Belgium Is Not a Road

Following the directions of artist Neal Beggs, the slogan ‘BELGIUM IS NOT A ROAD’ has been installed on the roof of Netwerk, an art centre in the town of Aalst, near Brussels. The point is that Belgium is merely a road as far as people travelling from Holland to France (or vice versa), or from France to Germany (or vice versa) are concerned. And that’s a lot of people. But there is nothing like personal validation of a general truth to hammer it home. And so I remind myself that in 2003, Nina Pope and Karen Guthrie made the film Bata-ville, documenting the coach trip they organised from East Tilbury, Essex, to Zlin in the Czech Republic, ostensibly on the trail of Tömas Bata, shoe manufacturer to the world. The only mention of Belgium in Pope and Guthrie’s ring-bound itinerary was ‘Lunch at motorway restaurant outside Brussels’. I don’t remember the lunch. But it was on that unforgettable trip that I first hooked up with my present travelling companion, Kate Clayton. If Belgium is not (just) a road, Bata-ville is not (just) a film.

Inside Netwerk, a former industrial building transformed into one of those spacious contemporary art centres that I’m told are so prevalent on the continent, the main space is dominated by a version of Neal Beggs’ Surface Action. The idea of this work is that Beggs, wearing crampons and brandishing ice-axes, makes his way around the pristine walls of the gallery, his progress being registered by holes in the wall where the points of his axes and the toe-ends of his crampons smash into the plaster. Beggs incorporates his active interest in climbing into much of his practise as an artist, the work Surface Action epitomises this, and versions of it have been shown in several European art centres. However, it can effectively be viewed on the home page of the artist’s website. There, Beggs moves rhythmically – but not without effort – sideways across a white wall of the worldwide web. It’s a mesmerising sight. Check it out if you can right now on www.nealbeggs.com.

In the Netwerk version of Surface Action, Beggs has drawn and painted on the walls after completing his circuit of the gallery. Infilled with colour, the contours emanating from the holes in the wall present a swirling psychedelic pattern reminiscent of a Jim Lambie surface. But only for a few yards of the route. In his artist’s talk, Beggs tells us how the spectacular pattern-making took up too much of his time. Time he needed to install the thirty-odd other works that are in the show. How to summarise these? Mountains are linked to stars via tents, balloons and the David Bowie song ‘Memory of a Free Festival’, which ends with the hypnotically repeated line: The Sun Machine is Coming Down and We’re Gonna Have a Party. The lyric seems to fight against the work ethic that Beggs usually displays. Indeed, the artist looks worn out following a trip to Lleida, Spain, to accomplish yet another version of Surface Action, one that involved him climbing across the walls of a gallery already hung with Miquel Mont’s paintings.

Later in the day, at the curator Bram van Damme’s invitation, it is my turn to give a talk on Neal Beggs’ work. I start by saying how my earlier texts involving the artist – who for ten years was based in Glasgow – came about from spending a day walking, climbing and talking together. I explain to the audience in the art centre that I’d wanted to produce a new text for the Belgian show, but that my former strategy wasn’t available to me. In other words, for the last few years, while Neal Beggs has been attempting to scale the continent’s heights and find a place in it’s art world, I’ve been ensconced in Blairgowrie, writing a biography of Evelyn Waugh. During that time, all my trips away have been in connection with that literary project (which also explains why there have been no Journeys for MAP in the last several issues). So, as I say, I felt I needed a new strategy if I was to write once again about this contemporary artist’s work. And, as I’ve found several times in the past, it came to me when I took up a volume of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories.

The frontispiece of The Last Adventures of Sherlock Holmes shows the detective, along with his arch-enemy Professor Moriarty, about to topple into the Reichenbach Falls in Switzerland. Not only does the original etching by Sidney Paget have Sherlock looking the spitting image of Neal Beggs, but ‘The Final Problem’, the story to which the illustration refers, involves an imaginative engagement with climbing. In the Conan Doyle story, Holmes (Beggs in my version of the tale) invites Watson (me in my draft) to come with him for a week on the continent. Both accounts contain the line that would seem to further consolidate Beggs’ ‘Belgium is Not a Road’ protest: We made our way to Brussels that night and spent two days there, moving on upon the third day as far as Strasburg. At the end of my version of the story, high above the Reichenbach Falls in the Swiss Alps, I allude to several of Neal Beggs’ works, while leaving it ambiguous as to whether or not the Glasgow MFA-educated artist meets the same fate as Conan Doyle’s exemplary detective.

