Letter: to Koen Theys (Patria! Vive le Roi! Vive la République!)

I recently visited the new Louvre-Lens museum, a branch of the Paris museum built by the Japanese architectural firm SANAA to house part of the Louvre collection. The works are presented in chronological order in a long, discrete room. This space is rather like a marketplace for well-and lesser-known artworks and artefacts, mainly from the Western cultural hemisphere. It would not be France if Eugène Delacroix’s major work Liberty Leading the People (1830) were not displayed at the end of this grand gallery. This stroll through art history comes to a climax in this heroic-romantic and unmistakably nationalist painting. As if the artworks from the previous centuries were trivial stepping stones leading to the allegory of freedom. A few years after Delacroix painted Liberty Leading the People, in 1835, it was Gustave Wapper’s turn, on commission to the Belgian government, to capture on canvas the advent of Belgian independence in all its glory, lustre and heroism. In The Episode of the Days of September 1830 on Town Hall Square in Brussels, Gustave Wappers glorified the birth of a new nation state in a dense theatrical composition. Weeping mothers, revolutionaries and sympathisers guard the Belgian tricolour and become the patriotic emblem of the construction of a country. While Gustave Wappers took Brussels town hall as the setting for his painting, the Martyrs’ Square in Brussels was the background for your ‘tableau’ in the work Patria! (Vive le roi! Vive la république!). Could anything be more Belgian than the fact that the Minister-President of the Flemish Community now has his official residence on the square where the martyrs of the Belgian revolution are commemorated? In the choice of this setting for Patria there lies a form of restrained irony that is characteristic of your work. Policemen in combat gear overcome by sleep become the protagonists in a setting veiled in chiaroscuro. A couple of horses and a single dog are the most lively actors in a still life which, in addition to the Belgian tricolour, also contains the European, Walloon and Flemish flags. In the course of this almost 50-minute video, slogans in Belgium’s three national languages (Dutch, French, German) are chanted at irregular intervals: ‘long live dogs’, ‘long live press freedom’, ‘long live dialogue’, ‘long live negotiation’, ‘vive la wallonie’, ‘long live agendas’, ‘vive les animaux’, ‘vive la gare du midi’, ‘vive la flandre’, ‘vive la liberté’, ‘vive le peuple’, ‘long live big families’, ‘vive le congé payé’, ‘vive l’Europe’, ‘long live women’, ‘long live free trade’. The riot police, overcome by lethargy, keep order, as it were, only in the tableau you have designed. These days, no revolution ever takes place that is worth resisting. Ideals great and small become the harmless marginal phenomena of an efficiently organised system. Combat helmets, plastic shields and batons become part of a composition. The instruments of repression become the brushstrokes in a contemporary history painting. Patria! (Vive le roi! Vive la république!) is a work that describes the present emptiness and pointlessness of slogans and ideals by means of the naive indifference of sleep or befuddlement. In Patria, you present a work that corrects and trivialises notions of patriotism and nationalism against the outlines of a uniformised world where changes take place sleepily and at a crawl. A flag becomes a piece of the scenery rather than a banner to fight for. If you read Patria! (Vive le roi! Vive la république!) against the backdrop of recent political history in Belgium, the work becomes an antidote to this country’s surrealist political regionalism. At the same time, you are looking for images with a universal appeal, but in the dialect of specific surroundings. In a succession of close-ups, the camera makes a neutral record of an event you have staged. Patria! (Vive le roi! Vive la république!) was created as a performance on 5 May 2008. Or should I describe it rather as a sculptural mise-en-scène of an allegory of the present incapability, in the comfort of Western society, to watch over and take decisions on change and emancipation? In any case: ‘vive le couscous de ma mère!’ .

Philippe Van Cauteren – Catalogue ‘Home-Made Victories’
mar. 2013