Having moved to “the capital of Europe” just last August, I approached the 14th edition of Brussels Gallery Weekend (BGW) aiming not to reckon with changes in the city’s cultural landscape, or discern the features of a much-touted “new normal,” but to focus on the present. I started with “Generation Brussels,” an exhibition of young Brussels-based artists without gallery representation, sponsored by BGW since 2018. Spread across two venues, the thematic focal points this year were gender, identity, space, and environment. In their curatorial statement, Dagmar Dirkx and Zeynep Kubat declared individualism dead, lauded collaboration, and opposed binary divisions (nature/culture, artist/curator, etc.). This overly familiar discourse and thematic framework belied the curators’ sensitivity in arranging a true medley of mixed-media installations, videos, photographs, and textile works, many of which seem to have been produced with the strictest economy of means.

Amongst these, at the Tour à Plomb sports and culture center, Günbike Erdemir’s ramshackle burlap tent At the horizon of the evening of no return (2020) arose from the ground floor like some arcane pagan shelter, eerily lit and replete with small paintings of fantastical creatures and ritualistic scenes, pillows, and wooden bookstands built for reading on the floor. Upstairs, a clutch of fingerless gloves sewn from Japanese and Senegalese textiles gestured down from the rafters in Thiaba Diop Egutchi’s installation fragments なつかしさ [nostalgia] (2021). Diop Egutchi’s quiet voice wafted lyrically from handmade clay sculptures—a pink child’s bucket and pail, a Diop brand shampoo bottle, and a broken comb—strewn amongst royal blue puddles of fabric on the floor. Lasting just through the weekend, “Generation Brussels” convinced me of installation’s capacity to nurture recursive connections between intersectional content and intersecting forms.

Fostering such connections in the best of circumstances involves negotiation, an art on full display in “Thinking: Two Heads,” a wonderful duo exhibition of work by Ana Mazzei and Fabian Peake at Galeria Jacqueline Martins. Mazzei and Peake corresponded and conversed in the lead-up to the exhibition from their respective homes in São Paolo and London, mapping in shared poetry what Mazzei calls “thought places.” I sensed that I could access my own thought places from Mazzei’s Cadeira Hipnótica (2021), a waxed wooden stand designed to hold the human body, in which I was invited to gently lean back, close my eyes, and rest my outstretched arms on one rose and one turquoise dome-topped pole. I knew I’d been lured into Peake’s and Mazzei’s two thinking heads when I opened my eyes and turned to Peake’s large painting The Tapir’s Companion (1971), which stages the face-off between a fierce bullet-bra gown-wearing pigeon and a dopey-looking tapir in a manicured landscape framed by green and red patterned curtains.

Many of the works on show across the weekend seemed to demand this sort of immediate reaction: to relate through feeling, rather than attempt to make sense by thinking. Alma Allen’s larger-than-life, high-sheen bronze abstract figure Not Yet Titled (2021) lassoed me with its wave and lariat into palling around at Mendes Wood DM. Across town at Xavier Hufkens, photographs of frog and dachshund faces peered curiously out from behind the widened, masked eyes of Huma Bhabha’s intense, multi-layered, drawn and collaged heads, causing me to cause a disturbance by laughing out loud. At Bernier/Eliades, I fell head over heels in love with Valérie Mannaerts’s suite of paintings The Accumulation of Unrecorded Life (2020–21), encircling the monumental black tulle garment/sculpture Freedom to Think of Things in Themselves (2020), which kept vigil at the entrance. Over the past year, Mannaerts carried smallish squares of canvas around, close to her body, and worked them with paint, pencil, tulle, and thread into exquisite abstract compositions, out of which one can read a landscape here, a lobe there. Reminiscent of needlework samplers, once framed, these precious works morph easily into the realm of the painterly, but also appear to squirm like live, trapped specimens. It’s too soon to speak of a return to normal, or of a new normal, but I hope whatever happens next allows for more aesthetic experiences like this.