To sleep, perchance to dream

Summary

Sitting in nearly 40 hectares of grounds about 10 kilometres west of Brussels, Gaasbeek Castle’s 700-year plus history is punctuated by treason, decapitated counts, feuding dukes, marauding marquises and family rivalries. Yet upon entering the 21st-century, the castle was in danger of becoming too cosy, too weighed down and predictable in its role of historic house.

© Courtesy of the artist
 
© Courtesy of the artist

Gaasbeek Castle’s Sleeping Beauties is a haunting exploration of the psyche

Sitting in nearly 40 hectares of grounds about 10 kilometres west of Brussels, Gaasbeek Castle’s 700-year plus history is punctuated by treason, decapitated counts, feuding dukes, marauding marquises and family rivalries. Yet upon entering the 21st-century, the castle was in danger of becoming too cosy, too weighed down and predictable in its role of historic house.

When director Luc Vanackere took over in 2003, he felt that as a museum, Gaasbeek was rather static – a place “you visited once and were not inclined to come back to”.

So he found a way to make people come back. Exhibitions – especially those that make creative use of the Flemish Brabant castle’s architecture and interior – have been staged for the last several years and have reinvigorated the atmosphere.

It’s one of the ways Vanackere hopes to make the monument relevant. “The castle has to relate to our lives now – here, today – and shouldn’t only be a nostalgic bath in the past,” he says. “It’s an approach that doesn’t please everyone, but with the world of heritage as competitive as any cultural sector, how to be open to the present without alienating the past is an equation that many a historic site wrestles with.”

Flemish bare all

Sleeping Beauties is installed throughout the rooms, corridors and stairs of Gaasbeek castle – a multi-media exhibition by an array of international artists, including French artist Sophie Calle and Flemish artists David Claerbout, Hans Op de Beeck and Jan Fabre.

The theme is strategic for a castle setting, of course, but Gaasbeek went a step further, contacting American photographer Spencer Tunick, whose images of crowds of nude people amongst landscapes both urban and natural are world-famous. They asked Tunick to arrange a shoot at the castle – the first time a museum had approached the artist with a fixed concept.

Tunick visited Gaasbeek Castle one May morning at 6.00. Whatever he experienced in the dawn hours was enough to make him agree to the commission almost immediately.

Tunick’s provocative photographs are a cast-iron guarantee of media attention, and when hundreds of locals volunteered to take their clothes off to pose and pillow-fight on one of the many rainy July days that masqueraded this year as the Belgian summer, the results made it as far as The New York Times.

Dreams and nightmares

But Tunick’s playful series, also called Sleeping Beauties, somewhat belies the disturbing and disorientating nature of much of the exhibition. Exploring sleep and dreams in art in a castle could have been an off-the-peg idea baked in the artistic equivalent of marzipan. Yet the assembled artworks go to darker and more ambiguous worlds than Disney ever imagined.

Sleeping Beauties takes inspiration from Hamlet’s “To Be or Not To Be” soliloquy as well as from the questions provoked by unlikely yet natural bedfellows, such as Spanish baroque dramatist Pedro Calderon and British writer Lewis Carroll, who, in their individual ways, both asked whether life is but a dream. The exhibition also offers reflection on intimacy, sexuality, vulnerability and psyche in ways that range “from musing to reverie, from fantasy to nightmare”.

From the beginning, Sleeping Beauties offers a multiple of metaphors and readings for the restful or insomniatic mind. As you enter, the sound of the hypnotic lullaby “Didn’t Leave Nobody but the Baby” from the Coen Brother’s film O Brother, Where Art Thou? lures you down the rabbit hole. It’s an appropriately off-kilter choice, the purity of the sirens’ voices disguising their deadly intentions.

But you don’t need to have a pocket guide to Freud to work your way around the exhibition. Like death, the universality and certainty of sleep and dreams are enough to give each visitor a personal experience.

It’s an approach that imbues Dutch artist Tobias Schalken’s piece with real force, as his hyper-realistic sculpture of a little girl, asleep under the legs of a somewhat ornamental white horse, conjures up a myriad of possibilities: Is it a nightmare or a dream? Is the horse possessive or protective? Whose fantasy is this?

Like “Inside” by Flemish artist Kim De Ruysscher, a stone sculpture of a sleeping bag, the form of which suggests there’s a figure inside, and the late Spanish sculptor Juan Munoz’s bulbous-bottomed bronze “Listening Figure”, which leans against the wall at the top of the stairs, Schalken’s creation is not lost in the castle’s interiors.

Revealing its roots as a fortress, Gaasbeek’s architecture is introspective – what Vanackere describes as a “dark labyrinth”. It’s all carved wood, reds and browns, stained glass windows, tapestries and heavy wall coverings – but a combination of the light and contrasts produces a dialogue where neither artwork nor setting threatens to overwhelm the other.

It’s a tension to which Vanackere is sensitive. “It would be a pity to show this kind of work in specialised, contemporary art museums. That doesn’t always do justice to the work.”

The little brother of death

Sleep was once considered “the little brother of death”, and the latter certainty hovers over many of the works. Three of the most unsettling focus on death and children, with techniques that vary from the staged to the animated and quasi-documentary.

Dutch artist Desiree Dolron’s “Xteriors VIII” is a meticulous photograph that was nine years in the making. Bringing Rembrandt’s famous “The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp” and the spirit of the Flemish Primitives and to her staged portrait, the image of an androgynous child, drained of colour, seemingly laid out in death and overseen by darkly dressed mourning attendants, is both tragic and achingly beautiful.

Sleeping Beauties is a thoughtful exhibition, with themes that sometimes roam into uncomfortable places, yet should satisfy both the dedicated contemporary art follower keen to see works in an alternative resonance and the day-tripper who has one eye on the art and the other on a beer in one of the nearby cafes.

Unashamedly intellectual without being indulgently baffling, its dreamscape is also populated by a number of older works loaned from collections across Europe that give a historical context to the way in which sleep has inspired art.

Presented without spotlight or comment, this slumbering undercurrent is often deliberately easy to miss, but as with French artist Alphonse Eugène Lecadre’s sumptuous 19th-century painting of a mother and child asleep, it provides the visual equivalent of waking up and realising: It’s ok, it’s just a dream.

Or is it?

 

Until 13 November

Gaasbeek Castle
Kasteelstraat, 40, Gaasbeek
www.kasteelvangaasbeek.be

To sleep, perchance to dream

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