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Stefan Wouters, In Search of Belgium's First Happening (2011)

Stefan Wouters, "In search of Belgium’s first happening." 

Validity in art historical terms

The first self-proclaimed Belgian happening is interesting for various reasons. First of all this is the earliest Belgian example which officially adopts the art historical term ‘happening’. Secondly it gives a broader insight into the beginning of the artistic career of Panamarenko (°1940), one of the country’s leading contemporary artists. But Panamarenko was not alone to organize or to participate in this event. Key players included Yoshio Nakajima (°1940), Wout Vercammen (°1938), Hugo Heyrman (°1942) and Tony Rombouts (°1941). Here we enter a field of collaboration between international artists and strong international connections. For all these reasons it is rather surprising that little research has been conducted so far about this happening, especially in a country that can claim a rich history of art. 

In this paper we will try to reconstruct what happened exactly during this piece and we will attempt to provide an analytical framework by means of contextualization within other local and international events. The lack of film footage for reconstruction underlines even more the ephemeral character of this form of art. Therefore our interpretation will be based on written texts, interviews, a few photos and a poster made for the event. 

In search of a title

A valuable starting point for textual interpretation lies within the title. Neither scholar nor artist seems to agree on the exact title of the event though. For instance the scholar Niek Pas uses Een bezette stad II (An occupied city II) , whereas the artist Hugo Heyrman, uses the title Happening Bezette Stad II (Happening Occupied City II). Both titles are very likely to be derived from the seminal work by Paul Hefting, who opted for Happening van een bezette stad II, dancing-music-photography-movies-pantomime and other action (Happening of a occupied city II, …). It seems obvious that Hefting based himself on a poster for this event. Until now it was commonly accepted that it was Panamarenko who made this poster. But from a recent interview we now know that the poster was made by another participant, Wout Vercammen. He wrote: NU HAPPENING! van een bezette stad III dancing-music-photography-movies-pantomime and other action (NOW HAPPENING! of an occupied city III…). Apart from leaving out the word NOW and the leveling out of its typography by later authors, an even bigger surprise lies in the change of the number. One could see this as a typo, but as we will see, it has got more to do with the blurred context in which the event took place. The scholar Joannes Késenne plays it safe and opts for a combination: Nu Happening! Bezette Stad II en III (Now Happening! Occupied City II and III). In fact each given title reflects more or less the author’s contextual preconception. 

Occupied City

The common key words in all these slightly different titles are: Occupied City. This might seem as a direct reference to a famous typographical expressionistic work from the poet Paul van Ostaijen (1896-1928). This reference finds also a formal confirmation in Vercammen’s poster, since he uses expressionistic typography. It might be quite clear that there is a link for the choice of title with van Ostaijen, but it is not a direct one on the level of content, as most authors and artists involved suggest. To understand this indirect link, we have to contextualize the first proclaimed Belgium happening within the local literary scene. This indirect reference will also clarify the confusion that surrounds the exact title. 

Time for literary action

The first artists to use public Antwerp space as a medium were four prominent figures that created the literary magazine Gard Sivik (1954-1960). As early as 1956 Gust Gils (1924-2002), René Gysen (1927-1969), Hugues C. Pernath (1931-1975) en Paul Snoek (1933-1981) wrote a critique on publicity upside down in chalk, mentioning their own magazine as a statement of irony. They worked the piece together as a collage of words and sentences. This event took place on the outside walls of the house of Gust Gils. The act of doing so must have been as important as the words themselves, because some pictures were taken during the process itself. 

