Artist Bart Van Dijck explores local folklore and cultural identity


Childhood stories inspired Flemish artist Bart Van Dijck’s new exhibition, which looks at some of Belgium’s strangest folk traditions

Telling tales

I’m sitting in the dark on a stump of wood in a cardboard replica of a Kempen farmhouse. If I straighten up, my head brushes the ceiling. In front of me, bandits are burning a farmer’s feet, to make him reveal where his savings are hidden. One of the bandits holds a pair of goat legs, hooves and all, and is making clippety-clop noises on the floor. And they’re singing the song of the legendary local bandits known as the Pijpelheide devils.

“This was inspired by the history of the small town where I grew up,” says artist Bart Van Dijck, who is sitting beside me on the cabin’s other stump. He had heard the bandit story from his grandfather, then a little research uncovered the song and led to the idea of recreating the scene for a video.

He also took the performance out into the community. “I invited some friends to dress up as these robbers, and we went to the annual fair, just to bring the story into the present.”

Folklore is an important feature of Van Dijck’s work, which can be seen in an extensive solo exhibition at De Warande in Turnhout. He observes it, records it, appropriates it and occasionally creates it from scratch. “I like to think about what a new folklore might look like, so sometimes I propose things,” he says.

A common thread is the role that folklore plays in creating identity. On the smallest scale there are the stories that children invent when they’re playing, a boyhood tribalism evoked in “A letter to our enemy”. Resting on a log are a matchbox containing a tiny demonic hand and a threatening note in Dutch: “If you destroy our camp again we will cut the other hand off, too.”

This was inspired by Van Dijck’s own childhood. “We had a club, we made camps and weapons, and we fought battles against imaginary enemies,” he says. “It’s like you’re in a tribe.”

Tribal identity

He is also interested in youth subcultures, such as heavy metal. “In a way, I see it as a new folklore, as new tribes with their own rituals, signs and symbols. And it is also about creating an identity or revolting against the mainstream culture.” 

Ros Beiaard is only every 10 years, so we were lucky to be able to film the 2010 edition

- Bart Van Dijck

Tribal identity of a different kind is explored in the video “In Flanders fields”, shot during the IJzerwake procession of Flemish nationalists. Van Dijck has split the images, so that the left side of the screen mirrors the right. People marching with flags seem to emerge from the centre, forming identical columns that touch and gesture to one another. Projected on to a large screen, the effect is mesmerising, monumental – and slightly unnerving.

But the centrepiece of the exhibition is Van Dijck’s new, hour-long film The Weather Was Good, which compiles scenes from folk events across Belgium. These range from well-known festivals, such as the Gilles of Binche and the Mons dragon, to more obscure traditions that occupy just one small village.

While Van Dijck doesn’t manipulate these images in the same way as those of the IJzerwake, he stops short of a classic documentary approach. Events unfold and sometimes mingle without explanation. “You don’t get to know the stories behind them or what the people are up to,” he says.

Instead he wanted to evoke the atmosphere. “A lot of people doing strange things together; there can be something a bit uncanny about that, but also something very beautiful. It brings people together, and I wanted to show the emotions and the euphoria that is sometimes generated by these festivities.”

Van Dijck spent four years filming these events, some of which happen annually, some at greater intervals. “The Ros Beiaard (pictured) is only every 10 years, so we were lucky to be able to film the 2010 edition,” he says of the festival in which four brothers ride a giant carnival horse through Dendermonde.

Other Flemish traditions in the film include the Berendrecht goose riders, the Pauwel gang from Galmaerden, the Evermarus play in Rutten, the Reuskens procession in Borgerhout and pretzel-throwing in Geraardsbergen. From Wallonia, there are the creepy Blancs-moussis of Stavelot, the Limotche of Haut-Vent and the Polleur coucou, or coward.

Dying out

Some traditions proved elusive. He wanted to shoot the Hanske Knap beggars from the Antwerp polders but just missed them the first year the first year he tried. The next year they cancelled because some regular participants were ill, then in the third year he was told they had given up. This may not be an isolated case.

I wanted to show the emotions and the euphoria that is generated by these festivities

- Bart Van Dijck

“Some of the events in the film are really small and local, and might even stop in a few years because there is no follow-up from youngsters.” Although Hanske Knap is missing from The Weather Was Good, Van Dijck has taken it up in other ways, using elements as the basis for a performance piece and a series of sculptural objects.

While folklore features in much of his work, Van Dijck has other interests and lines of enquiry, including notions of cultural exchange and exoticism, and the exhibition includes pieces inspired by trips to India and North Africa. Then there is purely formal work, such as the new piece “Bonfire”, a kitsch fire with fur flames, plaster logs and mirror embers.

“One of the recurring themes in my work is identity and how the identity of communities is created, but, at the same time, I don’t want to get stuck on this idea,” he explains. “So for me it’s important to maintain the freedom to experiment and carry on playing with concepts, ideas and materials.”

The Weather Was Good, until 22 February, De Warande, Warandestraat 42, Turnhout

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Continuum of Repair: the Light of Jacob’s Ladder
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Ellen Harvey: The Unloved
Bruges was a busy port until the 15th century, when silt blocked its connection to the North Sea, sending the city into sharp decline. Only the creation of Zeebrugge in 1907 revived its fortunes. British artist Ellen Harvey explores this history in The Unloved, a five-room installation at the Groeninge Museum that combines mirrors, contemporary satellite images and old paintings of the city and the coast, half-glimpsed through windows into the museum’s store rooms. Until 25 May, Groeninge Museum, Bruges