samedi 28 janvier 2012


Contribution de Michel Barzin lors de ce colloque à La Nouvelle Orléans

Situated between England, France, Holland, and Germany lies a very small country where 10 million people live, including myself.

Therefore, since we are but a boundary, we have been conquered by the Romans, the French, the Dutch, the Austrians, the Spanish and the Germans and in order to survive, we needed to became famous, which we did in trade and diplomacy. As we became rich, we had to become famous in something else so we tried art. Perhaps you have heard of some of our artists such as the Van Eyck brothers, Memling, Brueghel, Van der Weyden, Rubens, Van Dijck, Ensor, Magritte, Delvaux, Alechinsky, Broothaers, Tuymans, Fabre, Delvoye or Hergé, to name a few.

Those 10 million people are lucky to now have 10 major art schools at a university level and 50 academies of art throughout the country, where 200 000 students are taught by artists.

Taking this in consideration, one might think it easy to be an artist there, easy to know how to handle biennales, easy to recognise what the truth looks like. Well, no, it’s not that easy.

We lost our traditions because we wanted to keep up with the market as it grew. We wanted to remain in it.

Due to globalisation of the art market, which is very difficult to ignore, we lost our bench marks.

Today, and more so every day, the mainstream of art insterest is furthered by large art events where everyone feels the need to participate : Sao Paolo, Venice, Kassel etc. People have the desire to belong with the fashion, particularly in the matter of art.

This may seem obvious, but everyday reality proves us it is not. For instance, in Liege, Calatrava, famous spanish architect, was asked to build the new railway station. A huge sculpture of concrete, glass and metal but above all, audacious and skilled piece of art. People dislike the station because it is too large, too open, too white, too expensive, less Belgian etc. etc.

In Verviers, there is a great Law Courts building where four statues of lawyers were falling to pieces. It was decided to replace them and a well renowned artist was asked to carry out the project. He’s a classical abstract artist and everyone, all politicians and other powers-that-be agreed to his proposals. He, therefore, installed those four metres high aluminium melting statues into the niches.

Within a month, they were taken out and replaced by uggly mushy plastic carvings, because the people of Verviers didn’t want to see those abstract things.

The power of ineducated people, who are so sure they are in the right, is impressive.

The city powers should ask themselves if there are really sufficient art schools in Belgium, or ask themselves if theachers are doing their job correctly or whether there should be more explainations and information to the public in order to obtain better agreement to their choices.

In America, you are also faced with these types of reactions, remember Richard Serra’s « Stilted Arc » which was destroyed because people had to go around it and so wasted time.

People like to know where they are , they like to recognize things , they are lazy and tired.

Or they could be afraid, afraid from what others might think of them for liking new things.


I would ask what are, for art, the consequences of the occidental global market, and try to analyse the attitude of today’s artists.

As early as 1995, I organised a meeting around « Provincialism - about followism in art and the fashion effect ».

We planned to record the general standardization of art throughout the world and the conclusion was that art was boring and will continue to be if we didn’t have, sometimes, some surprises.

The market is not curious of new things, it is curious about more money. Therefore, if something new can make money, all will be done to make people believe they are right. The market will try to create the fashion, but always will follow it. The market never takes a risk.

As to us, we all will slip into the right costume.

Our basic culture, gastronomy, art, language, games, which are transmitted through traditions by verb and mouth etc. plays the role of an individual and collective compass. This does not, however, stop cultures evolving, changing.

Ethnologists record that many songs and music have been lost, construction technics fogotten. All cultural aspects are affected by the phenomenon : religious activities, litterature, clothes, architecture.

That record can be expended endlessly.

What is the real proportion of that cultural occidental appropriation in relation to world cultures ? Maybe 10 %. But the strenght of that occidental minority is so important that it masks the other 90%. That is called « ethnocentrism ». So, we can say we are confronted with an ethnocentric global marked.

If we were optimistic, we could say that this ethno-global-market will offer cultural goods and exchanges which will serve societies world-wide, create differences, help evolve, be happier.

If we are not that optimistic, we may fear for an occidental tsunami who’s gonna graze any vague impulse towards difference.

But in either case, where are the surprises we await ?


You noticed, maybe, I only showed images of anything but graphic art.

This is because I beleive, we artists, should first consider art rather than technique.

That’s why I doubt the value of those Internationnal Contemporary Graphic Biennales set up for graphic artists only and their limited specific public. The same phenomenon may be seen in the world of photography, where the recognition needed, seems to be through self organized events.

In fact, the only places where one can find all of the art domains are the sacred commercial « Art Fairs ».

Even if there, one will not come across often graphic art.

This, however, is no raison to give up and turn to setting up our small, single technic, biennales.

We must remain artists, whatever the direction we choose to take. All is avaible to us : painting, performance, video, sculpture, installation and graphic art.

Then, and only then, we will be allowed to enter the Tate gallery (where I have seen ten beautifull etchings in the middle of a hundred paintings, while is very rare).

Let’s boycott the commercial art fairs and let’s build our own mixed art exhibitions !


What about the jury’s work at biennales, triennales or other collective exhibitions ?

Imagine a jury of eight members where none have the same point of vue : very interesting.

They all have their own history and background of their own. Ideal.

