The New Vanguard – Artist Profile 13
Filip Berte

Architect turned artist Filip Berte investigates the concept of the border and belonging in his multilayered body of work

Photography BERT SPANGEMACHER
Interview JUSTIN ROSS

Filip Berte is a Belgian interdisciplinary artist with a background in both art and architecture who uses his art to delve into deeply political and extremely relevant topics such as migration, the European question, borders, and belonging. His most recent and ongoing project is called ‘Un-Home / Moving Stones’ explores the concept of transitory spaces—places where migrants must pass through and be sanctioned by external processes. Visiting places of this sort, such as refugee camps or immigration centers, Berte poetically captures the immobility and unseen forces that shape these people’s lives. Molded by years of erosion, the rocks and caves that figure in many of his installations and photographs are both object and subject. Sometimes, we are looking at these rock in a particular spot; immobile, passive and inert, resigned to the fate they are dealt. Other times, we see the world from their perspective, capturing the sense of place from this peculiar perch low to the ground and both photographically and metaphorically frozen in time.

Berte shares with 4SEE his insights from his career as an artist, motivated by a desire to pose questions that he was unable to address in his architectural studies and early work. He describes his gradual transition to a practicing artist, molded by his experiences in Sarajevo where he was confronted with the realities of a post-war-torn society desperate to rebuild but mired in historical and political divisions. He carried these memories and experiences with him back to Belgium where he lives and works today.

Name Filip Berte
Age 43
Nationality Belgian
Medium Multidisciplinary (Drawing, painting, installation, photography, film, performance)
Based in Ghent
Recent/upcoming exhibition (projects) 28/07/2019 – Pre-Triennial Bruges (BE), 18/10/2019 ‘Endless Drawings / Disrupted Continuities’ – Europalia Romania 2019, CC Strombeek (Brussels) in cooperation with Salonul de Proiecte (Bucharest)
Find more at www.filipberte.com / instagram

Interview from July 2019

4SEE Artist Profile - Filip Berte Photography by Bert Spangemacher Eyewear by Coblens
4SEE Artist Profile – Filip Berte, Eyewear by Coblens

Did you always know that you were going to be an artist?

Somehow I always knew I was (going to be) an artist, but then maybe more in a hidden sense, underneath the skin of the professional architect. Because—first of all—I had passionately (partly also rationally) chosen to study architecture. Painting and drawing literally became a secondary plan, in the form of a part-time education at the Academy of Fine Arts in Ghent.

But soon after my graduation in 1999 and during the following two years of mandatory internship at different architects’ offices, I started doubting my decision to work as an architect. My mind was troubled by images and thoughts related to the post-war Balkans. This was due to my graduation project of ‘the reconstruction of the National and University Library of Bosnia-Herzegovina’ in Sarajevo. I had the feeling that I had failed as an architect to give ‘the right answers’ to this project. There were too many facets to this building—left in ruins after it had been purposely been set on fire by Serbian military aggressors—that were too complicated or too sensitive to handle in a political or historical sense. All the questions I couldn’t get answered for myself over the years actually raised a kind of identity crisis in me; who am I, as a western-European architect who had only seen the war on television, to now give the answers to reconstruct such a densely politically and historically layered building? Who am I to find the proper form and function in rebuilding this destroyed symbol of multicultural life from before the war?

Visiting Sarajevo at that time, not even five years after the end of the war, was a serious reality check to me, bringing the questions of architecture back to the bones. Not only was the city physically in ruins, but also psychologically and socially it was an encounter with a post-traumatic society. It was a clash!

Three months before the end of my internship, I decided to cut it short and move to Belgrade. Before that I only had been back to Sarajevo, as well as to Belgrade and Kosovo, for shorter visits. Now, living in Belgrade would possibly give me the remaining answers to my questions. Questions about how to deal in the future (as an architect), with societal questions and greater issues of post-war divisions in nationalism, demonisation or victimisation of nationalities, ethnic, cultural or religious minorities, refugees, borders, Europe, etc… These issues were all very tangible during my time of living in Belgrade and I slowly started working on some paintings, based on the frontpage of the most important Serbian newspaper ‘Politika’.

