‘These are good times in which to need each other’
Frederik Willem Daem, De Morgen, 27.01.17
For his first interview in the series ‘Talk to Me’, writer Frederik Willem Daem decided to visit the brand-new Decoratelier belonging to scenographer Jozef Wouters, in whose words he recognises himself. There, where everything remains to be done, they wandered together through what exists, what is longed for and what might yet materialise.
On the Brussels-Charleroi canal, by the Ninoofsepoort, there is a small lifting bridge. That she lifts, I notice for the first time, as I stand behind her closed barrier, now that the road has disappeared and, in its place, I’m looking at water. It reminds me of something that the scenographer Jozef Wouters once wrote in the second issue of Oogst magazine. He talked about how each structure expresses a desire, and about a brightly coloured concrete weight that, at one and the same time, wants to be both light and heavy. This lifting bridge possesses the longing to be both present and yet absent.
To be honest, I don’t usually have a reason to be in this part of town. The Brussels canal zone is very industrialised and although I’m compelled to cross it, I rarely stop and linger. Most of the old factory buildings on the Molenbeek and Anderlecht side seem to be occupied by car dealers. Last month, Jozef Wouters turned one of them, an old cylinder head plant in the Liverpoolstraat, into his Decoratelier. It is situated opposite a steel depot, above which the name ‘Jean Wauters’ is emblazoned in large letters. Jozef laughs when I say it was meant to be, as the very same thought must have occasionally crossed his own mind.
“There isn’t actually very much to see”, he warns me before beginning the tour. “But that might make it the best time to talk about my work. The space is in a formative state. I love that point where everything is yet to be determined.”
Taking the time to clean
Admittedly, the interior of the vast property yields very few clues that Jozef has taken up residence. There is a carpentry workshop on the ground floor and, further on, two remnants of the old factory: soothing mint-green walls and an old time-clock.
“You might not notice it, but we’ve been working here non-stop since Christmas. Day after day, I’ve been in here sweeping. It’s no exaggeration to say that the floor was covered with a centimetre of dust. Cleaning is always a good start. You’re forced to take your time and, metre by metre, you get to know the space inside out and back to front. Gradually, the desires that you project onto that space are laid bare.”
It’s as cold inside as it is outside. One or two degrees. The top priority was to create the small heated office (it resembles a container from a building site), where we warm ourselves with a cup of coffee. I look at the walls, each one of which contains the elaborations of a different project. From left to right, I read: Bellinck – Atelier III – Ruhr. Meanwhile, I hear Jozef in the background asking Menno Vandevelde, his long-standing engineer, whether style exists when it comes to workwear and how best to heat the rest of the studio. One subject is clearly more pressing than the other.
“Atelier III will premiere here in late March, a performance that I’m working on with choreographer Meg Stuart and writer Jeroen Peeters. I’ve therefore been given carte blanche to construct the space while the company is rehearsing in the dance studio. The dancers will come over a couple of weeks before the premiere and we’ll make the show together.”
This is largely how he plans to operate in the foreseeable future. For the next five years, Jozef and his Decoratelier will be artist in residence at Damaged Goods, Stuart’s dance company. As an autonomous scenographer, he will collaborate with different artists in various contexts. When he shows me the project he is currently working on, I’m forced to use my imagination. Six black columns suggest walls, and a ground plan is taped out on the concrete floor. In its current state, it resembles something out of a Dogma film by Lars von Trier.
“It’s in the process of becoming a café. Our starting point is the American Bar in Vienna. Designed in the early twentieth century by the architect Adolf Loos, this thirty-square-metre café was a meeting point for the cultural elite of the day. As someone who constructs, I try to understand why we are building it. After all, such a café is totally out of place in this neighbourhood. And that might, in fact, be the very reason. With Meg, I often talk about scenography in terms of the collective imagination. A shared fiction in which spectators and performers can collectively believe. If you think about it, a café is no different. Cafés are shared fictions. Cafés are scenography.”
When Jozef proffers such statements, he does so rather tentatively. He turns his words over in his mind and seems to be constantly searching for elusive truths. “Speaking is not unlike building. As the three little pigs from the fairy tale successively build houses out of straw, wood and stone, I’m looking for words that, step by step, bring stability to thought. I speak in the same way that I design spaces. You put a proposal or maquette in the middle of a group so that it can be discussed. Maquettes are both dream and reality. They are the bridges that make the imagination visible. Good scenography always manages to remain a model. That is… good scenography is both dream and reality, and this café is a prime example: it hovers between plan and reality.”
How it will ultimately look does not just depend upon Jozef, but on all those who contribute: “I cherish the fact that collaboration is essential to my work. These are good times in which to need each other. In addition to the project with Meg, I’m also working with Thomas Bellinck, Freek Vielen and Benny Claessens. I’m endlessly curious about the way in which my hands move under the influence of others. That’s also why I’ve called this place the Decoratelier rather than my studio.”
Jozef Wouters picks up a piece of brick and puts it in his pocket.
“Perhaps the beauty of this empty space lies in its capacity to accommodate the vague desires of all those people who will pass through."