Of course, Beggs didn’t die at Reichenbach, or at Aalst, and the day following the symposium he joins Kate and me in a car whizzing through Belgium: destination Waregem. In the front seats are ##Simona Denicolai & Ivo Provoost:BIO:191##, a pair of artists presently working in Brussels who Kate discovers were showing in AWOL, the Bucharest Biennale of 2006 that I reviewed in MAP 8. Neither Kate nor I can remember the video they were showing in the show, a fact that Ivo makes a self-deprecating joke about (‘It was such a great piece!’). However, Kate and Simona can remember several of the works that were brought to Bucharest for the Biennial by Jenny Brownrigg, exhibition co-ordinator at Duncan of Jordanstone School of Art in Dundee. I contribute little to this discussion, despite having visited the show every day for the week of our Bucharest stay. Why so quiet? Perhaps because the drinking and chatting after yesterday’s event at Aalst went on until 3am. Perhaps also because I am sitting in the middle of the back seat of the car, the only non-smoker in a space that is gradually filling with the anti-oxygen of four smokers. ‘Belgium is Not an Ash-tray’ I want to protest.

The road trip ends up being worth it, because the show, ‘User’s End’, really is great. Denicolai & Provoost were asked by the curator, Phillippe Braem, to put together an exhibition involving themselves, a foreign artist who they felt to be a kindred spirit – Neal Beggs – and an eminent home-grown one. This turned out to be Jef Geys, the 70-year-old, who, after living the life of an exemplary artist and strip club owner in an obscure Belgian town will be representing his nation at the 2009 Venice Biennialle.

The Beggs work, The Alphabet Climb, is a video of fellow artist and climber Dan Shipsides as he climbs the face of a concrete sign advertising a restaurant, using the letters etched into the sign’s surface as handholds and foot holds. But before the climb begins, another man wanders into the shot. Shipsides and Beggs listen to his predicament – he is searching for his brother who has been missing for a couple of years. The searcher’s name is Ben Moores, a film-maker and painter in his own right. Ultimately, both he and Dan Shipsides were invited by Neal Beggs to exhibit a piece of their own work in ‘Users’ End’, which explains why the show’s promotional literature includes the names of five artists in all. Ben Moore’s contribution is not a touching tribute to his missing brother, that might have been too much. Rather it’s Gay Chevara, a version of the iconic image of Che, but wearing a pink beret replete with flower on his head. Perfect! At least that’s what Neal tells me he thought when putting together his part of the show.

Denicolai and Provoost’s own video, ABC, is a high-tech affair involving three separate video loops simultaneously playing in different parts of the one enormous screen. The backdrop is a view of immigrant children being taught in a classroom by a highly motivating teacher. In the foreground, as if playing on a computer screen on a desk in the classroom, is a video featuring barking dogs, mostly from Disney animations but also from Manga films. The dogs, albeit that they are cartoons, have a loud, menacing presence. But key to the interpretation of all this is the content of the third loop, an animation of filmed footage of a medal-ceremony from the Mexico City Olympic Games of 1968. Two of the three medal-winning athletes in a sprint, the black Americans Tommie Smith and John Carlos, give a black power salute during the playing of their country’s national anthem. The show’s publication tells the visitor that during the ceremony, the white athlete standing on the podium with the silver medal, Peter Norman, was carrying an ‘Olympic Project for Human Rights’ badge. Moreover, the publication reproduces a photograph of Smith and Carlos, grown older and grey, helping to carry the coffin of Norman who died in 2006.

The video is structured in such a way that the viewer is continually taken from both the dog and athlete animations back to the encompassing scene, real children in the classroom being taught how to spell and understand the word ‘roos’ (‘rose’ in English). One senses they are being taught about language and beauty, the world and how they might relate to it. One hopes too, that they are – or will – be taught about human rights, about the value of all life, and what can be done to turn the barking of dogs into a positive protest on behalf of the disadvantaged.

The importance of a liberal education is echoed in the piece by Jef Geys which Denicolai & Provoost first saw in a Dutch exhibition, and which led to them contacting the artist who for so long has been producing mysteriously autobiographical and politically charged work. Letters to Roger uses archive material from 1968 and ‘69, primarily magazine covers and features, shown alongside letters between ‘Jef’, the artist, and ‘Roger’ a 15-year old boy. Their content (the Flemish words are translated for Neal, Kate and I by Ivo as we stand in the middle of the room containing the work) would seem to be studded with comments – sometimes cynical – about how society works. Advice from a man of the world, an intellectual, to a child on the cusp of adulthood who is eager to learn. The general consensus among us is that Roger is a fictional character. But there is nothing fictional about the children from that classroom in inner city Brussels where Denicolai & Provoost filmed.

The Sun Machine is Coming Down and We’re Gonna have a Party. By which Bowie-Beggs perhaps meant: no colour prejudice, no missing brothers, no mountain too high.
The Sun Machine is Coming Down and We’re Gonna have a Party. By which Bowie-Beggs surely meant: Gay Chevara for President of the United States of America, Cuba, Mexico, Spain, Switzerland, Scotland, Rumania and Belgium.

User’s End was at Be-Part, Waregem 28.9.08 to 16.11.2008
Belgium is Not A Road was at Netwerk, Aalst from 20.9.2008 to 8.11.2008