‘A Voyage on the North Sea’
Vanmoerkerke Collection, Oostende, Belgium
Until March 2014
Review by Marianne Van Boxelaere
It was two years before his death that Marcel Broodthaers (1924-1976), one of Belgium’s most important conceptual artists, made a 16-mm silent film named ‘A Voyage on the North Sea’, presented with a thirty-eight-page, French-bound book on a wooden shelf, of the same title and subject matter. The works paired a late-nineteenth-century amateur painting of an archetypal European ship, with a twentieth-century photograph of a pleasure boat against a modern urban backdrop. For this occasion, the work has been chosen purely for its poetic representation of the sea itself. The North Sea embodies a certain desire for the ‘infinite’ and the ‘unknown’, something which is also reflected in the painting next to Broodthaers’ film - ‘De Lichtboei’ (1909) by Belgian symbolist painter Léon Spilliaert (1881-1946). Both works serve as a pertinent and cordial invitation to the exhibition ‘A Voyage on the North Sea’.
However omnipresent the theme of the North Sea initially appears, the thematic focal point actually unravels into a more intuitive selection from the extensive Vanmoerkerke art collection. In addition to Broodthaers and Spilliaert, guest curator Joost Declercq has chosen to present wall-based works by Wolfgang Tillmans, Christopher Williams, Robert Longo, Rudolf Stingel, Rodney Graham, Sam Durant, Louise Lawler, Thomas Struth and Francis Alÿs. The sole sculptural work, Banks Violette’s ‘Black Hole (Single Channel)’, is of such an overwhelming, black and demanding nature that it counterbalances the absence of video and other media works. Detached from any presumptuous representation, with the aim of being nothing but the image itself, the works of Ed Ruscha (1937) set the foundations of the exhibition, displayed in a lateral way and uniting the surrounding art works as a whole.
The quality of the pieces on view aside, the genuine contribution of the curator lies in his unconditional preference for a natural and rather intimate space. According to Declercq, the non-colour white is not as neutral as we might believe, and a ‘white cube’ is not the objective frame we expect. He rejects the white cube as the most consummate and accurate condition for the presentation of contemporary art, and chooses instead to install spaces within spaces in order to intensify the ostensible relationship between visitor and artwork.
Another curatorial decision of note is Declercq’s choice not to combine different works by different artists, but to isolate them spatially from each other, grouping together works by the same person. In this mode of presentation, spectator-art relationships can be exploited and augmented, allowing the visitors to consider visual, aesthetic, and inter-textual relations among an artist’s works, thus leading to new ways of seeing and interpreting them. However, it does also almost forbid contrasting analyses between any given artists who, though separated by generation, genre or geography, share parallels and conceptual affinities. A variety of arrangements stimulate a form of material or physical knowledge, while a singular approach intensifies the impact on the visitor. Though perhaps both flawed, each practice has the potential to enhance our understanding of the artists’ work, albeit via differing methods of engaging the viewer and manipulating their experience.