Laura Hanssens in De Witte Raaf, nr. 138, march - april 2009, pgs. 2-3, Brussels
Annie Gentils runs the gallery ‘Galerie Annie Gentils’ in Peter Benoitstraat in Antwerp. Daughter of Vic Gentils, she was introduced to the art world at a very young age. The active role of her father as a founding member of the artists’ group G58 in the Hessenhuis and the inspiring atmosphere of the 1960s provided a rich soil for her artistic vision.After her Art History and Archaeology of the Ancient Middle East studies in Ghent, she made a determined choice for contemporary art. At then end of 1978, she was appointed as culture official at de Warande in Turnhout.
One of her first exhibitions was a group exhibition with Filip Francis, Luc Deleu, and Wout Vercammen. Using existing, but also newly created work, specifically for de Warande, these artists questioned the absolute character of the concepts of time and space. They stressed, sometimes humorously, the changeability and relativity of everyday reality. Apart from two constructions in Lego and a Voorstel tot afschaffing van de wet van 1939 (Proposal for the abolition of the 1939 law), Deleu also exhibited his Kapot museum voor kapotte kunst (Broken museum for broken art) – numbered concrete fragments of a water collection building in Turnhout dating from 1904, which had been torn down during the preparation of the exhibition.
Filip Francis exhibited, among others, the works Ontbreken van punaises (Lack of thumbnails) and Tumbling Woodblocks. Wout Vercammen, in turn, created a spatial sculpture with one kilometre of wire and unfolded enormous tarpaulins both in the exhibition space and on the lawn outside.
Even though the artists were no beginners, the three-week exhibition caused quite some controversy in the Catholic and conservative community of Turnhout. In spite of many positive reactions – the newspaper De Morgen wrote: ‘Applause for a Cultural Centre that allows itself to be put into perspective’ – the exhibition did not sit well with the local government.
At the time, Annie Gentils was called to account and there was even a vote on her possible dismissal, ending in a tie.
In 1980, Gentils organised exhibitions for de Warande such as Kunst tegen werkloosheid (Art against unemployment) by Daniël Dewaele, Landschapsinterpretaties (Interpretations of a landscape) in cooperation with the Tilburg Cultural Centre, and a double exhibition of the Japanese artist Keiji Uematsu together with the ICC. After preparations for the exhibition of Guillaume Bijl, which would take place at de Warande in the spring of 1980, Annie Gentils made the change-over to the ICC.
The first exhibition that Gentils worked on at the ICC, was the group exhibition 1980 – Jonge Belgische Kunst (1980 – Young Belgian Art); it was a sequel to the exhibition Aspecten van de Actuele Kunst in België (Aspects of Contemporary Art in Belgium), organised by the ICC in 1974, showing the work of 21 young Belgian artists. Like its predecessor, 1980 aimed to give an overview of the new generation of Belgian artists, such as Guillaume Bijl, Johan Dehollander, Jan Vercruysse, Ria Pacquée and Philippe Van Snick. Afterwards, Gentils was co-organiser of exhibitions such as Hole-ography by Dominique Stroobant and Terrence Dinnan, Equilibrium by South-African Michael Gitlin, The Museum of Museums by Johan van Geluwe, Isomopolis by George Smits and the exhibition Naar en in het landschap in de Belgische kunst van het begin van de 19de eeuw tot heden (Towards and in the landscape of Belgian art from the beginning of the 19th century until now). Although Annie Gentils was given more freedom at the ICC than at de Warande, and there were greater financial possibilities, she nursed ambitious plans for the future. Together with Florent Bex, Gentils left the ICC in 1981.
In the meantime, she had become more and more aware of the desperate need for support and exhibition space for young Belgian artists; neither museums nor galleries were concerned with this problem. In 1981, persuaded by her father and her good friend Anne-Mie Van Kerckhoven, she opened the exhibition space Montevideo near the Antwerp harbour with her then friend Stan Peers. The administration was located in their house in Albertstraat.
Montevideo, at the Kattendijkdok, was a harbour warehouse built in 1895 for the South America line, empty since the 1950s. The 2000 sq.m. (21,500 sq.ft) warehouse, built in steel with large wooden walls and a cobblestone floor was rented by Gentils and Peers from the city of Antwerp for a mere 2000 BEF a year (roughly equivalent to €50).
The objective of Montevideo (a non-profit organisation) was to create a meeting point for the national and international avant-garde; a dynamic centre where artists could exhibit ‘without the need to go through all kinds of selection criteria’. Gentils and Peers did not intend to react against museums or galleries; it was their intention to ‘create a pool for institutions to draw from’. Apart from exhibitions, they wanted to organise performances, fashion shows, concerts, dance, theatre and film.
On 6 June 1981, the starting shot was given by the sound-and-vision installation Beam Space by Luc Steels. A few months later, in the winter of 1981, the impressive exhibition Schaal en Perspectief (Scale and Perspective) by Luc Deleu took place; a lying crane engaged in spatial dialogue with the specific architectural character of the Montevideo space. As an invitation for the exhibition, Peers and Gentils sprayed red graffiti cranes on facades in Antwerp.
