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Bozar retrospective breathes life into Pol Bury’s transfixing art

10:12 16/04/2017
One of Belgium’s most prolific artists, who achieved international fame for his hydraulically driven sculptures, is the subject of a Brussels exhibition

Judging by the number of his sculptures around Brussels, there must have been a time when Pol Bury was the city’s favourite public artist. But while his monumental fountain on Boulevard Roi Albert II still flows, the others are in a sorry state.

His “Moving Ceiling” in Bourse metro station, for instance, hasn’t moved in years, and the “Sky Catcher” on Lignestraat, marred by graffiti, is equally still. This is the saddest part, because Bury is a kinetic artist; his work was made to move.

You can see the desired effect in a retrospective at Bozar, which covers not just his monuments and fountains but smaller pieces, with subtle movements that demand close attention from the visitor.

Bury was born in 1922 near La Louvière, one of Wallonia’s mining towns. He briefly attended art school in Mons but dropped out to follow the Surrealists, and in particular Belgian painter René Magritte.

Moving on

After the Second World War, Bury moved towards more abstract painting, joining first the broadly modernist Jeune Peinture Belge movement, then the CoBrA group, which was split between Brussels, Copenhagen and Amsterdam.

This changeability was partly down to his evolving ideas about art, partly because he never quite found his place. “Groups are useful, provided you can get out of them,” he said, looking back at this period in his life.

When the public insisted on spinning things around as quickly as possible, Bury resorted to motors

The movement that mattered, in the art itself, was inspired by a 1950 exhibition of mobiles by American artist Alexander Calder. From 1953 on Bury started to make moveable abstracts, with pivoting, brightly coloured panels that could be re-arranged by the viewing public.

But when the public insisted on spinning things around as quickly as possible, he resorted to motors to reduce the movement to a slower, more contemplative speed.

He continued to work collectively in and around Brussels, co-founding the Art Abstrait group in 1952 and a year later putting his name to a manifesto for Spatialism, which emphasised the importance of time, duration and movement in art.

In 1959 he was asked to put together an exhibition at the Hessenshuis in Antwerp. Under the banner Vision in Motion/Motion in Vision, he brought together artists such as Yves Klein, Daniel Spoerri and Jean Tinguely, who would help turn the German Zero Group of Otto Piene and Heinz Mack into an international movement.

Catch the sky

But Bury did not join them, preferring to work alone or in more personal collaborations. In 1961 he left Belgium for France, and later moved to the US. But time and motion now became central to his work, as the retrospective demonstrates.

While the initial objects are still designed to hang on a wall, they are more like sculptures. Rows of wooden pegs move slowly and click against one another, manipulated by a motor concealed in the frame. Forests of nylon filament, the end of each marked by a blob of white paint, rustle and flex, the small movements looking eerily like hairs rising on your arm.

Spheres balanced on slopes edge slowly up and back, recalling the myth of Sisyphus. In other pieces this turns into a subtle exploration of perspective, as spheres of diminishing size appear to edge towards a vanishing point.

Bury’s achievement is to capture our attention, to make us stop and contemplate movement, or its absence

The creaking and clicking made by these assemblages is part of the effect, and in the 1970s Bury toyed with objects with moving pegs that pluck wires, making minimalist music. He also became more sculptural, building boxes from recovered wood, which move and sound like haunted furniture.

Extending his ideas to metal brought mirrored surfaces and also allowed him to use magnets to create motion. One of the most pleasing items here is “Monument no 3 Dedicated to 12,000 balls”, which presents a mass of ball bearings on a plinth. A concealed magnet causes a ball here or there to change position very slightly: you hear the click but have to be alert to see which one has moved.

Bury’s achievement is to capture our attention, to make us stop and contemplate movement, or its absence. The exhibition ends with his more monumental pieces, including a moving “Sky Catcher”, with its mirrored orbs pointing upwards, and a fountain brought indoors, its struts manipulated by the water flowing through them.

Pol Bury: Time in Motion, until 4 June, Bozar, Rue Ravenstein 23, Brussels. Photo: Luc Schrobiltgen/Bozar

Written by Ian Mundell