Saint Bavo's Cathedral, Ghent, Belgium

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All photographs: Christophe Vander Eecken
Sint-Jan, review by Elke Couchez
With their exhibition ‘Sint-Jan’ at Saint-Bavo’s Cathedral in Ghent, curators Jan Hoet and Hans Martens put forward the spiritual as an antipode for the expensive spectacle and consumption-driven initiatives that dominate today’s cultural industry.
Despite all the debate surrounding the exhibition, one should firstly ask if the artworks are not also commodities used for consumption’ Religious art has always offered fulfilment: it offered the city its prestige, the wealthy Maecenas bought a solution for his bad conscience and the pious parishioners reached catharsis and salvation by looking at images. Secondly, one can ask if the church really is safeguarded against spectacle’ Although the curators interpret the cathedral as a refuge and a place for slow contemplation, its art doesn’t preach asceticism. While the organ produces deep and heartfelt tones, the spectator is surrounded by the yearning gazes of the classical statues. This display of inner - and not so inner - passion is sensual, it is pure and brutal materiality. Such focus on the body, however, is at the heart of the Christian dogma of incarnation or the word made flesh: the body can neither be thought of, nor appear without material support. Clearly, this dualistic tension dominates the contemporary art pieces shown in the cathedral. 61 artists search for ways to represent the body in figuration, as well as in abstraction. Their research is thus situated on the intermediate field between absence and presence. Consequently, the question arises if contemporary art - and its recurring concern with representation - has its roots in complex theological concepts such as the incarnation and God as a present absence.
Striking is this regard is the work of Thierry De Cordier, which assaults the spectator with the harshness of the infinite nothingness. Where once an icon hung, the artist decided to install a black painting titled ‘Nada’ (2005). Referring to Kazimir Malevich, who attempted to represent the space between the tangible and the immaterial, De Cordier analyses the conditions of nothingness. Both works indicate a strained relation to Christianity: as Malevich beheld the face of God in his black square, an outline of a crucifix appears in the darkness of ‘Nada’. Absence likewise is a central theme in ‘I’m more sexy, les vièrges à l’enfant’ (2012), a sequence of paintings by Mehdi-Georges Lahlou. Taking famous ‘Madonna and child’ representations from art history, Lahlou covers the face and breast with decorative motives inherited from his Islamic background. Simultaneously veiled and uncovered, his interference refers to the tradition of icons, which were a gate as well as a restriction to the transcendent reality. Rather than making religious art, Lahlou grasps the mystery of absence and presence aesthetically. An essence appears in the image, but can never be made tangible.
Although Christianity is not a explicit source of inspiration, most artists in this show wrestle with related existential issues. Representing the absence, the objectives pursued are almost spiritual. As Modigliani once stated: ‘What I am searching for is neither the real nor the unreal, but the subconscious, the mystery of what is instinctive in the human race.’ The art showed at Saint-Bavo’s Cathedral subsequently offers no tranquillity of mind, but rather renders the despair of the artist longing to translate the unattainable.
This is an adapted version of a text published in <H>ART, June 21th 2012 (
‘Sint-Jan’, untill July 29th at Saint Bavo’s Cathedral in Ghent. Open from Monday till Saturday 9.30 am - 5 pm/ Sunday and holidays 1 - 5 pm.

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