Belgian Pavilion at the 56th Venice Biennale
“Personne et les autres”
Artists: Vincent Meessen and guests Mathieu Kleyebe Abonnenc, Sammy Baloji, James Beckett, Elisabetta Benassi, Patrick Bernier & Olive Martin, Tamar Guimarães and Kasper Akhøj, Maryam Jafri, Adam Pendleton
Curator: Katerina Gregos
Commissioner: Wallonia-Brussels Federation and Wallonia-Brussels International
Venue: Pavilion at Giardini
Midway through his long possession of the throne, Leopold II of Belgium (1865–1909) established the Congo Free State, a private colonial enterprise that enriched the king at the expense of the enslaved Congolese people. Coerced native workers extracted ivory and rubber under brutal conditions, amassing for the king a personal fortune before the eventual annexation of the territory by the Belgian parliament. Just prior to this annexation, Leopold oversaw the construction of the Belgian pavilion at the Venice Biennale, in 1907, the first foreign pavilion in the biennial’s history.
In “Personne et les autres,” Belgian artist Vincent Meessen—and a group of international artists he selected as his collaborators—looks to Belgium’s fraught colonial past and the future it has shaped. The exhibition, named for a lost theater script by André Frankin, a Belgian art critic and early member of the Situationist International (a radical group of artists and philosophers who were said to have influenced the Congolese revolution) suggests the need for a new understanding of the effects of colonialism on art and labor.
Anchoring the presentation is Meessen’s 2014 video Un-Deux-Trois, a revealing narrative about the relationship between Congolese intellectuals and the Situationist International—and its impact on both the global avant-garde and the international labor movement. The 10 guest artists, like Meessen, bring to the pavilion research-based practices that use history to interpret modernity. Their contributions include a performance of Mark Twain’s King Leopold’s Soliloquy (1905), an altered chess set whose black and white pieces trade colors throughout gameplay, and a multimedia installation revisiting the work of Ernest Mancoba, the sole African member of CoBrA.