Convex/Concave: Introspection and Exuberance

Convex or concave directions – in perception, perspectives and reflections – have come to symbolize the multiple exchanges and interrelations of subjectivity. These reflections, stand-ins for the dualism in subjectivity, symbolize the opposing tendencies of an inner self vis-à-vis an outer world – of a gaze turned inwards in contemplation – and of an extrovert and engaging gaze turned outwards. This dualism, defining of the very conception of subjectivity or identity and of the self, is the lens through which this gathering of contemporary Belgian artists has been organized, since that dualism captures a general characteristic, not only of modernity, but also of the artistic endeavors, and singularity, of Belgian artists. In addition, the choice for this organizing principle finds echoes in the ways in which Chinese artists and intellectuals have tackled modes of representation and dominant paradigms and, in so doing, have transformed the convex-concave dialectics into playful or meditative attitudes to self-awareness.


This delegation of fifteen Belgian artists, some recently emerging on the scene and others internationally acclaimed, not only affirms the inventiveness and creativity of the arts and ideas coming out of Belgium, it also recalls a key moment of intellectual exchange between East and West. In the 17th century, a delegation of scholars aware of and concerned with conceptions of astronomy, time and space measurement made its way from Europe to China. The envois, which included emissaries from the Low Lands, confronted their technologies for observation, mapping and calculation with those used by Chinese scholars, thus indirectly introducing to China the newest scientific theses concerning the heliocentric model of the solar system, which went against the geocentric model approved by Church authorities. The verification of the heliocentric model required the new instruments for observation that Ferdinand Verbiest (whose Chinese name is Nán Huáirén) built by adapting mathematical models of convex and concave projections of the globe and of space, and which allowed him to apply them in the planetarium that still bears his (Chinese) name today (1). The outsized power of the Church in the West and dominant religious models at the time meant that it could not accept the scientific facts for the heliocentric model that would, in short order, consign the geocentric model to a historical curiosity. Existing Chinese theories were quick to recognize this new paradigm and to assimilate the discoveries it made possible into a view of the planet as an element of an interconnected cosmic reality, a wide universe with different conceptions of time (2).

With this shift in perspective, the self-centered world that reflected itself in a concave mirror was replaced by a world whose image was convex and whose dynamics were centripetal and/or interconnected. It is worth noting here that the convex and concave mirrors and prisms of telescopes are what had allowed for a precise and detailed observation of the phenomena of nature and the cosmos to come into focus, thus providing another manifestation of the tendency to rely only on empirical, physicaland perceivable reality rather than on abstract schemes. One of the traits that distinguishes the art from the Belgian Low Lands from that of neighboring art worlds is its meticulous, precise and detailed observation, not of the grand schemes of philosophers or theoreticians, but of the everyday world, which Belgian artists render with an attention to detail that makes the representations almost palpable.


Today, a concave, self-centered rationale has become synonymous with looking inwards: with an exploration of the inner self and a turn towards interiorization that claims to find truth and meaning in the self and its (mental or bodily) structure. Interiorization, understood as the inward reflection from which to measure and imagine the outer world, can result from being overwhelmed by the harshness of certain aspects of society. It can stem, as well, from the desire to dismiss the fashionable codes that are (or were) used to represent reality, such as, for example, the ruling forms of academic aesthetics developed by national styles dominant in the West. Interiorization can thus be seen as a self-defensive reflex, as an inward turn that focuses on simple, everyday phenomena rather than on big schemes and ideas. This observation finds an echo in Belgian art in general, and in this exhibition in particular, notably in the reformulations by Mark Manders, Berlinde De Bruyckere and Michaël Borremans of magical realism’s ‘strangely familiar’. The exploration of the separation between sublime and simple can be read in Luc Tuymans, Harold Ancart and Michel François, while correspondences with nature as a meditative reflection are at the heart of works by Francis Alÿs, Edith Dekyndt and Sophie Whettnall.