There is a formal similarity between this small scale event and what happened in the summer of 1965. Back then a group of Antwerp poets wrote poems on the ground, in streets, on squares, on walls, fences, publicity boards, roofs and on window-shops. They used markers and chalk sticks. Participating poets were Rudy Witse, Frans Neels, Adriaan Peel (1927-2009), Jan Diels, Lucienne Stassaert (°1936) and Tony Rombouts. It was the poets’ artistic way to literally occupy the city, hence the title name Occupied City II. Here we are confronted with a direct reference to van Ostaijen. According to Tony Rombouts, it was Wout Vercammen and Hugo Heyrman who came up with the idea. Vercammen en Heyrman also took pictures of this event. Although these pictures haven’t surfaced yet, we might assume that their purpose was more out of a documentary interest than for an artistic point of view. It is quite surprising that Rombouts mentions explicitly these two artists in the event, since Vercammen en Heyrman were generally more into visual arts. This means that an interdisciplinary co-operation between visual artists and writers took place. They were not the first ones though to develop this interdisciplinary concept in Antwerp. A blueprint for such co-operation can already be traced to the beginning of the sixties. A relatively well-known form of co-operation was a big exhibition called Ondergronds (Subterranean) organized by Serge Largot (°1929) in 1962. This exhibition can be situated within a beatnik ideology. Also its title, Ondergronds, is a clear reference to one of the most influential spokesman’s of this ideology, Jack Kerouac (1922-1969). It was the painter and writer Lucienne Stassaert who borrowed this title from his famous novel, the Subterraneans (1958). 

Another important co-operation in the light of this research is the early collaboration between Vercammen and Rombouts. Vercammen often used to illustrate Baal&Stuip, a local literary magazine in which Tony Rombouts also regularly published. The closest collaboration between these two artists must have been the illustrations that Vercammen provided for a volume of verse by Rombouts in 1963. 

Apart from their public 1965 literary city occupation collaboration, there was also an indoor event scheduled at the AMVC. The title for this part of the event was Beeldprojectie van een bezette stad II (image projection of an occupied city II). Here we enter the domain of meta-meaning and it is in this event where the nucleus of the title confusion resides. The image projection itself is a part of the first happening, called third occupied city happening. The pictures taken by Vercammen and Heyrman were an important part of these images. This explains already a significant part of the poster made by Vercammen. It also proves that Vercammen knew exactly what it was all about at the time and by this analysis we can exclude any form of typo.

Vercammen’s poster

This poster needs some further closer reading. The first word, NU (NOW) often gets omitted in referencing the event. The reason must probably be sought in its inherent annunciating character. However, this seemingly innocent word has a deeper connotation in this context. Here we enter the field of Hugo Heyrman’s literary background and ideology. Heyrman was a big fan of the work of Aldous Huxley (1894-1963) and in particular of the utopian novel Island (1962). In later happenings he will even give himself the nickname The Happy- Space-Maker and the idealistic utopian idea will become a huge factor in these happenings. Therefore it seems quite logical that NOW refers to here and now, a catchphrase that stems from Island. 

Each participating artist indicated on the poster has a nickname. Nakajima’s one is unbeat. Unbeat appears to refer to a group of Japanese monks whose goal was to travel around the world in minimalist circumstances to enrich themselves with new experiences. So far it has not been quite clear who came up with this name nor who the other monks were. Vercammen wrote his name right underneath Nakajima’s and nicknamed himself nihilist. Though he did not have the intention to change society as a whole, he was opposed towards certain values produced by society. Heyrman, the third artist on the poster, is presented as the prefix eye. This probably refers to the concept of inner wisdom and, as in the case of Huxley, to eastern philosophy. The last artist on the poster is Panamarenko. His prefix poval is directly linked to his material artistic output and therefore he stands out from the other three artists. It is important to note that two years before the happening, Panamarenko and Heyrman were making sculptures in kurashiki poval, a Japanese variation of polyester.

Furthermore the poster lists a whole range of disciplines, such as dance, music, photography, film, pantomime and other action. These art forms will now be looked at within their spatial context.

Where did it happen?

Before the pictures of bezette stad II, taken by Vercammen and Heyrman, were projected at the AMVC, another part of the happening took place outside. According to Tony Rombouts the first part happened completely spontaneously and only half an hour before the performance acquaintances were informed. However, complete spontaneity seems unlikely since Vercammen’s poster indicates the date and place for part I. 

