Summer is coming. That’s good, obviously, but it also seems to create a horrendous accumulation of pre-recess deadlines. The doughty webcommers have been suffering lately under a avalanche of proof-reading, proof-listening, proof-this, proof-that, for weeks now, usually for other people’s projects. It’s the price you pay for (at least theoretically) covering every language, that when anyone in the vicinity needs to be sure that, say, the text of a new brochure or the recording of a new multimedia feature is in good, fluent Bulgarian, Greek, Portuguese, Latvian, Danish, or whatever (x22), they tend to look your way. (It usually isn’t, by the way.) And that’s on top of the day job, though I also suspect that another price we pay – this time for visibly enjoying our job too much – is that people often assume we just spend our time messing around on the internet and have plenty of time for more. (Not true, folks. You heard it here first…)
Anyway, the upshot of all this is that even the normally chirpy people of the second floor of Montoyer 75 were chafing at the grimness of the toil, the extended hours and the general slog. Dark mutterings were heard in the corridor. The time had come to take a short break from the routine, just to take a couple of hours out of the office doing something a bit different. Inevitably, everyone was soon calling it our “school trip”.
How we ended up deciding on a visit to the Flemish Parliament is a long story, but had to do with a previous visit by the undersigned which had left him most impressed. But on Friday, 1 July, after the weekly “stand-up” meeting (at which, perversely, most seem to sit on the floor), we all walked, cycled or scootered the 2km or so down the road to the Vlaams Parlement.
Now, I am not going to go into the intricacies of the Belgian constitutional system. Still less am I going to discuss the merits of Belgian politics. In fact, you can probably find out everything you need to know about Belgium’s surreal system in 4 minutes in this justly famous YouTube video. However, I will pause to note that Belgium is a country of 10 million inhabitants which hosts fully seven Parliaments: the two-chamber federal parliament, the Flemish parliament, the Walloon parliament, the parliament of the French Speaking Community, the parliament of the German speaking Community, the parliament of the Brussels Region and (OK, cheating a little here) the European Parliament. Five of the seven are in Brussels, which clearly thereby holds the world record for largest-number-of-parliaments-in-one-city by a massive margin. In case you were wondering what happened to the parliament of the Dutch-speaking community, which should logically (!) exist, you should know that, in a bout of rationalising zeal no doubt, the Flemish decided to merge the two sets of of competences into the single Flemish Parliament, though they do, as a result, have to exclude the six Brussels-elected members from votes which would have been the responsibility of the notional Parliament of Flanders. Got it? Good. We’ll move on.
Though this visit was in part about getting to know the quirks and (generally hidden) wonders of our host country a bit better and indulging in a little inter-parliamentary liaison, it was really about doing something together and having the opportunity to marvel at something genuinely interesting, even inspiring. For whatever you think of all the constitutional contortions and political chicanery, the Flemish Parliament is undoubtedly the coolest parliament any of us had ever visited (and that’s quite a few).
The starting point of the visit was in the public area of one of the two buildings which are occupied by the parliament, formerly a Post Office building. The upper floors are occupied by the offices of the political parties in the parliament and by its administration. The ground level, however, is the old counter-lined hall where Belgians from all over the country used to come to do their financial transactions, now accommodating, at one end, a cafeteria and, at the other, an art exhibition or installation. The space has a rather stalinist design aesthetic, but has acquired a period charm, offset nicely by the contemporary art. From this meeting place, we proceeded to the top floor, where we were booked into the Daktuin (“roof garden”) restaurant for a lunch, which included, for those thus inclined, that well-known Flemish delicacy, Kangaroo stew. (For the record, lieve taxpayer, we paid for ourselves…) In best school trip fashion, we all took the opportunity to spill out onto the extensive roof terrace and took pictures of each other with our mobiles, with a great view of the rather scrappy Brussels skyline behind us. Yep, check Facebook…
After that, the tour of an hour or so, with officials of the parliament doubling up as tourist guides, explaining to us a heady mix of architecture, art and constitutional niceties. The thing that strikes you most is the sheer quantity of contemporary art around the place, so much that it becomes of theme of the parliament itself. The aim here is not to be a tour guide for the Flemish parliament, so I won’t linger too long, but here are a personal selection of the art works that particularly caught my eye.
