Bren Heymans Works 2000-2010

The great majority of Bren Heymans’s works connect directly with the general public. Although at the same time he is developing an autonomous oeuvre, most of his works exist in the public space, where they not only change the reading of the environment but significantly influence our relationship with these specific locations. Some of his ideas materialize only as a plan or scale model because they have not (as yet) been carried out. But these designs act to clarify and contribute to the coherence of the oeuvre that is brought together in this publication.

Heymans was still at the Antwerp Royal Academy when he realized a design for the Kerkplein in Borgerhout. It at once contains several of the aspects that characterize his artistic trajectory. The transformation of the public square responds to and takes account of the surroundings, is socially apposite, and its open aesthetic choices broadens a Eurocentric iconography. The key here is emphatically not a dislocation but the creation of a social attraction; the raising of environmental quality.

Essentially this is more about the shaping of space than the placing of a work of art. In contrast to the vertical accent of the sculptural tradition, the intervention in the environment is non-hierarchical and horizontal. The mosaic surface of the basketball court incorporates the decorative patterns of a Berber carpet. In nearby council housing Heymans would later create a variation on this carpet motif. No longer tied to the floor it hovers beneath the ceiling in the shape of a light box. In this place of passage it’s possible to miss a careful reading of decorative patterns. Surprisingly, here is a topical reworking of a battle scene with jet fighters and modern weapons.Rugs like this, known as ‘war carpets’, are woven in Afghanistan, where recurrent war is a familiar factor of daily life. This is decoration with a hidden agenda.

A cluster of works includes an intervention in an apartment building, a commission for a school and the occasional work Paloma. These works lead to articulated architectural forms. The archetypal shape may recall elementary shelter, but also the cage. The latter sort of construction in particular evokes associations with freedom and the lack of it, with inclusion and exclusion. One might go further, to the idea classification and the tense relationship between power and standardization on one hand and alternative positioning on the other. There is an undertone formed by the sanction, the punitive mechanism of our society. In each of these works the relationship between interior and exterior plays a strikingly visual role. At the same time, the first zoomorphic forms appear in Heymans’s oeuvre. If one thinks of Picasso’s ceramics these constructions are not alien to modern Western art history, yet the artist draws his inspiration primarily from non-Western architecture and artistic expressions such as Berber pottery, the Sepik of Papua New Guinea, and the Lega of the Congo. Heymans’s design for the ‘Baken’ (‘Beacon’) school is a particularly good example of this kind of interesting hybridization. Oriental circular windows, Boschian egg shapes and Bruegelesque graphics combine in a cocoon-like space in which the pupils can relax.

A former garden shed used for storage is given six round openings of various diameters and is transformed into a covered place for relaxation. Heymans has given the inside a globular seating area entered via a hole. A carved recumbent donkey provides a seat.

The installation in front of the Klein Seminarie in Roeselare is a work of a different kind. In contrast to the fixed rigidity of the building, the entrance is highlighted by a colourful garland-like arch that alludes to both biblical illumination and evolutionary theory. In formal terms the work seems unrelated to the rest of Heymans’s oeuvre, but intrinsically Darwin plays an associative role, in the sense that as a scientist he bypassed classification and posed the fundamental question of the reason for diversity (a portal idea).

The evolution of architectures is continued in the structure of the Toguna and the Adat. These architectonic forms allude to the cultural heritage of Africa and Indonesia respectively. In both cases spaces are created that function as meeting places where via legislation or ritual the norms of interaction are discussed and transmitted. Reconversion of traditional structures.

Heymans’s rigid green construction adopts the significant characteristic of the low roof that makes rising impossible during discussion. The Adat greenhouse on Savu in Indonesia occupies a crucial place in the artist’s oeuvre. In fact it is a highly complex greenhouse-like structure. The artist accommodates the existing formal tradition but adds new materials and functions. The relationship with the others, the community, and history is crucial.

It is an intelligent mix of aesthetic and functionality that in no sense takes lightly the local cultural tradition. The plastic roof gathers dew and solves the water problem. The retained humidity can be used to grow vegetables in the greenhouse structure. This work is a response to the question of how, within the artistic domain, the artist can contribute to real communal problems. This requires a reconciliation of functionality and non-functionality. The American designer, engineer and artist Buckminster Fuller is an important precursor in this kind of cross fertilization.

Bren Heymans’s origins are in Indonesia – a not unimportant fact.

This key work led to the further study of greenhouse structures at Sart-Tilman University near Liège. A kind of landscape room.

The idea of an oasis also occurs in the floating square in Leuven and the roundabout at Halle. Leuven recalls the idea of Le Corbusier’s pilotis and the structural integration of trees in Rem Koolhaas’s Kunsthal in Rotterdam. The floor surface alludes to the patterns of stability drawings, while the stones used to produce this pattern make the surface uneven, creating a direct reference to undomesticated nature.

For the Stationsplein in Sint-Niklaas Bren Heymans designed an amphitheatre. This followed an analysis of the spatial surroundings, and it responds to the environment’s public function.

Bidontopia is a longer-running project in which Heymans works with Djo Moembo. He likes to see the basis of his aesthetic polytheism and conflict model as proceeding from the sort of collections he made in his childhood. The uninhibitedness of youth guarantees freedom from a narrow standardization of taste. Although they are tangible material objects they always stand for ideas, they are ersatz worlds. They need to be spiritually explored, released from their purely physical manifestation. In fact we unconsciously carry these ideas with us. In Bren Heymans’s case they are regularly tapped, stirred and activated to produce a constant interaction and fertilization in which aesthetic and function are recontextualized. The dialogue between these two poles can be described as a chemical reaction because various basic elements lead to a new manifestation with its own intrinsic qualities.

Stef van Bellingen