Perfect Garbage: Art, Trash and Cash
By Harlan Levey on May 22, 2011
Brussels can be confusing.
I was four drinks into what was supposed to be an early night when a friend who lives in Berlin phoned me up. ‘I’m downtown and headed your way.’
This friend is an artist and his work was being presented at an event called Art in the City where 17 young artist’s designs were transformed into public sculptures. He couldn’t wait to see it and plied his mate Vadim and I with a quick one-two punch of pintjes before dragging us towards Parc d’Egmont. It was closed.
He was shocked. How could a public park be closed so early? Why? He couldn’t really seem to believe it and remained determined to check out his work. He grabbed hold of the iron bars and stamped his feet like a bull preparing to charge up the fence. ‘Bonne Chance’ his buddy laughed.
‘Bonne Chance.’ ‘Good Luck.’ ‘May the force be with you.’
‘I don’t need luck,’ he sneered with wide wet eyes.
And right here in this semi drunken over enthusiastic moment beneath the stars, we can start to identify some of the fundamental differences in the mentalities of the Flemish and French. ‘Bonne Chance’ is romantic. The Flemish translation, ‘Success,’ is however unmistakably pragmatic. It’s almost a Nike ad. Success jongen – you can do it. Forget the stars and the luck. You can do it. It is not an irrelevant cultural difference and cultural differences abound in the European capital. I used to live in Ixelles and was told that the small population included citizens with something crazy like 168 different passports. That’s a lot of culture in an already confusing place.
With the park to our backs, we weren’t talking about difference though. As we observed the city at night we quickly got to chatting about things that all sane people in Brussels must have a similar approach to. Like why the parks are closed at night or the how beautiful the city is despite all the dirt and trash. It started with some graffiti like it often does these days, but soon we got to the heaps of garbage piled up on every corner.
Lately there have been some garbage strikes in Brussels, but even when the city is picking up the garbage on the two days a week they are supposed to, in certain areas many residents seem convinced this is a daily service. Only last week I saw a women drop her garbage bags out of her third floor window. My thoughts were immediately split between anger and empathy. ‘Where am I?’ I wondered and imagined a legless lady with no family who was forced to drop the cat litter out the window. Poor woman. Life in a city can be confusing even without language. Then I remembered that the garbage collectors wouldn’t come for two more days. My empathy went red.
Like the graffiti, human waste has become a fixed feature in the downtown city landscape, but it was something else that stopped us in our tracks. Across the street, there appeared to be a grounded black minaret peering over iron bars. On closer inspection, the bars locked off the delivery lot for the Pierre Berge auction house and the minaret was a work made of flight cases by Belgian artist Michael Aerts called ‘Obelisk’.
Featured at Art Brussels not so long ago, now the work was caged up behind the Sablon and even more striking. It is a fantastic piece of art. As a visitor to Brussels might guess reading this, the city does have a small wealth of public sculpture. My personal favorite is the one with the alligator on drums out in Tervuren. The sculpture wasn’t the weird thing. The weird thing was the sculpture next to it that seemed to be half hidden behind an old door covered in ripped garbage bags. The stacks of palettes and plentitude of plastic bags were weird. Aerts work was still at the auction house, but it looked like it was in a dump. Was this intentional? Maybe some curator though that works on public view should correspond with the visual landscape. It could also be laziness or the actual night before collection. Who knows?
Whatever the case may be, it’s a bonne chance for the artist and has nothing to do with success. If art need not have a function and is expected to last long enough for investment to mature, what better location could it have?