Mark the first four days of July in your calendar: the Young Friends of S.M.A.K. will take over the Citadelpark with Publiek Park, an ambitious open-air exhibition approaching the park as a total installation and the exhibition as a promenade. With artistic interventions spread throughout the landscape park, performances, concerts, films, guided tours and an extensive Walking Guide. Sofie Crabbé had an interview with the initiators and curators Jef Declercq, Anna Laganovska, Koi Persyn & Adriënne van der Werf. ‘The notion of ‘making things public’ became our main objective (…) making public the various artistic practices, the visible and hidden locations and the underlying narratives within the Citadelpark.’
Sofie Crabbé: How did you come up with the idea of curating a group exhibition specifically in the Citadelpark?
The idea of organising an exhibition in the Citadelpark has been on our minds for a while already. However, we cannot deny that the pandemic accelerated the process of organizing this group exhibition. Restrictions on indoor events and visitor amounts made us look directly beyond the museum's white walls. Besides that, a new urgency had arisen for rethinking the public sphere and its potency for cultural activities and artistic production. With the pandemic enforcing our post-graduation blues, it was clear that Etcetera (annual one-evening exhibition with video and performance, organised by the Young Friends of S.M.A.K., focusing on various promising Belgian and international artists, sc) could not take place in its usual format in the entrance hall of S.M.A.K., so the limitation led to the opportunity to carry out a broader, more ambitious project in the open-air setting of the park, from one evening to four days, from fifteen to twenty artists, supplemented with two S.M.A.K. collection pieces, from two to thirteen cultural partners.
All of us live or have lived in Ghent, so the Citadelpark is no stranger to us. This eccentric English landscape park encloses and neighbours three museums, already saturating the fertile soil with a cultural sensibility. In its total quirkiness, the park has been an interesting crossroad of our individual curatorial practices, making this context very exciting and challenging for us to operate in. It is a highly unique location to engage with, not only due to its history and visual character, but also due to the social and cultural layers, as well as the personal meanings it holds.
As individual curators, we all have a particular interest in exhibiting unusual artistic practices in unconventional surroundings. In 2019 Adriënne van der Werf co-curated the festival Enter Through The Void, Exit through the Giftshop, bringing together artistic practices that play with the borders between performance and visual art. In 2018 she curated Civil Disobedience, an exhibition that invited artists to intervene in public space of Ghent and at In De Ruimte, exploring the idea of artistic and social disobedience. Meanwhile, Koi Persyn and Jef Declercq were both involved in The Garden is Older than the Field, an exhibition in the castle parks of Bulskampveld and Wildenburg. In this framework, Koi Persyn developed a two-month open-air residency programme with eight artists, called Waldeinsamkeit, and Jef Declercq worked with the artist and architect Bert Villa on creating a site-specific intervention 6x6 Enclosure of Sunflowers. Additionally, Anna Laganovska’s research has been focused on artists who explore the wide array of post-anthropocentric ideas, often challenging the relationships between humans, other beings and objects.
SC: What does it mean to curate a group exhibition in the public space at this moment and in this city?
When we began working on Publiek Park in the summer of 2020, we never imagined that the project would evolve to the scale it has reached now, or that it would involve working with the amount of people we are working with now. The extensive list of partners that we are working with in this project reflects not only the post-covid eagerness to organise cultural events, but also the multitude of actors within the Citadelpark. Of course, we knew that we would have to be in contact with the city services to get the necessary permissions to host an exhibition in public space, but we soon discovered that the Citadelpark, being a public park, has many more “co-owners”. For instance, in order to use historical locations in the Citadelpark, such as the Gatehouse (Poortgebouw), we had to be in contact not only with the city’s Green Service, but also with various heritage departments. To host performances in the Botanical Garden, we partnered with GUM (Ghent University Museum). To include the locations such as the Mastplanters sculpture and the wall of the ICC, we partnered with 019 and BLANCO, and so on. This working methodology of connecting all these stakeholders emerged through our efforts in order to ensure that we are able to develop and ultimately install all the artworks, as well as to achieve a route through the park that would encompass the original perimeters of the Citadelpark. Our partner list essentially mirrors the abundance of people who have their foot and interest in the park. Be it administrative “owners”, institutions, initiatives or users, everybody has a say in the park: the students, the commuters, the Pokémon Go players, the strollers, the cruisers and the neighbours.
