Returning Bruges art Triennial aims to build bridges


The Bruges Triennial, returning after more than 40 years, aspires to bring tourists and locals together, using the city and its famous landmarks as a setting for contemporary art by artists from around the world

Living together

Bruges is reviving its art Triennial after a gap of more than 40 years, placing work by 17 international artists and architects in some of the city’s most famous locations. As a result, this summer’s tourists will have rather different photographs of the city from those taken by the millions who preceded them.
They will see tree houses in the Begijnhof, a giant mirrored tower on the Markt and a chocolate Stock Exchange on the Burg. And as they cruise along the canals, they may catch sight of a toppled electricity pylon in the water, still humming dangerously, or even a swimming bruggeling or two.
The Triennial is not necessarily for tourists, but it does concern them. The whole project revolves around the question: what if the five million people who visit the city every year decided to stay? The art works responding to this notion reflect on public space, citizenship, the economy and cultural heritage.
The idea of reviving the Bruges Triennial came from the city’s mayor, Renaat Landuyt. He is no stranger to this kind of initiative, having helped establish the Beaufort Triennial along the Flemish coast in 2003 when he was minister for tourism in the region. Now he wants to do something similar with Bruges. “We want to use our historical city as a scene of contemporary art,” he said on the opening day. 
The Triennial is also an attempt to bridge the gap between the 117,000 people who live in Bruges and the 5.3 million tourists who visit each year. “In using the city as a scene, we also want to open the minds of our inhabitants, and we’re lucky to have found artists whose work invites visitors and inhabitants to meet each other,” Landuyt said. “And every construction or work of art is an invitation to think about how to live together in a city.”

Attractive fiction

The project is curated by Till-Holger Borchert, director of Musea Brugge and head curator of the Groeninge Museum, and Michel Dewilde, visual arts curator at the Cultural Centre of Bruges. “We started to discuss what is unique about Bruges and how the perception of Bruges within Flanders differs from the perception of Bruges in foreign countries,” Borchert said, thinking back to the origins of the project.

Every work could be taken away and re-assembled elsewhere and it would maintain its meaning

- Till-Holger Borchert

While Bruges looms large in the international mind as a tourist destination and a place of cultural and historical significance, in Flanders the city tends to be perceived as small and provincial. Merging the two ideas produced the attractive fiction of Bruges as a mega city.

At the same time, the curators didn’t want to be too introspective. “We always tend to look at the specificity of Bruges, and that is also a big aspect of the project, but I think every work that we see here today could be taken away and re-assembled elsewhere and it would maintain its meaning, and still allude to the questions we have asked,” Borchert said.

For example, a number of projects examine the role of public space within cities and propose ways that it can be reclaimed. The “Canal Swimmer’s Club” (pictured), designed by Japanese architects Atelier Bow-Wow, is a platform built in the canal next to the Carmersbrug, producing a new place for music, social encounters and other events. A spur of the platform extends under the bridge into an area of canal designated for swimming.

Yoshiharu Tsukamoto, one half of the Atelier Bow-Wow team, described how he had been inspired by the city’s desire to encourage canal swimming, now that water quality has improved. “Everywhere in the world cities want to try to limit the behaviour of people, and ask them to behave in a very disciplined way. So swimming in the canal sounds wonderful.”

Closer encounters

Another angle on public space comes from Studio Mumbai, a group of architects and builders from India. Its “Bridge by the Canal” is a set of covered benches built along the Groenerei, in a structure not unlike a wooden bridge.

Sitting here you enjoy the same view of the canal that you would from the bay window in a small, opulent tower across the water. It’s also possible to imagine the structure pivoting to become a functioning bridge across the canal, reconnecting the public street to a private alley that presently ends at the water’s edge.

I wanted to make a meeting point for strangers – a person from Bruges and a visitor

- Vibeke Jensen

While inspired by this specific location, the bridge could fit in almost anywhere. “It’s an idea about how to face new over-population and changes in habitation in the city,” said Louis-Antoine Grego, one of the Studio Mumbai architects. He went on to explain that the bridge was manufactured in India before arriving in Bruges as a flat-pack. “Maybe we can make many of them and send them everywhere,” he said.

Another way of reclaiming public space is proposed by Norwegian artist Vibeke Jensen. Her “1:1 Connect: DiamondScope” is an angled tower clad in mirrors, its shape reminiscent of the Bruges crane that has been built on the Markt. It points at the Belfry, and one aim of the piece is to create an artistic dialogue with this tower. The other is to change perceptions of the square.

“People from Bruges told me that they hardly ever came here because there are so many tourists, and they feel kind of expelled from the square,” Jensen explained. “So I wanted to make a meeting point for strangers – a person from Bruges and a visitor – and create an intimate place in the square.”

This meeting point is inside the “DiamondScope”, although only Bruges residents have been told the combination to unlock the door. So if visitors want to see inside, they need to find a bruggeling and have a conversation.

“It’s trying to make a generous and secluded space for strangers in the middle of this very crowded square,” Jensen said. “From the outside it mirrors everything – the architecture, the tourists, the selfies – and multiplies this whole consumption of the square. And inside it’s all red, with two framed views: one of the square from the front and one of the top of the Belfry.”

Casualty of markets

While many of the Triennial artists take their inspiration from the city as it is now, a few refer back to its history as a birthplace of capitalism. “Masquerade” by Brussels-based artists Katleen Vermeir and Ronny Heiremans is a video installation that looks at the dynamics between art, architecture and economics. It plays in the Poortersloge on Academiestraat, once a meeting place for bankers and merchants.

Meanwhile, Norwegian artist Anne Senstad has mounted a huge sign reading “Gold Guides Me” on old warehouses overlooking the canals to the north of the city. This is also the site of the Triennial’s pop-up cafe, housed in shipping containers jutting over the water.

Then on the Burg there is “Uber Capitalism” by Austrian artist Rainer Ganahl. This is a large replica of the Bruges stock exchange, made from industrial-strength chocolate and topped with a rotating sign from which the work takes its name. “It turns like a Mercedes star, which is an interesting symbol in European capitalism,” the artist explained.

Every construction or work of art is an invitation to think about how to live together in a city

- Renaat Landuyt

Dating from around 1300, the Bruges stock exchange was one of the first in the world, but also an early casualty of failing markets, closing when the harbour silted up a couple of centuries later and trade collapsed. Chocolate, meanwhile, is one of the founding commodities of global capitalism and still an important part of Belgium’s trade (to say nothing of Bruges). And Uber refers to the controversial alternative taxi business.

“Uber stands for this new form of capitalism that no longer has a traditional working structure, but all the participants are self-contractors, using apps,” Ganahl said.

Other highlights in the Triennial include “Tree Houses in Bruges”, by Japanese artist Tadashi Kawamata, who has filled the trees in the main courtyard of the Begijnhof with small wooden shacks. Too high to reach, they recall the small begijn houses, but with the makeshift feeling of a shanty town. Rather than intruding, the effect is rather poetic.

Meanwhile, Chinese artist Song Dong has built a small mountain range out of windows recovered from a demolished neighbourhood of his native Beijing, a comment on differing attitudes to architectural heritage in Asia and Europe. Called “Wu Wei Er Wei” or “Doing Nothing Doing”, the multicoloured structure is beautifully placed in front of St Salvator’s Cathedral.

Bruges Triennial, until 18 October, across Bruges

Photo top © Peter de Bruyne, bottom © DanielDewaele