Belgium is celebrating flowers and surrealism. And nothing is what it seems

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A giant pipe with flowers. in the interior yard of City Hall, Brussels, Belgium, Friday Aug. 11, 2023. The floral art was inspired by Belgian surrealist artist Rene Magrittes This is not a pipe. Belgium has a century-old fling with surrealism and is always proud to flaunt it. This year they're combining it with an annual flower show in Brussels. (AP Photo/Mark Carlson)

BRUSSELS – If elephants are really known for their sense of direction, what are nine of them doing in the heart of Brussels, seemingly lost between the gothic and baroque houses lining the UNESCO-protected Grand Place?

As of Friday, nothing is quite what it seems as the Belgian capital celebrates the nation's love of surrealism.

The nine life-sized wooden elephants were brought in from the Verbeke art center about an hour's drive north of Brussels to be the prime attraction of Flowertime, a biennial festival highlighting the nation's fling with flowers.

Only this time, surrealism adds a twist. And no symbol more potent than Rene Magritte's pipe, subtitled, “This is not a pipe.” It is a painting of a pipe, after all — and it has come to define Belgian surrealism ever since.

Now a similar non-pipe — a sculpture of a pipe — graces the interior yard of City Hall, which for the occasion has been renamed, “This is not a city hall.” On the pipe sculpture, flowers hang over the edges of the pipe's bowl, like smoke billowing out.

Back on the adjacent Grand Place, the elephants are to draw the visitors in. Their imaginary footprints on the cobblestones are made of white flowers.

“You don’t expect to find elephants here in the city center of Brussels on the Grand Place, it’s unbelievable. So that’s a bit surrealistic of course,” said artist Dennis Van Der Meer, who was busy giving the wooden animals a floral skin.

Flowers also run riot inside City Hall too. Leila Floral, her professional name, is taking care of the stairs and uses the surroundings as much as she can to produce a cascade. “My flowers will fall down like a waterfall,” she said.

Close by, under a sign reading, “This is not death,” florists have littered the floor of a marble corridor with coffins, and added flowered casks for good measure.

Even the mayor's personal office had a floral makeover. Stacks of unpaid bills and invoices are held together by an equally chaotic flower arrangement. The bills suggest that perhaps some realism did seep into the show.

One thing is sure about the show: Because flowers wilt, it will be over on Tuesday.