Aside from the practical challenges of organizing an exhibition in public space and working together with so many instances, this endeavour also brought along many challenges on a curatorial level. It is quite paradoxical how we, as curators, by definition the caretakers of artworks, decided to break out of the protective walls of the 'white cube' in order to place them in the unpredictable and uncontrollable public sphere. From the very beginning, we have taken this condition as one of our entryways to giving shape to the exhibition. We had to create the right context for showing work in this public realm. Either by, for instance, hanging works of art in trees (which had to be approved by the arborist of the city’s Green Service) or by placing video works in inside spaces that could be darkened. For each work we had to find the right parameters for display and presentation, which was an exciting challenge with mostly ‘ups’ but also a few ‘downs’.
Moreover, organising an exhibition like this, in times like these, would not have been possible if it wasn’t taking place in the open air. Walking in the park was the way we could still meet people in real life and in safe conditions. Starting from this restriction, the walk evolved to become the core of our curatorial methodology. Walking made us cross the park on so many occasions, with so many different people, in so many weather conditions. We saw the Citadelpark coloured by autumn leaves, in snow, in pouring rain and in full blossom. Since we began working on Publiek Park, almost a year ago, we have had walks there weekly, sometimes even multiple times a day.
Organizing Publiek Park at this point in Ghent also meant a lot to us personally. Ghent has been an important point of departure in the passage of each of our lives and curatorial careers. Koi was brought up in Ghent, but recently, after having lived there for 24 years, had decided to move to the capital. Jef is planning to undertake a similar journey to Brussels in the near future and Adriënne will be looking for new horizons as well after graduating from Ghent University. To Anna, who currently lives in Antwerp, Ghent was her first home in Belgium, where she settled during an academic exchange programme three years ago. Publiek Park symbolizes, for all of us, an epilogue of our experiences of this city, taking place in an urban park that will likewise undergo a structural, large-scale renovation in the coming years. Publiek Park also establishes a unique collaboration with various organisations and institutions we got the chance to work with for previous projects, making this exhibition an ultimate reunion of cultural partners we had worked with already individually, such as S.M.A.K., MSK (Museum of Fine Arts), 019, KRAAK, Art Cinema OFFoff, Kunstencentrum Voo?uit, BLANCO, Monterey, Tumult.fm and others.
SC: How did you get to know each other? Can we consider you a curatorial collective?
Although we have had the pleasure of a truly enjoyable and complementary curatorial collaboration, we would not consider ourselves a collective. Each of us has their own individual direction and specific field of interests, so we have come together rather as four distinct curators under the umbrella of the Young Friends of S.M.A.K., a constantly changing group of curators within the Vrienden v/h S.M.A.K. The dynamic identity of this construct makes collaborations like ours possible.
Adriënne and Jef first met while studying art history at Ghent University. They had been working together as Young Friends for a few of the previous editions of Etcetera. Koi and Jef met during the Curatorial Studies programme at KASK School of Arts. When Adriënne and Jef came up with the idea of hosting an open-air exhibition in the Citadelpark, they almost immediately thought of inviting Koi to the team, as he was already experienced in curating exhibitions outdoors. Anna was invited to the team through Koi, who met her first at a U.S. Girls concert at Vooruit. She had recently finished her master’s degree in Cultural Studies and could bring her theoretical insights and international experience to the group. Throughout the process we discovered that we complement each other on many levels, regardless of being very different, but equally sharp, opinionated, and critical thinkers. Each of us had a clear position and responsibility in the group, which enforced our team and the project in a positive and productive way.
SC: You invited twenty local and international artists to create a site-specific work. How did you approach the artists?
Prior to inviting the artists, we did a lot of research on the park. We went on guided tours and researched the literature and online sources on the park's disposition. During this phase we picked around twenty locations in the park that in some way represented various historical moments of the park, such as the gatehouse and casemates, which relate to its military use, or the Swiss Valley, which uncovers the historical social stratification in the park, or the statue of Sakala on the monument of Lieven and Joseph Van de Velde, which pertains to the colonial narratives present in the park. Furthermore, we discovered that the park was already in itself an exhibition. The Citadel site was a setting for the expression of state and national values during the World Exhibition (1913) and the national centenary. It brings together people due to its use for strolling, botanical specimens regarding its function as an arboretum and public art because of the various sculptures and monuments that are exhibited throughout the park. The idea of the park as a place of and for exhibition was one of our main focal points and the notion of ‘making things public’ became our main objective. From this objective we formulated the conceptual premise of making public the various artistic practices, the visible and hidden locations and the underlying narratives within the Citadelpark.