In 1982, Montevideo organised a dozen activities, among them Lightning Strikes, a musical evening with the experimental record label Les Disques Du Crépuscule, and the showing of the film Subway Riders of the New York film maker Amos Poe. Theatre group AKT performed Ziektekiemen (Germs), the successful second production of Ivo van Hove, while Minus Delta t presented their Bangkok Europa ‘1982’ project. Ria Pacquée and Claude Yande held performances.
13 April 1983 saw the opening of the first group exhibition Marchandises, 5 millions de tonnes de marchandises livrées chaque année in Montevideo, with works by around sixty Antwerp artists such as Guillaume Bijl, Luk Van Soom, Anne-Mie Van Kerckhoven, Ria Pacquée, Luc Deleu, Guy Rombouts and Liliane Vertessen. The exhibition title was suggested by Stan Peers; he took it from an old advertisement from the 1930s. It was a critical allusion to the reigning philosophical debate about the commercialisation of art. With Marchandises, Gentils and Peers wanted to offer Antwerp artists an exhibition space and as such some backing. During the opening, there was a live broadcast of the television programme IJsbreker (Icebreaker), with Annie Gentils participating in a debate with Patrick Verelst and Paul De Vylder, with other participants in Brussels and Amsterdam. The subject was plastic arts and its accompanying circuit.
The next exhibition, Diagonale, showed the work of forty-odd young international plastic artists. After freeing itself from the yoke of minimalism and conceptual art in the early eighties, not only painting revived, but artists also started to make spatial work again. Figuration, colour, emotion and symbolism were possible again. Diagonale wanted to show a cross-cut – hence the title – of what was happening in the art world, and formed an addition to or a traversing of the simultaneous 17th Biennale in the Antwerp sculpture park Middelheim. Among the artists participating in Diagonale were Philippe Van Snick, Kate Blacker, Wout Vercammen, Henk Visch, Michael Kramer, Alexandre Gherban, Keiji Uematsu and Bernd Lohaus. Each artist was asked to create works in situ, with the architectural character of the old Montevideo warehouse as a starting point. Guy Rombouts polished cobblestones on the floor until the word UNI appeared, Niek Kemps dug five holes for his work Résurrection, the Kiss of Life, and Olaf Metzel chiselled twisting figures into a brick wall, for Across Montevideo, filling them with cement and painting them.
The expanse of Montevideo offered the artists a rare spatial freedom, which led to monumental works by, among others, Horst Glasker and Wolfgang Luÿ.
In 1984, Gentils and Peers organised De eerste Chauvenistische – la première Chauveniste in Montevideo, with sixteen mainly Belgian artists, among them Michel François, Claude Yande, Ann Veronica Janssens, Leo Copers, Bruneau, Monica Droste and Wout Vercammen. As the title and the poster – showing Belgium as a white spot on the map of Europe – suggest, this exhibition pleaded for a revaluation of Belgian art, both in Belgium and abroad.
The last exhibition to take place in Montevideo was titled Torens van Babel (Towers of Babel). The concept of this exhibition – arrogance and humility in the plastic arts – was suggested by Vic Gentils. For this small-scale, intimate exhibition, Gentils and Peers invited one artist each from six different countries to work around this universal theme. The megalomaniac architecture of the warehouse was in itself a tower of Babel confronting the participating artists Luc Deleu, Shirazeh Houshiary, Mario Merz, Pere Noguera, Jacques Vieille and Henk Visch. This led to a few special spatial interventions. For A Labour of Love for Montevideo, Henk Visch covered a twelve-metre (40 ft) wall of the warehouse in black velvet, on which a white oblong was applied in the middle. Luc Deleu provided an overwhelming spatial impression as well, with Containers in Bulk, seven apparently randomly stacked red containers.
Even though Montevideo grew to become an internationally renowned exhibition space in 1984, the project became less and less financially viable; government support was practically nonexistent. When Gentils and Peers ended their relationship in 1984, the doors of Montevideo closed permanently, too.
The next year, Annie Gentils nurtured the idea of starting her own gallery. It would offer a space for the international avant-garde, but just like Montevideo the main focus would be on supporting and launching young Belgian artists. In the winter of 1985 Annie Gentils bought a big, old town house in Peter Benoitstraat in Antwerp, which she renovated and turned into Galerie Montevideo. Its first exhibition, Sculpturen en Concepten (Sculptures and Concepts) by Leo Copers, opened on 10 May 1986. In the following six years, artists such as Michel Angelo Pistoletto, Paul Armand Gette, Luc Deleu, Leo Copers, Guy Van Bossche, Ria Pacquée, Gerard Polhuis, Filip Francis, Jacques Vieille and Eddy De Vos exhibited in the gallery. In 1992, as a new mother, Annie Gentils decided to close her gallery for a few years; in 1998, the doors of Galerie Annie Gentils opened. This time, Gentils focuses on a new generation of artists, such as Els Vanden Meersch, Kris Vleeschouwer, Charlotte Schleiffert, Kati Heck, Filip Vervaet, Andrew Webb, Wesley Meuris, Dirk Zoete and Kathe Burkhart.