PRINT September 1986


THE PATRON SAINT OF GEEL, where Jan Hoet, the director of Gent’s Museum von Hedendaagse Kunst, grew up, is Saint Dymphna, and, in the name of that mysterious protectress, this Belgian village preserves a medieval tradition that has passed unscathed through the Renaissance and into the modern era: to honor Saint Dymphna, a family offers hospitality to a lunatic. With the waning of the Middle Ages, the idea of the Narrenschiff, the ship of fools, made its disturbing appearance, condemning the insane to a state of aterritoriality; during the centuries when what Edmund Husserl called “European Culture” established itself, they came to be interned in total institutions, asylums. But the village protected by Saint Dymphna has, over the centuries, maintained the ancient custom, sustaining an attitude based on reconciliation with diversity rather than institutional stigmatization of it. And Hoet’s latest project relates to the practice of Geel. Intriguingly titled “Chambres d’Amis”—“guest rooms,” or, literally, “friends’ rooms”—the show places art in 58 houses belonging to everyday townspeople, carrying the work outside the separate universe, the total institution, of the museum, to bring it within the private zone of the private home, an asocial place insofar as it is removed from the public arena.

That the work of art has no place in the everyday life of the house is not true, yet the moment an artwork crosses the threshold of the private, it is transformed; either it becomes a constituent but inessential element of decor (meager or exquisite, but always decor), or it is characterized as a trophy, a symbolic capture of an equally symbolic sign, a fetishistic appropriation of bits (however chosen, still just bits), part of something larger and unattainable. Vis-à-vis collecting, we may recall the behaviorist scientist Ivan Pavlov’s remark that the practice helps to replace the possession of a goal in life; or the common complaint, “I’ve seen them come, I’ve seen them go. Everybody left me, nobody paid me.” Clearly none of this is Hoet’s concern. His project takes the existing exhibition structure off its hinges, goes beyond the limits of the frame and spills over, whole, into an interior. Art here no longer offers a mirror or a window, nor constitutes the privileged sign of a choice, but is an actual, provocative presence, confirming its difference both from the museum space, which has lost its sanctity, and from the contextual frame in which the object serves as fetish. Is the show not, then, a gathering of madness in the heart of the private, a knowing acceptance into the domestic unit of diversity and its signs? Aren’t the chambres d’amis infected by alien presences, without necessarily implicating conviviality with what are called the “legitimate proprietors” of these homes?

Artworks have invaded the public spaces of cities before, becoming at times urban furniture, at times nuclei of provocation or stimulation. In both cases the urban container is used as a reagent or catalyst, or else serves as a backdrop to the artist’s performance. Everything is arranged within a weave of traces made upon a substantially homogeneous surface, even when those traces gnaw and dig more or less deeply into the skin. Such art follows its path in relative security. In the social framework in which we move, it sometimes discovers new and unusual viewpoints, unimagined landscapes, secret recesses, forgotten corners; but since that framework always passes a little beyond the walls of the urban labyrinth, the art can often cross over them without breaking any taboo.

The opposite sensation holds in Gent. What in public circumstances appears more or less ephemeral here seems like a chasm, a black hole opening at the threshold of the house, the private space, toward unfathomable abysses hazardous to observe. A visit to “Chambres d’Amis” is not a tourist jaunt, or even an expedition of exploration; in fact, many of its artists are familiar—Mario Merz and Sol LeWitt, Joseph Kosuth and Daniel Buren, Bruce Nauman and Dan Graham, Jannis Kounellis and Maria Nordman. This journey is something quite different: an investigation of the unknown—of a crime, perhaps, its origins, circumstances, and effects. Within set hours, the visitor follows a map from house to house. Yet the investigation is in vain, for every time the clues lead us to a new site, they fail to tally, the picture never comes together, and in the end we realize that the puzzle for which we thought we had the pieces is actually many puzzles, with each piece sending us off to a different one. What are we actually looking for in the womblike space, hot with sienna, created by Ettore Spalletti and Remo Salvadori in a hallway within which their incongruous objects are like traces of a presence that has not vanished or been volatilized, but instead has fallen inside the volcano over whose dry surface we seem to pass? Jan Vercruysse’s installation is a large, black, empty picture frame in a corner facing a bed, and another, smaller one which hangs on a wall and holds a grayish image of an old armchair; on the chair stand a violin and an open book of sheet music, in a position suggesting both rigidity and flexibility—the image is like a nostalgic erotic apparition. But what are we to imagine we’ve found in this room, except, perhaps, that we have stumbled into a trap whose maker has foreseen that our pleasure arises from the degree of intensity of our involvement? What is the absent presence in the empty room penetrated by Juan Muñoz’s lilliputian iron balcony slanting down from the ceiling? Is this something left behind? What have we come to see here? What have we interrupted?

