Tree house by Benjamin Verdonck


Feeling in need of a reward and some good food, I hopped on the train a week ago and traveled two hours south to Ghent in Belgium. Last time I was in the city was a freezing May weekend a few years ago when I discovered that one emblem of socialism is very much alive and well in Ghent. The May Day parade.

May Day Parade, Ghent

I felt instantly at home.

Last week’s visit was prompted by an art installation/happening/event called TRACK initiated by S.M.A.K (the Stedelijk Museum voor Actuele Kunst, or Municipal Museum of Contemporary Art). This is how the curators, Mirjam Varadinis and Philippe Van Cauteren, describe it:

TRACK is a unique art experience in the public and semi public space of the city of Ghent. It offers surprising, enriching and unexpected encounters with the city, its history and its inhabitants and incites to reflect upon urban realities and the contemporary human condition in a broader sense. 41 international artists were invited to conceive new art works that are strongly rooted in the urban fabric of Ghent but link the local context with issues of global significance.

I bought my ticket and was given a color-coded map of the city divided into six clusters where the locations of the works were indicated, and a friendly explanation by the staff member at the museum. The ticket was valid for the 4-month duration of the experience, but I only had two days to cover as much ground as I could.

To get to S.M.A.K from Gent-Sint-Pieters central station, you can, for example, walk up Koningin Astridlaan to Citadelpark, a large green oasis on the outskirts of the city. Walking through the park, I came across one of the art works included in TRACK. At first, I thought I had stumbled into an actual cemetary, but when I read the inscriptions on the gravestones, it was obvious something was up. I had strayed into the Museum Graveyard project created by Leo Copers.

Museum Graveyard by Leo Copers

The beautifully made granite headstones were set up on the lawns and among the trees in the park. Each stone was inscribed with the name of a museum using the instantly recognizable typography of the museum it represented. In all, there were over 100 stones spread over the area. The setting and the irregular rows with some stones facing in opposite directions made it look as if the graveyard had been there for a long time. Copers intends the work as a criticism of both art tourism focused on museums and of tourism that attracts people to famous graveyards, but it was another comment of his that resonated more with me.

… the use of own interpretation and classification codes has mutilated the authentic mystery of artworks.

This point strikes a bell. Viewing art held in a museum, we have come to expect explanations and interpretations in some format or other, either a catalog or a guided tour, an audioguide or an iPhone app to talk us through the experience. Of course, understanding the context of a work and knowing something about the artist enriches the experience, but attention spans in museums tend to shorten (so much to see!) and so we may not spend much time exploring the work itself, but be satisfied with its classification and placement in the history of art.

Other works included in TRACK addressed the plight of migrants and refugees who have been forced to seek an uncertain future far from home.

Danh Vo fled Vietnam as a child and, by chance, ended up in Denmark because a Danish tanker rescued his family from their homemade boat. Today, he lives and works in Berlin and elsewhere. Since 2011, Vo has been working on WE THE PEOPLE, a full-size replica of the Statue of Liberty, but in separate parts and in copper. To take a symbol that has long stood for the hopes of people emigrating to a new country in search of a better life  (including, 100 years ago, members of my own family), and to copy it in parts, in a material both fragile and valuable, to be exhibited around the world is intriguing. It is an echo of how the funds were raised to place the statue in New York harbour in the first place, but perhaps it also says something about the nature of liberty – uncertain, difficult to define, and very precious. For TRACK, Vo had a part of the head copied, but which part I could not figure out.  The pieces are very beautiful to look at, laid out on the floor in a large airy room in the Museum of Fine Arts in Ghent where they reflect the sunlight streaming in through the skylight.


As many other cities in Western Europe, Ghent is home, temporary or permanent, to many migrants, some entering legally, but many of uncertain status in the eyes of the authorities. Favelas, Tadashi Kawamata’s work for TRACK, makes the social aspects of this displacement visible by building part of a slum in a basin in the middle of a busy roundabout at Gent-Dampoort station. During my two days in Ghent, I walked all over the city and I came here directly from Ghent’s historical centre. The walk took about 15 minutes, but in that short space, I moved from the pretty and affluent centre of the city through an Afro-Caribbean-Turkish area very similar to where I live in Rotterdam before arriving at the favelas in the middle of the roundabout. Traffic was heavy and there was no way to cross the road to get any closer, so I snapped a few photos in the spaces between the cars and trucks before beating a hasty retreat. The basin was a non-place and yet Kawamata had created something that looked plausible, a claim on a place that one can hardly imagine anyone would claim. A fragile toehold in a strange and unfriendly world.

