ON THE RECEPTION OF
POP ART IN BELGIUM
1-2 DECEMBER 2011
ROYAL MUSEUMS OF
FINE ARTS OF BELGIUM
Pop art and happenings in Belgium
- Stefan Wouters
In general one may notice a temporary and ideological similarity between pop art and happenings. Both originated in the fifties and peaked in the early sixties. On an ideological level they both had their roots in dada and in the practice of the collage. In this last medium external reality was introduced in the piece of art, if we may use this term to describe this practice. As in pop art, happenings often deployed commodities. In a way happenings are an extreme form of pop-art, where the dynamics of everyday invaded into this ephemeral form of art. Happenings stayed close to the objectives of pop art by the objectification of its actors or participants. By introducing the everyday life in its practices, as did the international situationists, the happening soon became a vehicle for revolutionary practice. The aspect of visual innocence in pop art and happenings was deployed, probably for the first time, by the Dutch provotariat in its quest for social reformation.
We might argue that in Belgium, with specific reference to artists such as Panamarenko, Hugo Heyrman and Wout Vercammen , the link between pop art and happenings was artistically even tighter than anywhere else. The reason therefore might be found in the fact that both art forms were picked up by this group of Belgian artists through art journals, other visiting artists and the media. In that sense we cannot speak of a particular local context out of which these practices would have originated more or less independently. This also partially explains the relatively late occurrence of these practices. Within the combinatory framework of these affiliated media, we might detect four main categories. This categorization is based upon a spectrum of pop art visibility and sensitivity within the context of Belgian Happenings, ranging from a low to a very high pronunciation.
The first one is where the influence of the ritual theatre or physical theater comes into play. Here the heritage of mysticism and abstract expressionism is clearly visible and pop art only plays a supportive role. The second one is based on every day actions and on the esthetics of destruction, clearly influenced by Fluxus. The performative, secular and therefore more popular aspect in this époque becomes tangible within this structure. The third category is where pop art symbolism gets used, interwoven and transformed into the happening itself. Here the influence of dada is still present. The fourth group is where pop art practices are more autonomous towards the dynamics of the happening, whereby the visual aspect of the object is of a bigger importance. Since these practices were strongly embedded under the label of happening, most of these works never got the full attention they deserve. What makes this last category particular interesting is the combination of this form of pop art with a touch of humor with underlying surrealist connotations. Here the spectator gets confronted with a peculiar blend of art.
Stefan Wouters is an art historian based in Brussels. He is involved in a research project for the online database Belgium is happening, whose aim is to give an overview and theoretical basis of all performances, happenings and avant-garde theater in Belgium during 1960-1990. He is also currently working on a Ph.D., examining the first self-proclaimed happenings in Belgium conducted by Nakajima, Vercammen, Heyrman and Panamarenko.