In their shoes


A museum of shoes? In the middle of nowhere? Only Belgium could make such a thing work.

Belgium’s illustrious history of shoe manufacturing lends extra meaning to an already extraordinary museum

It is in the middle of farm land in rural East Flanders, and it is a shoe museum. People tended to smirk when I told them that this is where I was going to spend my afternoon. But Shoes or No Shoes proved to be one of the most ambitious and beautifully-designed museums in Flanders. And, although it is solely (get it?) dedicated to shoes, you could even call it diverse. It is a collection that sometimes made me laugh, sometimes made me ponder the importance of shared objects and, just once, brought me to tears. Over a pair of shoes.

It started with cobblers in Antwerp. Veerle Swenters and Pierre Bogaerts wanted to invest in original art for their shoe-repair business, but they didn’t have a huge budget. They came up with the idea of requesting pairs of shoes from artists. This was the early 1990s, before websites and email, so they wrote 1,000 letters and sent them off across the globe. “Please send us the shoes in which you create your art.”

And they did. Cardboard packages of shoes began pouring in – from Europe, Asia, the Americas. Many artists simply did as they were told – sent a pair of shoes they wear to work (often splattered with paint, clay or other substances). But a huge number – completely of their own accord – made art projects out of their shoes. It’s this spontaneity that sets the collection at Shoes and No Shoes apart and so completely convinces the visitor of the driving need of artists to create something unique out of something ordinary.

German mixed-media artist Rolf Rose covered his shoes in what appears to be melted plastic. Dutch painter Walter Dahn planted candles on both his toes. The late Flemish artist Urbain Mulkers covered his shoes with maps of the world, just as he used to do with a variety of objects. A stuffed rat pokes out of the shoe of Dutch artist Berend Strik, while German painter Thomas Kaminsky’s shoe is strapped down with wire, like Gulliver. Flemish artist Jan Fabre coloured ballet slippers with a blue ink pen, a reference to dance, for which he is famous, and to his ink-pen art, for which he is infamous.

“Mostly they are old shoes, worn down with wear,” says museum spokesperson Lode Uytterschaut. “So they really love these objects.” Hence the name of the museum, Shoes or No Shoes, suggesting the question: are they still even shoes?

Some of the collection belongs to artists who died before the 1990s, which suggests someone else leant a hand. It’s not noted who put together Danish painter Jens Jensen’s wood-box diorama, containing pair of brown suede shoes, a pot with brushes, some scribbled notes and bits of coloured paper – all apparently Jensen’s.

But it’s the piece of Portuguese José de Guimaraes that takes your breath. Beneath framed glass hanging on the wall, his cowboy boot is nearly hidden at the bottom of a sea of pink confetti, green glitter, blue stones, sand and human-like figures made from cement. It looks like the happy dream of a 20-year-old glamour boy rather than the 50-something artist he was at the time.

Sometimes the letters that accompanied the shoes are more interesting than the shoes themselves. British photographer Boyd Webb wrote: “Although a sparkling piece of kit, these yellow shoes, they do not fit (They come from Istanbul)”. British video pioneer David Hall notes that “this old boot was worn in the late sixties when I first made sculpture in it, then wandered around with my cine-camera in it, then used my video equipment in it. It is very much an old transitional boot.”

As much as these common objects that everyone owns can trace a history of contemporary art, the second collection of the museum is an anthropological history of footwear. The museum’s ethnographic collection is the largest in the world (authenticated by the Guinness Book of Records), clocking in at 4,000 pairs of shoes from 155 countries.

The collection is broken down by region and comes from William Habraken, a Dutch shoe wholesaler. For more than 30 years, Habraken travelled to remote areas, collecting shoes from as many ethnicities as possible. “Most of the shoes you see in the collection he got from the culture wearing them,” says Uytterschaut. “When he sold his company, he did nothing else but travel, looking up ancient cultures and trying to get their shoes. He rode sled dogs; he traded his knife with a Nigerian tribal chief for his century-old shoes.” Habraken’s specimens from Peru are among the oldest, but the very oldest – from 100 BC – he found in a cave in Nevada.

Even your drive up to the museum is an experience. Shoes or No Shoes is on the top of a hill along a country road in the tiny village of Kruishoutem, just south of Deinze. The building was actually built in the 1970s by architect Christiaan Vander Plaetse for the artist Emile Veranneman, who had a gallery there. It had fallen into disrepair, and Uytterschaut, an architect, was called in to redesign it for Shoes or No Shoes. He renovated the inside and covered the entire outside in lead.

Lying as it does in farmland, it looks like a futuristic utopia. “The landscape out here is always alive, like the sea,” says Uytterschaut. “The building also had to live, and lead lives. It changes colour over the years but also over the day, depending on the sun. Buildings of white plaster, you can put them anywhere, but I feel that this building can only be there, on top of that hill.”

In their shoes

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