KANAL BRUT CENTRE POMPIDOU in Brussels

For decades the Centre Pompidou name has been conjuring associations with the crème de la crème of modern and contemporary art. On 5th May, they expanded beyond their home in Paris, transforming an otherwise unremarkable Brussels neighborhood into an art hotspot.

Having lived in Brussels for 10 years I like to think I know the city well, but walking to the site of Kanal Brut meant crisscrossing through backstreets I’d never seen before. Situated along the canal lies what was once one of the biggest car garages in Europe, complete with offices, showrooms and workshops.

For the coming 13 months, this old Citroën garage will provide the backdrop to 300 keystone pieces of the Centre Pompidou collection: a rigid, steel, concrete and glass construction to which surprisingly little was changed to make it ready for its new purpose. Number plates remain on walls, original signs directing you to the reception are still visible and the floor is all but polished.

What used to be the offices of the garage now fittingly contain pieces relating to the sphere of administrative work: one of Jenny Holzer’s solemn text-based works can be appreciated only through the glass window of a reception booth, and Faldhakken’s twisting lockers are both predictable and entirely unexpected in their new location. The interplay between subject and space is perhaps at its highest here, but the garage is wonderfully conducive to art throughout.

The many large installations, like Untitled (Time zones) by Raffaela Crispino, for example, benefit immensely from this unconventional space.  The physical distance between the works gives the viewer a chance to reflect on it all and light streams into the many floors seamlessly through large roof windows. Despite art seemingly occupying every corner and the exhibition having had 21,716 visitors in their first weekend, it never once felt overcrowded due to its sheer size. The grand interior is used wholly without ever seeming too full.

Young gallery assistants in blue overalls take the garage theme even further and the relevance of the building’s history as being a place of construction isn’t lost on anyone. Kanal Brut strays from the white cube not just aesthetically but also functionally with its numerous stages and spaces for audience involvement.

By blurring the lines of viewer and participant, art and artefact, grand and intimate this show is a feast for both art lovers and art skeptics, the old and the young. We all know bigger isn’t always better, but this spring, Centre Pompidou is proving to us that 39,000 m2 can be great.  Highly recommended.    Malou den Dekker    15th May 2018