“Do you want to look at art in an old mineshaft or on the beach?”
This was the question I posed to my boyfriend regarding a long weekend we planned to take in Belgium. Manifesta, whose 2012 incarnation is housed in an abandoned coal mine in Genk, never had a chance.
Thus we ended up on the Belgian coast, host to Beaufort04, a sculpture triennial whose strange promotional copy claims it “puts Europe on the map in the Flemish coastal landscape.” Cartographical mystification aside, the show is approachable and unpretentious, offering up some wonderful and surprising artworks. What it lacks in heavy-handed curatorial vision and conceptual punch makes it the perfect antidote for art lovers whose brains are feeling a bit fried after the dOCUMENTAs and Manifestas of Summer 2012.
Though not as far-flung as dOCUMENTA(13) with its Kabul, Alexandria, and Banff sites, Beaufort04 is nevertheless a formidable geographic undertaking. It comprises thirty locations situated in nine coastal municipalities along 67km (42 miles) of Belgian coastline, from De Panne to Zeebrugge. The widely spaced artworks are mainly accessible along the coastal tramline, which conveniently connects the entire Belgian coast. We booked a hotel in Oostende, smack in the middle of this line and traveled north one morning, south the next, taking each day to work our way slowly back to home base. As I’ve remarked about large public sculpture exhibitions before, Beaufort04 puts the coast on display as much as the coastal towns and beaches act as venues for the art. It’s a low-pressure show – no stress to see it all before your entry ticket expires. Spotting artworks becomes the perfect excuse to enjoy each town, to pause for a drink, take in the views, and sample local cuisine.
While many Brussels galleries are closed for this last summer month, it's the perfect opportunity to sneak off to the coast to enjoy some art and the beach (not necessarily in that order). Arne Quinze’s giant red Rock Strangers in Oostende will undoubtedly be the most enduring image of Beaufort04, but here are some less iconic highlights to look out for:
On the Nieuwpoort beach sits what appears to be a stoic monolith of indestructible grey stone. But this mysterious structure, Erratique, by Les Frères Chapuisat, is not what it seems. Climb inside through a tiny hole to find visitors taking shelter from the wind, playing ping-pong, having lunch, or sharing an intimate moment. What looks like concrete from the outside is more akin to papier-mâché, and it is a wondrous discovery to find light filtered through the walls, recalling a sort of magical planetarium.
Nedko Solakov, The Mumbling House, 2011; Photo: Andrea Alessi.
A block in from the beach and Erratique is the run down art-nouveau Villa Hurlebise, a building Nedko Solakov has transformed with his cheeky observational commentary. Those who enjoyed Theaster Gates’ artistic renovation of the Huguenot House in Kassel will appreciate the likeminded rejuvenation of a seemingly forgotten space. With a surreal and often biting sense of humor, Solakov anthropomorphizes the house’s moments of beauty and decay – from its ornate built-in cabinets and chandeliers to its dated, peeling wallpaper. Drawing little figures and writing one-line comments like: “Once a package of chips was stored here. All other products and plates hated it.” Solakov turns the house into a living space full of tiny tales.
Also in Nieuwpoort, which turned out to be the highlight of Beaufort04 artistically, is Hans Op de Beeck’s Location (8), a quiet, experiential installation taking over an old munitions depot, that follows his Location (7), featured in last summer’s Venice Biennale. Remnants of Beaufort’s past also populate Nieuwpoort, including Jan Fabre’s golden turtle Searching for Utopia and Daniel Buren’s striking Le vent souffle où il veut (the wind blows where it will), a site-specific installation comprising one hundred windsocks colored in the artist’s trademark rainbow stripes.
Resting outside of an unassuming church in Blankenberge are stones of various sizes, carefully assembled by Dalila Gonçalves. Most are covered in colorful Portuguese tiles, which are molded to their irregular contours. The seemingly crumpled up tiles recall the ornate azulejos once used to decorate the façades of Portuguese buildings, which are now often seen in various states of disrepair. Gonçalves' lovely installation at once preserves and alters history, bringing up notions of architecture and design as they play on our memory.
Dalila Gonçalves, Kneaded Memory, 2012; Photo: Andrea Alessi.
On the beach promenade in De Haan, which was the most charming community we visited (followed by De Panne), were Jeppe Hein’s Modified Social Benches L-U. Combining architecture, design, and sculpture, these ten benches playfully invite visitors to take a seat, even when their reworked elements don’t always allow it. We “sat” on them all and had a great time doing it.
(Image on top: Daniel Buren, Le vent souffle où il veut (the wind blows where it will), a site-specific installation; Courtesy Andrea Alessi)