"Feuilleton" – the word composed of red neon letters is emblazoned above the entrance to the Belgian pavilion, which was built in 1907 to the plans of Art Nouveau architect Léon Sneyers. Directly above it we see the crowned bas relief with the rampant lion of the Belgian Royal House, a symbolic hangover from the 16th century, when the Duke of Brabant reigned over the small province of Leo Belgicus. Between the illuminated lettering and the crest until recently Belgium's national dogma ("L'union fait la force") was to be read, before it was cemented over by unidentified vandals, that is. This is Belgium today: A country that on June 13 had been without a government for precisely one year because the Flemings and the Walloons have been unable to reach an agreement.
Angel Vergara, the son of Spanish immigrant workers, represents in Venice the "Communauté française de Belgique – Wallonie-Bruxelles" together with Luc Tuymans in the role of curator. Tuymans, who is Belgium's most famous living painter, ten years ago embodied the "Vlaamse Gemeenschap" in the very same national exhibition hall. Both of them, Walloon and Fleming, share a great interest in "the power of images in relation to the socio-cultural order," writes Tuymans in the preface to the catalog. In painting, the common ground between the two artists is mass media images that have been generated through camera lenses.
The feuilleton as Pop culture
Multi-media artist Vergara uses the word "feuilleton" to reference primarily 19th-century popular literature. The feuilleton's golden age witnessed the publication of social novels by the likes of Charles Dickens, Honoré de Balzac, Alexandre Dumas and Eugène Sue in serial form in newspapers, namely as "feuilletons". However, the artist also includes radio plays and serialized comics and, some time later, television series (or soap operas) in the evolution of the mass medium. It is no secret that today many television stations have turned to presenting even news broadcasts in soap-opera style – employing the storytelling technique and degrading them to feuilleton in the process. Especially the likes of Nicolas Sarkozy or Silvio Berlusconi, who prefer to spread stories about their private lives instead of seriously engaging with political, social and economic realities, are avid champions. (While on June 14, 2011 the majority of Italians voted against Silvio Berlusconi's law of immunity [designed to keep the various potential lawsuits he faces at bay] the man himself explained during a press conference with Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanjahu that the painting before which they stood, a portrait of the Parnassus by Andrea Appiani, did in fact depict 19th-century bunga-bunga.)
Painting and news consumerism
For Vergara this feuilleton is at the heart of his piece in Venice, which incidentally also opens a new chapter in his work as an artist. Our passion to consume, and be it even the news on TV, has become limitless. Every day a gigantic news tsunami engulfs us, with each subsequent wave only adding to the ever-swelling flood of information. Italian theorist Franco Berardi views the technological and economic transformation of our communication systems not only as a political issue in the sense of public opinion shaping, but first and foremost as an anthropological and psychological issue: "The acceleration of our informational sphere adversely impacts our emotional well-being. We simply don't have the time to process the flood of information we absorb on an emotional level," he explained in 2006 in an interview with the French daily "Libération".
Seven deadly sins
In Venice Angel Vergara seeks to tackle the daily flood of information precisely on this emotional level. In the central room of the Belgian pavilion he projects moving images he has fished out of the endless news flood onto seven screens, all in black and white. Vertically suspended and positioned next to one another, the "landscape formats" combine to make up one gigantic panorama format. Vergara's fellow countryman Marcel Broodthaers, an important referential figure for the artist, alluded to the ambiguous meaning of the canvas screen for the cinema and in painting as early as the 1960s. In thematic terms, too, Vergara transposes images from the mass media into an art historical context, arranging them according to an ancient system at the heart of Catholic dogma as already used by late-medieval painters – more than a few exploited the depiction of the seven deadly sins in criticizing their contemporaries. In the same vein, the "Belgians" Brueghel, Rubens and Ensor liked to pull something out of the moral hat of Christianity, and even Eugène Sue, author of serial novels, devoted a "feuilleton" to this genre.
Painting in defiance
In the pavilion's main room each screen centers on one of the seven deadly sins by way of a short video clip that is composed of television news. We as the observers follow the painter's hand as it tries to overpaint the changing electronic images in a fluid gesture. However, because in video a shown object never remains in its original place, we end up with single colored dots and streaks, which are unable to cover up entire scenes. In any case, it is impossible that the painter could ever fulfill the task he set for himself, because film and video as moving images would have escaped even high-speed painter Georges Matthieu. In this sense we simply gaze at Vergara's hand as it tirelessly chases the running images without producing any results.
