Though a Bent Glass, Darkly

HASSELT, Belgium — The best spot from which to reckon with This Is Us, an ambitious group exhibition at Z33, is from a slightly precarious perch: leaning boldly out an open window cut into the second-floor gallery wall by Francesca Torzo, the Italian architect who redesigned this striking institution in 2019. Torzo’s little belvedere permits the peeping visitor a view of the narrow atrium below, and the ramp-like path by which one begins the ascent into the show. 

Curator Fabian Flückiger has used this architectural moment as a clever hinge in his hang, since the viewer looking out that little window confronts, hung on the high opposite wall of the atrium, a large, convex, and highly reflective black oval panel. This is Clare Noonan’s “Pictorial Persuasion” (2023), newly commissioned for the exhibition. The reference is clear enough: seeing ourselves — and the gathered-up world — in this bent glass, darkly, we are most certainly encountering a contemporary “Claude Glass,” that optical pocket toy by which early 19th-century grandees composed their “views” while on this or that Grand Tour. The device got its name from the way the obsidian reflection modulated all those bright hues of landscape and seacoast to an amber murk, the signature palette of then-beloved French painter Claude Lorrain (1600–82). 

Installation view of This Is Us, featuring work by Emmanuel Van der Auwera

But what gets reflected back at Z33 is hardly bucolic. On the contrary, out that window you look at Noonan’s black glass across the way, catching, in its reflection, a disturbing glimpse back over your own shoulder at a powerful new work by the Belgian media artist Emmanuel Van der Auwera. “VideoSculpture XXVI” (2022) — fittingly subtitled “Over-the-Horizon” —  showcases the artist’s charismatic “knife-to-screen” technique of dissecting LCD screens and messing with their polarizing layers to uncanny effect: What appears to the naked eye as undifferentiated and blinding white light, reveals, when viewed through a mounted plate-glass disc, military surveillance footage. The imagery is familiar, part of the dystopian internet archive of American drone slayings. But here, it emerges creepily from a blasted white-out of pure luminosity. The construction offers a visual instantiation of dominant dynamics in our data lives: searing oversaturation that secrets horrors; hidden systems of filtration that determine what we see.  

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Detail of Emmanuel Van der Auwera, “Video Sculpture XXVI (Over-the-Horizon)” (2023), 2 LCD screens, polarization filters, plexiglass, 2 tripods, cables, HD video (courtesy the artist and gallery Harlan Levey Projects)

Nearby, a slightly older Auwera piece, “VideoSculpture XIV (Shudder)” of 2018, works the same necro-technical magic by means of a floor-mounted black glass plate. The physics of the game can be worked out: at certain angles, light reflected off glass undergoes polarization effects, and those are what reveal the menacing imagery (here, armed soldiers on march) secreted in Auwera’s white light. The emotional impact, however, is strong and unsettling. Bright light, endlessly figured as hope, truth, and inspiration, has here become the blinding bearer of very bad news.

There is always something a little coercive about the first-person plural. Who’s “we,” anyway? What kind of solidarities are presumed? Who gets left out? And what makes you think I am with you, anyway? Skepticism is warranted. In recent years, heightened suspicion and increasingly siloed cultural-political sensibilities have made it harder than ever to intone the music of solidarity. But it is also the case that the dark forces of exploitation (financial, political) have profited in real ways from our reflexive resistance to collective identities. Without a “we,” it’s hard to organize; without organizing, how can we fight back?

This Is Us strides boldly into this difficult terrain, attempting, across 16 rooms and more than 50 artists, to show us a picture of ourselves, at this moment in history. Leaning out that window, I got the message: be sure to check over your shoulder, because you never know what’s coming.

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Installation view of Anna Zacharoff, “National Museum” (2019), Acryl on MDF
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Installation view of Andrea Fraser, “Museum Highlights: A Gallery Talk” (1989)
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Installation view of This Is Us, featuring works by Jean Katambayi Mukendi and Ria Pacquée

This Is Us, curated by Fabian Flückiger, continues at Z33 (Bonnefantenstraat 1, 3500 Hasselt, Belgium) through February 18.

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