The place for the first proclaimed happening was the Groenplaats, a square right in middle of the historical centre of Antwerp. This is a highly symbolic place, both on the ground as under the ground. First of all it hosts a statue of one of the city’s greatest 17th century painters, Peter Paul Rubens and secondly it used to be the cemetery ground for the famous Onze-Lieve-Vrouwe cathedral. Although Niek Pas sees an interesting similarity with the happenings conducted in Amsterdam, on the Spui, by Robert Jasper Grootveld , there is no reason so far to believe that the Groenplaats was chosen for a possible comparative symbolism. Anny de Decker, who was a journalist at the time and who shortly, afterwards co-founded the famous White Wide Space Gallery in Antwerp, declares that the choice of location was practical, in the sense that there were always many people gathering around, especially when the weather was good. This potential for public must have been the main reason for the choice of location. But there is also another practical reason. At the time the city centre was heavily invaded by cars, a situation which was hardly questioned. Therefore a congregation of people could disturb traffic and this would mean the police force would undoubtedly intervene. At this specific event police intervention was not part of the plan. So to avoid a clash, a car free location was recommended. Apart from the symbolic coincidences, mainly steered by these practical reasons, there is also a second level to be taken into account: the influence of space on the artistic form, as we will investigate later.

What happened during part I?

Around 7.30 p.m. Vercammen led Yoshio Nakajima from his studio in the Blindestraat towards the Groenplaats. A group of insiders surrounded them, which draw even more attention to the passer bys. Nakajima masked his face and shouted unrecognizable sounds. At the same time he wrapped himself in threads, paper festoons and colorful ribbons. He jumped, squatted down, lied down, stood up, imitated the wings of a mill, danced, and walked and put himself in thousands of swirls. During this active performance, Hugo Heyrman, dressed with a military jacket, probably a Belgian one, appeared and wrote ATOM on the ground. From a picture we can also decipher the word LEGER (ARMY). These words are related to the spatial context, namely the fact that at the time a nuclear air-raid shelter was housed under the Groenplaats. 

This is a fine example of the passive influence of space on the dynamics of this happening. Not completely spontaneous, as the army jacket indicates, but on the other hand, as stated above, it seems unlikely that the space has been chosen for political reasons. No artists involved or people who were close to them have openly acknowledged any political intentions. This act seems rather to be an outing of the signs of the time, fuelled by Heyrman’s own ideological framework. By bringing art to the streets, they confronted a public that maybe generally did not visit art galleries or museums. In this sense we can speak of the happening as a tool for social reformation.

Nakajima reacted to Heyrman’s performance by bonding him in return with rope around his chest. He also turned some long, lightweight and slightly transparent tissue around his head, covering his face. Heyrman then lay on the ground. Shortly afterwards Heyrman sat up and took some binoculars out. He looked through the bondage material into the binoculars. What or who he was looking at stays unknown. Shortly afterwards Nakajima had his army jacket pulled off. It is very likely that Panamarenko also got involved at this stage and that the three artists ended up pulling at each other’s jackets. Vercammen denies this though and states that Panamarenko only showed up during part II. Whereas Panamarenko seems to remember that Vercammen retired himself in a nearby pub, probably out of fear of the police. What we do know is that eventually the situation calmed down and that Nakajima lit some incense and candles. He placed those on the ground and distributed some to a few spectators. 

Multi-sense or non-sense?

Because of the seemingly spontaneous and unrehearsed character of Antwerp’s first happenings, one might have the impression that there was no underlying meaning involved. Further and deeper analyses show us though that these happenings were much more conceptual and calculated than one might think. Since there were more artists involved one cannot speak of a sole meaning or sense in the happening nor about a layer of meanings. Each artist had their own meaning or cluster of meanings enriched, together with other connotations, by way of interaction. By doing so we may argue that a conceptual blur blinded the spectator in a seemingly ‘non-sense’. The following sections will show that the first happening was not only appealing to audiovisual senses, but was also a web of interwoven meanings.

