Ostend exhibition pays tribute to curator Jan Hoet


A new Mu.ZEE show at locations throughout the city of Ostend explores artists’ representations of the sea, offering a final tribute to the late Flemish curator Jan Hoet in the process

“Chaos in the mind”

The death of art curator Jan Hoet last February left a large gap in the Flemish and the international arts scene. In tribute, Ostend has realised his final, unfinished project: a wide-ranging exhibition on the sea.

Hoet (pictured) made his name in the 1970s and ’80s as director of Ghent’s contemporary art museum. In the 1990s, he engineered the museum’s move to its current home in Citadelpark, when it became the Stedelijk Museum voor Actuele Kunst, or SMAK. In parallel, he built an international career, most notably curating the prestigious Documenta exhibition in Kassel, Germany, in 1992.

“Jan Hoet has been one of maybe five or six really important contemporary art directors and curators in Europe from the previous 50 to 60 years,” says Phillip Van den Bossche, director of the Mu.ZEE museum in Ostend. He draws a comparison with the late Harald Szeemann, the Swiss curator credited with redefining the way exhibitions could be conceived and produced.

“Just as it’s impossible at the moment to imagine another Harald Szeemann, it’s also impossible to imagine another Jan Hoet,” he says. “In the history of modern and contemporary art, we really needed these personalities.” 

A tentative plan

Hoet retired from SMAK in 2003 but went on to collaborate with architect Frank Gehry as founding director of the Marta Museum in Herford, Germany. He left in 2009 to take on projects such as the Yinchuan Biennale in China in 2012 and Middle Gate Geel in Flanders in 2013.

Jan always tried to think about the museum without walls, the exhibition without frontiers

- Mu.Zee director Phillip Van den Bossche

It was during the Geel project that Hoet and Van den Bossche began talking about an exhibition in Ostend that would explore representations of the sea, from the mid-19th century to the present day. “We worked together for six, seven months, meeting almost every week. Just before Christmas last year, we finished the selection of modern art: paintings and works from the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century.”

These included Gustave Courbet’s “The Wave”, James Ensor’s “Large Seascape”, Henri Matisse’s “Oceania: The Sea” and Marcel Broodthaers’ “Large Pot of Mussels”. The two men promised to meet again at the beginning of January and start on the contemporary artworks. But they didn’t get the chance to have that part of the discussion because, by then, Hoet was seriously ill.

Van den Bossche tentatively suggested that the project should continue and, if worst came to worst, become a tribute. Through the family, Van den Bossche learned that Hoet agreed. On 27 February, Hoet died at the age of 77.

Mythical encounters

The exhibition The Sea was turned into a tribute in three ways. First of all, work was selected from Hoet’s previous exhibitions. “We found works in the SMAK collection that are related to the sea, and we also looked at his Documenta from 1992, where, for instance, there was ‘The Arc of Ascent’ by Bill Viola,” Van den Bossche explains. “So we contacted Viola and asked him if this would be a good work to show in Ostend as part of this homage, and he agreed.”

This monumental video work, shown in the old Cinema Capitole on Langestraat, shows a man suspended in the air, falling slowly into water. The image is inverted so that the water appears at the top of the screen, and the figure falls upwards. Then the process is reversed, as a man suspended in water appears to fall up into air. This evokes both drowning at sea and more mythical encounters with the elements.

The second approach was to contact artists who had been important to Hoet. “We asked the artists themselves to come up with a good work fitting this exhibition, and as an homage.”

For example, German artist Thomas Schütte suggested his bust of Alain Colas, a French yachtsman who was lost at sea in 1978. His installation “Belgian Blues”, an arrangement of benches and Rothko-like watercolours made in Ostend, also features in the exhibition.

The third approach was to ask young Flemish artists to make new works. One is Kris Martin’s “Altar”, on the beach in front of the Thermae Palace, which captures the sea in the framework of Van Eyck’s famous Ghent Altarpiece (pictured above).

