Monday, February 18, 2013

Who the hell is Lange Wapper?

Lange Wapper is a creepy giant from Flemish folklore.

He's a massive perv. His favourite trick is transforming himself into a child to suck the breast milk from Antwerp's MILFs.

It gets worse, he can also grow exceptionally tall to peep into windows at women getting undressed. If only he'd taken a stroll through Antwerp's red light district he wouldn't have needed to stoop to sorcery for an eyeful of flesh.

His final (and more forgiveable pastime) is tormenting the town drunks.

I love folklore and local legends but I've never come across a character quite so sexually dysfunctional as Lange Wapper. He's like the missing link from The Inbetweeners and American Pie.

There's a fun statue in his honour at Antwerp's dockside. He was also going to get a spanking new bridge named after him... unfortunately the spoil sport populace voted against it in a recent plebiscite. This is just another example why I hate democracy. What this world needs is a bridge named after a pervy giant.
Lange Wapper statue Antwerp
Lange Wapper, loveable rogue or sinister sexual predator? Discuss

Friday, February 15, 2013

The Town of the Horse Eaters

"We're called Pjeirrefretters - which means we eat horses," the Mayor of Vilvoorde told me with a smile.

I had arrived at the horse-eating capital of the world. For a small industrial town just north of Brussels, Vilvoorde boasts two restaurants serving nothing but horse meat. I was at De Kuiper's (pronounced Kur-pa), which has been serving up horse meat since 1859. Its owner Alfons Gulickx took over the business from his father and has dedicated his life to the perfect horse steak.
Horse steaks on the griddle at De Kuiper
He is passionate about what he does even if he admits it's embarrassingly simple. At De Kuiper there's only one thing on the menu - horse steak. 

The steaks come griddled, broiled in horse fat or served raw as a steak tartare; a side order of frites and a few sprigs of greenery are the only additions.
These steaks are frying in their own pitch-coloured fat
The raw steak tartare - apparently the pinnacle of horse meat
A steak restaurant might sound like a funny place for a vegetarian to be hanging out. I was there for AP, apparently horse meat is in the news at the moment.

The cosy, wood-panelled restaurant was packed for lunch and Gulickx reckons the press coverage (even negative) is good for business. He says he gets lots of customers who come to show their support.

So what does horse meat taste like? I didn't try any but I was curious to know. It has a high-glucose content which gives the meat a much sweeter taste than beef. It's also fattier than beef but contains a more iron. I have to eat bags of spinach to get my iron quota - one horse steak and I'd be set for the month. Gulickx reckons venison is a better comparison and the fresh steaks certainly had that earthy, red colour of game.
Alfons is owner of De Kuiper
Shockingly I quite approve of horse meat. Whereas cows, pigs and chickens are bred with one thing in mind (your belly) a horse is never raised purely for human consumption. The horses could be pets or they might be working animals - once they reach the end of their life they are slaughtered and butchered. This is actually very sensible, there is no waste. To cremate a horse is ridiculous and almost unethical when you consider it could feed an entire village. With over population, this planet can't afford to waste a thing.

I've never liked the conveyor belt of the meat industry - breed, feed, fatten, slaughter. Profits need to be kept low and harvest times are driven down. Horse meat is almost like recycling in comparison.

Part of the reason horses aren't farmed as food is they're quite inefficient. The calories they consume aren't converted to fat so readily as cattle. Another unusual twist is older horses taste better than younger animals, and have a richer flavour - this is not true of lamb and mutton.
Fresh horse steak and a fryer full of frites... the Belgian dream
As a vegetarian I've never understood why people object to eating horses or rabbits but happily scoff roast beef or pork. Although I draw the line at dogs... that's like eating a human in my books.

I spent a long time interviewing Alfons and he was interesting. We even discussed the Islamic invasion of Europe in the 8th Century. The Moors were defeating the scattered European tribes because they'd mastered the speed and manoeuvrability of cavalry. Suddenly the horse was no longer a treat for the cooking pot, it became vital for the West's survival.