Nakajima’s act can be analyzed on two levels. The first one is the dramatic level. There is clearly an unspoken narrative going on, which brings us close to a conventional form of theater. Nakajima is captured but manages to liberate himself physically and even goes to counter attack. Although this could symbolize war in general, a specific reference to the Vietnam War seems not to be so farfetched. The fact that Nakajima, born in Japan, has Asian roots and that Heyrman, who had American connections, is wearing an army jacket, seems to confirm this. Panamarenko denies though this specific, or any reference in general. Nakajima on the other hand explains that his aim was to get his art noticed and at the same time he wanted to point out certain intolerable situations in the world. Vercammen is even more direct by stressing out the fact that he and his contemporaries felt that the Vietnam War seemed to happen just around the corner. This is a clear example of conceptual confusion.

Nakajima’s second level is rather personal and philosophical, influenced by Zen. By shouting undecodable sounds and making unpredictable movements Nakajima seems to want to completely liberate himself to reach a point of inner emptiness where the essence of being might be attained. This inner state of mind ends up in symbolic materialism, closely linked to religion. In this second level one might detect a critique on the lack of personal spirituality and also on the lack of un-institutionalized religion.

Heyrman’s role is less layered, but is more schizophrenic. With writing ATOM on the ground he indirectly also refers to the open-air protest marches against nuclear weapons, such as the famous Aldermaston Marches. These types of action are undeniably linked to the nuclear attacks on Nagasaki and Hiroshima. This indirect reference for their first communal happening, instigated by the influence of location, confronts the spectator directly with Nakajima’s national background. 

In a way the spectator has been misled. It seems unlikely though that this was planned in consent. On the one hand the reason for this can be found in the above mentioned conceptual confusion. On the other hand this was also a period in time where an interesting ideological landslide took place. As from 1965 onwards demonstrations against nuclear weapons often started to transform into protests against something that was more concretely happening at the time being: the Vietnam War for example. It is exactly this evolution that can be read in an almost juxtaposed way during this first happening. The juxtaposition of different acts, in this case also highly symbolic, can be seen as an essential part of many happenings. It disturbs a possible story, whereby the spectator gets drawn more to the form and the visual than towards the content, hence the seemingly ‘non-sense’.

Behind the lens

So far it seems that it was mainly Nakajima and Heyrman who performed the first acclaimed happening. Although Vercammen was responsible for the bigger picture, his visible role was limited. This has mainly to do with the fact that he does not like to be in the spotlight himself. What is even more surprising is the fact that Panamaranko does not seem to have participated much in part one of the first happening. This is a fine example of the effect that his fame generated over the years on contemporary art historical perception. It is likely that he came into action only near the end of the event. Fact has it that he was there, because he took some pictures. It must be said though that Panamarenko stayed and still stays modest about his actions at the time. His minor role is also visible in Vercammen’s poster, where his name can be found on the bottom of the list of happening makers.

The spectator as an outsider

It has already been shown that the public was quite diverse, including friends, artists and the occasional passer bys. The few known pictures of this happening also show the difference in age and gender. Remarkable is a group of people in uniform, hailing from the political right wing party the Volksunie. Since its start in 1961 this party grew rapidly and the elections of 1965 proved to be quite successful for them. It would not be the last time in the artistic history of Antwerp when a group of fairly right wing believers mixed with a considerable part of left winged orientated people. This curious mix probably culminated in the exhibition Matrakkensabbat , where leading Antwerp Provos joined forces with members of the Volksunie. The motivation for this rather surprising coalition must be sought in both their strong urge and belief to change society and their mutual awareness of not being able to do it all by themselves.