I have just left the house containing Kazuo Katase’s blue room, and my retinas are still reacting to its color. The light of the sun has changed, the world has another hue. The planes of inside and outside interpenetrate in the slide projections and reflected images of Nordman’s room, which she has set up as a shop, and here, perhaps more than in the other works, and more didactically, one’s eyes are particularly assaulted by the difference of this “thing” in Gent: how the private projects and maintains its shadow against the transparency of the public, how art seen in this context is elevated to the second power, if we can use that term, and how in consequence it acquires a kind of centripetal force. This is true when it appears very banally, like a well-told joke, as in Jacques Charlier’s reconstruction of a typical bourgeois-Flemish turn-of-the-century living room, which, however, hides demonic figures behind a curtain—including an androgynous lion-tamer in uniform, an irascible guardian of the art world. And it is equally true when the art is presented as a sadistic temple of the intellect, as with Kosuth’s baroque installation: a text from Freud on lapses of memory is blown up large, crossed through with heavy black bars, and applied as wallpaper to every room of a psychiatrist’s house; colored numbers printed between the lines offer a way to read the text, transforming it into an enigmatic expanded trick. In fact, all the artists have found their own way to confront the narcissism of the private. The second power to which their work is raised, then, is really the sum of two factors of the same quantity—the narcissism of the private and the narcissism of the artist

The imprudent traveler has no choice but to continue moving through this city of superintimists. The dark shadow of a ballerina arranged by Christian Boltanski in a window visible from the Flor restaurant would ruin one’s supper there—a memento mori, the baby thrown out with the bathwater. Michael Buthe’s luminously tender living room tries to hold one: “stay!” Bertrand Lavier’s pointillist play on a patterned wallpaper urges one to paranoia: “if there were a blackout and I vanished, would I reappear afterwards on a TV screen?” Stealing into one airy room, one can see the family baby wrapped in Luciano Fabro’s long, white sheet, with its jaggedly cut borders. Mario Merz’s enormous reptile in stone and thick glass has invaded the entire space in which it stands, irremovable, cumbersome, decidedly chthonic. Passing LeWitt’s large pyramidal mural, in four gray tones of india ink on a wall embellished by preexisting white classical pilasters, one knows that one is in the atrium of the palace. And what beneficent genius drew the outline of an easel and a blank canvas, using as a ground the white spines of books arranged neatly on a bookcase, and somehow imbuing the light of the things in the room with clarity? (Giulio Paolini.) Or one wonders what cyborg—it was Royden Rabinowitch —designed the dark-brown metal sculpture that climbs upward from the floor of a very ordinary room, like a large insect on the wall, its impeccable geometry seeming not from this world.

At a certain point one decides to go without seeing everything, to leave the city its secrets, which remain intact in spite of everything. Even if this weren’t so, thanks to Hoet one knows that sooner or later one will want to come back.

Pier Luigi Tazzi contributes regularly to Artforum.

Translated from the Italian by Meg Shore.

The title of this article is taken from materials prepared by the Museum van Hedendaagse Kunst and stems from a remark by Mike Sonnabend, “In Gent, there is always a free room for Albrecht Dürer.” “Chambres d’Amis” will remain open in Gent until September 21. Coinciding with it until September 7 is “Initiatief86,” a display of work by contemporary Belgian artists.“Initiatief86” occupies space at Gent’s Sint-Pietersabdij and Museum van Hedendaagse Kunst, where it is complemented by a selection of contemporary Belgian art from the museum’s collection.

All photos show installation views at “Chambres d’Amis” Gent, Belgium.