Today most of De Kuiper's meat comes from South America. Argentina and Uruguay are its major suppliers but they also receive cuts from Mexico, Canada and sometimes even Australia. The meat arrives by ship into Antwerp which is now the global distributor.

The history of Vilvoorde and horses are intertwined. The region is famous for its Brabant shire horse - which the Mayor proudly assured me is the strongest horse in the world.
A statue of the strong Brabant horse
I spotted two horse statues in town. A shire horse on the roundabout in the centre of town and a slightly surreal bronze bust outside the town hall - it looks like the horse has been impaled.
Impaled horse statue... I blackened the background in Photoshop for dramatic effect
Belgium isn't the only country to eat horse meat - it's also popular in Japan - but here in the heart of the Brabant the controversial dish has found its spiritual home. On a blustery, bleak day in February, I could understand the appeal of a juicy steak served with a bowl of golden frites and washed down with a sour Gueuze beer.
Horse meat is for all the family
De Kuiper restaurant in Vilvoorde
I enjoyed my visit to Vilvoorde and De Kuiper. I like meeting people like Alfons with a genuine passion for food. It's just a shame more people don't get as passionate as I do about lentils and chick peas.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Carnaval de Binche 2013

What the Tomatina is for tomatoes, the Carnaval de Binche is for oranges, but here comparisons cease.  Whereas the Tomatina crowds fry under a Valencian summer sun, every Shrove Tuesday the sleepy Wallonian town of Binche lets its hair down for a festival like no other.

The most striking thing about this UNESCO listed carnival is the colour. It was a gloomy, grey day but the entire town was vibrant and saturated. The costumes are some of the most elaborately crafted I've ever seen and the townsfolk take particular pride in turning themselves out.

