Antwerp’s art scene keeps on growing. New art space SEEN, located in the city’s vibrant Zuid neighbourhood and run by art passionate and freelance curator Joanna De Vos, is testament to that. Having inaugurated the project in May with an exhibition by Bulgarian painter Oda Jaune, SEEN currently presents a work by Swiss artist Markus Raetz, revealing a programming that is both eclectic and ambitious. Every three months another artist takes over the project space, often in collaboration with guest curators. We had a talk with Joanna about her approach to curating, Antwerp’s buzzing cultural scene, and the power of art.
Why did you want to open your own art space?
My goal is to create an unexpected place for art lovers and passers-by alike to enjoy art in a spontaneous and intellectual way. Because of the large windows, it is possible for everyone to see the installations 24/7. I want to share the joy and the fulfilment which art can bring – and brings to me daily. I want to present what I think needs to be seen – with each one’s own eyes. Plus, I want to give artists and curators I believe in a platform for experimentation and experience – a space to meet, create and discover.
Why did you open it in Antwerp?
SEEN is located few meters from my private apartment and as I’m constantly traveling I wanted to create a place for ‘homecoming’. Also, it is across from the Museum of Fine Arts – a fantastic building to look at, surrounded by trees, and close to the M HKA and the Photography Museum. Despite being well located, it’s also a bit of a calm hideaway, a place to unplug. By the way, SEEN is located around the corner form the former Wide White Space Gallery, a legendary, innovative gallery founded by Anny De Decker and artist Bernd Lohaus. I hope to reach the same spiritual level as this historic space for art.
What’s interesting about your concept at SEEN is that each exhibition consists of only one single artwork. Does this minimization make your job as a curator easier or more difficult?
I only think in terms of what triggers me, not in terms of ‘minimizing’ as such. Also, I never think about what would be easier, but rather: what I think should be seen and what is best for the artist and his or her works. Art and beauty are my driving forces, they are my life. It’s not necessarily one single artwork, but rather an installation. It can consist of several pieces but it’s one single experience, created by one artist in one room. I could have chosen to use more space, but I very consciously use only this one room. I made this decision partly because the room is visible from the street. I want to create a room for a spiritual or inspiring encounter with art in this frantic and crazy world full of constant impulses. I want to go back to the essence, back to the power of simplicity, a simplicity that in fact carries a lot of complexity. It’s not about making it easier, I think it might even be more difficult because with this one single experience you want to give people something that has a visual and emotional impact. When they pass by, maybe what they see here makes them think, or feel differently than before. Maybe they continue their walk with new emotions or inspirations. I think that’s my goal.
Can you describe your approach to curating in general?
When I’m invited to make an exhibition, whether it is a group or solo show, it all starts with the connection between the space and the artist(s). It’s a very tactile and sensitive process. Based on the venue, or based on the feeling of the artist’s universe, I start to make a concept and do my research. The only goal is, in the end, to serve the art, the artists, the venue and the audience: I want to create an experience and a world that touches people. I want to make them feel why I was touched by the worlds of the artists in the first place and why I believe in their visions.
How do you see the Antwerp art scene as a whole?
Antwerp is a vibrant city on many levels: art, fashion, music, culture in general, … The neighbourhood of SEEN is especially vibrant and constantly in motion: our neighbour the Museum of Fine Arts will soon be re-opened after a thorough restoration, there are new restaurants and bed and breakfasts opening; close-by a new gallery district is emerging. The city also has a very strong art-historical DNA and tradition. The current art scene forms a very strong and profound network, also internationally. It is characterized by spontaneity, collaborations, and innovation. SEEN wants to be an actor in that large and far-reaching network, but with its simple concept of “one room, one artist, one project” it also wants to offer a place to stand still, take a breath and reflect.
What’s your financing model? Are you investing yourself; do you get subsidies?
It’s an ambitious dream and I’m grateful to be able to make it possible. SEEN is a non-profit space and I use my own savings from other projects to invest in it. Together with the artists and curators, we try to find smart ways to make it all possible and to economize without losing quality. For now, it’s a temporary project. We have a program in mind for about two years. What I do here is not about the money of course: it’s a kind of gift, stemming purely from the wish to share my belief in, and passion for, the power of art.
How many exhibitions are you planning to do per year? What’s coming up in the next months?
The projects change approximately every three months, and depending on the project, we organize a few extra events. At the moment, we are presenting the installation “Kopflose Mühle” by Markus Raetz, who is considered one of the most important and influential living Swiss artists today. After that, a Russian curator will be presenting Russian artist Uldus Bakhtiozina.
You have an advisory board of no less than nine people, some of them quite high-profile – what’s the role of such an advisory board?
They are all close friends and/or people with whom I have worked closely together in the past, with whom I share a mutual love and passion for art. SEEN is conceived as a platform of exchange. I want it to be a space for interaction and real connections: with artists, curators, and art lovers, on both a national and international level. Their function in the advisory board is to keep our connection alive, to deepen and widen it. We share our discoveries, ideas and inspiration.
You studied art history and work in curating – why did you want to do something in the art world in the first place? What attracted you to it, what fascinates you about art?
Can you imagine that I was once considering to study economics? But inspired by intense life experiences at a young age as well as the passion for art that runs through my veins, I decided I wanted to do something that gives me new shots of energy on a daily basis, something very vital, something which confronts me with the in-depth questions of life and which moves me.
SEEN, Schildersstraat 27a, 2000 Antwerp
Thursday and Friday 14-18h00