In the case of this first happening though, there is no indication of any memorable form of co-operation. Neither from the Volksunie, nor from any other spectator. This is a bit problematic seen from an academic viewpoint. If we consider a happening a form of art whereby an active role is demanded from at least a few spectators, where or how does this act fit in then? It is also interesting to notice that in most happenings since Allan Kaprow (1927-2006) there is always one artist who leads or conducts the happening. Where in this case we have at least two protagonists: Nakajima and Heyrman. Since form and content also have strong similarities with a textbook happening and because of the fact that the artists involved called it a happening themselves, we might consider this action as a local variation or mutation of the “conventional” happening. If we take into account the bigger picture and include part II and its literary references we might even be tempted to call the event a ‘bastard happening’.

Part II of occupied city III

One might say that part II was less spectacular in the broad meaning of the word. Therefore it has less of a happening appeal than part I. Because of this formal gap it is easy to see why this part has often been separated from part I, with the title confusion as a result. Its conceptual point of departure was also completely different, as we will see later on. 

The original concept takes an unsuspected turn though when Nakajima continues an indoor solo performance. Unsuspected since it was not planned by the organizers. A picture shows us Nakajima wearing an outfit completely composed of tinfoil paper, held together with strings. This indicates that the artist himself was prepared for the act. We also witness by picture how he pours water from one glass into another. Tony Rombouts recalls Nakajima pouring water into tinfoil paper and considers this act symbolic for poetry. For him poetry is as fluid as water. It is very possible, taking into account Nakajima’s earlier happening repertoire, that he tore pieces of his uniform to use these as a recipient. Surprisingly the housekeeper of the AMVC did not intervene or call the police. This shows the meditative and serene character of this act. According to Tony Rombouts, the public was even pleasantly surprised. Once more the passive influence of space plays a crucial role. The formal setting and space limitation of a museum weighs undoubtedly upon the different acts. Also the influence of the public and its possible shift towards a more literary and educated public is very likely, but hard to pinpoint. 

However, the main act of this indoor happening was the reading of poetry. Poets included were Rudi Witse, Tony Rombouts, Lucienne Stassaert en Frans Neels. At the same time color slides were projected. These were the pictures taken by Vercammen and Heyrman of occupied city II. 

Panamarenko also returns to the picture. He took Polaroid pictures of the event and of the public that were immediately projected. Even more interesting is the fact that Panamarenko states that during that same summer he took pictures of nametags of plants and flowers in the Kruidtuin, a famous public Antwerp Botanical garden. According to Panamarenko these were also projected. These nametags can also be seen as a symbol for mans conquest and occupation on nature. Therefore, these pictures of nametags can be interpreted as Panamarenko’s pop-art version of occupied city II. By choosing this subject, he also makes a link, and maybe even a statement, by confronting poetry with a scientific classificatory text. The combination of science with a poetic touch will gain him, later on in his career, a strong reputation within contemporary art.

What about the other scheduled events during part II?

If we go back to Vercammen’s poster of the ‘bastard happening’, there are two main disciplines, i.e. music and film, which have not been mentioned yet. It could have been that Antwerp born folksinger Wannes van de Velde (1937-2008) played some music inside the AMVC , although Panamarenko denies this. No movies have been detected either. Panamarenko explains that they wrote whatever they wanted on the poster, as a form of free artistic expression. The addition of movies and music to the poster makes the event appear undeniably even bigger than it already was. 


Belgian’s first self-acclaimed happening consisted of two parts. Although the second part was less of a conventional happening, it was still an integral part of the concept. This explains for the first time Vercammen’s choice of title for the poster of this happening. Nakajima’s ‘unexpected’ performance during part II can be seen as a transition between the more spectacular, in its broadest meaning of the word, outdoor event and its more refined, literary indoor counterpart. Because of the co-operation between visual artists and writers and the specific development of this happening, with its conceptual confusion, we may even be drawn to call this event a ‘bastard happening’. Also, this investigation has created a hermeneutic circle for Panamarenko’s artistic solo output.

The idea of an individualistic fractured Gesamtkunstwerk including relatively new technologies with the “latest” means of expression was quite cutting edge. It may not have changed society as a whole, but it definitely helped to trigger a local offshoot for Provo and to establish some names in the world of modern art.