Vanitas Extended: a timeless, haunting art route through Ypres


Seventeen internationally renowned artists conquer museums and public spaces in Ypres for an exhibition offering a delicate and haunting vision of death

Death revisited

The group exhibition Vanitas Extended connects the war-time past of Ypres to present-day talent and timeless views. Curator Nathalie Vanheule, born in the city, came up with the idea for the exhibition after three family members died in the space of two weeks, just before she gave birth to her daughter. “Death overtakes us,” she says. “We can never be prepared for it.”

The art parcours, which takes the visitor to indoor and outdoor locations across the city, tries to shed new light on the classical vanitas theme in art – depictions of objects symbolic of the inevitability of death. You’ll find video, installations, photographs, paintings and drawings by local and international artists, including German sculptor Madeleine Boschan, Brussels painter Stephan Balleux and Dutch artist Oscar Peters, who contributes one of his unique moveable sculptures.

“We venture off the path of fading flowers, skulls and fruit,” says Vanheule, referring to the vanitas tradition. “We go far beyond it in an attempt to hold on to life.”

In the city’s Sint-Maartens cathedral, you can admire the work of Flemish painter Cindy Wright, whose impressive “Endless Road” is based on the list of lost First World War soldiers engraved on the Menin Gate. She saw her own surname and was overwhelmed by memories of her grandfather, a British soldier in the Second World War. 

In the midst of life

Wright’s work contrasts heavily with the playful installations of Flemish artist Tinka Pittoors, who organises “little explosions of confetti out of everyday life”, according to the exhibition catalogue. But the vibrance hides a seed of vanitas.

Ghent artist Marie Cloquet, meanwhile, has made a striking series of manipulated photographic prints, referring to the “scorched-earth” military strategy. It results in haunting landscapes of monumental damage.

Utterly breathtaking – and one of the highlights of the exhibition – is a video by Flemish artist Ruben Bellinkx. In an ice cellar, not far from the Menin Gate, death seems to be very close. Bellinkx shows his film Stasis in an almost religious silence. Slowly, the camera reveals 33 men in suits, solemnly holding four tables above the ground with their mouths. Humans become a fragment of a larger whole. We lose our vanity, in Bellinkx’s view; we’re condemned to become part of each other. 

Walking through the small city and the sometimes unusual locations, you can’t help but think of the words of artist Liesbet Waegemans in the catalogue, as she describes death intensifying life: “We cannot bring life back, and I think life does not ask for it. It wants to be released.”

Vanitas Extended, until 6 June, across Ypres

Photo: Ruben Bellinkx’s film Stasis suggests an interconnectedness we cannot avoid