For a More Humane World: Sculpture and Technology in Postwar Belgium

Start - End 
2023 - 2025 (ongoing)
Department of Art, music and theatre sciences
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The relation between postwar art and technology is widely considered in terms of progress, optimism, and prosperity. This project sets forth to re-examine postwar art and technology in subtler and complex ways. Its ambition is to investigate postwar sculpture in Belgium in its unique engagement with the rise and fall of techno-optimism, a theme central to Expo ’58, the first and widely visited World Fair in the postwar era held in Brussels. Analyzing artists’ engagements with sculpture’s industrial materials and modes of production, movement and triggering of the senses, seriality and modularity, weight and link to gravity, the project aims to understand how artists in Belgium used sculpture to explore different ways in which technology makes the world more modern and archaic, more enriched and impoverished, and more humane and dehumanized, all at once.

The project analyzes how, in the years roughly between the end of the Second World War and the late 1970s, three generations of artists in Belgium addressed the idea that, to quote King Baudouin's opening speech at the 1958 World Fair, "humanity has entered a new historical age" and "more than ever civilization seems to be controlled by science." Latently responding to Expo '58's theme, "Balance sheet of the world/For a more humane world," artists critically gauged the optimistic claims made for technology, including its capacity to foster what journalist and writer Maurice Lambilliotte called a society of "true peace" and a "collaboration of men without distinction of their social, political, or spiritual convictions." (Lambilliotte, 1960)

This study tackles selected works and exhibitions by three generations of artists in Belgium across six sections, which together account for a historical to-and-fro between techno-optimism and a widespread reservation for technology at the height of the Cold War period. The ambition of the project is to develop different approaches to the source material and expand our understanding of how sculpture's formal, material and symbolic features intertwine with postwar themes and debates in technology. This ranges from a section focusing on abstract sculpture and the discourse on a new humanism; to one on metal and ceramic works and the threat of nuclear war; to a monographic section on Marcel Broodthaers and the modernization of postwar Brussels; to sections discussing kinetic work in connection with molecular biology and space travel, constructivist work in relation to design and ecology, and installation art in terms of science-fiction and dystopia.