Middle Gate: art for open minds


Exhibition looks at outsider art in a city with a long history of enlightened care for the mentally ill

From chaos comes clarity

The art exhibition Middle Gate Geel tackles some big issues – psychiatry, magic, myth and religion – in a city with a history that has been shaped to some degree by all four forces. But it is also a very personal project for curator Jan Hoet, who grew up in Geel and went on to become the founding director of SMAK, Ghent’s Museum for Contemporary Art. “I lived there until I was 12 years old,” he says. “My father was a psychiatrist, and he was also an art collector. This was the world I was born into.”

Geel’s association with mental illness begins with Saint Dymphna. According to legend, she was the daughter of a pagan Irish king and his Christian queen. When the queen died, the king went mad with grief and proposed marriage to his daughter, who bore a striking resemblance to her mother. Dymphna and her confessor fled to Europe, eventually settling in Geel. This was where the king found them. He ordered servants to kill the priest, but he beheaded Dymphna himself.

Thanks to this legend and reports of miracles linked to Dymphna’s relics, Geel became a place of pilgrimage in the middle ages for those afflicted by mental illness. This meant that the town’s religious leaders had to think about how such people should be accommodated. 

Over time, this evolved into an enlightened form of care in the community, with patients lodging with families in the town rather than being locked up in institutions. Geel has become a model for the care and housing of the mentally handicapped and mentally ill, and it regularly receives visits from international health-care workers keen to learn about its philosophy and methods.

Hoet’s early contact with mental illness influenced his later work as a curator, and he became particularly interested in the relationship between art endorsed as art by the establishment and that made by “outsiders”, such as psychiatric patients. “I’ve done exhibitions on this relationship several times before – in the Guislain Museum in Ghent, for instance – but I thought it would be even better to do it in the context of a city where this relationship is more evident,” he explains. “The starting point was the context of Geel itself.”

No explanations

The exhibition sets out to examine the interaction between mythic art, created when magic and religion meet, outsider art and art as art. Rather than place work in one or other category, the intention is to draw out connections, affinities and parallels between the works. To do this, Hoet has presented each piece with very little supporting information.

On your first approach it seems to be a kind of chaos, then you see the puzzle

- Jan Hoet

“I put the exhibition together in such a way that you have difficulty seeing the difference between the art of outsiders and of noted artists. I did that to expand the way people look at the world.”

If that is frustrating, then his plan is working. “On your first approach, it seems to be a kind of chaos,” he says. “Then you see the puzzle.”

The puzzle is clearest in de Halle, the cultural centre on Geel’s market square. The artworks are exhibited in a series of rooms much as they would be in a conventional gallery, with the exception of one or two pieces that are on the ceiling (this is an exhibition where it pays to look up).

Some of the work is easy to place. There are African totems and a church gargoyle, which clearly come from the mythic end of the spectrum. Then there are works by Pablo Picasso (pictured), Paul Klee and René Magritte, clearly from the art establishment. And in the world of outsider art, Adolf Wölfli and Augustin Lesage are iconic names in the concept of art brut

Connections fall into place

But most of the other works do not give up their origins so easily. While it may be impossible to stop trying to put them into neat categories, the trick is to pause long enough simply to look at them. That’s when the connections start to fall into place, and where Hoet has provided a helping hand. 

The starting point was the context of Geel itself

- Jan Hoet

For example, “The Fallen Angel” by French symbolist painter Odilon Redon is placed opposite a head of Buddha from Thailand, drawing out their common relationship with the infinite. And Günther Uecker’s “Structure”, a pattern of nails driven into a board, stands above a Congolese totem bristling with a more varied selection of iron.

Then there is the contrast of “The Old Man” by French painter Eugène Leroy and “The Head of John the Baptist on a Golden Dish” by Dutchman Siebe Wiemer Glastra. Both are portraits executed in deeply layered oil paint, yet one has the feeling of carefully considered technique, while the other seems to come from a compulsive working of the material.

Throughout the selection the obsessive detail and symmetry that is one of the hallmarks of outsider art finds echoes in the more conventional painting, as does a sense of sexual obsession and an apparent urge to shape, mask or obscure faces. Is one kind of art feeding into another, or is there an element of the outsider in all artists?

Finally, there are works whose power seems unconnected with who produced them and why. My own favourite is an untitled, undated painting on newspaper by French artist Michel Nedjar, which shows a face, or perhaps a skull, in colours that speak of rust, blood and bone. 

Back to the start

At two other locations, Middle Gate goes back to the beginning of Geel’s story. In Saint Dymphna’s church, the art is placed discretely, although once you register that there is a large serpent hanging over the altar, it is a little hard to put it out of your mind. Learning that “Snake” by the late Flemish artist Hugo Debaere is made from wire mesh, rubber and elephant dung hardly helps.

My father was a psychiatrist and he was also an art collector. This was the world I came into

- Jan Hoet

At the other end of the aisle, Jan Fabre’s “The Problem of Sisyphus” stands bathed in a pool of light: Three turtles pushing a huge marble brain along the ground. Meanwhile, Dutch artist Maria Roosen has arranged brightly coloured glass cubes around the feet of the reliquary said to contain the remains of Saint Dymphna’s sarcophagus. Their rounded edges suggest giant, half-sucked boiled sweets, like the naive tributes of children.

The nearby Gasthuis began life as a hostel for pilgrims, before becoming the city’s principal hospital. Now a museum, its collection describes the life of the nuns who used to run the hospital and the broader context of psychiatric care in the city.

Just as the mentally ill are integrated into the community, so the Middle Gate art has been integrated with the installations of the museum. And just as the selection at de Halle challenges notions about art, so this part of Middle Gate destabilises accepted notions of the museum and the civic history it presents.

Sometimes the infiltration is so subtle that you risk missing individual works completely, such as Wim Delvoye’s Delft-pattern circular saw blades propped up in a dresser in the kitchen. The same goes for fellow Flemish artist Stanislas Lahaut’s “Disappear”, an unlit neon sign that lies on top of a large silver reliquary in the Saint Dymphna room. Not even the museum’s glass cabinets are sacred. 

Not for the faint-hearted

At other times, the intrusion is brash and comic, such as François-Marie Banier’s huge black-and-white photograph of a pair of Goths that graces the mother superior’s room. Then there is the sick room, which features Enrique Marty’s “Angelica” and “Alberto”: heavily tattooed, naked life-size mannequins armed with combat knives. Here, as elsewhere, the show may be too much for those of a nervous disposition or young children, although when I visited, the families of Geel seemed to be taking it all in their stride.

The final stop in the exhibition is Kunsthuis Yellow Art, near the present psychiatric centre. Formerly Hoet’s family home, it is now an art centre where patients and artists can collaborate. If anything, the tone of the art becomes darker here, and for the first time acquires a hint of distress and confinement.

Los Angeles artist Jon Pylypchuk, the artist-in-residence, has a visceral feeling for materials, for example in the aptly named “I Have Reduced You To Juice and Bones,” while Jean-Pierre Raynaud’s “Psycho-Object Tower of Babel” recalls the kind of institution to which Geel is meant to be an alternative. Venture into the attic, and things become distinctly nightmarish.

Even with its challenging approach and sometimes transgressive notions, Hoet says that reactions to Middle Gate Geel have been positive. “To my surprise, many people who are not involved in the art world have been touched directly by the combination of the work and the context in which I’ve put it. They understand straight away.”

Until 22 December
Across Geel, Antwerp province

Middle Gate: art for open minds

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