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The Curious Case of Ham-Dressed University Pillars

Jan Fabre Gent, Copyright: UGent

An animated discussion on the appeal of the Broche pillar on Korenmarkt or the love-hate relationship of Gentenaars with the Schapenstal (sheep barn, a pet name for the Stadshal on the Emile Braunplein) – these are just the two latest examples of how engaged the city dwellers are when it comes to contemporary art in their streets. And Ghent art curators definitely know how to push their buttons. For example, by letting Jan Fabre cover the University with Ganda ham.

Hang on! Ham on a university building? Yes, you heard right. In 2000, the Belgian artist Jan Fabre created an installation involving 600kg of smoked local ham on the classicist pillars of the Aula building of the University. Witnesses say it looked rather like marble. Except that after a few days in the hot spring sun, the ham (wrapped in plastic) started to rot …

But let’s start at the beginning.

Over the Edges art festival

In 2000, the city of Ghent decided to host an open air art festival, a sort of precursor to the later Track festival. The Over the Edges festival was curated by Jan Hoet and showcased several original pieces that were aimed to encourage interaction with the locals.

Hoet, who was born in Leuven but studied and worked in Ghent, was nicknamed the art pope (kunstpaus) by the Flemish media. He was the director of the Ghent modern art museum S.M.A.K. and a big advocate of taking contemporary art out of the museums and bringing it to the people.

At the end of 1990’s, he invited 55 international artists to spend some time in Ghent and create an art piece that would represent their experience of the city. They were not given any specific instructions, but were given the idea of the street corner as a starting point. The corner because it functions as ‘the boundary between interior and exterior, between indoors and outdoors, between private and public’.

Several art pieces of the exhibition became a part of the city memory or even of the city landscape, so we have prepared a short description of them to bring you up to speed. If you want to read more about the background of the project and see the full list of the exhibiting artists, you can pick up the catalogue in S.M.A.K. or read an introduction to the project on the museum’s website.

Flesh-adorned Corinthians

The artistic stunt of the always controversial Belgian artist Jan Fabre kicked up a lot of fuss in Ghent. Everybody, from BV’s (bekende Vlamingen = Flemish celebrities) to the man in the street, had an opinion on it and the debate about the merits of the pungent art piece extended all the way to the town hall. The media of course loved it and even the BBC dedicated an article to the smelly project.

The Corinthian pillars of University Aula building with ham ©SMAK

The initial public protests were mostly against the use of food in art projects and questioned the poor taste of the “quasi-art”. Hoet assured the concerned public that the meat was past its best-by date anyway and not fit for consumption.

As for Fabre, he claimed that the ham was used as a metaphor for the transience of the flesh. And what better way to remind us of the passing nature of our physical bodies than massive pillars of rotting flesh? The artist also said he hoped that the insects would make the meat their home, creating a sort of living sculpture.

The piece caused so much of a stir that the ever inventive Flemings even coined the word ‘hamzuilen’ (pillars of ham). The lasting effect of the smelly charcuterie inspired a local joker to recreate the art piece on a smaller scale in 2014. The authorities, however, were not amused with this form of flattery and quickly removed the few plastic-wrapped ham pieces from the University pillars.

If you have any doubts about the originality of the versatile Jan Fabre (he is known as an artist, choreographer and theatre maker and never fails to shock in any role), let us remind you that Lady Gaga adorned herself with raw steaks only as late as 2010.

La scène de ménage

Another work of art that left a lasting impression on Gentenaars, was the ‘domestic scene’ on the Korenlei. There were sounds of a domestic dispute blaring from the open first-floor windows, while a large pile of broken plates in the street gave the impression of a long-lasting dispute.

Not only that, a mchanical contraption inside the building launched a plate through the window on regular basis. While more than 10,000 plates were used in this realistic installation by the French artist Patrick Lebert, the passers-by were protected by a rope preventing them from coming within the firing range.

The pile of broken dishes from the ‘fighting couple’ ©SMAK

Transparity

Wim Delvoye is a Flemish artist whose name you might have heard before, perhaps related to his most famous art project, the digestive machine Cloaca. For Over the Edges, he designed a series of very special stained-glass windows, based on x-rays of people in different awkward settings, including couples having sex.

If you are wondering about the practicalities of taking such x-rays, you might be pleased to know that the artist was located in a separate room while the couples were ‘performing’. Nonetheless, he admits, the whole set-up felt ‘very clinical’.

The outcome of this experiment was a series of different stained-glass windows (not all of them of copulating couples), which became so iconic that the Luxembourgish museum of modern art asked him to design a special Chapel to permanently display his works there.

Additionally, the city of Ghent purchased six stained-glass windows from the artist and had one of them installed in the Drongenhofkapel (Drongenhof Chapel) in Patershol. Transparity, the stained glass interpretation of a love-making couple, can be admired just above the back door of this amazing, out-of-service chapel. The chapel is only open for exhibitions and events, which often take place during the Gentse Feesten.

Delvoye’s Chapel at MUDAM in Luxembourg ©MUDAM

International Success

Despite, or perhaps just because of the often controversial art that the art festival gathered in a single place, the festival was a great success at the time. All the media attention definitely helped bring visitors to the town and more than a quarter of a million people visited Ghent during the 3 months of the festival.

Get a feel for the exhibition and see the streets of Ghent nearly 20 years ago in the video below:

Nina
Nina came to Ghent many years ago via several other countries, ditching the big city lights for the towers and rivers of Ghent. She has lived in Vienna, Cantabria (Spain), Maastricht, Luxembourg and Brussels. Now she enjoys creating beautiful design, exploring space and talking to people. She is also on a mission to make Ghent and Belgium more welcoming to expats. You can contact her at nina@thesquare.gent

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