The icing on the cake of every costume is the blooming ostrich plume headpieces worn by the town's men (or Gilles as they're known).
Carnival de Binche 2013
Welcome to the Carnaval de Binche
The festival takes place over the Sunday, Monday and Tuesday before Ash Wednesday but I suspect there's a pagan heart to this Christian tradition. The Gilles beat drums, wear ghoulish masks, stamp their clogs and wave sticks to ward off the evil spirits... much like the Straw Bear Festival in my local town, Whittlesey.
Carnival de Binche 2013
Reservoir Clogs
The festival is best known for its oranges. Hundreds of thousands of these citrus missiles are stockpiled as ammunition. The oranges are thrown by the Gilles in the parade at the tourists lining the streets to watch. Although it's fine for the townsfolk to lob oranges at you, it's a faux pas to throw them back. The orange aimed at your head was a gift bringing good luck and it's an insult to return it at the same velocity at which it was delivered.
Carnival de Binche 2013
Lobbing oranges, what the Carnival de Binche is all about
Even the children take part in the orange throwing. In fact, it's fair to say they're the town's most lethal orange cannons.
Carnival de Binche 2013
She looks like butter wouldn't melt in her mouth, that's until you're on the receiving end of her citrus missile
Carnival de Binche 2013
There's no age limit on pelting tourists with satsumas
With so many oranges whistling by my ear and with those around me receiving direct hits I was starting to feel charmed. But nemesis surely follows hubris and it wasn't long before I too was victim of the capricious fortune of war. I took an orange square in the forehead; my pint-sized assassin laughed in my face (as did everybody around me).
Carnival de Binche 2013
No shrinking violet
There were lots of different costumes but these pastel coloured princess outfits were really cheerful, although inexplicably accessorised with Zorro's mask. Even these cherubs were firing oranges like Napoleonic artillery at our lines.
Carnival de Binche 2013
Pastel princesses
Earlier when I'd seen all the town's windows boarded up with grillage I was suspicious; how could an orange do any serious damage? After I'd tasted first blood orange I was more sympathetic. You see it isn't long before gently throwing underarm gets a bit stale. Soon the oranges were being flung greater distances at large undefined masses with fate deciding who fell. When les ados on one side of the square decided to hurl an orange fifty feet at full toss at the crowds on the opposite side we were soon facing a return delivery at a pace to shame Shoaib Akthar. Orange fight!
Carnival de Binche 2013
Boarded up
Carnival de Binche 2013
Glugging behind le grillage
Carnival de Binche 2013
This sensible chap demonstrates the underarm technique
The most popular targets were those lording it over us on balconies. It needed a good arm to reach some of the loftier spectators, but the sturdy Gilles didn't disappoint.
Carnival de Binche 2013
One moment you're waving from the balcony like royalty... the next you've got a fast-flying orange in the chops, nothing is quite so humbling quite so quickly
The oranges provided were blood oranges, so before long the cobbled streets of Binche ran red with bloody juice. A nice dramatic touch.
Carnival de Binche 2013
The streets ran red with blood
The entire town was spilling in and out of the many bars. The tipples of choice were champagne of lager. By midday the party was already in full swing with revellers dancing to the Euro pop disco inside the dimly lit bars. Not everybody looked like they were having a good time...
Carnival de Binche 2013
Have you ever seen Toy Story 3? Remember Chuckles the Clown?
Carnival de Binche 2013
Wardrobe malfunction
It was below freezing and I had to stand around for several hours waiting for the parade. On my own it was quite lonely. Luckily I bumped into Tomoko from Okayama (not Okinawa as some people might have you believe). She's a real carnival junkie and is on a grand tour of Europe's best festivals. The only people I know who like talking about lenses as much as I do are the Japanese, so the time flew by. Regardless, we were both absolutely frozen by the time the parade began and a kind Parisian man gave us some Chinese chemical pocket warmers, without these I'd have lost a few digits. Back in Brussels - six hours later - the pocket warmer was still toasty - how do you spell 'partially de-weaponised plutonium' in Mandarin?
Carnival de Binche 2013
Tomoko came all the way from Japan to see the carnival
And like the Tiger Who Came to Tea the festival was over for another year. I pitied the poor cleaners the next morning. Returning to the gare I spotted this desultory dinosaur wearily wending his way home.
Carnival de Binche 2013
It's a long walk home when you're dressed as a velociraptor

CLICK HERE - to see my complete collection on Flickr

Monday, February 11, 2013

The Elevation of the Cross

This is the Elevation of the Cross by Peter Paul Rubens. It's a triptych housed in Antwerp cathedral and I made a special trip on Saturday to see it.
The Elevation of the Cross by Peter Paul Rubens
It shows Jesus nailed to the cross, delirious in his agony. Nine muscular men heave and strain in an effort to raise the inexplicable weight of the cross.

I really like it because Rubens uses chiaroscuro to bold effect. The sharp contrast between the darks and lights show off every ripple in the clothing, every contour of the muscles and every rivet in the plate armour. The vibrant colour palette is also evident.

I realised I sometimes try to achieve a similar effect in Photoshop. I duplicate layers, overlay, run highpass filters and increase the saturation.

Bizarrely, in the bottom left hand corner a playful Springer Spaniel looks on. He looks like he wants to help, but is probably just getting in the way and making a royal nuisance of himself.

It made me wonder what Gravel (my parent's Springer Spaniel) would have been getting up to, had he been present at the most important event in human history.
Gravel photobombs the Elevation of the Cross by Peter Paul Rubens
Here's a statue of Rubens in Antwerp. Unfortunately a seagull balancing on his bonce has left a dirty protest
Rubens statue in Antwerp
Peter Paul Rubens statue in Antwerp
Antwerp (or Anvers if you're French) is perhaps the most beautiful city in Belgium. It has ornate medieval guild houses, a striking cathedral, and narrow streets which open out into impressive squares.