Beyond iconoclastic practices
His attempts at mastering our modern-day flood of images by way of painting has the look and feel about it of a reinterpretation of the myth of Sisyphus. With one crucial difference: Vergara's act of painting never runs "idle". Neither does it evolve into a tempest of images, a form of iconoclasm, but generates new painted panels. Which is why in the two side rooms in the Belgian pavilion are adorned with small oil paintings on glass. Tracing his attempt to intervene, they bear witness to the overpainting process. The artist withstands the two-dimensional human shadows flitting across the projection screens with the physicality of painting.
An image production without artistic intentions
The art of glass painting, which Gerhard Richter reintroduced to the artistic discourse not long ago, takes on a somewhat gestural or "informel" notion in Vergara's work. "Informel" is the name of an influential painting style in Post-War Europe, that said, many of these images did not materialize spontaneously, rather they were calculated more or less effectively and well composed, which is not something we can say of Vergara's images, which do not exactly bother with aesthetic necessities, except for the color range. And though Raoul de Keyser, one of Vergara's Belgian contemporaries, may be the famed master of "pictorial emptiness", we can tell by his images that they were nonetheless engendered on the basis of intelligent computations. Which is very different from Angel Vergara's approach. In seeking to resist the avalanche of electronic images that keeps bombarding him relentlessly, the artist succeeds in creating pictorial images that seem entirely void of any artistic intentions.
How to escape art
We can safely say that one constant in Vergara's oeuvre is the endeavor to escape the gradually tightening frame of reference that is art. Even though to date he has in his work predominantly resorted to performance and placed it in contexts far removed from an art context. For example, in Revin in the French Cévennes, a town hard hit by the economic crisis, with the approval of the French National Bank and Post Office, he had counterfeit money printed for intermunicipal use. While in Brussels, for three months he ran a café that generated its own exchange rate. In some places, Vergara appeared as a "straatman" (man of the street), like a ghost disguised beneath a sheet of linen, a canvas screen, as in 1992 and 1996 in front of the Belgian pavilion in Venice, where he gave those who engaged in communication with him sketches of themselves or the surroundings.
Resuming such practices again in the late 1990s he introduced further non-artist figures to the art scene. During vernissages held in Antwerp's gallery quarters he made an appearance as a black man donning a tracksuit and sporting a hideous, racist rubber mask, presenting himself as "Vlaamse Black" (Flanders' xenophobic party at them time was called "Vlaams Block".) His appearances as "Guest of honor King Leopold II" at his own vernissages and those of other artists – thanks to a film mask perfectly disguised as his own double – enabled him more than ten years ago to vent his sharp criticism on the state of the nation, addressing his audience each time with the following opening sentence: "Ah, if only I had everything at my fingertips like you I could – simply – be a work of art."
In recent years his performances changed to video-recorded portrait sessions, where in the image field he traces with a brush but keeping a large distance to the object the contours of the persons in questions as if he were painting. Making it look like the image was being created immediately before our eyes. Making the switch from here to physically overpainting a reality informed by the media was only a small step.
Against European nationalism
With his contribution to this year's Biennial Angel Vergara catches several birds with the one stone. Indeed, the artist succeeds in synthesizing his creative oeuvre of 30 years and culminates in his exhibition his intense engagement with Pop culture, with moving images, with painting and performance. In so doing, not only does he address in contemporary fashion the pre-Modernist history of painting; he also got this special European obsession out of his system: nationalism. Something that can hardly be said in favor of Bice Curiger's "ILLUMInazione", it is something Vergara achieves physically by including his Flemish "fellow countryman" Luc Tuymans in his show. So let's hope that Angel Vergara with his contribution will attract interest far beyond the Flemish and Walloon national borders. Rumor has it that Hans Ulrich Obrist has rated the Belgian pavilion among the best currently on show in Venice – that's a start.
Already published in our series on the 54th Venice Art Biennial:
> "Beyond fear and Africa" by Thomas Wagner
> "Distributing pigeons in the park" by Thomas Wagner
> "We are leaving the American sector ..." by Joerg Bader and Thomas Wagner
> "Along for the ride" by Annette Tietenberg
> "American gym session" by Thomas Wagner
> "Resistance – liquefied or solidified?" by Barbara Basting
> "Slings, slings over all" by Barbara Basting
> "The Last Supperhero: Tintoretto" by Annette Tietenberg