Melancholia @ Villa Empain

Senza Titolo, 2013-2015 by Claudio Parmiggiani (left), Orion, 2016 by KRJST studio (right)


Melancholia is a concept that is hard to explain. Do you know the feeling of being in a sad mood when you don’t even have a reason to be sad? Or do you ever catch yourself daydreaming about things you no longer have? That kind of nostalgia is what I call melancholia. This state of moodiness is often represented in the art world by a character that is staring in the distance, with the eyes pointed to the ground. Although it might seem that the character is sad and lonely, melancholia is not necessarily a bad thing. An artist or writer who finds himself in a state of melancholia can create beautiful things.

Villa Empain displays 70 works of art by Belgian and international artists. Some of the artists are no longer alive, others have created an installation on demand for this exhibition. The curator, Louma Salamé, created a dialogue between modern artists like Giorgio De Chirico and contemporary artists like Claudio Parmiggiani. There are several themes coming back in this exhibition like loneliness, the absence of things and the passing of time, to name a few.

Claudio Parmiggiani

This work by the Italian artist Claudio Parmiggiani is one of the first pieces you see when entering the building. It looks like the remains of an important collection of statues from a different era. We don’t know where they come from or who destroyed them, nor do we know why they had to be beheaded.

The artist often stages the symbolic destruction of something, in this case the destruction of cultural heritage. He raises questions about the shared history of things. I was surprised to learn that the artist is 75 years old, as I imagined a much younger person when seeing his art. There is another piece by him in this exhibition were he used smoke and fire to create an image.

Alberto Giacometti

Homme à mi-corps, 1965 by Alberto Giacometti

Alberto Giacometti is famous for his long and skinny silhouette statues. He only started making them in his last years as an artist, after World War II. The one exposed in Villa Empain was made short before his death. We see a person sitting in a meditative position, staring in the distance. What is he thinking about? Is he lonely? I think he might be philosophizing about human nature, but that’s just my interpretation.

Lionel Estève

La Beauté d’une Cicatrice, 2012 by Lionel Estève

This is my favorite piece of the exhibition. It’s the first time I see a work of art by the French artist Lionel Estève. He lives and works in Brussels so I hope to see more of him soon. We see a variety of stones he collected in Greece. You can see that he put a lot of thought in how the stones relate to one another. They are painted halfway so that it looks like they have been lying in a strange colored river for a very long time. It might be hard to see the colors in this picture, but they are a mix of purple, blue, green and yellow (like the reflection of light in the sun). As if time left its trace. Estève often works with found or recycled materials in his installations. Personally I absolutely love this minimalistic way of presenting an idea.

In the background we see a work called ‘Selected recordings nr 99’ by another French artist, Melik Ohanian. It’s a real image of an island covered in snow. It’s taken out of its context, since we don’t have any idea where it was taken. We only have a number, no indication about the time or location where the picture was taken. It represents the feeling of being all alone in this world.

Rémy Zaugg

De la Cécité, De la série Le monde voit by Rémy Zaugg

Zaugg uses short phrases on a bright background. The text is about the idea of being visible and invisible, of being present or absent. When standing in front of this canvas the text is somehow reassuring to the visitor because the artist says ‘moi je te vois’, I see you. It means I exist, my presence matters to someone. On the other hand, it also insinuates that other people might not see me. Am I visible enough for others? Does my presence matter?

Pascal Convert

Bibliothèque, 2016 by Pascal Convert
Detail of Bibliothèque

Pascal Convert is a French artist who likes to use fragile materials like glass, wax or porcelain. In this Library he created over 500 books made in glass. He used copies of old books that he covered in a glass structure. He then found a way to burn the old books inside the glass. The only thing that remains is the glass sculpture with traces of burned paper inside. It makes us think about books that were destroyed by the nazis or more recently sculptures stolen by the Taliban or Islamic State. His work is about memory, about the remains of different times and cultures.

Why you should visit

Villa Empain swimming pool

I was really impressed by the exhibition and the clever way artworks by modern and contemporary artist interacted with each other. If you never visited Villa Empain before, you should definitely go check it out. The building is impressive and is a wonderful decor for the artworks exhibited. Other artists I found worth discovering in this exhibition: Mathieu Mercier, Christian Boltanski (outside), Tatiana Wolska (outside), El Anatsui, Samuel Yal and Lamia Ziadé.

Until 19/08/2018, Rue Franklin Roosevelt 67, 1050 Brussels.

Tip: Entrance is free when you own the official Museum Pass. Otherwise it’s €10.



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