I couldn't help wondering how much more beautiful Antwerp would be had it not been for its unfortunate history. In World War I the Germans laid siege to the capital of Flanders for 11 days before eventually capturing it after bitter fighting. The Germans became occupiers again during World War II before the British 11th Armour Division liberated the town on September 4, 1944. The Wehrmacht retaliated and fired thousands of V2 rockets at the city; Antwerp has the unenviable record of having been hit by more V2s than every other city combined. The Germans tried and failed to knock out its strategic port, instead they flattened half the town.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Brussels' greatest artist... whom everybody hates

WARNING: This post contains lesbianism, frontal nudity, graphic suicide, roasted babies and rapists getting shot in the face from point blank range. I think that's all sensitivities covered.
Antoine Joseph Wiertz
The wierd and macabre world of Antoine Wiertz
Much maligned
Let me introduce you to Romantic painter Antoine Joesph Wiertz. Don't worry if you've never heard of him, it doesn't make you a Philistine. Wiertz has been unkindly described as perhaps "the worst painter to have a government funded museum all to himself". His paintings are bold, ghoulish, macabre and perhaps even slightly naive. During his own lifetime he was laughed out of the Louvre and exiled to Brussels. But don't listen to the art critics... listen to me and my polemic. 
Antoine Joseph Wiertz
Antoine Joesph Wiertz was pretty easy on the eye, eh ladies?
So why does Wiertz have a museum all of his very own?
What Wiertz lacked in talent he made up for in luck. He was very much in the right place at the right time. Belgium had just been created as an independent nation and the new Government was looking for national heroes to unite the people and inject some patriotism. Wiertz was hobnobbing with the equivalent of the Minister for Culture and happened to mention he was looking for a new studio to house his enormous paintings. The pair struck a deal. Wiertz would donate all of his works to the state, in return they would be permanently displayed in a Government-funded museum. 
Antoine Joseph Wiertz
Wiertz's works are enormous, this photo gives some idea of their true scale
The lonely Wiertz museum
Thanks to the deal struck in 1850 I was able to visit the Wiertz museum free-of-charge in 2013. Back in the 1920s the Belgian government must have thought it had struck gold and the museum was attracting nearly 50,000 visitors every year. His visceral works of death, dismemberment and naked birds had captured the public imagination. Unfortunately, nearly a century later Wiertz is largely forgotten. According to the Economist, the museum now draws fewer than 10 visitors a day. I had the entire gallery to myself. I spent an hour there and didn't see another soul. It was a ghost town. The Magritte museum with its predictable apples and bowler hats is currently thronging with idiots clamouring and jostling to point their smartphones at something they recognise for two-seconds of diversion. 

The best museum in Brussels
The Wiertz Museum's unpopularity is a real shame. For a start it's free. Secondly, his images are bold, brutal, proto-surreal and painted on a Cyclopean scale. Finally, there's a beautiful irony in the museum. It sits slap bang in the middle of the European parliament complex. Wiertz had always argued that Brussels (and not Paris) should be the new capital of Europe... and now it is (bureaucratically at least).

Why Wiertz is so brilliant
The longer I spent looking at his paintings the more I started to appreciate the artist. His images are as relevant today as ever. In fact, I'd argue Wiertz was something of a trailblazer. * all of these photos are on my Flickr stream if you'd like to see them in high-res*

It must have been shocking to think of a woman bearing arms in the early 19th Century, let alone blowing a Frenchman's skull open for getting a bit too familiar. There were no rape alarms or pepper spray for Wiertz's heroine - just a carbine and a lead ball. The assailant's face explodes like a Tarrantino film.
Antoine Joseph Wiertz
He won't be raping again in a hurry
Suicide was a shocking idea to pious society but not for Wiertz, he packs a punch with this work. The man's face might be shrouded in pistol smoke but fragments of his head fly across the canvas. 
Antoine Joseph Wiertz
Suicide by Wiertz
Here Cyclops chomps down on a man's leg. The giant's eyes are closed in pleasure at the bite and the man dangles in agony. Wiertz does not spare the red paint.
Antoine Joseph Wiertz
An amuse bouche for a Cyclopean hunger
I love the La Jeune Sorciere (Young Sorceress). It's a painting packed with sexual metaphor. A nubile, naked witch straddles the most phallic looking broomstick I've ever seen while a hoary, old hag stoops over her. They both look very guilty and there's more than a hint of lesbianism in the image. The old woman leans over the young girl in a dominant way and raises the finger of secrecy and silence over her wrinkled lips. The girl is even blindfolded.
Antoine Joseph Wiertz
Erotic, esoteric and evocative are three words beginning with 'E' to describe La Jeune Sorciere