For the first time, art (in the form of painting) was giving me the feeling of empowerment to transfer messages, or better put—questions—that could nestle deeper underneath the surface and had the possibility to expose it to a broader audience. Today, I still consider these paintings—that I actually never showed to anyone—as a modest but authentic expression of my slow transition from an architect into an artist.

My decision to go back to Belgium after one year of living in Belgrade, was, at the same time, a decision to quit working purely as an architect in the future. I therefore purposely decided not to finish with the remaining last three months of the internship to get the full degree of architect practitioner. However, I am still very pleased with my decisions from that time and am still convinced that through my art projects I am performing the medium of architecture even more profoundly (or essentially) as when I was undertaking architecture in a common, regular way.

4SEE Artist Profile - Filip Berte Photography by Bert Spangemacher Eyewear by Coblens
4SEE Artist Profile – Filip Berte, Eyewear by Coblens

Do you find the art world (creative world) cutthroat and competitive, or is it also supportive and community-minded, or something in between?

In general, I think there will always be that cliché image of an art-worId bubble, only because the system is copying and regenerating itself over and over again. Because it likes itself so much. Narcissistic narcotics.

The question is more; do I want to take part in or be part of that system, operating as a pure extension of the competitive neoliberal economy? Do I share the values of the people operating within this system? I would say no, to all of the above questions.

I personally believe in, and luckily have experienced other ways of operating with other artists and art-practitioners. Thinking more in a sense of an organic organism; a community of art-practitioners, sharing values, fighting for honest payments for the broad array of ‘jobs’ that we do, sharing knowledge and resources… Likewise trying to offer an alternative way of thinking and performing our daily lives as an artist, as a reaction to the dominant competitive logics of the art-world.

Eutopia / Tbilisi / Hotel Abkhazeti / Façade © Filip Berte (2012)
Eutopia / Tbilisi / Hotel Abkhazeti / Façade © Filip Berte (2012)

What would you consider to be your biggest accomplishment so far?

As an example I could mention ‘House of Eutopia’, my first personal long-term (7-years) art project within which Europe was considered to be my enlarged building ground and construction site. With ‘House of Eutopia’ I developed my artistic practice in the form of a slow extended process of ‘building questions’ and making them visible to an audience. This project took the form of one big installation that could be moved around and be temporarily set up at different locations throughout Europe. For me, this moving aspect was a very important aspect, as I could bring my questions, relating to societal, historical, political issues, to broader fields of interest and meet up with a bigger audience. Likewise, it also escaped the limitation of only one fixed place where the building and construction of a house should be whereby it would also be limited to only one context.

Eutopia / Batumi Transitus / Hyper-Façade © Filip Berte (2014)
Eutopia / Batumi Transitus / Hyper-Façade © Filip Berte (2014)

Does art always need to be relevant? Is there a place for aesthetic indulgence, or do politics come into play in your motivation?

Speaking from my perspective, I would say that I find it—and I speak for the work that I make—quite important that art is relevant. I find it difficult not to react to the political or societal context around me. Like I have already said before, I officially started my life as an artist, just because I needed to find another way, another language than architecture, to question the way we are living and spatially and politically organise our lives and societies. Through my work as an artist, I can work on and express topics that are critical and problematic in societies today (always in transition). Since then, the work I have been developing over the years has an ever-growing, engaged reflex. It is my main drive as an artist, that—through art—I can touch on and question topics in a very personal way, but with the ambition that I could open up or sometimes even change people’s monolithic stance towards other people and to politically sensitive or polarising thoughts, statements or issues. Not that I hide one dogmatic, clear message in my work. On the contrary, the work I make offers nothing more than a question. I see it as a small gesture to open up and to offer space to breath, so much needed in harsh and suffocating (political) times. I don’t make political art, but I make art with a political reflex; art that reflects humanity in a much wider and universal sense through topics of inclusion and exclusion, border realities and marginality.

