Swinging towards the sky, the reflective sea: three art routes in Belgium for this summer


From the Zeedijk and between the few dune pans that have not been destroyed by real estate development, you have a view of the Belgian part of the North Sea. Sometimes it shines gray like silk, sometimes it ‘curls’ like the ‘hair of infants’ – as the Flemish ‘sea poet’ Karel van de Woestijne so beautifully described it a century ago.

Furthermore, the Belgian coast from De Panne to Knokke is of course especially infamous: for its tens of thousands of ‘frigobox tourists’ (day trippers who drag their cool boxes onto the beaches on summer days), the ‘billenkarren’ (dialect for a kind of go-karts), the blaring ugliness of eateries and gambling havens, and – impossible to miss – the massive ribbon of high-rise apartment blocks blocking the view of the beach and sea from the hinterland.

Contemporary art can add panache to the somewhat shabby elan of the Belgian coast, thought the first curator of the Triennial Beaufort, a triennial open-air exhibition along the Belgian coast. The first edition was in 2003, the eighth started in March.

Art can also make a city like Kortrijk, an old textile city that most people pass by on their way to France and beyond, more attractive. The first Triennial in Kortrijk was in 2018. Then came corona. AfterParadisewhich can be visited from June, is the second Triennial in Kortijk.

Bruges is an old-timer in this context: the first Triennial was held in 1968, had three editions and then it became silent for more than forty years. The thread was picked up in 2015 – and that is necessary. Bruges has a beautiful city center, which was almost entirely preserved in the fifteenth century, through which more than 8 million visitors stroll every year. Such an open-air museum is an asset, but also a pitfall. After a day of sweet facades, picturesque vistas and fairytale bridges over the canals, you long for a contemporary perspective.

BrugesFull Swing | Fire song for the bees, a tree of clay

A contemporary perspective is what the Triennial, opened last month, also offers this time, with more and less successful results. To stay with two successful participations. The British-Palestinian video and installation artist Mona Hatoum (1952), known for her installations made of coarse, often industrial materials, does not shy away from digging a claustrophobically narrow bunker of dark gray stone behind iron wire in the gardens of the Psychiatric Hospital Onzelievevrouw outside the old city center.

You shuffle down a staircase, where you take a seat on a swing. With every swing of the swing you see the sky break above you. It is cold and dark downstairs. Just like other work by Hatoum Full Swing (2024) you feel claustrophobic. Escape is temporary, if you lay your head back as the swing reaches its highest point and you see the sky.

Full Swing by Mona Hatoum

Photo Filip Dujardin

The quiet Sebrechtspark is located in the city center between the Oude Zak and the Speelmansrei. Long ago, the Gray Sisters of the St. Elisabeth Monastery grew their fruit and vegetables here. Now the Mexican artist Mariana Castillo Deball (1975) who lives in Berlin has erected a beautiful open ‘house’ on the lawn, where three bee colonies can flourish.

Fire song for the bees, a tree of clay welcomes not only the bee colonies, but also ceramic beehives, inspired by traditional hives of indigenous peoples. The beehives hang from the wooden framework that gives the ‘house’ its shape. Castillo Deball subtly explained the importance of animals and objects at the Documenta exhibition in Kassel in 2012. Now she has created an equally inclusive, poetic monument, where plants are allowed to root on the ceramic and wood and bees do their useful work.

Mariano Castillo Deball Fire song for the bees, a tree of clay.
Photo Filip Dujardin

BeaufortMonobloc Moments | Staging Sea

The suffocating summer crowds on the Belgian coast strangely enough arise from admiration, love and romantic sentiment. Only at the time of the Enlightenment and Romanticism did the ‘longing for the coast’ arise, as the French historian of mentality Alain Corbin described it in 1988 in a (still) great book of the same name. Writers, artists and poets such as Heinrich Heine, Herman Melville, Frans Masereel, Ensor and Karel van de Woestijne sang about the enchantment emanating from the sea.

Because the view of the sea is so blocked in Belgium, some artists participating in the Beaufort Triennial have only one option. You simply jump over the stone block boxes on the Zeedijk. And: you turn something ugly into something beautiful.

Alexandra Bircken Top Down – Bottom Up King Albert I Monument, Nieuwpoort.
Photo Bavo Delbaere

The Finnish Sara Bjarland (1981), who lives in the Netherlands, does the latter in a grandiose, controversial work of art, which in form is reminiscent of the Infinite Column by the Romanian sculptor Constantin Brancusi in Tirgo Jiu. Monobloc Moments (2024), as Bjarland’s sculpture is called, is located on the roundabout of the Manitoba slope in Wenduine.