This painting shows a Christ-like figure transcending the Earth seconds after his death. The planets and the rocket trail he blazes as he bursts through the atmosphere look more science-fiction than Baroque.
Antoine Joseph Wiertz
A painting moments after death
Sex is never far from Wiertz's mind and you can't help but wonder what's going on behind the red, velvet curtain.
Antoine Joseph Wiertz
Sex and Wiertz go together like tea and jam
This painting of the Greeks and Trojans fighting over the body of Patrocles got Wiertz sneering, contemptuous reviews at the Paris Salon. He didn't take criticism well and turned his back on Paris and critics for good. Apparently it was unsympathetically hung and badly lit... but I'm not a Wiertz apologist.
Antoine Joseph Wiertz
Rather harshly judged I think
Have you ever seen Quasimodo look so beastly but dignified all at the same time? Wiertz's portrait of Notre Dame's most famous hunchback is much more thoughtfully and sympathetically considered than any other depiction I've ever seen.
Antoine Joseph Wiertz
Quasimodo looks deep in thought, almost serene
What artist would be inspired to paint a picture of a baby with third-degree burns after its mother left it too close to the fire? I think you can guess.
Antoine Joseph Wiertz
A mother screams in horror as roasted skin peels from her baby's legs
If you're not traumatised enough already here's a painting of wailing children clawing at the coffin of their last surviving parent while a burly labourer drags it away uncaringly.
Wiertz 034
No innocence in childhood in the world of Wiertz
Finally, here's the Lion of Waterloo. It's fair to say Wiertz wasn't a Francophile. In this painting he celebrates Wellington's victory over Napoleon just a few miles down the road.
Wiertz 035
Celebrating the British (and Prussian) victory at Waterloo

And this is how I was first introduced to Wiertz. I saw this statue and wondered who it was in honour of... one Google search later and here we are.
Antoine Joseph Wiertz
A fitting statue for an overlooked and much maligned artist

TLDR - If you're ever in Brussels go to the Wiertz Museum near the European Parliament because it's brilliant

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Truc Troc: the credit crunch art fair

Truc Troc is an art fair with a difference. Works are traded and deals are brokered but no money is allowed to change hands. Instead punters are packing a pad of Post It notes on which they write offers. In French truc means ‘something’ and troc means ‘to exchange’.

So the truc could be a week in a ski chalet, the artist’s weight in Belgian chocolate, guitar lessons, a vinyl record... I even saw sexual favours being offered.

I’ve covered big art fairs in London, and they don’t come much bigger than Frieze. I covered it last year with superstar Spanish journalist, Cristina Martinez (see - you can read about it here). It’s hectic and all of modern art’s enfants terribles are present, posing and pompous. At Frieze deals are done in back rooms over vintage champagne and for prices that make Fernando Torres look like good value for money.

In stark contrast, Truc Troc is transparent. You can see what the competition has bid because the Post It notes are stuck to the wall next to the artwork. Naturally, the most popular pieces are well and truly plastered by the end of the weekend and the artist has some hard decisions to take.

I was covering Truc Troc for AP and I’d put together quite a beefy rig to capture the event. My 5D was barely recognisable by the time I’d added a cage, a follow focus, extended pan handle, rails, shoulder rig, magnifying viewfinder and matte-box. I decided to shoot most of the event on my vintage Carl Zeiss 35mm Flektogon. It can macro-focus closer than 20cm and on a full-frame camera offers a decent wide-angle for larger artworks without having to film from the far side of the gallery.

