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Brussels show pushes art's potential to drive social change

23:40 30/01/2017
Sculptor and installation artist Sven ’t Jolle has a new show at Wiels commenting on social issues, from refugees to health care

The Age of Entitlement, or Affordable Tooth Extraction: the long and intriguing title of this exhibition by Antwerp-born sculptor and installation artist Sven ’t Jolle refers to his new homeland, Australia. “The age of entitlement is over,” the country’s former MP Joe Hockey announced a few years ago as he blocked funds to various social programmes.

In reaction, ’t Jolle made “Affordable Tooth Extraction”, an installation that shows a figure trying to pull a tooth with a wire attached to a door handle. The funny, unsettling work denounces any dismantling of publicly funded health care.

One of the other striking works at the show at Wiels in Brussels is “Citizenship (Protect Your Loved Ones)”. A brown inflatable paddling pool is surrounded by a safety barrier. Around that is a second barrier, comparable to those seen around detention centres. It’s ’t Jolle’s way of commenting on how refugees are handled in this day and age.

Curator Zoë Gray calls the artist’s work “a fiery critique of capitalism, combining humour and poetry with social engagement”. But how does ’t Jolle see it? Does he really hope to change things?

Tough on migration

“That would be great, but I’m aware of art’s limitations,” he tells me. “Still, this doesn’t restrain me in using my social commitment as the foundation of my art. If I cause only one visitor to think, I’ve already made an impact.”

In 2003, ’t Jolle appeared on the Senate list for Belgium's radical-left cartel Resist. “It was a statement: I wanted to support the cartel not only with words but also with actions – even though I knew I would never get elected. I didn’t become an artist with the goal of airing political views. Making art isn’t the best way to do that.”

’t Jolle moved to Australia in 2009, after meeting his partner a decade earlier when he was selected for the Melbourne International Biennial. “For those 10 years we divided our time between the two countries, but at one point she had to finish her PhD. There are more chances for her to work over there.”

In Australia, ’t Jolle obtained the status of permanent resident. “I had to submit a huge file,” he says holding his thumb and index finger five, six centimetres apart. “But once you’re granted the status, you don’t have to apply for renewal.”

What a difference from Belgium, he sighs. “My partner lived in Antwerp for more than a year. Every few months she had to go and queue to get permission to remain.”

Though in recent years, Australia has gained a reputation for being very tough on migration. “You have to differentiate between migrants and refugees,” says ’t Jolle. “Migration, where someone contributes to society, isn’t seen as a problem. Don’t forget that the country is 98% based on migration. But indeed, the right-wing government is very refugee-unfriendly, to say the least.”

World view

Did moving influence his work? “Undoubtedly. Even though I keep myself informed on a daily basis about what’s happening in Belgium, the physical distance alters my viewpoint. Moreover, it’s an experience that’s difficult to share, because when I talk about Belgium in Australia, most people have no idea what I’m talking about. And vice versa.”

Along with the exhibition in Wiels, there is a website where visitors can leaf through 100 sketchbooks that ’t Jolle has filled over the past 20 years. We’re talking about more than 10,000 drawings. He might mostly be known as a sculptor, but almost overnight he’s also become an sketch artist.

Or is it a mistake to see these sketchbooks as art; are they “only” preparatory studies? Both, says ’t Jolle.

“It started out of a practical necessity: It’s a way of documenting ideas that I might forget afterwards,” he explains. “This way I can always go back to them. It helps me, too, to visualise a solution for an artistic problem. I also draw just for the pleasure of it.”

A bitter taste

He’s been drawing since he was young, he says, though he studied sculpture at Antwerp’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts. “I thought it more interesting to choose something I wasn’t very good at,” he says with a smile: “I’m not the most dextrous guy, which is not an advantage for a sculptor.”

When he was really young, ’t Jolle wanted to become a comic strip artist. He’s a great fan of Franquin, the father of cartoon series Gaston. But it’s another comic master who’s present at the Wiels exhibition, in a collection of 24 drawings from 1996.

’t Jolle copied them from one of Flanders’ most famous comic series, Suske & Wiske. Each drawing is a reproduction of a frame from the strip containing a denigrating view of migrants.

“You could argue that having one of the characters talk in a xenophobic way was a sign of the times,” says ’t Jolle. On the other hand, he points out, the characters are heroes, so it does leave a bitter taste.

As a child, ’t Jolle started drawing comics, “but I didn’t finish one of them. I don’t have that ambition anymore. I used to quote comics, whereas now I’m absorbing their formal language into my own, with more abstract results.”

Until 19 March, Wiels, Van Volxemlaan 354, Brussels. Photo: Schoon Ship/Tabula Rasa, 2009, by Sven ’t Jolle

Written by Christophe Verbiest