Mechelen art biennale asks tough legal questions


A two-month art biennale celebrates Mechelen’s former role as the seat of the highest court in the Low Countries, with installations that tirelessly question and challenge how law is applied both past and present

A critical perspective

Mechelen is in the middle of a two-year celebration of all things legal, recalling its role as home to the Great Council of the Habsburg Netherlands during its Op.Recht.Mechelen city festival. From the 15th century to the 17th century, the Council was the highest court in the Low Countries, and influential in shaping Europe’s tradition of constitutional law.

This reflection on the law also permeates the eighth edition of the Contour Biennale of the moving image, now on show in spaces across the city. Among the locations are two of the Great Council’s former homes – Schepenhuis, which housed the Council’s predecessors from 1473 and then the Council itself, and the Court of Savoy, which took the Council in when it returned to Mechelen in 1616 after a period of exile.

“In the movement from the Schepenhuis to the Court of Savoy, you are moving in the direction that the court itself moved,” observes Natasha Ginwala, the curator of this edition of Contour.

In preparing the programme, the Berlin-based curator and researcher immersed herself in the history of Mechelen at the time of the Great Council, but also determined to keep a critical, contemporary perspective. “This is not about valorising and simplifying the history of the Low Countries and building a romantic vision,” she says. “Rather, it’s to question, through artistic approaches, how the law is applied and the methods of presenting testimony and evidence that act upon the course of global justice.”

Eerily tense

Several of the pieces inquire into legal processes or the architecture of courts, both in the past and present. One of the most striking is by Rotterdam-based artist Rana Hamadeh, whose work sets the scene for an opera about a 1783 case in which the captain of a slave ship was sued by the expedition’s investors for disposing of the cargo short of the destination. The point of law was loss of goods rather than mass murder.

"Sketch No.1: On Proxy-bodies", in the cellar of Schepenhuis, combines documents, a libretto and a maquette to stage the opera. But the atmosphere is set by a ticking metronome, amplified and looped to create an eerily tense soundscape that also takes in footsteps and anything said in the room. 

One filmed portrait shows a Tibetan woman who was once a celebrated political prisoner, but now works as a housekeeper in Brussels

Other artists are involved in more contemporary issues of social justice and state-sanctioned violence. Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam focus on Tibet’s struggle against Chinese oppression, using images of police violence and Buddhist monks and nuns who set themselves on fire as a radical form of protest. 

Alongside these disturbing yet compelling images is a gentler work, a filmed portrait of a Tibetan woman who was once a celebrated political prisoner, but now works as a housekeeper in a rest home in Brussels.

Then there is the Karrabing Film Collective, a group of indigenous Australian filmmakers whose work expresses their daily experience of racial violence and dispossession. 

Songs and sermons

Many of the 25 artists and collectives selected visited Mechelen to devise or develop their work, producing some fascinating connections between art and location. “The Book of Glass” by Canadian artist Judy Radul, for example, uses video cameras to build up a multi-layered critique of surveillance culture.

They scan around a ground floor room in the Schepenhuis, capturing visitors but also zooming out through the leaded windows to take in the Grote Markt and people passing by. Meanwhile, another camera, built into a book-reading machine, browses texts on subjects such as the legal status of video evidence. 

“She exposes the physical performance of the camera and the geometric lines of the lens, while responding to the historical architecture of the Schepenhuis as the inaugural seat of the Great Council, and its gridded windows that open a view into the historical city centre,” Ginwala says. “However, there is also a reflection upon the media technology used by state forces, such as the police and in courtrooms, that complicate the use of video as evidence.”

A creaking instrument

The Baroque garden in the Court of Savoy made Beirut-based artist Lawrence Abu Hamdan recall orchards in the Lebanese mountains, where old cassette tape is wound around the fruit trees to scare away birds. Not only is nature wrapped in shiny tape, but also the implied songs and sermons on the tape.

So he has draped the Court’s garden with tape in a similar way, while playing what he claims to be a voice recovered from one of these tapes over speakers. I say “he claims” because the discourse concerns an obscure concept in Islamic law that sanctions lying.

The room turns pitch black, and you see phrases from the manuscripts written in light on the far wall

But my favourite work is that of Pedro Gómez-Egaña, a Colombian artist and composer. Ginwala nudged him in the direction of polyphonic music manuscripts held by the Alamire Foundation in Leuven and the Royal Library in Brussels.

Here he became fascinated by enigmatic phrases inserted by scribes as instructions to be decoded by the musicians. He also became interested in the early printing industry and visited the Museum Plantin-Moretus in Antwerp.

The result is an installation that turns the attic of the House of the Great Salmon on Zoutwerf into a kind of printing press for coded messages. Weights on ropes swing back and forth, gradually releasing a set of beams doubling those that hold up the roof. 

As they tilt over, other ropes pull a shutter closed over the window illuminating the room. When it is finally pitch black, you see phrases from the manuscripts written in light on the far wall.

Modern day

“The roof itself becomes a creaking instrument as the building is destabilised,” Ginwala explains, “while the artists’ soundtrack reveals polyphonic echoes and the secret instructions inscribed in the illuminated medieval manuscripts that prescribe silence are projected.”

Contour’s final location lies outside the city centre, in a former garage now converted to a co-working space and a youth centre. Four films are projected here that explore themes of politics and governance, labour and colonialism.

“In this way, we move beyond the historical court venues,” says Ginwala, “to spaces of collective labour, theatre and creating new ideas with young people from Mechelen’s diverse neighbourhoods.”

Until 21 May, across Mechelen

Photo top: Still from Judy Radul’s “World Rehearsal Court”
©Judy Radul

Photo above: Still from the Karrabing Film Collective's "Windjarrameru, The Stealing C*nt$" 
©Karrabing Film Collective