My 5D is transformed with a full cine-rig
Over 20,000 people attended the show throughout the weekend so getting a clean shot was never easy. On Friday night the queue snaked out of the doors of the Bozar gallery and half way down Rue Ravenstein. Fortunately I wasn’t queuing. I met up with my contact Leopoldo from Truc Troc who gave me a guided tour of the exhibition and later an interview. Leopoldo explained how Truc Troc is a credit-crunch success; as the economic situation worsens, the more popular the fair becomes. From what I saw I’m inclined to agree.
Leopoldo reckons Truc Troc is an art fair for an economic downturn
This pair of performance artists were painting one another in foul, fish-smelling PVC glue. Afterwards, they crudely stuck the sweepings of a barbershop floor to their bodies. Before long they both looked Neanderthal and with their vile and viscid suits of human hair complete, the pair wandered around Truc Troc looking confused and causing no end of consternation to new arrivals. 
Monkeying around is thirsty work
The PVC glue they used stank like Billingsgate Market
Denis Meyers painting a new work live at Truc Troc
Irving Garp was probably not looking for a billion
 dollar credit default swap negotiation 
I conducted my first interview in the French at Truc Troc. The intensive language courses are paying off. I was talking to Denis Meyers, a French artist who was painting a street-art mural live at Truc Troc. It’s not always easy discussing conceptual art in your mother tongue but in a second language it’s particularly tough. Fortunately Denis was sympathetic and gave clear, concise answers. 

Irving Garp is a photographer who had taken a series of hair-dryer inspired shots. For example, a blonde woman with a hair-dryer to her head like Russian roulette. The implication was she had nothing between her ears (because she was blonde). Apparently the model is actually a surgeon, Irving explained.

My favourite piece was a triptych of hell that reminded me of the enormous Last Judgement fresco in Albi cathedral. The 100 richest people in the world are riding a golden roller coaster crowned with the charging bull of Wall Street. They loop the loop over rivers of human blood and waiting in the wings are the naked, rotting proles - they’re too busy devouring one another’s flesh to notice what a hoot the roller coaster looks. Bill Gates looks like he might have wet his pants, a guilty Mona Lisa smile creeps across his face. The artist is called Lucas Racasse. He is the protoge of Belgian artist Guy Peellaert best known for designing the cover to David Bowie’s Diamond Dogs album.

The roller coaster of Hell and Bill Gates bags the best seat
I learned the word pied de nez from Lucas. I'm not sure how
you'd translate it into English, so here's a screen-grab of him performing a pied de nez 

Also at Truc Troc I saw a man picking through the contents of vacuum cleaner bags with a pair of tweezers. He was neatly arranging the contents into little piles, paper clips, rubber bands, cigarette butts. It brought on my allergies even thinking about all that dust. 

The first time Hannah used a Dyson she didn't realise there was an "instant empty" button which spewed the dusty guts of the vacuum cleaner like fluffy, grey cat vomit... this is what our kitchen floor looked like that day
I also really liked these portraits of an African by Italian artist Alfredo Longo. They're painstakingly created from thousands of crushed Diet and Caffeine-free Coke cans.

A sweet tooth is needed for this art
Take a step back and the crushed cans become a face
In a dark room tucked away from the main gallery a young, female artist was sticking pins into a girl’s thigh. Around these grisly anchor points she was threading a lace stocking. To be honest, it all felt a bit creepy filming a girl in a thong with a night-vision camera.

In the last year I’ve covered some amazing exhibitions (including David Hockey, Frieze, the Pre-Raphaelites, Kinetica and Super Human at the Wellcome Collection) but I think for variety and innovation I enjoyed Truc Troc the most.

The final HD rendering of my piece nearly killed my poor computer so I treated it to another 4gb of RAM and opened up the case to let it breathe more easily. My new i7 arrives on Friday and I thought it was going to be like one of the American cop movies where the retiring officer bites it on his last day of service.