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Annie Gentils
Montevideo at the Kattendijkdok, Antwerp,
1981–85

 

 

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As a little girl I experienced the founding of the Hessenhuis – G58 in Antwerp (1958–62) and witnessed the exciting new energy around my father, the artist Vic Gentils, and his artist friends. I helped with the clean-up of this 16th century building, which was to host international artists of the period in exhibitions, some of which have become justly famous. It was a time when the old austere patterns and postwar austerity were receding, and international relationships between artists beginning. Contacts were made between Antwerp, Milan, Düsseldorf, Rotterdam, and between artists such as Yves Klein, Lucio Fontana, Piero Manzoni, Otto Piene, Heinz Mack, Jesuz Rafael Soto, Wilfredo Lam and Gunther Uecker, who all came to Antwerp or had contacts with the G58 artists or ‘De NieuweNieuwe Vlaamse School’.

In 1962–64 I went to school in Amsterdam and experienced the revolutionary exhibition with American Pop Art organised at the Stedelijk Museum with Ed Kienholz, Barnett Newman, Robert Rauschenberg. After my studies at Ghent University, I worked at the Cultural Center in Turnhout and the I.C.C. (International Cultural Center) in Antwerp. When the I.C.C. closed, I wanted to go my own way and decided to work with the artists of my own generation, away from the commercial and institutional directions determined by a handful of so-called art specialists. Other movements in music, theatre, performance, film, and the visual arts were making Antwerp into a very vibrant city in those years – punk in particular was very much alive. The meeting place was Café Pannenhuis at the Conscienceplein run by Toulouse (Schnieders), where Guillaume Bijl for instance had his first show. Music performances were also organised at Plan K in Brussels, where Joy Division and James White played. At the same time a flourishing Rasta music movement was being established in Antwerp, nurtured by Jacques Chapon who imported records from the UK and Jamaica.

After discussions with the Antwerp collector Carlo Van den Bosch and the artist Jef Verheyen, and in conversations with the artists Anne Mie Van Kerckhoven and Hugo Roelandt, the idea developed to establish my own art space. It must be rememebered that the art landscape at the time was then quite barren. De Appel in Amsterdam was one of the few free art spaces; in Antwerp, galleries for contemporary art were almost non-existent.

In 1979 Anne Mie and I traveled to the US for her first show in Los Angeles. We started our trip in New York, were we experienced the punk scene. In L.A. we met Chris Burden and saw one of his first performances. When we came back, Anne-Mie met Danny Devos with whom she started Club Moral. I met Stan Peers around the same time and also found that I could rent the old Montevideo warehouses at the Kattendijkdok from the Port of Antwerp (Kaaien en Afdaken) for 50 euros a year (around 2000 Belgian francs).

When we first began, in 1982, theatre, music and fashion were on the programme, but soon Montevideo focused on the visual arts because at that time there were no free spaces for presenting performance and contemporary art. One of the first pieces we presented in the often cold and difficult Montevideo space was Ivo Van Hove and Jan Vesweyveld’s play Ziektekiemen (1982) – a challenging piece hwere the actors had to wear high heels and run over the cobble stones almost naked. Fashion, film, music and poetry were organised in cooperation with the Brussels label Les Disques du Crépuscule. Luc Deleu put down his crane for his first Lesson in Scale & Perpective (Schaal & Perspectief, 1981) after travelling to the Sequoia forest near San Francisco and the World Trade Centre in New York. On New Year’s Eve, 1981, a Rasta Night was organized around Deleu’s crane (decorated with yellow, green and red lights with a bridge over the crane) with Chapon’s Rasta Connection. Over 1000 people attended the Montevideo hall that night.

Other exhibitions organised by Montevideo in 1981–82 included Beam Space by Luc Steels, Light, Holography, and Holism by the filmmaker and musician Ludo Mich. In 1983–84, our attention turned to ambitious group shows including Diagonale and Marchandise (both 1983) and ‘La première Chauviniste’(1984), and ‘Towers of Babel’ (featuring the artists Mario Merz, Deleu, Jacques Vieille, Henk Visch and Pere Noguera). Each exhibition was documented by a catalogue, with the aim giving the exhibitions an international appearance with a broader appeal than the local art scene. We had visitors from the UK, Germany, France and the Netherlands. Articles and reviews appeared in Museumjounaal (Netherlands) and Kunstforum (Germany) amongst many others. Not only did we transcend the local scene but also we also crossed Belgium’s linguistic borders by inviting artists from the French-speaking part (Michel François, Anne Veronica Janssen, Monica Droste, Walter Swennen, Luc Grossen – all of them former students from the ERG art school in Brussels).

Montevideo clearly inspired an upcoming generation of young artists and art public. Yet despite its popular and critical success, the costs of organising the exhibitions and events became prohibitive, especially without governamental support. In 1984 the request for a government subsidy to make Montevideo a structured organisation was refused. That, along with a letter from the city terminating the lease and an order to leave the space, meant the end of Montevideo as an international art space in Antwerp. For me it was time to start my own gallery, which I founded in 1985 at the Peter Benoitstraat in Antwerp and where I continue to work with Belgian and international artists who I feel reflect an ongoing engagement with current concerns in contemporary society.