Sven 't Jolle's The Age of Entitlement, or Affordable Tooth Extraction, on view at WIELS through March 19, is a comprehensive overview of the thought-provoking practice of the Antwerp-born and Melbourne-based artist.
This topical exhibition brings together 't Jolle's sculptures, installations and drawings. The works raise issues relating to current immigration policies, the aftermaths of the financial crisis and the legacy of colonialism as evidenced by the enduring racist and stereotypical depictions of the "other" in popular media... Sven 't Jolle takes a critical outlook on Western society's contradictions and pitfalls.
The title of the show stems from the speech given in 2012 by Joe Hockey, Australia's former treasurer (Minister of Finance), in which he declared "the age of entitlement is over", i.e. the welfare state to be unsustainable. Affordable Tooth Extraction, the exhibition's caption and the title of one of the installations, refers to the surge of DIY dentistry resulting from the dismantling of public healthcare in Australia.
Ideas relating to inclusion and exclusion, to the boundary between public and private space along with questions regarding how and with whom we share common resources are apparent in many of 't Jolle's works. As we enter the exhibition area, we cross Aire Austère (2015), a loose grid pattern painted on the wall, which acts as a symbolic gateway.
Once the visitor crosses the "border", she/he is greeted by Pauvre Sapin (2009), the austere skeleton of a Christmas tree made out of iron bars and sparsely garnished with a few baubles. The title translates as Poor Tree and, in using the word "poor" to qualify it, Sven 't Jolle encourages the viewer to reflect on why the Christmas tree is poor: is it because it is shabby? is it a reference to the lack of money of the people who own it? or is it because its starkness sparks feelings of pity or sympathy? The show opened a couple of weeks after the end of the festive season and these questions prompt us to ponder on the consumerist attitudes - waste and excessive spending - associated with it.
The use of familiar, recognizable objects to convey ideas is characteristic of Sven 't Jolle's work. The artist resorts to humor and creates uncanny visual metaphors (often based on animal imagery like in Entrepreneurship (2017) and Casse toi alors (pauvre canard) (2009), both of which are riddled by art history and cartoon references) to make his points palatable. In Schoon Schip/Tabula Rasa (2010), he addresses the banking crisis and the noose hanging from a beam on the golden ship, which appears to be rescued by the larger wobbly wooden vessel it sits on, hints to the suicidal risk of maintaining a non-viable economic system at all costs...
Materials, form and content coalesce in Sven 't Jolle's works to create meaning. Another example is Element de jardin d'enfant (lapin), a 2009 life-size green rabbit playground slide. A visual analysis of the plaything reveals it is unusable as it lacks the stairs required for access. In subverting the slide from its intended purpose, the artist plays with the viewer's expectations. The open-armed rabbit's posture reads both as welcoming and threatening as it could also be a sign of barred entry...
The installation titled Citizenship (protect your loved ones) (2017), draws on the hot-button issue of the migration crisis. Two fences surround a brown inflatable paddling pool. One of them is the kind used to prevent children from accessing a pool unsupervised and, as Zoë Gray, the exhibition's curator, puts it: "the second fence evokes the barriers used in detention centers - such as on the islands of Nauru and Manus, off the Australian coast - but also increasingly visible (and tangible) at the borders of the European Union. The piece highlights the bitter irony of a state that introduces legislation to protect children from drowning (either at sea or in their own gardens) that includes indefinitely incarcerating people who have traveled across perilous seas in search of security. The inflatable raft that floats in the paddling pool becomes simultaneously an abandoned toy and a bad souvenir of the lives lost crossing the Pacific - and closer to home - the Mediterranean."
In light of President Donald Trump's controversial vow to build a wall at the US border with Mexico and his "muslim ban" refusing entry on the US territory to citizens from seven Muslim-majority along with the ensuing geopolitical uncertainties, more fences are going up in the world... This timely exhibition mirrors the alarming news we now hear on a daily basis: the redefinition, under the guise of combating terrorism, of inclusion and exclusion criteria at the detriment of immigrants and refugees...
Although Sven 't Jolle's works often directly reference Belgium (Een (beperkte) bloemzeling (1996) and the hand drawn reproductions of racist or colonialist scenes in Belgian comic books Suske en Wiske - Bob et Bobette) or Australia (Affordable Tooth Extraction (2017))), their themes remain legible on a more universal level...
He visually translates abstract situations and creates works that the viewer can relate to. His approach is powerful because it highlights the contradictions of the current global political and economic context... In an article published by the Bulletin, the artist stated that: "if I cause only one visitor to think, I've already made an impact."
Although the works have heavy conceptual undertones, they are appealing to all age groups and I urge you to visit the exhibition on a Sunday afternoon when free guided tours (no reservation required) provide helpful insights.
WIELS, Contemporary Art Center, Avenue Van Volxem 354, B-1190, Brussels, Belgium. Through March 19, 2017.
Copyright © 2017, Zoé Schreiber