Google world glass ceiling. At the top of the administrative building there is a glass ceiling made up of a Google world satellite photo of the part of Brussels we are in, centred on the Parliament building. Nice that an image taken from above is here seen by looking upwards. Simple, but great idea.
Paintings in blood and hair by Philippe Vandenberg. His own blood and hair, by the way. This freaked some of us out.
A Flying Island by Panamarenko. Panamarenko is one of several artists of international fame represented here, another one is…
Jan Fabre, three of whose beetle sculptures adorn the reception room alongside the plenary chamber. We were told by our guide that these were in fact rather small fry. The King apparently has an entire ceiling in his Palace covered with Fabre beetles.
A work called Reflections on the Illusion of Power, which plays subversively with reflections to remind the holders of power that their power may only be an illusion and will in any case pass. This is placed right outside the office of the speaker of parliament.
Lunar art. Did you know that the only art exhibited on the moon was created by a Belgian artist, who persuaded an Apollo 15 astronaut to carry to the moon a tiny aluminium figure amongst his personal effects? Well now you do, and a copy of the figure, produced by the artist, is displayed in a meeting room under a photo of the original lying in the moon dust. There’s something very belge about that, I think.
Neon displays in committee rooms. Self-obsessed artist-photographer Liliane Vertessen, has photo and neon displays in two adjacent committee rooms. The photos are, well, of herself and one of the neon displays reads: (in English) “Love yourself so you can love somebody else”.
Figures in a paternoster lift. The old constantly rolling lift system (actually out of action during our visit, sadly) cannot take human passengers any more, but is inhabited by full size replicas of random people photographed by the artist wandering around Brussels. Surprisingly addictive to look at.
Shadow writing. More meeting room art: seemingly random squiggles of wire cast shadows of written messages onto the walls. Nice.
The plenary chamber. Not exactly a work of art, perhaps, but the plenary chamber itself, which occupies the covered-over space of the internal courtyard of the neo-classical building which accommodates all the parliament’s meeting rooms, is a remarkable place, very much in the contemporary-meets-parliamentary-tradition mode that characterises the parliament as a whole. Everyone’s favourite story about this place is about its glass floor, designed to let light into a public meeting room below and generally live up to the ethos of transparency the architects were trying to achieve, but which proved rather too transparent for skirt-wearing lady members of the parliament meeting above.
There is lots more art, I mean lots more, all over the buildings, almost to the extent that it is possible for the casual visitor to start to see the place primarily as an art installation rather than as a parliament. Apart from marvelling at the art, this particular visitor also found himself marvelling at the fact that this seems to have been possible without endless agonising over what should be installed where, which artists should be represented, how political and geographical (though not, in this case, linguistic) balance could be maintained, and all the considerations which afflict aesthetic decision-making in the European Parliament. The self-deprecating, almost subversive nature of much of the art was also impressive, revealing a certain humility and a willingness of the parliamentary authorities to undermine any illusions of grandeur they might be tempted to assume. But then, perhaps I’m wrong, this is just very clever branding and status-building. As our guide smilingly told us: “we couldn’t compete with the Federal Parliament’s huge collections of old paintings and classical art, so we decided to compete by buying lots of modern art.”
Maybe that’s the secret of this strange little country; as long as they are competing via art collections and displays of humility, perhaps they can still manage to rub along together for a while yet… I hope so anyway.
A word of thanks to the amiable, efficient and knowledgeable Dries, who set up our visit and guided half of our number around the buildings. And congratulations to the Flemish Parliament for being so cool. More pictures below. (All photos from art section of Flemish Parliament website.) A brochure (in French) is available for non-Dutch speakers.