Upon approaching the artists, we shared our preliminary research and invited them for individual walks in the park. During the walks we introduced the artists to the Citadelpark, shared its history, as well as our personal reflections. It was important to us that the artists were informed and conscious of the social and historical conditions of the park before conceptualising an artistic proposition. Moreover, we had selected artists who had an affinity with various aspects of the park that we wanted to highlight. After our walks, we initiated a trajectory of dialogues with the artists, through which the park’s locations formed a vessel for creating a new work of art, or in a few cases, for exhibiting an existing piece. The process of connecting all the projects to the locations (and to each other) grew organically and fluently, resulting in the walking route that you will be able to experience in Publiek Park.
SC: How did you choose the artists? Which artistic practices are essential in fostering this group show?
It was important for us that the selection was diverse. First in terms of media, but also that the selection would represent artists from different paths, approaches and points in their careers. Thus, the resulting list of twenty practices consists of performance, installation, drawing, painting, sculpture, and film, and represents artists ranging from recent graduates to internationally established names, including artists who haven’t followed the traditional trajectory of formal arts education. For many of the participating artists this will be the first time their work is exhibited in Belgium. In addition to the twenty artists and artist collectives we selected, we are also exhibiting the works of Lois Weinberger and Stefaan Dheedene from the S.M.A.K. museum collection. The diversity within the selection corresponds to one of the conceptual premises of Publiek Park, that of making artistic practices public.
During the process certain clusters (based on locations in the park) and topics began to emerge, connecting the different artistic practises. Some of the artists already had a practice of working in public space, such as Koba De Meutter and Gaëlle Leenhardt. Others were selected for their link with natural surroundings such as Mark Grootes and Xuan-Lin Wang. We wanted to emphasise the subjective and fictional stories within the park, thus we included the works of Laure Prouvost and Jacopo Pagin. The intent of the exhibition is to operate in a process-based manner and with a site-specific sensibility - an ambition that is achieved with the practices of mountaincutters and Evita Vasiļjeva. We wanted to tap into the social dynamics of the park, resulting in collaborations with artists such as Marcin Dudek and Shalva Nikvashvili. The overarching curatorial approach interprets the Citadelpark as a total installation and the exhibition as a promenade through its unique setting.
SC: How do you make sure that the artists can really leave their mark?
The exhibition itself will be rather ephemeral, lasting only four days, and most of the works will only be visible within this short time frame. Our intention was never to become permanently present in the park, but rather - because we perceive the park as a living organism, made up of different stories and actors - we were interested in a momentary, impermanent intervention. Especially at this moment in time, when the debates around monuments in public space are so heated and the values they represent are being brought to the surface and questioned, perhaps it is compelling to state that the public space is alive, it grows and changes with its users and with the times.
Some of the works will be visible in the park for a longer time, as they are part of broader public art programmes by our partners 019 and BLANCO, such as the flag at the Mastplanters sculpture, created by Anthony Ngoya, and the mural on the ICC building by Ines Claus. May it not be coincidental that these two projects define the first and last mark of the walking route of Publiek Park.
SC: Unique (hidden) and heritage locations in the park are being taken as starting points. Some of these are normally inaccessible to the public. Can you give us some examples?
One of the locations we are most excited to unveil to the audience during the four days of the exhibition is the Aquarium Grotto, a side space to the biggest artificial rock formation of the park that was built upon the remnants of the original military citadel. The interior of the grotto imitates a cave, with fake stalactites, accommodated with irrigation systems that would imitate the dripping of water, and cavities, which used to contain aquaria to exhibit exotic fish. This spellbound space will form the perfect backdrop for a video of Laure Prouvost. We will also open the doors of the interior spaces of the gatehouse, which is the only remnant of the citadel stronghold visible from the outside. The symmetrical side spaces have already been used by S.M.A.K. in the past for exhibitions, but the building was later abandoned and squatted, which led to the inevitable obstruction of both spaces from the public. The inside spaces will be activated by a diptych screening of Helen Anna Flanagan’s film. Kristaps Ancāns will adorn the top of the very same building with a text-based frieze. The hidden casemates, the other remaining structure of the original military citadel which is currently used as a working and storage space of the city’s Green Service, will be opening its green gate to the public, showing its inside tunnels with their concave walls and ceilings, for a video installation by Polina Kanis. Another unique location that will be (re-)opened for visitors of Publiek Park is the former dog shelter that was abandoned after the animal care organisation was relocated. Recently, this location was handed over to the maintenance and organisation of our partner Ensemble vzw. The building will be opened with the presentation of a new work by Shalva Nikvashvili. Our exhibition route further includes locations at the Botanical Garden, which was formerly part of the Citadelpark before it was cut off and divided by the provincial road. The academic garden will extend their opening hours till 22h on all days of the exhibition and its glasshouses will be hosting ongoing performances by Xuan-Lin Wang and the artist duo CMMC.