Brancusi pulled his Infinite Column made from iron and bronze, Bjarland used the hideous plastic chairs that we know as garden furniture, litter and cheap patio chairs at the snack bar. The white monobloc is the classic among disposable items and Bjarland – interested in the back of the throw-away society – took one from the landfill, cast it in bronze and multiplied it 47 times.

With those 47 green-gray chairs she has created a column that looks shaky, yet is proud and looks up to the white monoblocs that stand on the balconies of the apartment complexes across the street.

There were “quite a lot of emotional reactions,” says Bjarland when she visited her work on the roundabout. Residents set up a Facebook group where they railed against the artwork. The mayor received threatening emails.

Why this is the case remains incomprehensible. Because Monobloc Moments, with its horizontal, wobbly line, forms a beautiful contrast with the hard, vertical line of the apartment complexes on the other side of the street. Brancusi called his Infinite Column ‘a stairway to heaven’. And that’s what Monobloc Moments is: a stairway to the clouds, littered with what looks like disposable furniture.

Staging Sea by Filip Vervaet. Church square in De Panne.

Photo Ann-Sophie Deldycke

In De Panne, on the border with France, the Belgian artist Filip Vervaet (1977) does something different. He almost literally jumps over all buildings with his work. Staging Sea is located one and a half kilometers from the beach, on the square of St. Peter’s Church. Staging Sea is literally what the title says: a stage for an invisible sea.

Vervaet, known for monumental installations, built a (permanent) pavilion of green, red and blue glass, within which a fountain simulates the force of the tidal movements. The pavilion is located in a landscape created by Vervaet of fantasy dunes (the plants still need to continue to grow) and reflective street lamps.

Vervaet’s work makes you aware of the human drive to mold and control nature. Take a seat in the pavilion and wait for the fountain to spout. At low tide, like now, the beam is 1.5 meters high and only some water splashes on your socks. At high tide the beam reaches 4.5 meters high, above the highest point of the pavilion. That force cannot be controlled and there is nothing you can do about the fact that you as a visitor will get wet. Awe is what remains.

BeaufortThe Herring | Mother

An almost Biblical story is making the rounds on the Belgian coast. In the disastrous years of 1940 and 1945, the population was able to survive thanks to exceptionally large schools of herring that swam along the coast – in the winter of 1942 and 1943 you could scoop the fish out of the sea with your bare hands.

This story has appealed to the Belgian artist Johan Creten (1963), a driving force behind the revaluation of ceramics in contemporary art and exhibited almost everywhere in the world. Near the dunes of Sint-André, in Koksijde, he has placed a 5.5 meter high female figure in bronze. Bronze, because it remains permanently. The rising tide is already eating away sand around the statue. That is why a post and a block of concrete were buried four meters deep for reinforcement.

The Herring by Johan Creten, Koksijde
Photo Ann-Sophie Deldycke

The Herring ’empties’ the archetypal tragic image of Herman Heijermans’ fisherman’s wife Kniertje, who peers out over the sea awaiting the return of her sons. Creten’s rather clumsy female figure looks rigidly over the waves, no emotion marks her face. In front of her belly and sex she holds a huge fish.

Creten has not put any clothes on his statue, she braves the storm and rain naked. That choice of bare breasts is puzzling. The analogy between herring and female gender is completely unnecessary.

There are more statues of naked women on Beaufort, such as the large installation by the artist duo Lucy + Jorge Orta in the Normandpark in Middelkerke, overrun by children. Here too, the purpose of the nude remains unclear. The only artist at Beaufort who uses the naked body functionally in her work is the Dutch Femmy Otten (1981).

Mother by Femmy Otten. Leopold II-laan, Ostend.
Photo Ann-Sophie Deldycke

Otten was pregnant with her second child when she thought: I want to make an image that shows my pregnancy in its full, creative glory. Until very recently, being an artist and motherhood has been seen in contemporary art as the end of your career. Otten debunks that patriarchal myth. In 2020 she made a first experiment in wood. One Tear at the Time showed a naked Otten, half lying on her side, with a pregnant belly and at her feet a massive cloud with fairy-tale facial features.

In Ostend, in an elongated basin on the Leopold II avenue overlooking the back of the casino, Otten has now placed a much larger version in white marble. Mother shows everything about the pregnant body: her sex, breasts, round belly that hangs to the side and almost touches the water of the basin. The same fairytale sculpture as in One Tear at the Time balances on the right ankle. Noses, eyes, mouths and ears tumble over each other.

In an email, Otten writes: “I wanted to make up for something in time with this image. I admire all those classic marble statues, but we lack a perspective on that history.” With Mother, Otten shows that perspective in a big way. That pregnancy is just the beginning. After this, so much more is possible in art.

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Tags: Swinging sky reflective sea art routes Belgium summer


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