INSIGHTS | Interview with artist Nel Aerts

Since her first presentation at Art Brussels in 2013, Belgian artist Nel Aerts has been featured in several presentations at the fair over the years. She is represented by Plus-One Gallery from Antwerp who will part of Art Brussels 2020. Her practice includes collages, drawings, sculptures and textiles, as well as animations, videos and performances, and her distinctly figurative work is often populated by tragicomic figures rendered in simple lines and blocks of color. She currently has a solo exhibition entitled The Waddle Show at M – Museum Leuven. For Art Brussels Insights, we spoke with her about this exhibition.

Conversation with Nel Aerts
by Louis-Philippe Van Eeckhoutte

You currently have a solo exhibition on view at M – Museum Leuven entitled The Waddle Show. Can you give us some insights about the exhibition?
This exhibition is the third in a series of three shows I have done this year. The last one was called Der Schlangenbeschwörer (at Kunsthalle Lingen). For the invitation to that exhibition, I made a collage of a new character, a kind of snake charmer. This collage in turn forms the entrance into this new exhibition. Visitors have to physically walk through a cut-out of this figure to get into the show. I appreciate the idea of the snake charmer. One might say that the artist is a kind of snake charmer. The struggle or dance between the artist and her/his work can be compared to a snake charmer trying to charm the snake in the hope that it might get up and dance. Or literally come out to play.

The exhibition is set up like a theatre, which is why I called it a ‘show’ in the title. At the entrance, the snake charmer figure greets you, the visitor, and you walk through to enter the show. The windows of the exhibition space have been closed off. A combination of different paintings is presented in each window, which creates the idea that the characters in the paintings themselves become spectators and are sitting in a sort of tribune.

In the middle of the space is a pedestal or stage in the shape of a snake. On top of that are a series of new sculptures called Waddle Works. They become the actors in this theatre.

The exhibition shows a delicate, waddling state of being. I hope the works evoke a certain vulnerability and unease that people can relate to. The characters in the paintings are looking back at us. The whole exhibition is like a snake charmer dance that’s ready to slide into the abyss.

How do you relate to the characters in your works?
On the one hand, they are very personal to me, but since it is not about me, they have to function beyond that. There is always the question of who they are and where they come from. I play a lot with the idea of the alter ego and the self-portrait. I love the moment when the painting looks back and something happens that I couldn’t have foreseen.

Although it’s not always easy to let the works out of the studio, it is a way to find new links and stories between them. When they are exhibited together, the visitors activate them, in addition to their activating each other. In the exhibition at M Leuven, the characters almost become participants in a ‘Waiting for Godot’ play. They represent a variety of human emotions and all seem to be on the verge of an existential crisis. Like most people, they seem to wander through life in search of the next thing.

What do you think is Belgium’s main appeal for creatives?
Belgium is a very diverse place. Every city has different qualities. Belgium is small, so you can easily hop from one city to another and feel like you’re in a different country. Besides that, I love how young artists keep taking risks by making work and organizing presentations and exhibitions themselves. It’s not always easy to do, but it’s the only way. And I feel that there is a place for that in Belgium. In Antwerp, for example, I love how there is no hierarchy between all the artists. There is a real community.

You have been part of several presentations at Art Brussels over the years. What does the fair mean to you?
The first time I showed at Art Brussels was with Galerie VidalCuglietta in 2013. It was a solo presentation with paintings and the film and sculpture installation, Tribune Sculptuur. Since then, my work has been shown in group presentations with other galleries at Art Brussels such as Plus-One Gallery. I liked the energy of the 2019 edition of Art Brussels and saw good presentations at the fair.

Nel Aerts will be part of the collaborative project L’heure Bleue of Plus-One Gallery and Gallery Sofie Van de Velde that will take place at their shared booth at Art Brussels 2020 and at both galleries in the spring of 2020. The project will feature new and existing works of artists of the two galleries and will focus on the blue hour, the magical moment between the end of the night and beginning of the day, when all changes and all is possible.

What is a day in the studio like for you?
I work at home, so I always like to take a walk before I start working. After that, it’s a constant jump between collage, drawing and painting. I try to minimize the computer work I have to do, but sadly, that doesn’t always seem to be possible. I also love to listen to music while I work. Sometimes nothing much happens, but I just hang around in the studio. A studio practice is not something you can just switch on and off. In that sense, not every day is a good day. There can be a real mental struggle to start a new work. But once I get over that, there’s nothing better!

What projects are coming up for you?
I am currently working on a solo exhibition at Carl Freedman Gallery in Margate that opens in February. During that same time, I’m also participating in a duo with Carole Vanderlinden at Cape Town Art Fair with Plus-One Gallery. And in May 2020, I will have a solo at Nino Mier Gallery in Los Angeles. I am also working on new Lord Nelson artist’s books and editions.

Nel Aerts (1987, Turnhout – lives and works in Antwerp) studied Fine Arts at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Ghent. She has had numerous solo and group exhibitions in Belgium and abroad, including Westfälischer Kunstverein Münster, Kunsthalle Lingen, Warande Turnhout, Horizont Gallery Budapest, M HKA Antwerp, AstrupFearnley Museum Oslo and Aargauer Kunsthaus Aarau. She is represented by Plus-One Gallery in Antwerp and Carl Freedman Gallery in Margate.

1.Nel Aerts, IJskar Man, 2012-2018, © Private collection, courtesy of the artist
2.Installation view from the exhibition ‘The Waddle Show; A Counteract’ by Nel Aerts at M Leuven, 2019.  Photo © Miles Fischler
3.Installation view from the exhibition ‘The Waddle Show; A Counteract’ by Nel Aerts at M Leuven, 2019.  Photo © Miles Fischler
4.Installation view from the exhibition ‘The Waddle Show; a counteract’ by Nel Aerts at M Leuven, 2019.  Photo © Miles Fischler
5.Installation view from the exhibition ‘The Waddle Show; a counteract’ by Nel Aerts at M Leuven, 2019.  Photo © Miles Fischler
6.Installation view from the exhibition ‘The Waddle Show; a counteract’ by Nel Aerts at M Leuven, 2019.  Photo © Miles Fischler

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