Ghent exhibition takes intriguing look at feelings of shame


A new, wide-ranging exhibition at the Dr Guislain Museum in Ghent explores a universal feeling that haunts us for the better part of our lives

Embracing the discomfort

“Everybody can relate to shame. Everybody’s ashamed once in a while,” says Yoon Hee Lamot, one of the curators of the latest thought-provoking exhibition at Ghent’s Dr Guislain Museum.

Shame isn’t directly related to psychiatry in the way that previous shows at this erstwhile asylum on the outskirts of Ghent have been. “It’s very difficult to find shame itself in psychiatric literature,” says Lamot. “We thought there would be references, since shame is something that can really define you. But it wasn’t that easy.”

In the early days of asylums, she continues, people were shut away because others were ashamed of them. "And there’s still a taboo around psychiatric problems today. Part of the mission of our museum is to break down the taboo. Shame can prevent healing: self-stigmatisation can be more threatening to the healing process than the disease itself.”

The idea of shame is closely linked with being looked at – or thinking you’re being looked at. One line running through the works gathered here is the gaze: closed eyes, a back that’s turned away, the constant video surveillance in public spaces.

The wide-ranging Shame begins with panels from the city’s Sint-Baafs Cathedral, paintings of Paradise made for the “Mystic Lamb” altarpiece, in which Adam and Eve can’t quite look at each other. They were commissioned in the 19th century to replace originals in which the couple were considered to look too ordinary – and too naked.

These are followed by depictions of the same story from the Jewish tradition, a Turkish manuscript and a Ghanaian wood carving, with each saying something different about the culture in which they were created.

Clearly, shame is far from a modern, or a Western, phenomenon. “When you look back, you see that shame is usually related to nudity,” says Lamot. “And there are differences in time and in cultures. If we go back to the period of colonisation, for example, we see how the Western world tried to bring our feelings of shame and impose Western norms on African people regarding nudity.”

For the locals, being nude was fine in certain situations, but the colonisers didn’t see it that way and wanted them to wear more clothes. A video and a series of ethnographic sculptures illustrate this.

That uncomfortable feeling

The next room contains photos that show the evolution of beach fashion, and the revolution in what’s possible. It’s interesting to ponder what counts as clothing. In one, a woman is essentially naked, but as there’s a V-shaped strip of cloth covering the essentials, she’s considered not to be.

She hangs alongside a series of early 20th-century Dutch postcards that were considered naughty at the time, featuring what by modern standards is a very modestly dressed bather. 

There’s a sculpture taken from a fountain in Ghent of carved naked bodies, which caused uproar in the 1930s. The League for Public Morality – and don't they sound like fun – produced a pamphlet decrying such things. They also designed what they considered an acceptable bathing suit, as they believed there was too much immorality on the Flemish coast.

In “La Chambre”, by the late Belgian filmmaker Chantal Akerman, a single camera turns around in a room in which you see the artist lying on a bed, eating an apple. “It’s a very intimate scene, but instead of being watched, she watches you,” Lamot says. “It’s quite disturbing; even though you know it’s just a film, you still have that uncomfortable feeling.”

A different kind of discomfort screams from the work of Frenchman Marc Garanger, who worked as a photographer in the army during Algeria’s war for independence from France. He was ordered to take photographs of all the people in a village for identification, so the women had to unveil themselves, something that wasn't normally allowed.

“Then you see their gaze,” says Lamot. “This one is angry; this one is very young, she doesn’t know what’s happening and she’s scared; this one is really old and defiant. And there’s sometimes also shame there.” When Garanger’s photos were subsequently shown in New York, the curator explains, there was a lot of criticism. “People said: ‘Are you not unveiling the women all over again by showing the photos?’”

A couple of years ago, the series was on view in Algiers, showing how times have changed. “Garanger says he feels a lot of shame around this war, as a French person,” says Lamot, “so we also have the collective shame of a nation – like many German people feel about the war.”

Irrepressible instincts

What’s striking about the images in this exhibition is that so many of them depict women. The show illustrates that everyday sexism is nothing new; throughout history women have been expected to live up to different standards.

“In terms of shame, for women, it’s mostly about their bodies, while for men, it’s more about their status,” Lamot says. “That’s a big difference. And today, when anything is possible, it has become even harder: You can have plastic surgery, so if you’re not perfect, then why not?”

It appears that feelings of shame begin before we’re two years old, she explains. “After puberty it diminishes a little, but when you get older, it increases again. You see people who are ashamed because they’re not able to visit their sick mother because they can’t bear it. And then there’s dementia, where older people become shameless in a way: They no longer know what’s appropriate, what the norms of society are.”

For his series S, Flemish photographer Gert Jochems asked couples if he could take photos during their sexual activities. It’s an intimate act that’s suddenly made public (pictured above).

“He told us that at the time, the couples were enjoying what they were doing and didn’t have a problem with him being there, but afterwards a lot of them suddenly became uncomfortable and told him he had to leave,” Lamot says. “In the moment, they appear to have no sense of shame. But as soon as the moment is gone, the instinct is to be embarrassed.”

Finally, a series by Ukrainian Boris Mikhailov shows the hopelessness and social oppression people suffered following the break-up of the Soviet Union. “The first time I saw the series, I was shocked; it is such an intense experience,” says Lamot. “I love it, but it is really painful. And shame is also a luxury, of course. Some people just don’t have the luxury of being ashamed.”

Photo: From Gert Jochems’ S series
©Sabam Belgium

More visual arts this week

Hannes Coudeyns • Ugly Belgian Houses
For four years, Hannes Coudeyns has been photographing the country’s houses: not out of pride for the work of local architects but as a record of what he calls the chaos of urbanism. The result was his popular blog, Facebook page and now book, Ugly Belgian Houses, full of the biggest residential errors and wry captions. Publicity for the book, in Dutch and English, includes this short expo at Recyclart, featuring previously unseen images. Until 18 December and 4-26 January, Recyclart, Ursulinenstraat 25, Brussels

Nicolas Karakatsanis • Ways of Seeing: Episode 1
By embargoing his images and putting out blank flyers, photographer Nicolas Karakatsanis is aiming to enhance the singular relationship and sense of discovery between viewer and the 20 subjects in this exhibition. The work of Karakatsanis, the man behind the cinematography of Rundskop, is also featured in Shame, above. Until 23 December, Alice Gallery, Land van Luikstraatje 4, Brussels

Animalists • Nature
A group exhibition featuring works by landscape painters Wim Ricourt and Benoît Trimborn; Jürgen Lingl Rebetez, who creates wooden animal sculptures with a chainsaw; recycling artist Serge Van De Put, who composes sculptures from old tyres; and bronze works by Carlos Mata, all on the theme of wildlife and the great outdoors. Until 10 December, Absolute Art Gallery, Dijver, Bruges