The jury’s task is to create an exciting exhibition. It needs to follow the policy of the biennale (a choice of many artists with few works on show or a few artists showing many works, for instance). (Or a kind of catalogue of what’s going on in the graphic world, juxtaposing classic pictures and revolutionnary works etc.)

In any case the jury will be confronted with having to reject artists, which is easy when faced with the low level quality, but much more difficult when insufficient space is the problem. What is to be done ? Build a new museum ? No way : a choice has to be made, a decision on who will go to paradise, who will be pushed into hell.

The choice is much easier in a fashion context, in standardization, since you know that you have to refuse all that ‘s not with it, and the whole world will agree you‘re right. Critics, galleries and the market will applaud. You may be sure of support.

And you will compare your catalog to those of other international exhibitions and be reassured when you will see that the others made the same choices as yours.

So the same exhibitions will be held throughout the Planet.

An occidental exhibition for sure, since the market dictates its law.

Generally, occidental art dominates the market which has to be conquered by the artists who wish to live as artists. There are rules, you just have to follow them.

And there will be a grey, grey world without any surprise.

In fact, we should all know the story of Isabelle d’Este (1474-1530). Isabelle had a passion for art. She would buy any painting made in Italy, and also abroad. She was very rich…

At one time, she was interested in a painting by Pérugino and wrote him fifty-five letters about the painting he was working on. Fifty five !

I could more readily understand eight or nineteen letters. Well, maybe not nineteen. Let’s say, thirteen. Thirteen letters about on painting is quite a lot.
But she really wrote 55 letters about that painting !

I really believe she was ill, mad or in love.

Well, it appears she was not in love or whatever, she was just interested in art. She was so interested that she took the time she needed to be satisfied and could form an opinion about what she liked.

Time, that’s what juries never have enough of, all over the world.

I would more appreciate clear choices, brave decisions and I would like the impossible : that juries take their time as Isabelle did or even a bit less, but enough.

They have coffee and wine instead. And of course the pressure of outside, the market.

They also have to deal with colleagues, friends, neighbours, chiefs of all kinds. Sometimes with habits, good or bad.

And there is no time. Or enough space for everyone.

So what has to happen does : you can set up a biennale with 300 artists who are presenting one work each or 50 with seven works. With the first option, you will have a lot of friends, in the other, a lot of ennemies. But this doesn’t garantee you will have a good exhibition with the second option, because you have had to deal with anxiety and the rest throughout the night.

At the end of the final and latest deliberation you have to have an overview of your exhibition. If members are still fighting for their candidates, as there is no war, they will take a grey decision : it will be the quitest and non-controversial work which will be chosen. That makes it grey but the marked will be happy if it can recognize revolutionary artists they know.

A confiscated revolution.

Grey is boring in collective exhibitions.

What is missing is a interesting novelty. The jury should have taken an element of risk to ensure the exhibition was more attractive to viewers rather than follow the mainstream.

A biennale should be a piece of art.


To illustrate this I would like to tell you about my new kitchen…

I build a new house where I had to install all elements of my kitchen and I went to a specialist with the plans. I spend over three hours with that very pleasant guy, choosing stores and cupboards, lights, work-tops etc. Very nice, I suppose. But it made me feel quite ill. It was too much, too evident, too inapropriate even carried out professionnally. There was no creativity at all, just beautifull stuff put side by side. It couldn’t work.

So I did ask a friend to make a work-top out of beams and the rest was home made things. I’ m very happy with it now !

Guy was not selected in the biennale of Liège when I was a member of the jury. Woun wasn’t selected in the Trois Rivières biennale where Guy was in the jury and Woun turned down my work in the biennale where she was in the jury. So, that makes life rather funny to be here together trying to find part of the truth…


Making graphic art, we always will be fighting, more than in any other form of art, to gain recognition in the market. This is part of our condition.

Artists have to be strong and good imitators : to be and remain, as actors in contemporary art. I wonder if that makes them universal artists. One can easely organize a contemporary art exhibition today, with hundred of artefacts from a hundred countries with totally different cultures, customs, brought along totally different routes, having felt other emotions, and at the same time give the impression that there is only one artist, since all the images would be identical.

If this is what we do, we cannot be surprised that there will be desillusion and loss of affection from the public.

We are not innocent !

Here is our reponsability as artists : we should be curious. About others and about ourselves ! We shouldn’t be afraid of what we are. We should take risks (if we take some, we never risk our lives). If we want to be part of the society and want art to be part of it, we should really understand that we have to make our own work individual. This may sound a bit pretentious, it is not if one understand this as a garantee of originality. Not always, not whithout work, not whith ignorance or whatever…

We will not change society but we can change attitudes, make people’s life more exciting. We should live in an exciting society.

I beleive culture means peace and we need peace because babies need peace.

What do I think artist should work on ? Art is just a part of culture, like language.

To be original, you just have to do your job, looking at yourself. To be provincial is much more interesting. In fact, the only way to be original or interesting, is to be a provincial artist, as were Brueghel or Magritte, for instance… And we have to be carefull not withdraw within ourselves, but rather to stay openminded. One has to know what’s going on in the world, but that, nowadays, is really easy, insn’t it ?

One would have more chances to create passion, to renew, to remove the right-thinking dust, because of the ground you live on, the birds you know and the food you eat, as well as other things that come from abroad, are illuminating your mind.

That’s it. Thank you

Michel Barzin