Favela by Tadashi Kawamata

To stay with the topic of housing for a moment, Benjamin Verdonck did something delightful at a social housing complex in the promisingly named Vogelenzangpark (Birdsong Park). If, like I did, you found it because you were looking for something else, you couldn’t help smiling in sheer surprise as you entered the park in the small complex. Verdonck had a replica built of one of the tiny 1950s terraced houses and placed it up a tree. You could not climb up to the house to enter inside and look out its windows and doors, but somehow, this emphasized the dream that a little terraced house might have of life in the trees.

Tree house by Benjamin Verdonck

The sunlight was very bright when I visited the house and my camera did not cope well with the contrast between the bright background and the house shaded by the tree. For a better idea of the house and its surroundings, have a look at this short video on Vimeo that shows the process of building the house.

The Voortman House presents a blank façade to the street. So blank, in fact, that I walked right past it and ended up at the little tree house, but I retraced my steps and found it on the second attempt. Once the home and office of a wealthy businessman and company owner, it is now abandoned and partly desecrated by squatters. The current owner is the adjacent hospital, but it is difficult to see how a hospital could use the building, or why they would spend resources on a renovation. Nevertheless, for TRACK they gave access to the Dutch artist Mark Manders, who moved into the house in the months leading up to TRACK to work on an ongoing project, Self-Portrait as a Building, a sculptural installation that he started in the late 1980s. Manders did not simply create and place works in the rooms, he created a mood that was mysterious and odd. The sculptures he made for the rooms looked like clay, but the material was actually bronze made to look like clay. The windows were papered over softening the light and shutting out the bright day, adding the quality of a dream to the dilapidated rooms. There were personal items in the house, even the yellowing newspaper that covered the windows was of his own making, written in a language of random words. He made it appear as if he were still there and could walk into his workshop at any time to pick up where he left off.

Mark Manders in the Voortman HouseMark Manders at the Voortman HouseThese two photos from the TRACK press kit give a good idea of the rooms in the house and what it was like inside Mark Manders’ self-portrait. (Click on the thumbnails for lovely high-definition images taken by Dirk Pauwels.)

The Tondelier area of Ghent was the furthest from my starting point at Citadelpark. It was an area of working industries until the 1960s, but the factories are gone now, either put to different uses, or demolished leaving large open spaces in the urban landscape that probably will be built over when the economy picks up, but on the day I visited the wild flowers, weeds and insects reigned over much of this area.

Here, on a long narrow strip of grass bordered by an avenue of trees on one side and parking spaces on the other, Pascale Martine Tayou has laid out a 100 meter long single-lane athletics track that ends at a brick wall.

100 m athletics track by Pascale Marthine Tayou

Bolt WR 9.58 by Pascale Marthine Tayou

The reference is, of course, to Usain Bolt setting a new world record for the 100 meter sprint in 2009. A feat that seemed even more incredible as I walked the length of the track and tried to imagine legs pumping, hearts beating, muscles straining and the crowds going wild. 100 meters in the flesh is a lot longer than it looks on the television screen.

There’s a vineyard tucked away behind St. Peter’s Abbey in the middle of Ghent. The vineyard dates back to the Middle Ages, but it fell into disuse until the 1970s when the Guild of Wine Measurers restored it. (Imagine that, a Guild of Wine Measurers!) The area is very small and I don’t suppose it produces enough wine to sell, but the vineyard and garden form a beautiful oasis in the shadow of the abbey. This is where Massimo Bartolini built an open-air library. I loved the way he extended the lines of the vineyard and shaped the shelves to show how the ground slopes there. It was art, but it was also a working library filled with books that visitors could borrow, buy or exchange. Of course, the shelves had been there since May, and Belgium being rather a wet place, the books had absorbed a lot of moisture, but they were perfectly readable, if no longer quite pocket size.

Open-air library by Massimo Bartolini

I ended my TRACK experience at the peaceful ruins of the monastery at Sint-Baafs Abbey. I walked there from the noisy and intimidating roundabout where Tadashi Kawamata built his favelas. I was tired, sore, hot and hungry and as soon as I came through the gates into the area enclosed by the remains of the monastery walls, I sat down on some steps from the 9th century or so to rest sore feet and to absorb the silence. There, in the middle of the open, roofless space once inhabited by monks, I found Mircea Cantor’s Threshold Resign installation, a small traditional, Romanian house, built in wood, carved with a design of ropes but left unpainted and without a roof. The echo with the roofless monastery was so poetic, I didn’t even try to imagine any other intent.

Threshold Resign by Mircea Cantor

I began and ended my tour of TRACK in gentle green spaces that framed a rewarding, but demanding experience. I criss-crossed the entire city of Ghent on foot over two days, exploring the map to its limits. I saw many more works than the ones I have written about here, but I certainly didn’t see or experience the works of all 41 artists involved in the project. Some were only available on certain dates, some of them I walked right past without realizing, and a few times, I got lost and never found what I was looking for, but I am sure the pleasant gentleman who sold me the ticket would be impressed by my efforts.

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