Jos de Gruyter & Harald Thys
Giardini – Belgian pavilion
Mondo Cane presents itself as a local folkloric museum that displays the human figure. The Belgian pavilion will be inhabited by approximately 20 automated dolls. The dolls’ heads are modelled both on fictive characters that have already appeared in the work of Jos de Gruyter and Harald Thys and on real people. According to an interview with Jos de Gruyter and Harald Thys, they moved the dolls early April to Venice, so they had enough time to adapt to their new environment before the opening of the Biennale. It seems that they do feel at home now. This gives you an idea of the bizarre concept behind this exhibition and the thought process of the artists.
The dolls continuously perform the same movement and appear to be stuck in a loop of formal activity. The sounds and movements alternate and are activated by the visitors’ presence via a motion detector at the entrance. The space is imbued with songs, plaintive cries and labour. The project depicts a society that is folded in on itself where tradition is erected as a refuge. At the centre of the building, there are artisans – such as a cobbler, a stonemason and a spinner who ply their respective trades. Behind the steel bars that fence off the pavilion’s side rooms, there is a parallel world with louts, zombies, poets, psychotics, the insane, and the marginalized. These two worlds exist in the same space, but they seem to be entirely unaware of one another.
The exhibition is accompanied by a website and a publication which are almost as strange. On the website, visitors can navigate randomly through hundreds of videos by clicking on flags of different countries, which refer to the national pavilions of the Biennale. The panorama offers hours of cultural practices from all over the world. The publication ‘Mondo Cane’ is a compilation of articles reporting various facts and events about the world that surrounds us. Each article comprises a descriptive text and one or more illustrations. The book is, from the outset, an international publication. The texts appear, at random, in Dutch, English, French, German and Italian.
The Belgian pavilion received the Special Mention as National Participation at the Biennale Arte 2019. The motivation of the jury states the following: “Unsparing in its humour, the Belgian Pavilion offered an alternative view of the under-recognised aspects of social relations across Europe. The uncanny staging of a series of fictional characters in the form of mechanised puppets based on folkloric stereotypes allow the Pavilion to act on several registers, while creating two if not more parallel realities.” From February 2020, Mondo Cane will be exhibited at Bozar in Brussels.
Jos de Gruyter and Harald Thys
For over thirty years, the artists Jos de Gruyter (b. 1965) and Harald Thys (b. 1966) have created a body of work whose rigour and consistency are rare. Their collaboration has given birth to a highly singular language that distinguishes itself in our dense contemporary visual culture not just by its tonality, but also by its disconcerting insistence and normality. Together, Jos de Gruyter and Harald Thys make films, drawings, paintings, photographs and sculptures in which we find characters, objects and spaces that are at once ultra-identifiable and non-authoritarian. The human behaviour seen in their work stems from the social and psychological pressures exerted by the real world. The only possible communication in their work, which they avow without prudishness, is binary and stereotyped. The anonymity that emerges from it is that of a residual reality. The surrounding authority is just as transparent as it is empty. Society is deaf, repetitive and annoying.
De Gruyter and Thys have had numerous solo exhibitions at institutions including ‘Konkurs Eksperten’ at Kunsthal Aarhus (2018); ‘White Suprematism’ at Portikus Frankfurt and CAC Vilnius (2016); ‘Im Reich der Sonnenfinsternis’ MCA Chicago, ‘Fine Arts’ at MOMA PS1 New York, ‘Die schmutzigne Puppen von Pommern’ The Power Station Dallas and ‘Tram 3’ CCA Wattis San Francisco (2015); ‘Das Wunder des Lebens’ at Kunsthalle Wien (2014) and ‘Optimundus’ at M HKA Antwerp (2013). The artists were included in the Venice Biennale (2013) and the Berlin Biennial (2008).
Anne-Claire Schmitz (b. 1981) is a curator based in Brussels. She is the director and curator of La Loge, a non-profit space dedicated to contemporary art, architecture and theory. Since its opening La Loge has developed projects such as ‘Pastoral Myths’, ‘Voici des Fleurs’, ‘Open perspectives on Oskar Hansen’ and solo exhibitions with Sophie Nys, Roe Ethridge & Zin Taylor, Kate Newby, Peter Hutton, Emily Wardill, Shana Moulton, Michael Beutler, Gareth Moore, Jef Geys, Nathalie du Pasquier and Arvo Leo among others. Prior to this, she was a curator at Witte de With, Centre for Contemporary Art in Rotterdam, where she curated and co-curated a range of projects, among them, the large-scale group exhibition ‘Melanchotopia’. In 2012 WIELS invited her to co-curate, with Elena Filipovic, the exhibition ‘Un-Scene II’, a triennial project intended to present a panorama of the Belgian artistic scene.
The Belgian pavilion was the first foreign pavilion in Giardini. It was built in 1907 for the 6th Art Biennale by the Brussels art nouveau architect Léon Sneyers. He designed it as a temple for art and decorated it with frescoes. Since then, the pavilion has been altered several times to make it more contemporary. Examples are the removal of the frescoes, the addition of the side rooms and the replacement of narrow doorways by large openings in the walls. On the outside, different elements were added to clearly identify the Belgian pavilion, such as the coat of arms with the heraldic device ‘L’union fait la force’ and the flagpoles. These changes were made by Belgian architect De Bosschère in 1930, then by the Italian Virgilio Vallot in 1948, and finally by Belgian architect Georges Baines in 1997.
Review by The Venice Insider
You can easily spend a lot of time in the ‘folkloric museum’ of Belgium. When you enter, you are greeted by ‘The fool’ who sings a Flemish children’s song out of tune. He is one of the 20 mechanical puppets designed by Jos de Gruyter and Harald Thys. Some puppets, mainly artisans, are based in the central hall of the pavilion. They sing or perform their duties such as spinning, painting or ringing a bell. Others, such as the zombies and marginalised, are standing behind bars in the side wings. It’s a strange and a bit creepy installation, but it’s also fun once you start reading the ‘personal’ stories of the puppets in the visitors’ guide. Many visitors take the time to observe each puppet and read their, real or fake, stories. Some puppets seem to resemble famous Belgian people. I thought I recognized for instance Showbizz Bart (The Swiss) and Hilde Van Mieghem (Kristinus Oplinus), but that might also have been my imagination.
I highly recommend you to spend some time in the pavilion of Belgium. I have therefore included it in my ’12 must-sees at the 2019 Art Biennale in Venice’.
If you want to know more about the Art Biennale 2019 and the other national participations, you can read my post ‘What to expect from the Art Biennale 2019’, or have a look at this overview page which links to all the articles related to the Biennale. If you want to be informed about new previews of national pavilions being added to the site, you can subscribe to The Venice Insider biweekly newsletter.