Another is Vaast Colson’s “Atop the Capstan”, which is exhibited inside the Thermae Palace. For this work, the artist took a recording of Hoet’s voice and rigged up an accordion so that it would play his words. The man and the musical instrument even seem to take a breath at the same time.

Bringing art into the city

Spreading the exhibition across Ostend was also important to the Mu.ZEE team. “Jan always tried to go outside the museum as much as possible, thinking about the museum without walls and the exhibition without frontiers,” Van den Bossche explains. “So we wanted to go beyond the walls of the museum and bring the work into the city.”

It’s to do with creating a kind of chaos in the mind of the visitor

- Phillip Van den Bossche

Other venues include the Church of the Capuchins, which has two beautifully mystical sculptures by American artist James Lee Byars, the Ensor House and De Grote Post cultural centre. Outdoors, there is work at the city’s railway station, around the marina and in Leopoldpark.

Hardy souls can take a short ferry ride and a long walk through the docks to find work by Cameroonian artist Pascale Marthine Tayou at a Volvo dealership in the Oosteroever district.

But the bulk of the show takes place at Mu.ZEE. “I would have loved to have installed the exhibition with Jan, but we didn’t really discuss it,” says Van den Bossche. “The only homage I could make to him, as a curator, was to do it my way, and not to try to get into his head. That would have been impossible.”

However, he did keep in mind a comment from Hoet that an exhibition should be clear but with the possibility of chaos. “There are different definitions of chaos of course, and you can’t just have a chaotic exhibition space. But it’s to do with creating a kind of chaos in the mind of the visitor.”

For instance, the first thing you see on entering the museum is a collection of wooden pieces by the German artist Bernd Lohaus, which suggest both driftwood and ship-building. Alongside these are Matisse’s marine silhouettes and “Spirit of St Louis” by Luc Tuymans, a small painting of a plane lost in a blue sky.

“From an art history perspective, this is a strange combination,” says Van den Bossche. “I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it is chaos, but it is a way of working with this theme of the sea.”

It certainly underlines the notion that the sea has meant many different things to artists over the years. Some strive to capture its reality, while others try to find its essence in abstraction or concepts. At one end of the spectrum is Courbet’s painting of a crashing wave, at the other a sheet of paper with “sea” typed over and over, one of American artist Carl Andre’s “One Hundred Sonnets”.

An unprecedented dialogue

Artists have also been obsessed with human interactions with the sea, painting bathers and fishermen, and even themselves at work in the dunes. The exhibition features ships and seashells, maps and postcards, even lighthouses and their keepers.

One highlight is “Three Seascapes” by the great British painter JMW Turner, on loan from the Tate Gallery in London. The canvas shows three oil sketches of sea and sky, one of which is painted upside down so that a single sky is shared by two seas. The effect is disorientating and surprisingly modern.

The Turner piece hangs opposite Ensor’s atmospheric “Large Seascape”, one of Mu.ZEE’s treasures. “For me, it’s not just having this painting by Turner, which is amazing, but to have the chance, I think for the very first time, to have his work in dialogue with James Ensor,” says Van den Bossche. “That’s very important for this exhibition.”

The Tate does not loan its Turners easily, and the painting’s inclusion is another mark of respect for Hoet. “I contacted [Tate director] Nicholas Serota and asked him if, as an homage, they would loan this important Turner painting, and they agreed.”

Just as importantly, the public have responded to the idea of the tribute. “We have had more than 30,000 visitors already, and I think before Christmas I will be handing a book to the 40,000th visitor,” says Van den Bossche. “It feels good to see how many people are coming to see this exhibition.”

Until 19 April at Mu.Zee and other location across Ostend

A new Mu.ZEE show at locations throughout the city of Ostend explores artists’ representations of the sea, offering a final tribute to the late Flemish curator Jan Hoet in the process.

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