Installation in public space or in situ
Paraboles. This installation by Younes Baba-Ali has something of a secret commando operation about it. A provocation, an unauthorised gesture that is sure not to leave anyone indifferent. Twenty satellite dishes burst out of the façade of the Galerie Ravenstein, a listed building that houses the offices of the Centre for Fine Arts. What are these twenty everyday items suddenly positioned on the front of a prestigious cultural institution in the heart of Brussels actually saying? What do they mean? The person behind the work summarises his approach as follows: “I like to take away the sacred aura of art, to democratise it and identify strategies for interaction with the audience. I see myself as something of an alchemist, an intermediary in society asking open questions. I’m addressing spectators directly, asking them to enter into an intimate dialogue with my propositions”.
Younes Baba-Ali has had this installation project in mind since 2010, offering it to various countries and cities, including Brussels, but always encountering rejection. The people he talked to felt the project was too risky: the social and cultural subjects tackled in it would be too sensitive. He had to wait for the engagement and clear-sightedness of Christophe Slagmuylder of the Kunstenfestivaldesarts for this project to finally be realised... in 2016.
Paraboles features the many different dimensions that characterise Baba-Ali’s work. The artist forces us to come out of our intellectual, aesthetic, social and sensitive comfort zones and take a different look at our relationship with the world, with other people and ultimately with ourselves. By subverting the use of satellite dishes, everyday objects whose image is associated with the presence of immigrant communities in a country, Baba-Ali questions our ability to transcend their status as objects and turn them into “revelations”.
Satellite dishes are usually fixed onto the walls of blocks of flats, directed to pick up signals so that people can watch TV channels from all over the world. It is an essential item for several families who have come from elsewhere and allows them to remain connected with their country of origin through their TV. Baba-Ali remembers the importance this object always had for his family after they left Morocco for France in 1991. Today, he is turning it into a piece of art with just a hint of provocation and humour. The twenty satellite dishes are no longer pointing at satellites. They are mechanised and programmed to keep oscillating, in a perpetual coming and going, as if they are seeking in vain to pick up a signal that is escaping them. Anyone watching will notice immediately this incessant sound of their movement, but a few of them will perhaps be struck by exactly where these objects are pointing: a precise location, East-South 123.48° North exactly from the centre of Brussels. Yes, they really are pointing towards Mecca, also known as the Qibla. Five times a day, 1.6 billion Muslims turn in this direction to pray.
So twenty satellite dishes are colonising the façade of the Galerie Ravenstein, turned towards a “spiritual satellite” as if constantly searching for a sign. Skilled at ready made, Baba Ali turns each of them not just into a piece of art but also into the symbol of an individual, of a life. “Each one has a life of its own and corresponds to the identity of one person in particular. These satellite dishes aren’t new. They belong to people and come from all over Brussels. They’re unique from a functional point of view but also aesthetically. Each one is programmed in a different way and has a particular speed and angle of rotation.”
In these hugely paradoxical times combining planetary communication and cultural isolationism, could these satellite dishes be a perfect means for understanding our contradictions and those encountered in the world today? Objects that are open to the world, that connect billions of people to their country or continent of origin, but also tools of cultural and religious isolationism. “Before, in Arab countries,” remembers Baba- Ali, “lots of satellite dishes were pointed at European satellites. Today, when an engineer comes to install one, he keeps it fixed on Arab satellites. Plenty of people don’t want to take the risk of installing moving dishes.”
Every work by Baba-Ali questions spectators differently depending on the venue in which it is presented. Paraboles, “a mechanical self- portrait, an image of a spiritual and identity crisis”, has a particularly strong resonance in a multicultural city such as Brussels. The installation makes reference to the experience of migration and the need to stay connected with the country of origin. It also refers to the risks of being enclosed in a community, of conditioning, of schizophrenia. Beyond this initial interpretation, it is addressed to each and every one of us, living beings in a quest for meaning, and opens us up to a third space where it is possible to take a new look at how we see ourselves and the group to which we belong. Paraboles is a social sculpture in the sense attributed to it by Joseph Beuys. It is also a profoundly and subtly political work, interacting with the city in which it is being staged.
Text by Ayoko Mensah
Pictures by Jasper Flikschuh