They say all good things must come to an end and sadly, cult ure lovers, this is true of Visual Arts Flanders, the no-frills umbrella title for five rather thrilling art exhibitions showing across the region. It all began in March with the coastal parcours Beaufort 04 (ends 30 September) and continued with Ghent’s city-wide arts event Track (ends 16 September), the reopening of the Middelheim Museum in Antwerp (ongoing) and the first-ever Belgian edition of Manifesta in Genk (ends 30 September).
While each event has in some way examined the discourse between art and society, the final instalment is perhaps the most emphatic. In venues across Mechelen, Newtopia: The State of Human Rights explores various artistic responses to the subject. Taking the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) as its starting point, Newtopia features the work of more than 70 international artists, ranging from big names like Andy Warhol and Pablo Picasso to emerging stars such as Egyptian Arab Spring iconographer Ganzeer to forgotten heroes like the Flemish anarchist Wilchar.
Curated by the Greek-born, London-educated and Brussels-based art historian, writer and curator Katerina Gregos, Newtopia features five solo projects, including one very special exhibition in Brussels by the Chilean conceptual artist Alfredo Jaar.
The rest of the works are ordered into “chapters”, each located at a different venue in Mechelen. The first, in the Mechelen Cultural Centre, explores the so-called “first generation” of human rights. These are mostly civil and political in nature, in comparison to the “second generation” (showing at the Old Mechelen Meat Market), which focus on social, economic and cultural issues.
The Museum Hof van Busleyden is home to the third chapter, which looks at the state of human rights today, while the final chapter at the Lamot Congress & Heritage Centre looks to the future. Gregos refers to it as “the utopia chapter”, a concept which not only inspired the title of the show but also refers to the fact that universal human rights is a destination at which humanity will never arrive.
As well as a series of walks, talks, concerts and film screenings, Newtopia is accompanied by an excellent catalogue. Bringing together texts from key human rights theorists and activists, it features an exclusive interview with Stéphane Hessel, co-author of the UDHR.
Bringing all of this together is a mammoth undertaking, and it’s been deftly executed by Gregos, a dynamic and engaging figure who cut her teeth as the artistic director of the Argos Center for Art and Media in Brussels before going on to curate the Danish pavilion at the 2011 Venice Biennale and joining the curatorial team for the current edition of Manifesta.
For Newtopia, Gregos says it was very important to challenge the myth that “human rights problems are something that occur far away in places that are out of sight and out of mind.” With the socio-political landscape of Europe shifting by the day, Gregos sees Newtopia as a timely reminder of what we stand to lose in the face of the privatisation of public services, the erosion of public space, the loss of civil rights and the slow death of the welfare state, as well as an overview of general human rights flashpoints since the 1970s.
For those unfamiliar with local history, Mechelen may seem like an unlikely arena for such a lofty discourse. But in the 15th century, the city was one of the most prosperous in Europe before briefly becoming the capital of the Low Countries in the early 16th century.
But it was something that happened nearly 400 years later that led to Gregos’ response when she was asked to curate an art project this year in Mechelen: She considered it “completely impossible” not to do something related to the question of human rights.
Because of the Mechelen’s extensive rail links, the Nazis chose the city to house a transit camp during the Second World War. Nearly 25,500 Jews (more than half of the country’s Jewish population) and more than 350 Gypsies were interned at the Dossin Barracks in Mechelen before being transported to the death camps of Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland. This November, the Kazerne Dossin Museum will open on the site, serving as a Holocaust memorial and an education/documentation centre on contemporary human rights.
But even with the weight of history resting on Newtopia’s shoulders, Gregos says she was determined to look not only at the problem of human rights abuses but also to celebrate the achievements of the movement. As a result, Newtopia approaches the topic with a remarkably wide-angled lens. Not only does it address the political, historical, economic, social and cultural aspects but it does so through the media of painting, sculpture, video, photography, film, illustration, audio and more.
Given the subject, it is unavoidable that some of the work is heart-wrenchingly difficult. Nikita Kadan’s “Procedure Room”, for example, offers a chillingly clinical depiction of the torture methods used by the Ukrainian police, while Ghent artist Lieve Van Stappen uses glass castings to evoke the ghosts of Catholic church child abuse victims in the powerful “Esse est Percipe”.
But perhaps one of the most affecting pieces is the mini Wilchar retrospective in the Old Meat Market. A 20th-century contemporary of Magritte and Delvaux and lovingly described by Gregos as “anti-church, anti-capital, anti-art with a capital ‘a’ and anti-art market ... a true individualist”, the Brussels-born artist was detained by the Nazis at Fort Breendonck, a detention camp close to Mechelen, and spent his life fighting injustice wherever he saw it.
After his death, Wilchar’s city of residence – Beersel, Flemish Brabant – opened a museum in his honour. But Gregos is incredulous that his work still hasn’t found a bigger audience.” I really hope that this exhibition is going to resuscitate his reputation.”
Whether or not Newtopia can breathe new life into the memory of Wilchar remains to be seen, but with regards to reinvigorating the ever-important debate on human rights, Newtopia will surely be considered a huge success.
Obviously, an arts event focused on international human rights is a solemn affair. But there are many lighter moments in Newtopia. Danish artist Wooloo created a hilarious “We Are the World”- inspired charity music video called “We need you now (more than ever)”. Featuring cameos from art world stars (such as Damien Hirst) rather than pop stars, it makes a plucky plea to the Catholic church to bail out Europe.
Then there’s Brussels-based South African artist Kendall Geers who was invited to curate his own exhibition-within-an-exhibition. The result is a riotous collection of musings on and visions for human rights from artists as diverse as Ai Weiwei, Marina Abramovi´c and Banksy.