The convex, outward-looking focus of exteriority, for its part, is bound to an awareness of the interconnectedness of all beings and things, of the relations and interactions that necessarily exist between peoples, the planet, nature and the universe. It is grounded in the conviction that there is no single dominant entity that can claim to be the sole centre of all things, for everything that exists must exist in an environment, and cannot claim to rule or organize it from a position extrinsic to that environment. This conception of exteriority is thus a rudimentary form of an ecological and multilateral approach to human and non-human relations. The movement outwards, towards exteriority, often parallels the beginning of a play with or questioning of the superficiality, delusion, or arbitrariness of the codes and signs with which we try to grasp the complexity of things. Such reflection flows into that of an exuberant, unbridled, even caricatural representation of the world, with its grotesque exaggeration of signs and codes, or its revelation of the theatrical tricks and its rhetoric about the illusory and fictional nature of conventional representations. Such forms of humorous exaggeration and exuberance also function as acts of resistance, as gestures that refuse to submit to the ideals of standardized, Classical academic beauty. Along this vein we find the questioning of the normal order by Ann Veronica Janssens, the grotesque deformation of the banal celebrated by Harald Thys and Jos de Gruyter, and the ironic play with acclaimed modern art styles developed by Jacques Charlier. Thomas Lerooy’s estranging and playful appropriations, and Valérie Mannaerts’s organic and visceral assemblages exist alongside the laconic eccentricity of Koenraad Dedobbeleer’s inversions of functional, decorative objects.


The proposition for a convex-concave dialectics as the organizational principle for tackling modes of representation, dominant paradigms or the overwhelming complexity of the real, is clearly opposed to conventional conceptions of artistic engagement with self and the world, be it narcissism or the will to power. It is a proposition that formulates a contemporary – playful as well as meditative – attitude to self-awareness, one that situates personhood as a state, as a permanent exchange and transformation, in convex as well as concave set of relations.


Dirk Snauwaert, director WIELS  


1.Shanghai holds an iconic place in twentieth-century popular culture, and ever since the hall of mirrors scene at the end of Orson Welles’s The Lady from Shanghai (1947), the city has been the paradigmatic imagery palace, the quintessential place wherein to mimic psychological manipulation and breakdown, self-centredness and self-preservation. 

For our purposes, we need to shift the convex and concave lenses from the psychological to the historical level and thus recall the incredible cultural encounter and exchange between the Low Lands and China, which resulted in the introduction of a paradigm shift through the scientific observations that bore out the new heliocentric model of the cosmos.

At the planetarium constructed for the Chinese court in the 17th century according to his plans, and which still bears Ferdinand Verbiest’s name today (in Chinese, 南怀仁, or Nán Huáirén), one can still experience the effects of his astronomical calculations and observations: there, the instruments Verbiest developed for complex convex and concave projections of space are applied to map the geophysical universe, yielding a model that went against the religiously grounded and dogmatic geocentric model.


On Ferdinand Verbiest’s exceptional life and contributions see:

R.A. Blondeau, Mandarijn en astronoom: Ferdinand Verbiest, S.J. (1623-1688) aan het Hof van de Chinese Keizer (Brugge: Desclée De Brouwer, 1970).

J.W. Witek, S.J., Ferdinand Verbiest S.G. (1623-1688): Jesuit Missionary, Scientist, Engineer and Diplomat (Nettetal: Steyler Verlag, 1994).

Han Qi & Wu Mi, Xi chao chong zheng ji: Xi chao ding an (wai san Zhong) (Beijing, 2006).

Noël Golvers, Ferdinand Verbiest, S.J. (1623-1688) and the Chinese Heaven (Leuven: Leuven University Press, 2003).

Noël Golvers (ed.), Letters of a Peking Jesuit: The Correspondence of Ferdinand Verbiest, S.J. (1623-1688) (Leuven: Leuven University Press, 2017).


2.Echoes of the religious, geocentric model live on in titles such as Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat (2005). In that famous book, Friedman analyses globalization and the progress that follows on the heels of a manmade economic, financial, materialist society of open trade. Friedman does not invoke the ongoing conflict between a religious, anti-scientific, fundamentalist conception of a natural and ‘divine’ order, a conception that continues to see itself as locked in battle with the scientific – chemical, physical, etc. – model of the creation of the cosmos and the advent and evolution of sentient life.