SC: You want to contribute to raising awareness about the underlying narratives of the Citadelpark. Can you tell us more about the social and historical layers currently present in the park?
The historical layers - of the military past, the fairs, the wars - are rather evident and present in the objects and structures of the Citadelpark, which each tell a story of the time in which they were installed or erected. Besides that, the public park, as a common space of the city, also displays the social dynamics of its users and brings forward the issues relating to class, gender, and sexuality. Historically, for example, the Citadelpark was developed for the neighbouring bourgeoisie. Eventually the social stratification could be mapped topographically, as the upper classes inhabited the geographically higher Swiss Valley, while in the recent decades one may recognize a sort of silent social subversion, as the geographically higher spots of the park, rich with trees and bushes that obscure the view, have been claimed by cruisers. The Citadelpark has adopted a rather negative and violent reputation over the course of the past decades due to multiple night-time crimes taking place in this setting. Furthermore, the park is a striking remnant of a culture dominated by males. Among the many monuments and street names honouring historical figures, there is not a single one devoted to a woman, and only one sculpture in the park was made by a female artist (and yet again, this monument is honouring a male artist). The former festivity palace, that currently holds S.M.A.K., ’t Kuipke (a velodrome, sc) and the Floraliënhal (hall used for the Floralies or Ghent Fower Show, sc), was supplemented with the brutalist ICC-building (International Convention Center, sc) in 1973, making this complex into a huge, concrete obstacle that transforms the Citadelpark into a green periphery or fringe, rather than a proper park. In addition, this green collar is permeated by a grey-lined pattern, as the park is paved with asphalt paths that were originally introduced in order to facilitate automobiles. These and many other historical and social layers and narratives of the park are elaborated upon in our publication, the Walking Guide, which will be available for purchase during the exhibition.
SC: Which urban myths took place in the park?
There are myths about underground tunnels connecting the park’s locations to other places in the city, or the lost sculptures of the park, such as the sculpture of Prometheus which used to be located at the open-air theatre. It is rumoured to have been buried somewhere in the park and there are two versions to the reasons for its removal, both having to do with its rather prominently executed phallus. First, during the Nazi occupation it was considered blasphemous due to the proximity of the eagle to Prometheus’ genital area. And second, because women were expressing sexual interest in the depicted figure. But our favourite urban myth is the one about ants. It is said that there is a supercolony of Hungarian ant species living in the Citadelpark. They were supposedly transported here in soil that was cheaply imported from Hungary for one of the Floralies and later discarded at the park. These ants are said to be non-aggressive among their own kind, thus spreading rapidly and forming a network of underground passages that may eventually destabilize the ground underneath the central building block of the park. We asked the respective instances if this is true, and the story was completely denied. Nevertheless, there is something rather compelling in this myth as a metaphor, the ants as a prospering community of migrants, the workers secretly working towards an uprising, the nature potentially striking back. The fictions and myths may at times be even more evocative than the facts, as they implicitly reveal something about us, our values, fears and desires. Thus, we have included the urban myths alongside the historical information about the Citadelpark in our Walking Guide to offer a more comprehensive and imaginative view on the location.
SC: Can you give us some examples of how artists responded to the park?
The artist duo mountaincutters will be placing platforms that overcome the height differences in the seating area of the open-air theatre. Empty, chair-like sculptures, without legs like the Japanese Zaisu furniture, made of copper and glass, will be facing the empty plinth of the previously mentioned Prometheus sculpture. Mountaincutters will hereby reflect upon the oblivious and desolate state of the forgotten theatre and its initial functioning.
Evita Vasiljeva will intervene on the lantern poles that were originally introduced in the park for the World Exhibition. Alluding to the youth practice of throwing broken sneakers over the power cables above streets, the artist will install aluminium casts of the more recently produced light infrastructure, which are anachronistically forced upon the historic poles, therefore figuratively and literally highlighting the present historical relics affected by rust and deterioration.
