H.E. Marc Pecsteen de Buytwerve Ambassador of Belgium to the United Nations

It is our pleasure to welcome His Excellency Marc Pecsteen to Diplomatic World, to share his experience of China and the use of ‘soft power’, as well as his particular connection with the sculptor, Félix Roulin.

We first met over ten years ago, when Mr Marc Pecsteen was Consul in Shanghai. He and his wife supported our cultural ventures in China, in particular the exhibitions of Félix Roulin at the City Museum of Changshu, followed by his exhibition in the first museum of sculpture in Shanghai, and thirdly at the Suzhou Museum designed by Ieoh Ming Pei. They even exhibited sculptures by Félix Roulin in the garden of the Belgian Consulate in Shanghai.

We have much appreciated his kindness, his interest in art and his understanding of the growing role of cultural diplomacy. Marc Pecsteen has been Ambassador of Belgium to the United Nations since 2016, and has just obtained for his country, a non-permanent member seat on the Security Council for two years.

What importance do you give to cultural ‘soft power’ in international diplomatic relations, in particular to those between China and Europe?

Encounters and dialogue are found at the heart of diplomacy. This is first and foremost about discovery, listening, trying to understand, and getting a grasp of the differences. During my life as a diplomat, I have always particularly loved that moment of discovering a new country, where one is going to live for a few years. And of course art and culture form an integral part of this discovery, not only because I’m naturally interested in them but because one cannot understand a country, a people, if one ignores this aspect.

Similarly and just as naturally, diplomacy leads us to promote and spread awareness of our own culture, our artistic heritage, in foreign countries. This cultural dimension seems to me to be an inherent part of diplomacy, even though it is not made an explicit part of our role. Art is a vehicle for our vision of the world, our values, our ways of thinking.

This is why I was immediately excited by the project of a cultural encounter between Europe and China, two very different continents but both nourished by centuries of artistic tradition. The idea of an itinerant exhibition of sculpture seemed particularly interesting, as it is founded on a universal language that transcends linguistic difficulties.

How do you relate personally with art and in particular with the work of Félix Roulin?

I have always been interested in art, especially painting and sculpture. I knew of Félix Roulin without really knowing him: I had already seen some of his works in Belgium. Thanks to Pick Keobandith, I had the pleasure of being able to exhibit some of Félix Roulin’s work in the magnificent gardens of our Consulate General in Shanghai. I was able to make his acquaintance on this occasion and appreciate his simplicity and great modesty, a rare sign of a true artist.

I was immediately taken with the presence, power and evocative strength of his sculptures. Each one tells a story or allows the visitor to imagine one. What is interesting is that Félix Roulin combines his perfect mastery of the realistic rendering of the human body — and in this respect he is profoundly classical, rooted in the western tradition inherited from Greek sculpture — with a contemporary expression that seizes your attention, shifts the comfort zones and makes you question. In combining tradition and modernity this way, he seemed a particularly good choice to represent us before a Chinese public.

When you were based in China, you were able to observe the scale of investment in support of museums and cultural centres. What is your view about this policy of the Chinese state and provinces? Do you see a desire for greater international integration in terms of culture?

It seems to me that this policy of investing in museums and culture is part of China’s will to raise itself to an international level in order to rival — as in other domains — with the best in the great international institutions worldwide. There is therefore an element of prestige, in particular in the big cities such as Beijing and Shanghai. But you are correct in emphasizing that this phenomenon exists just as much in the provinces, in the towns where there are no tourists. Here the target audience is manifestly Chinese.

I believe that there is at the same time, the desire to nourish a feeling of national pride, but also perhaps, to rediscover a soul in a country that was traumatised by the Cultural Revolution.

Arriving in Shanghai in 2006, I found a cultural scene in effervescence. Along with unprecedented economic development, art was exploding, going off in all directions. In a sometimes unequal manner, truly original creations stood side by side with repetitive imitations of successful works. But the interest and curiosity was sincere. It has been an interesting development that reminds us that art has always flourished with economic prosperity. There is the matter of means of course but not only: I think that once basic material needs are met, it is in human nature to turn towards beauty.

Dr. Pick Keobandith

Founder and International Director, Inspiring Culture