This past weekend, Art Brussels filled the halls of Brussels Expo with a buzz quite similar to the one on the Belgian capital's art gallery-filled streets.
Maskara, a Mumbai-based gallery, rubbed shoulders with New York galleries both established and young, while Cypriot gallery the Office joined no less than 50 Belgian galleries, in addition to the many other international spaces and artists represented.
Art Brussels is carving out its niche as a fair that provides gravitas as well as the thrill of the new; a mission the fair's artistic director Katerina Gregos is fiercely committed to. 'I try to implement projects that will be popular, but not populist', she said, 'such as the non-profit spaces and the music programme. It's extremely accessible but also takes into account a high level of artistic quality.'
The usual popular suspects were present, both during the city's Gallery Night, when Sterling Ruby's two solo exhibitions 'ECLPSE' and 'SCALES' opened at Xavier Hufkens, and on the fair grounds, where Belgian legend Marcel Broodthaerts was to be found close to work by Bridget Riley at the shared booth of London-based galleries Richard Saltoun and Karsten Schubert. The Japanese avant-gardist Sadaharu Horio, represented by Axel Vervoordt Gallery, was a huge crowd pleaser, drawing in queues for his '€1 painting' - a self-made, manual vending machine, from which he produces 'One-Minute Drawings'.
Overwhelmingly, however, emerging galleries and artists are put forward, in a push to surprise the audience and help them discover with spontaneity. The Greek Kalfayan Galleries showed politically-engaged work by Panos Tsagaris and Bill Balaskas. Catharine Ahearn's 'Wheelbarrow' truly conveyed its sense of punishment at Office Baroque's booth. The stand of Tiwani Contemporary, from London, contained an evocative, site-specific, brown paper installation by Mary Evans, a reflection on the tragic experiences in African history.
A small but significant part of the fair is dedicated to not-for-profit spaces and projects. It's Gregos' way of 'yielding her power' in a more considered manner that is largely lacking in the art world. By providing visibility to spaces that are not normally involved in the commercial transactions of the market, Gregos takes an unmistakable stand. By her own admission she is quite vocal when it comes to critiquing the art world. But, she emphasised, 'don't get me wrong. The market is not inherently bad. It's very easy to demonise something; the question is a little more complex than that. It's enormously hypocritical to say it's because the market permits us to exist. But of course it has excesses. For me it's about how one exercises one's ethics within the market.'
In Brussels, the situation is particularly poignant. While it is a city that attracts lots of artists because of its lower cost of living and its open-mindedness towards emerging talent, it's also the city with the highest number of art collectors per capita in the world. At Art Brussels, Gregos said, 'it's important that people feel welcome and that they don't feel marginalised, because the upper echelons of the art world tend to be very exclusive.'
The choice to commission Nick Hannes - a local photographer with an interest in national traditions - with the fair's campaign images reflects Gregos' holistic approach. So does the fair's scenography, designed by Brussels-based architects B-ILD. Their temporary staircases in construction wood echo the halls' wooden beams, integrating the lower and higher levels by opening up unseen perspectives on the art market in the literal and figurative senses. The speckled black furniture dotted around the fair is made of recycled rubber that will be re-used in agriculture. The Zinneke Terrace, where concerts took place, is a clever repurposing of a formerly unused space in between the halls.
'I'm a huge fan of Brussels and I always have been', Gregos said. She's definitely giving us more reason to be, too, as she and her all-female team turns Art Brussels into a singular contemporary art fair - without the usual fanfare.