Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s latest choreographed exhibition – Work/Travail/Arbeid – is taking place at WIELS, Brussels’ leading contemporary art institution. There could not have been a more fitting space for this project, except maybe Rosas’ own Performance Space, a few hundred metres down the street.
A rare example of modernist industrial architecture in Brussels, built in 1930 by architect Adrien Blomme, its history is inextricably connected with one of Brussels’ most prominent families – the Wielemans-Ceuppens – who made their name and fortune producing one Belgium’s best known products: beer.
It was 1879 and business was booming at the Riche-Soyez brewery, by then having already been ten years in operation. It was right in the city centre, on rue Terre Neuve, close to the most beautiful square in Europe, the Grand Place and, coincidentally, just a few metres from the old townhouse where I lived when I first came to Brussels, in a charming attic studio – top floor, no lift.
When Riche-Soyez reached peak capacity and could no longer be expanded in the cramped city centre, the Wielemans brothers bought a large property in what was then the countryside of Forest/Vorst. Today, Forest is one of Brussels’ southern municipalities, urbanised yet still quite green.
The brothers built their new brewery fitting it out with a mash tun, four steam boilers, a meal oven, tuns for boiling and storage, and warehouses. They linked the factory to the railroad and the business, now named Wielemans-Ceuppens (the brothers kept the second surname in honour of their mother, Ida Ceuppens) flourished still.
In 1930, responding to demand and technological advances, further expansion became necessary. A new brew hall was built, making Wielemans-Ceuppens the largest brewery in Europe. This is the building we know today as WIELS.
The brewery prospered until WWII, when production was hit by shortages of raw materials and a decree imposed by the German occupation which limited alcohol content to 0,8°, a heavy blow to a country where any beer under 5° is considered ”light”. This limitation gave birth to a new beverage, nicknamed with disdain ”fluitjesbier”, Flemish for pennywhistle, otherwise: weak, watery and tasteless beer.
The factory was quick to market it under the brand name ”Wiels” but, it goes without saying, the ”fluitjesbier” didn’t catch on and production kept declining. Unable to recover, it eventually stopped in 1988 and a long history of more than a hundred years came to an end.
The building remained closed throughout the nineties while its ownership was changing hands and its future use debated, until Brussels Capital Region became the new landlord in 2001. Plans for restoration were quickly put into action and WIELS Contemporary Art Centre was born in 2007.
Its vast former brewing hall now houses a cool café and a bookshop – both accessible independently of exhibitions – alongside some of the original brewery’s copper vats. Beyond the ticket booth, the exhibition space spreads over four levels. High-ceilinged rooms, bathed in white and filled with natural light, as if their post-industrial structure was made to enhance the avant-garde character of contemporary art.
Take a look inside, but let us do take the stairs as the concrete staircase is every bit as remarkable as the main rooms:
Images mainly by Konstantinos Implikian from past and current exhibitions.
WIELS, Contemporary Art Centre
Avenue Van Volxemlaan 354