Jan Lauwers: ‘An artist must want to change the world’


The Flemish visual and performance artist has a new show in Brussels that reworks an exhibition he recently presented in Shanghai. And this time he gets to call it what he wants

Silent stories

Artist Jan Lauwers’ intriguing new exhibition of installations and sculpture reflects centuries of art history. And not only because the first room is covered with a huge carpet depicting Rubens’ “Daniel in the Lions’ Den”.

The Antwerp-born artist made his name first and foremost in theatre, and his Needcompany is one of Flanders’ most lauded troupes both at home and abroad. He initially trained as a painter at the Ghent Royal Academy of Fine Arts, but it wouldn’t be right to say that he only recently steered his career towards the visual arts.

“I’ve always been a visual artist,” he insists, saying that he started drawing at a very young age. “When I was two or three, an uncle told me I should never draw from memory, like lots of children do, but by perception. It was only years later that I realised how important this advice was. It’s all about seeing.”

But you also need conviction. “When I teach young people, I always stress that if they want to be an artist, they should at least have the ambition to change the world,” he says. “Otherwise don’t bother starting, because it’s this drive that makes art important.”

A huge canvas

After completing his studies, Lauwers concentrated on performance rather than the visual arts. “Back then, in 1979, I loved the energy that’s linked with performance; it’s so inspiring.” He cites Serbian video and performance artist Marina Abramović and the late German artist Joseph Beuys as two artists whose performances captured his imagination.

It was thanks to performances by visual artists, and not by text-driven theatre, that Lauwers ended up on stage. And in 1986 he became the linchpin of Needcompany. “For me, the theatre stage is a huge canvas,” he says.

His new exhibition in Brussels is Silent Stories, which he calls “the result of an enquiry. I excavated my mental archive when I was invited to create an exhibition in China.” He’s referring to his show last year at Shanghai’s Ming Contemporary Art Museum, part of which he’s now presenting at Bozar.

When I teach, I always stress that if they want to be an artist, they should at least have the ambition to change the world

- Jan Lauwers

“China is a different kind of society, and I made different kind of work,” he says. “I didn’t shy away from my academic talents at drawing.”

He’s pointing to some wooden packing cases his company uses to travel. On their exteriors, Lauwers drew landscapes and animals in graphite, referring to a classical artist like Dürer.

“In China, they are perceived differently to how they are in the West. I wasn’t planning to include them here, but the CEO of Bozar told me I should.”                             

He wanted to call the Chinese show I Love the Chinese People, and the Chinese People Love Me, paraphrasing the title of Beuys’ seminal performance I Like America, and America Likes Me. But it was censored. 

In dialogue

“I couldn’t use the words ‘Chinese’ or ‘people’, because they belong to the president,” he says. “I found it amazing; the Chinese people belong to the dictator. The official explanation was: I don’t know the Chinese people, and they don’t know me, so how can we love each other?”

A large number of the works on view are assembled from found material, such as “Joseph’s Kitchen Table”, again referring to Beuys and where he did much of his work. Next to it stands “The Entertainer’s Private Room”, a wooden construction containing the head of a gorilla – a reference to Walt Disney.

“They are two very important artists,” he says. “I don’t want to choose which is the more important. Is it Marcel Duchamp’s urinal or Disney’s Mickey Mouse?”


An important difference between Silent Stories and the exhibition in Shanghai is the addition of photos by Dirk Braeckman, who will represent Belgium at the upcoming Venice Biennale. More than 20 of his characteristic ghostlike pictures converse with Lauwers’ work.

Braeckman explains how the collaboration came about: “In 2013, Jan invited me to participate in his performance/installation The House of Our Fathers in Hannover. He gave me carte blanche to do what I wanted. My photos are not a report, more an interpretation of my experience being part of it.”

An extra result of that joint project is the huge, lavish book The House of Our Fathers, containing 24 photographs. Leafing through it, it becomes easier to compare the fascinating images. 

I wouldn’t call moving to Molenbeek a statement. Lots of people see it as a dangerous place, but I disagree

- Jan Lauwers

They’re sometimes made from the same negative, but always look radically different. It’s by far Braeckman’s most fascinating book, an artwork in itself, and proves that the pictures survive independently from Lauwers’ work.

At the end of last month, Needcompany moved, after 23 years, from the centre of Brussels to Molenbeek. The building by Art Deco architect Adrien Blomme, known as Mill, is a house for the arts that also accommodates other artists

“I wouldn’t call moving to Molenbeek a statement. Lots of people see it as a dangerous place, but I disagree,” says Lauwers. “But you’ll always see that when a place is deemed dangerous, the rent goes down, and artists flock there. When that happens, after a few years the neighbourhood starts to swing again.”

Silent Stories, until 25 June, Bozar, Brussels
The House of Our Fathers by Dirk Braeckman is published by MER Paper Kunsthalle
Photo: Philippe De Gobert

More visual arts this week

Antwerp’s museum for contemporary art recently re-opened after a major renovation. The opening exhibition, A Temporary Futures Institute, brings together arts and future studies. The ground floor of the museum will host a part of the permanent collection. Not so special for a museum, you might think, but a change for M HKA, which has always liked to devote its space to temporary shows. The new presentation includes, among others, Marlene Dumas, Ilya & Emilia Kabakov, Panamarenko and Cindy Sherman. From 28 April, Leuvensestraat 32, Antwerp

Floris Vanhoof
Antwerp artist Floris Vanhoof, who won the audience award at the Young Belgian Art Prize in 2015, returns to Brussels with his new sound installation, Bug Sounds/Vinyl Canyon. Vanhoof puts pieces of transparent vinyl records in a slide projector and uses the mandible of a beetle as the needle of a turntable. Thanks to a rotating disc, the corrugated vinyl grooves are animated, resulting in flickering visual rhythms. Based on his previous work, expect a feast for ears and eyes. A disarming feast, for sure, which some might call an attack on those ears and eyes. Until 11 June, Sint-Katelijneplein 44, Brussels

Ik trap gewoon door
Ik trap gewoon door (I Just Freak Out) is an exhibition held at three locations for which established artists collaborated on new work with people who are prone to psychosis. It’s an idea by Te Gek, an organisation that aims to raise awareness about psychological problems through art, in its broadest sense. Among the contributing artists are Koen Vanmechelen, Luc Tuymans and Berlinde De Bruyckere. Until 16 May, Museum Dr Guislain, Ghent; University Library, Leuven; ModeMuseum, Antwerp