To ‘read’ someone’s library is an intimate affair. It is a cupboard full of memories of life stages, travels, interests, seasons, projects, encounters, dreams and, in my case, exhibitions and studio visits, all arranged according to a personal (un)logic. I arrange my books neither alphabetically nor by colour, but vaguely by related themes, a mind map of my interests. Between the rows and stacks of books, I place treasured objects. In the ‘Europe’ section, for example, there is a retro pharmaceutical bottle filled with ‘Learn to Love Brussels nostalgia-curing capsules’, a homeopathic remedy to help newcomers settle in smoothly in the heart of Europe. The bottle was part of the 2016 ‘Schuman and Monnet natural remedies series’ by the collective Happy Famous Artists. It is no public secret that Brussels evokes mixed feelings in most people. The city does not reveal itself easily; its structures (bureaucratic and otherwise) are complex, its inhabitants mixed, the spoken languages multifarious, its public funding below par, its infrastructure obsolete and its Museum of Contemporary Art non-existent. Many people living here describe the city as anarchic, chaotic, dirty, problematic and overcrowded, but also symphonic, dynamic and casual.
And yet, when our editorial team moved into the building next to the Académie des Beaux-Arts in the Midi-Lemonnier district of Brussels in June, it was the first step toward fulfilling a long-held dream: to create an internationally-oriented art magazine based in Brussels. The city is a rewarding base of operations for a number of reasons: it’s the capital of Europe, home to a multiplicity of communities and crossroads of a global diaspora. But above all, its thriving, international art scene motivated our move. When I write Brussels, I do not think of the 33.09 square kilometres that make up the Belgian capital, nor of the 19 municipalities that form the Brussels-Capital Region nor of the buffer state of Belgium wedged between France, Germany, the UK and the Netherlands. I think of the intricate networks that exist between artists and cultural workers, connections that cross every imaginable boundary between initiatives, institutions, regions, cities, countries and continents. Such networks are by no means limited to the major art centres of Paris, London and New York, where dominant art institutions, ever-expanding galleries and auction houses form the nexus of power of the art market. When I write Brussels, I think of all the friendships and family ties that fan out from here to Warsaw, Riga, Ljubljana, Bucharest, Kaunas, Lisbon, Hamburg, Ramallah, Madrid, Dakar, Algiers, Turin, Marrakesh, Amsterdam, Port-au-Prince, Rio de Janeiro, Johannesburg, Tblisi, Luanda, Lubumbashi and all the other cities and hamlets scattered around the world. And I think of the cosmopolitan commitment to pluralism and fallibilism —the sense that our knowledge is imperfect, provisional, subject to revision in the face of new evidence, as described by the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah in his book Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers.
I was only a toddler when I first came into contact with art. It was not at school or in a museum. It was in my grandparents’ kitchen, which, in addition to being a place for cooking and eating, was also a place to read the newspaper and to receive neighbours who stopped by. That’s where we grandchildren would listen to fairy tales and stories about the Second World War. It’s where we learned to speak politely, to practice table manners, to live according to the seasons and without wasting anything. On the wall of that kitchen was a reproduction of François Millet’s The Gleaners (1857). I thought of this early encounter with art when, in July, our editorial team took up the challenge of finding a new title for this magazine. Scattered proposals became longlists, then shortlists, until one word stood out: GLEAN. More than my personal anecdote, it was a loving nod to Agnes Varda’s heart-warming documentary The Gleaners and I (2000) that convinced us of the beauty and power of this word. I consider it as a gentle reminder that we writers are just humble gleaners, collecting fragments of conversations and observations and moulding them into meaningful prose.
This act of gleaning reminds me of a different way of being in this world. In this era of overconsumption, climate change, mass anxiety and war, I often think of the first paragraph of Wisława Szymborska’s poem ‘The End and the beginning’:
After every war
someone has to clean up.
straighten themselves up, after all.
Why another art magazine? It may be naïve to think that we can make a difference, but just stepping by outside our office – seeing the mixed crowd queuing at the post office, talking to our Syrian and Pakistani neighbours, and watching the tourists wander around, the students and teachers enter the Académie des Beaux-Arts next door, the neglected neighbourhood of the Gare du Midi just a short walk away – we get the sense that we can embrace the complex world in which we work and live and make it our own, rolling up our sleeves, and with a little help from our friends.
With all this in mind, we’ve decided for each issue of GLEAN to invite an artist to serve as Guest Editor, and to connect us with two writers and an artist that are important to their practice. To quote our first Guest Editor Hamedine Kane: ‘It’s the power of artists to act on their world, on reality, on what’s happening around them and to care about all the issues in society. I think that the changes that can happen, whether they are revolutions or major social or political changes, are also brought about by very long-term commitments. I think that activists, artists and intellectuals all have a role to play in creating or bringing about change.’ More than an art magazine, GLEAN is a commitment to trying to understand the world through the eyes and words of the artists, cultural workers and writers we meet, and to share those insights with you, the reader.
To write about art requires looking back as well as forward — discussing, listening, reading, (re)thinking. It is a slow, precise and constantly evolving pursuit. Those who devote their time to it must be passionate and not afraid to reconsider their insights. As an art writer, I fully subscribe to GLEAN’s motto ‘Art is slow attention’, borrowed from a text written by (former) curator Bart Cassiman in 1997 for his exhibition ‘Green Easter’ at Museum Dhondt-Dhaenens in Deurle. He writes: ‘The social notions of time which are determined by mercantilism and consumption, are at odds with the time that is at work in art. Reacting to art implies letting go of oneself in order to find access to the domain where new things take shape. This necessary frame of mind is not without its consequences, since it demands a certain attitude, an open mind and, above all, a lot of time.’
GLEAN grew out of HART magazine during the summer of 2023 and wouldn’t have been possible without the 17 wonderful years of this Belgian contemporary art magazine, which was founded in 2006 by journalist Marc Ruyters. I would like to thank the team of GLEAN and everyone who contributed in any way to this first issue, our loyal readers, subscribers and advertisers and the many people who gave us the necessary support behind the scenes.