AEROPLASTICS Contemporary occupies a very special place in the art gallery scene in Brussels and Belgium. Jerome Jacobs’ decision at the end of 1998 to take over a large town house not far from the Stephania Square was already of itself inherently unusual. At that time there seemed to be a trend towards moving to the lower part of the city with many gallery owners setting up premises in the vast, disused warehouses along the sides of the canal – some more successfully than others. By opting for an old building in an upmarket area of the city, Jerome Jacobs was purposely drawing attention to the essentially bourgeois aspect of art collection that others were seeking to dismiss; but above all he was setting up a framework for a hitherto unexplored dialogue between often audacious works of art and rooms more designed to house academic paintings and 1900s curios than multimedia installations. Parquet flooring, red carpet, high ceilings, stucco mouldings and gilding, huge mirrors perched on mantelpieces – the décor is as far removed as one could possibly imagine from the white cube aesthetic.
Yet, paradoxically, this architecture lends itself remarkably well to exhibiting contemporary art: the highly ostentatious rooms of the first floor, the piazzo nobile, being complemented on the second floor by smaller, less ornate spaces, easy to darken and suitable for video projection. The dichotomy of this exhibition space is an excellent expression of the policy Jerome Jacobs is pursuing with Aeroplastics, where the spectacular often rubs shoulders with the intimate, just as eroticism – no matter how extreme – always contains a certain poetry or bizarre humour.
From the outset, the gallery has alternated between group and monographic exhibitions, with a preference for works that develop their own language and offer immediate visual accessibility. But these qualities must also form part of a broader aesthetic programme, the aim of which is to provoke a reaction – negative or positive – in the viewer. This reaction, as Jerome Jacobs points out, must make the viewer question what he has seen or, better still, thinks he has seen: the essential thing is that the viewer should not stop at the first emotion felt.
Among the subjects dissected at Aeroplastics, the mechanisms of the world of art and its immediate surroundings occupy a special place, as do the multiple facets of the great Human Comedy – sex, individual and collective violence, the transformations and limitations of corporality, the excesses of the consumer society, sociocultural stereotypes, conflict, ecology and obsessions of every kind. Another area of exploration, history – both ancient and modern – is a source of inspiration and interrogation for artists as diametrically opposed as, for example, Ronald Ophius and Cédric Tanguy.
This questioning can take the form either of complex installations – some of which literally invade the gallery space – or of more traditional means of expression (such as paintings or photographs), the latter having the advantage of being more directly accessible to a wide public. When it comes to interrogation, Jerome Jacobs favours the second (or even the third) degree, the bizarre, and that particular form of solemn, crazy or quirky strangeness so deeply rooted in Belgian culture. But this Belgianness is not an end in itself: the gallery is firmly focused on international artists and its wide audience includes a very large number of foreign collectors.
Sufficiently unusual in the world of art galleries to be worth mentioning is the fact that Jerome Jacobs can often claim to play the role of curator: After Nature, Innocence, Wonderland, Strip and Tease and Oracle of Truth are among the often disconcerting group exhibitions that stand out in the ongoing story of the Aeroplastics gallery. One hesitates to name names, as the list of omissions is likely to be so long… however, the Female Turbulence exhibition (autumn 2003) brings to mind Cindy Sherman, Andres Serrano, Shirin Neshat, Laurie Simmons, Dana Wyse, Annie Sprinkle, the Guerrilla Girls, Alison Jackson and indeed Del LaGrace Volcano, along with some (very) young visual artists including the New Yorker Alex Mc Quilkin and Elodie Pong from Switzerland, whose taste for the irreverent is every bit as developed as that of their elders. But the curator’s role does not end with the selection and organisation of exhibitions: it requires a long-term policy that reveals implicit yet often unexpected links between the artists the gallery presents. However, there is nothing of the pompous theoretician about Jerome Jacobs – proof that one can do things seriously without taking oneself too seriously in the process.
The private viewings are often a pretext for a range of events or happenings: with the Paranormal exhibition (spring 2004), the artists selected (Gaston Bertin, Jeremy Blake, Pol Bury, Charley Case, Katharine Dowson, Barbara Kruger, Fiona Rae, Martin Richman and Carrie Yamaoka) were joined by three clairvoyant assistants whose job it was to answer the questions of bemused visitors – even the most sceptical among them.
The monographic exhibitions follow the same principle of exhaustiveness and present the broadest panorama possible of an artist’s work at a given moment so as to provide the key to a fuller understanding. For example, visitors to Aeroplastics had the opportunity to discover a largely unknown aspect (at least in Belgium) of the work of Daniele Buetti (May 2006) through a number of extremely minimal video installations; far removed as these may be from the glamour of his major photos – more familiar to the wider public – they nevertheless constitute a key element in understanding his work as a whole. Another example of this approach is the exhibition devoted to John Isaacs (January 2007), where the monumental rooms of the first floor were used to display his more intimist works while his videos were shown on the second floor.
In the case of monographic exhibitions, Jerome Jacobs encourages artists to invest the whole of the space – and he is often taken at his word. Who could forget Jean-François Fourtou’s orang-utans, giant snails and elephant (November 2003) that made the gallery look like a bourgeois residence that had been turned upside down by children left home alone? Charley Case (January 2006) chose to tackle the walls of the entrance lobby with a huge mural painting and, for the period of the exhibition, transformed the glass windows of the stairway into a kind of giant cosmic vortex.
Incomplete though it is, this brief panorama must include a mention of Aeroplastics’ outreach events and in particular the impressive Boost in the Shell exhibition (May 2005) at the De Bond cultural centre in Bruges. Dozens of artists, from Belgium and abroad, were brought together by Jerome Jacobs (with city of Bruges art curator Michel Dewilde) to investigate this body that escapes us – the pursued body. Art is what makes life more interesting than art, said Filliou; if applied to karate this aphorism could well have been coined by a certain Jean-Claude Van Damme. For this reason, but perhaps for others too, a room was set aside at the Bruges exhibition for the most famous living Belgian in the world.
And, while the Aeroplastics exhibitions always enjoy wide success, the virtual public too flocks to visit the gallery’s website. Very well-documented and complete, it includes all the works exhibited or available, arranged by exhibition, artist’s name and even by the medium used – a comprehensiveness that few other institutions could claim to achieve.