Show takes fragmentary approach to Lili Dujourie’s vast oeuvre


Lili Dujourie’s solo exhibition at two Flemish museums brings together disparate works from different phases in her long career. Just don’t call it a retrospective

A double bill

Folds in Time is exactly the right title for Lili Dujourie’s solo exhibition at SMAK, Ghent’s museum for contemporary art, and at Mu.Zee in Ostend. On the one hand, it evokes the folded fabrics and other materials that are recurring motifs in her work. On the other, it describes the desire to fold the chronology of the Flemish artist’s 50-year career, so that pieces made decades apart appear side by side.

“It’s about putting old work and new work together, to have another reading of the work,” Dujourie explains. She adds that this is the first time in her career that she’s attempted such a contrast. “That was quite a challenge, because you don’t know if it will work or not. Also, I haven’t seen some of these works for 30 years.”

But standing with the artist in SMAK’s large exhibition hall, the conversation between the different periods of her career seems natural. On the walls are sculptural works from the 1980s, made up of theatrically draped velvet and other fabrics. These were inspired by the robes and hangings of Renaissance and Baroque paintings, and it’s easy to see absent figures in their gathers and billows.

These shapes are echoed in the Maelstrom series of small sculptures in the middle of the room. Dating from 2009-10, these papier mache swirls and eddies were fashioned out of newspaper fragments – a commentary on the overwhelming digital age. “It has to do with all the information that we now have, from all over the world,” Dujourie says. “People don’t know what to do with it any more; it’s too much. We don’t know where we’re going. We’re in the middle of a storm.”

An impossible choice

Another elegant juxtaposition takes place in an adjacent room. On the wall hangs a large, 1983 photograph of a nude woman, lying on a couch draped in vivid red velvet. Opposite stands “De ochtend die avond zal zijn” (The Morning That Will be the Evening, 1993), two black metal benches draped with austere white cloth. The contrast is even greater when you realise that the apparently soft folds are, in fact, made out of hard white plaster. 

Sometimes my studio is a laboratory

- Artist Lili Dujourie

Folds in Time is one exhibition divided between two museums. Visit just one of them and you’ll get a feeling for Dujourie’s themes and the range of her work. Visit both, and you start to see all sorts of subtle variations within and between different periods in her work.

Dujourie was born in Roeselare, West Flanders, in 1941. She studied in Brussels, following a course in painting during the day and another in sculpture in the evening. She often jokes that this was because she couldn’t choose between them, but out of this experience arose a lifelong interest in exploring the boundary between the two forms. Her early work, for example, involved steel plates, often leant against walls like paintings, revealing and concealing fields of colour on the wall’s surface.

After steel abstraction in the 1960s, she moved on to video art, photography and paper collage in the 1970s, then worked with velvet and with marble in the 1980s, plaster in the 1990s and, finally, wire, clay and papier mache after 2000. “At a certain point, I’ve done what I want, and that’s enough,” she says of these changes. “Otherwise you repeat yourself, and that’s boring.”

Working backwards

It’s also clear that she relishes the technical challenges involved, for instance working out a way to express the lightness of velvet floating on air when each piece is built around an iron frame. “Sometimes my studio is a laboratory,” she says. “I want to have this or that, so I have to research how it can be done.”

Often this involves working against accepted practice. For instance, rather than building up her clay sculptures from tiny pieces of the material, she worked backwards from blocks, cutting it as thickly as she could while still being able to fire it. "You don't do that,” she says with a smile.

With titles such as “Memoires van de handen” (Memories of the Hands) and “Initialen der Stilte” (Initials of Silence), these works are reminiscent of leaves or flakes of tree bark, arranged in piles or lines that also suggest a kind of natural order.

“It has to do with leaves, with hands and so on,” she explains. “But it’s also a very banal thing. When you walk in the woods, you have all these leaves that no one looks at, but there’s a whole life in them and it returns every year. So it’s also about taking the banality out of the banal.”

Deliberate omissions

Unlike most other facets of Dujourie’s career, these clay works can only be seen at Mu.Zee rather than at both locations. Meanwhile, the most critically admired piece from her steel period – “Amerikaans Imperialisme” (American Imperialism) – is missing altogether, as is the Hommage à series of videos. Shot in the early 1970s, these are still considered pioneering feminist statements on the female figure in art history.

The idea is to create fragments rather totalities

- SMAK curator Martin Germann

“They are very well known, and I wanted to tell another story about my work,” Dujourie says of the decision not to include the two landmark pieces.

Martin Germann, curator of the exhibition at SMAK, gives a more involved reason. “A crucial part of the work is to show and also not to show. It’s in the method,” he says. “The missing is a little bit the baseline of this exhibition. The idea is to create fragments rather totalities. And that’s also why it’s not a retrospective.”

For Germann, breaking up the chronology is the more interesting choice. “These series were always perceived as monoliths, and never as something that was connected,” he says. “No one would ever have thought of bringing the steel sculptures together with the velvet pieces, and here you can do that. There is no separation, and I think that is new.”

Until 4 October at Mu.Zee, Romestraat 11, Ostend; and at SMAK, Jan Hoetplein 1, Ghent

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Photo courtesy Dirk Pauwels / SMAK