about the man who gave his name to their prospective university college, too.

Will they read passages from More’s Utopia, a blend of fiction and philosophy about an ideal society on an imaginary island, partly written in Flanders and first printed in Leuven in 1516? One of these first prints, edited by More’s friend Erasmus, is now on display in Hof van Busleyden, at the actual spot where More lived during his time in Mechelen.

Both humanists challenged set beliefs of their time and continue to inspire. The combination of More and Erasmus gives Contour 7 its subtitle, Fooling Utopia, a reference to both More’s Utopia and Erasmus’ satirical work The Praise of Folly.

Ideal models

While digesting this year’s Contour selection, I consider its main questions: Can utopian thought can still hold sway in this day and age and is it constructive rather than destructive?

On this cloudy morning, rain threatens during every stroll from one location to another. The first shoppers of the day zigzag their way between double-parked delivery vans, and a bulldozer bounces its way to yet another building site. People are on the move; Mechelen is constantly being rebuilt.

Contour’s first work, “Moon Extinguishers” (Italian artist Grazia Toderi refers to the locals’ nickname, manenblussers), found at the cultural centre next to the biennale’s starting point, gives a night-time vision of the local Sint-Rombouts tower. The projection on the ceiling is circular, perhaps referring to More’s utopian island, and carries a black question mark: an inquiring Batman sign hovering over the city. From the start, doubt outweighs a firm tone of voice.

This opener is immediately answered, however, by Italian Arte Povera artist Gilberto Zorio. In his typically sparse installation of lamps and inscriptions, he states: “It’s a utopia, reality is revelation”. Zorio seems sure we are to find all answers in the mundanity of everyday life.

The short film Lili by Flemish researcher and filmmaker An van. Dienderen shows that what we take for granted often harbours ingrained preconceptions. Aided by archival documents and Flemish actress Maaike Neuville, Lili illustrates the phenomenon of “china girls”, whose perfect Caucasian appearance is used to calibrate the colour balance of film cameras before shooting actually begins. The whiteness of porcelain skin functions as the standard against which all other colours are weighed.

Does this imply that entire portions of film history are inherently racist? What does imposing one’s own ideal say about you? As in most of her work, Van. Dienderen stresses that all images are manufactured in one way or another.

Forget it: love more

Contour’s next step in exploring utopian thought goes underground, in a corridor complex beneath the shopping street IJzerenleen. There, Lebanese artist Rabih Mroué reflects on the tragedy of war that haunts his homeland. Is it possible to begin to think of a brighter future when the past weighs so heavily on you?

In one of his works, a video that speeds up and rewinds the collapse of a house, Mroué says that he “keeps on oscillating between remembering and forgetting”. Fittingly placed in a constant loop, the very short piece doesn’t retell the past to remember, but “to forget, at least part of it”.

Another video extends two seconds of a football game to two minutes, if only to stress the futile nature of a two-hour ceasefire in a lingering war.

In Hof van Busleyden, on the other side of Mechelen’s commercial quarter, the most appealing work is a new video by New York-based Flemish artist Johan Grimonprez, partly because he uses images from the dystopian film Alphaville by romantic iconoclast Jean-Luc Godard. In “Every Day Words Disappear”, Grimonprez intercuts Godard’s joyfully stylised yet poignant view of a world that has banned love with an interview he conducted with American philosopher Michael Hardt about the friction between politics and love.

Equally political but with a stronger sense of rebellious surrealism is the video installation “Encyclopaedia Utopia” by Bulgarian artist Nedko Solakov. In the immensely rich traditions of both surrealist montage and Eastern European art reflecting on oppressive regimes, Solakov comments with sharp wit on the collection of notes, pictures and drawings he created in 1990, shortly after the collapse of the Eastern Bloc. As such, it perhaps best illustrates Contour’s motto, Fooling Utopia.

Every location in which Contour sets foot houses works trying to connect with More’s ideas, but all conceptual arm-wrestling aside, its closing piece in the courtyard of the Noker chapel reminds us of the aesthetic bewilderment described by film pioneer George Méliès (and many after him) of seeing the projection of leaves moving in the wind.

For his “De Nekker Tree”, Brussels-based Spanish artist Angel Vergara filmed the sun-drenched courtyard in summer, where the actual tree and the projected tree now form a natural pair (pictured, top). Digitally manipulated visuals and often surprising sound-effects make for an aesthetic experience that alternates between the idyllic and apocalyptic, between real-life intangibles and projected convictions.

Back at the station, pupils, students and workers flock to the platforms. Next stop, Utopia?

Contour 7, until 8 November, across Mechelen (starting point: Academie, Minderbroedersgang 5)

Photos (c) Kristof Vrancken