Clara Spilliaert will create an artistic response to the Kotoji-lantern. This reproduction of the two-legged sculpture, having its sibling situated in The Great Garden of Kanazawa, Ghent’s sister city, was gifted by the Japanese city on the 35th anniversary of their diplomatic ties in 2006 and was placed in the smaller pond of the Citadelpark. The year 2021 marks the fiftieth jubilee of the diplomatic relations between Ghent and Kanazawa, but the pandemic made it impossible to celebrate this political and cultural exchange. This festive occasion inspired Spilliaert to develop a site-specific addition for the artificial island neighbouring the Kotoji-lantern.
Gaëlle Leenhardt’s artistic intervention will foster material and visual elements of two sculpted lions on opposite sides of the Citadelpark, one on the pediment of the Gatehouse and one facing the big pond. Leenhardt’s sculpture reflects upon the symbolic nature of this animal, replicated and represented in this context, as well as upon its symbolic connotations as a vigilant and strong entity.
SC: In addition to the open-air group exhibition, you are also focusing on an extensive public program. Can you tell us more about that?
During the four days of the exhibition, we will be hosting daily guided tours by us, the curators, as well as a special programme made in collaboration with our cultural partners. On the first day of Publiek Park, Thursday, July 1st, a performance by Quenton Miller will be carried out by a stunt team, jumping with a motorcycle over the statue De Mastplanters. The museums that are residing in the park (S.M.A.K., MSK Ghent and GUM) will organise a collective nocturne on the same day, during which the museums will stay open till 22h and organize additional activities. On Friday, July 2nd, between 19h and 22h, there will be an evening of music performances organized by the experimental music label KRAAK. KRAAK will host three concerts by Bloedneus & De Snuitkever, Mentos Gulgendo and Venediktos Tempelboom at the open-air theatre and the kiosk. On Saturday evening, July 3rd, between 22h30 and 23h30, there will be an open-air film programme organized by Art Cinema OFFoff, screening both analogue and digital films, including the stunning pearls of the experimental, audio-visual universe by Maya Deren, Joseph Cornell & Rudy Burckhardt, Kenneth Anger and Shirley Clarcke. On Sunday evening, July 4th, at 21h30, the visitors of Publiek Park will be able to see a performance by Benjamin Abel Meirhaeghe called In Conversation with Flora, which is made with the support of Voo?uit. Next to this, there will be many opportunities to join the various guided tours by city guides and open-air drawing sessions at the park, both organised by MSK Ghent. There will be daily performances by Marcin Dudek, Xuan-Lin Wang and CMMC.
SC: There will also be a publication titled Wandelgids. What can we expect?
The Walking Guide (Wandelgids), which will be launched on the first day of Publiek Park, is a printed tool for the audience to use when visiting the Citadelpark during the exhibition, but also after, when the works of art have disappeared. The publication gathers the artistic contributions of the artists that we selected for Publiek Park, the historical information about the various locations in the park, collected by Annabelle van Son and Maya Jacobs, and the reflections and essays by a selection of writers and academics: Anna Luyten, Samuel Saelemakers, Bart Verschaffel, Marjan Sterckx, Els De Vos, Marc Cosyns and Lisa Lambrechts Cruz. These essays touch upon the many layered topics embedded in the park, such as walking as an artistic methodology, the park’s use, urban planning, colonial monuments, and gender representation. Besides capturing the temporarily exhibited artistic practices, this Walking Guide aims to document the Citadelpark at this specific point in time both discursively and visually, just before the implementation of the upcoming development plans, which will change its character during the years to come. Each of the locations, highlighted in the walking route, is pictured by the architecture photographer Michiel De Cleene. The unique visual character of the publication is accomplished by our amazing graphic designer Victor Verhelst. During the preparations of Publiek Park, we discovered that there is a hiatus of viable and extensive sources for information about the Citadelpark and its history. By means of publishing the Walking Guide, we hope to bridge this gap of research and reflections on this unique setting.
SC: Do you have the ambition to curate more projects together in the future?
Yes, we are considering an annual reiteration of Publiek Park, possibly making it into a travelling entity that would take place in different urban parks. Time will tell if we have to adapt the exhibition title to Public Park, Parc Public or even Publiskais Parks.