Do we question the urban space we travel through? Do we recognize the traces of the past, their significance and their symbolic inheritance? The Dansaert / Saint Catherine neighbourhood, for instance, was formerly the harbour area of the city, as you might have noticed by the names of the streets mentioning the raw materials arriving by boat (coal, grain, wood, hay etc.). What you might have not noticed (or not paid the necessary attention to) are some buildings and their decoration which tell us something more about the area and its history tied to the colonial vicissitudes.
It is not a case that last year’s edition of Heritage Days was dedicated to the decolonization of the urban space and many events, like guided tours, took place in the Saint Catherine area which holds many memories of that past.
For example, two buildings are decorated with illustrations of bananas, the art deco building at Dansaertstraat 75—76 rue Dansaert and a similar one on Ieperlaan 34—36 Boulevard d’Ypres built for the firm GFK. At Nieuwe Graanmarkt 36 Place du Nouveau Marché aux Grains, there is a façade that alludes to the colonial trade and the fertility with which the land of Africa was associated at the time: the ceramic decorations represent fruits and heads of African women.
The pinnacle of the neighbourhood’s wealth was reached during the period between the two World Wars, at that moment the first bananas arrived from Belgian Congo.
This long premise is to frame in the right perspective the exhibition currently on display at argos: From Signal to Decay, Volume 4 by Trevor Mathison. This exhibition of mostly new works tackles the colonial trade of bananas, a subject that implies the systematic violence exercised on workers across continents in a wide array of media, from sound to video to printings etc.
Trevor Mathison is a founding member of the legendary Black Audio Film Collective, the award-winning documentary film group active from 1982 to 1998 which created some fundamental works such as Handsworth Songs (1986) or The Last Angel of History (1996) just to name a few. In his magnetic sounds he incorporates elements of dub and musique concrète; according to the critics his pioneering use of tape loops made “the imperial anxieties of the early twentieth century resonate… with the multiple fears of the present.”
At the beginning of the year, Mathison started a sonic investigation of the argos building as well as of its surrounding neighbourhood, producing multiple recordings. As a former banana ripening warehouse built in the 1960s, the original function of the argos building is deeply intertwined with its global trade and distribution. Up until the early 20th century, this trade was predominantly situated in the neighbourhood surrounding argos, where bananas were imported from Congo.
In the sound installation from which the exhibition takes its name, Mathison uses the argos building as the main character of this work. It plays with its historical stratification and juxtaposition of different elements: the recordings he made during his visit, a selection of Mathison’s compositions recombined with the new sounds and a live feed from a microphone placed outside the building. As a result, all these stimuli give the sensation that the building itself starts to metaphorically question itself, its history, its status and what its future might be, knowing that no space is neuter and that eventually one must reckon with it.
Two single-channel videos function as a counter altar of the sonic installation Untitled (2018) and Untitled (rue du Chantier 13) (2023). From one side we have a silent footage of argos neighbourhood which includes banana pattern and decoration, a spectre of the colonial past. On the other side, a very evocative video recorded in Scotland leads us in an ethereal scenario where waves, rain and fog and an oneiric sound contribute to let us flow in a rarefied atmosphere, the almost abstract quality of the video allows us to recognize that the sea has been the theatre of the slave trade, but the power of art helps soothes the viewer from painful memories.
Other remarkable works are Extended Tape Loops, a sculptural installation occupying an entire wall, made up of audio tapes which shows the complexity of working with tapes, essential part of Mathison’s early work, and Ancestral Tears (2023), a mixed media installation, consisting of two kinetic sound sculptures placed over an area covered with banana leaves providing profound sonic feedback. The entire exhibition could be seen as an urban symphony to the places and their memories, to their omissions and psychological removals that is about time we face.
At Argos, until September 24th, 2023.