Of course, there is absolutely a place for an aesthetic indulgence, though not solely for the sake of aesthetics. But the aesthetics of a work are the first connection to the work for any possible external viewer. The aesthetics therefore somehow are the key to bring someone so far that they will take the time to unveil a deeper underlying content. In other words, the aesthetics are the first superficial layer that can be scratched off, in order to unveil and discover the underlying layers, making the work as complex and layered as needed.

Un-Home / Moving Stones - Untitled © Filip Berte (2019)
Un-Home / Moving Stones – Untitled © Filip Berte (2019)

If not politics, then what are the key sources of inspiration for you? (What topics have got you inspired at the moment?)

Besides the socio-political realities that always reverberate in one or another way into my work, I am also very inspired by nature, geology and philosophy. For example, the (philosophical) archetype of the cave takes an important metaphorical place inside of the narratives within my ongoing project ‘Un-Home / Moving Stones’, focusing on the theme of image-building around asylum-seekers, refugees, newcomers and migrants.

The cave for me is a place of reference reflecting liminality and resonating the socio-political position of asylum-seekers and refugees in our societies. They are living in limbo, in between two realities, inside of the socio-political cracks, caves and cavities, excluded or hidden from the eyes of others in society. The cave as a negative space in the mountains or carved out inside the crust of the earth, is a natural shelter, offering protection. The cave is a space formed through geological processes of dissolution and disintegration spread over thousands to millions of years.

I am intrigued by these enormous time-consuming and opposing geological processes of integration and disintegration, formation and destruction. In it, as well as in nature in general, lies an enormous force to somehow confront us with and let us better understand the (time-) scale and position of our lives in this world.

What is next for you, an immediately upcoming project or chance to see your work?

In August I will travel for three weeks through Romania to work on a very exciting project in the context of the international Biennial Arts Festival Europalia, focusing on Romania this time. I was invited by the Brussels’ arts centre CC Strombeek to develop a new work, focusing on the themes of ‘displacement and togetherness’. This new work will be shown in a group exhibition in CC Strombeek, together with the works of other Belgian and Romanian artists.

I am still in the process of developing the work, and it is really quite a tempting and complex undertaking. The title of my new work will be ‘Endless Drawings / Disrupted Continuities’, whereby I would like to bring to life five ‘biographies of displacement’; i.e. track and trace parallel lines between the lives of e.g. the Romanian people who are touched by the widespread Romanian diaspora, economic newcomers (from China, Sri-Lanka, Vietnam, Nepal) and asylum-seekers and refugees living in Romania.

Eventually, I would like to gradually build up one spatial image that consists of five ‘drawing columns’ trapped in a slow, continuous, vertical pendulum motion of folding and unfolding. Each of the ‘drawing columns’ will be made up of a collection of drawings that I will make during my Romanian trajectory, each of which will be drawn on the spot, while visiting people’s private places of (temporary) residence. The act of drawing is a direct but very honest and human approach to people, and will help me to start a natural dialogue whereby I can also touch more sensitive topics related to the disrupted lives they all share in common.

4SEE Artist Profile - Filip Berte Photography by Bert Spangemacher Eyewear by Coblens
4SEE Artist Profile – Filip Berte, Eyewear by Coblens

Where do you see yourself in ten years’ time, where would you like to see your (art)work and at what scale?

Somehow this is a strange question to me, because I would not like to think about where I would see myself in 10 years time. I don’t want to think about that too much. Also in terms of scale of my work, I am more tempted to say I would like my work to be less and less visible as an external ‘work of art’ that could be exhibited, but maybe just more and more as something more ephemerally, dissolving into society itself.

Maybe that would then also signify that society has become truly open and inclusive…