“What was the name of the river in Brussels?” he asked me between the tandas. “There is no river in Brussels. Only a channel. And some ponds.” This happened in Germany.
A couple of weeks later a friend, who had hailed from another part of Germany, pulled me into Halles Saint-Géry, attracted by its look.
And there it was. The non-existent river. Huh, the well hidden one. Captured in the photo exhibition In Search of the Senne of De Stadsbiografie (The City Biographers). In fact what one does not see in these pictures is a river. Yet the river flows through all of them.
Frédéric Solvel introduces the Senne as “the first citizen of the city” in his article Under Brussels, the Senne. The article informs that Brussels was constructed along the curves and turns of the Senne and until 1871 it was still defining the city centre. But the cohabitance of the River and the City was not so straightforward. The River easily overflowed and gradually became heavily polluted. Its disobedient waters turned into a source of damage, heavy odor and cholera. It was time to make tough decisions. Jules Anspach, the then mayor, was the one to take the responsibility. Between 1867 and 1871 the Senne was transformed into two parallel collectors situated under the current boulevards in the centre. The City took over. I noticed they call the river everywhere “she”. If then Brussels is “he”, it seems I have made an interesting choice of residency from psychoanalytical perspective. But anyway it was not a popular measure with Anspach depicted in media as the one who turned the first sod in the grave of Old Brussels…Well, obviously, it didn’t last for long if the main boulevard in the city centre is still named after him. Solvel’s article further informs that in 1976, the pre-metro took the place of the Senne in the vault underneath the boulevards and continues to circulate there. Since 1955, the Senne has followed the little belt starting at the Gare du Midi all the way to the Place Sainctelete before continuing underground until the Van Praet bridge. Fascinating, isn’t it?
Back to the exhibition, the introductory note to it explains that the photos of De Stadsbiografie followed the original path of the river. Anderlecht, Laken, the Stock Exchange, the channel are the settings in them. More important than the places in these photos however are the stories. For each photo tells a story. Subtle. Human. Touching. Stories of the invisible river. And of the life which flourished from its burial. Beautifully captured.
The place of the exhibition contributes to this silent story-telling. Saint-Géry was formerly an island that was enclosed by two arms of the Senne.
And there I was, comfortably lounged on a sofa in the intimate darkness of the bar Halles Saint-Géry, sipping my whisky as listening to the jazzy sounds and contemplating the photos of the invisible river. The one which, thanks to two German citizens and two Belgian artists, I have just discovered.
*The collective De Stadsbiografie consists of Kristof Vadino and Kurt Deruyter. They have been immortalizing Brussels for several years now. There is a gift from them for the exhibition visitors – cool photo posters labeled with We are so Brussels.
** The exhibition In Search of the Senne can be seen till 30 July 2014.