Ghent, Belgium

Thierry De Cordier, Nada, 2012, oil paint on canvas, 11' 5 3/4“ x 7' 6 1/2”. Installation view, Saint Bavo Cathedral, Ghent. From “Sint-Jan.”

Thierry De Cordier, Nada, 2012, oil paint on canvas, 11' 5 3/4“ x 7' 6 1/2”. Installation view, Saint Bavo Cathedral, Ghent. From “Sint-Jan.”


Saint Bavo Cathedral

Thierry De Cordier, Nada, 2012, oil paint on canvas, 11' 5 3/4“ x 7' 6 1/2”. Installation view, Saint Bavo Cathedral, Ghent. From “Sint-Jan.”

“Sint-Jan” was an unusual group show organized by Jan Hoet, director of Documenta 9 (1992) and head of Ghent’s SMAK from its founding in 1975 through 2003, in collaboration with independent curator Hans Martens. The show included some seventy works by sixty-four Belgian and international artists and served as a good complement to the concurrent TRACK, the so-called contemporary city conversation, which was a vast project with newly produced site-specific works in many locations throughout Ghent. “Sint-Jan” worked on a smaller scale and within strict physical boundaries (those of the glacial stone walls of the city’s Saint Bavo Cathedral) to explore a more focused topic: the immemorial link between art, religion, and spirituality.

“Sint-Jan” took its name from Saint John the Baptist, to whom the cathedral was originally devoted some eleven centuries ago, but it could easily be interpreted as a reference to the show’s revered primary curator as well. On the cover of a local magazine, Hoet was photographed with a lamb in his arms, as if in a portrait of his namesake. The association is perhaps not unwarranted, given Hoet’s stature in both the local and international art communities. Google his name and chances are you’ll find the phrase “one of the popes of contemporary art.” Hoet must have had to play this card often to match the severity and stubbornness of the Church—and it enabled him to work without being crippled by the tight budgets that plague exhibitions today. Since he and Martens asked no remuneration for their work on the show, they could call on the goodwill of artists, collectors, and suppliers, such as insurance companies, print shops, caterers, and so on, all of whom donated their work free, asserting an altruism rare in today’s rampantly capitalist society.

The show revealed many perspectives on the relation between art and religion, some of them critical or subversive. Cristina Lucas’s biting video Más luz (More Light), 2003, shown on a monitor in a confession booth, illuminates the growing distance between Catholic faith and art now that the latter is no longer a useful tool for the Church, as Lucas makes her confession and argues with the priest about her role as an artist. In a chapel off the ambulatory, Thierry De Cordier’s Nada, 2012, seemed to explore nothingness through a disturbing black abstraction that he painted a few years ago and that he has reworked into a darker and even more mysterious surface for this exhibition. Referencing (and subverting) the sublimity of classic art, the work’s intriguing black surface doesn’t tell much but conveys intense expression through the sublimation of its own emptiness. In his HD video Untitled (Moving Stories), 2010, Nicolas Provost used stock footage to present an impeccable sequence of airplanes cruising across vivid skies in what looks like a delightful voyage toward the sun. Filling up the entire chapel in which it was screened, the work provided a suggestion of mysticism, but of a kind that the Church can hardly project anymore; now the sublime provides the rhetoric by which big multinationals (in this case, an aerospace corporation) frame their advertising strategies.

Another trenchant perspective was that of Kris Martin, whose Mandi XV, 2007, consisted of a threatening sword, hung from the ceiling above the visitors as they entered the cathedral. Installed in the sacred space, it seemed to provide a metaphor for the perilous and overwhelming gravity of faith. Likewise, Bruce Nauman examined the paradoxes of Christian devotion in one of his acclaimed neon language-based works, Life/Death, 1983. Hung halfway up one of the blunt pillars of the cathedral, it evoked the big questions in life that so often remain unanswered. And it epitomized the spirit of the show, in which, as in life, absolute truth exists only as a chimera.

Javier Hontoria