Most people associate the S.M.A.K. with its first director Jan Hoet or with Marcel Broodthaers’ ‘mussel pot’. These same people seem to forget that Grande Casserole de Moules from 1966 is just a fragment of a whole, a whole that is called a collection. Moreover, it can be said with some certainty that the collection of the S.M.A.K. is the most important public collection of contemporary art in this country. Over the past decade, in several of my letters, I have resolutely articulated a number of ideas on the collection and beyond, weaving as it were a huge net to make possible the plea for the need of an appropriate museum building. This letter is, in some ways, based on earlier ideas which have not lost any of their validity. But perhaps it might be a good idea to emphatically reiterate one last time: no museum of contemporary art has yet been built in this country. There are buildings that but look as if they are a museum of contemporary art. A pretense, as it were. The story, however, is clear and straightforward. In the foreword to the book De Catalogus van de Verzameling (The Catalogue of the Collection), published in 1982 on the occasion of the presentation of the collection of the then Museum of Contemporary Art at the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels, I read the following words of the then Alderman of Culture Robert Vandewege: “The Museum of Contemporary Art needs a spacious and modern building, suitable for presenting the entire collection and for organizing exhibitions”. If I were to change the date to 2020, and the name to that of the current Ghent Alderman of Culture Sami Souguir, the quotation would still stand. It is, however, not feasible or even sensible to present the entire collection; 500 works from the collection of the S.M.A.K. would be more than sufficient. What the quote does not allude to is the environment, the city and the world this museum is part of. Fortunately, times have changed in this respect, and today a museum of contemporary art must be an agile whole that attentively absorbs the shifts in society and the world, and that provides artists with the necessary comfort so they can open themselves up towards the boundaries where museum and society touch upon each other. But let us use simplicity and clarity as a means to make readable a complex issue such as a new museum. In a letter to Jan Hoet of 2017, I put it as follows: “The collection speaks, the architecture listens”. In other words, the collection of the S.M.A.K. as primacy, starting point and source. The collection as body and skin, memory and insight, reference and profile. The collection as a layered fabric, built up slowly and falteringly, a mobile whole that stubbornly embraces art history while at the same time distancing itself from it. A collection as a timeless and blind relief, composed of small gestures, critical articulations and monumental movements whose meaning is fluid and malleable. In other words, a collection, and a building. Which brings me seamlessly to Willem Sandberg, the former director of the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, who wrote in his 1959 magazine XX nu: “We are looking for an environment where the vanguard can feel at home, open, clear, on a human scale, no large halls, ceremonial staircases, skylights, doors like gates, uniformed staff, but rather a place where one dares to speak, to kiss, to laugh out loud, to be oneself, a focal point for the life of today, open-minded, flexible,…”. Sandberg writes this two years after the
founding of the Society for the Museum of Contemporary Art, the body that in 1957, under the ardent vision of Karel Geirlandt and Dr. Roger Matthys, designed the imaginary floor plan for what in the near future is to become the new museum. Today, in 2020, we seldom embrace this pioneering spirit, these polished convictions which, optimistically,
gave art and the museum an inviolable role in society. In fact, it is movingly naive, yet this is precisely what makes it particularly poignant and accurate, for it is open and unbiased. Today, the museum has to find a role to play in a complex and fragmented world characterised by visible and invisible fundamental shifts. What kind of place can
the museum be when the cultural offer is predominantly dictated by effortless entertainment? What is the future significance of the museum as a physical place in a reality that is becoming increasingly virtual and digital? How does the museum relate to the growing dictate of numbers, the mediocrity of measurement? How can the museum connect
with the culturally multifaceted and socially diverse society that we have become? How does Covid-19 impact the museum today and in the long-term? In other words, who was the museum conceived for? This is not a forum where these questions can be answered, but rather a place where they can be put into focus. This publication, by contrast, is a forum for bringing the discussion about what is needed one step closer, in order to open up a perspective for the museum in the near future. This publication is part of a three-fold approach: text, model and conversation. In this case it is the collection that listens and the architecture that speaks. Actually, however, Le Musée et son Double is not just about architecture, rather, it is a speculative model, a hypothetical articulation, an elastic imagination that gives meaning to a group of buildings within the boundaries of the Citadel Park. It utilises Sandberg’s naive desire as a perimeter to
conduct an open, critical and well-founded conversation on the accommodation of a collection in a high-quality space and environment. It is an invitation to understand the Citadel Park as a site that is energised, both in form and content, by its museums (MSK, S.M.A.K. and GUM). The deduplication of the S.M.A.K. into two equivalent volumes not only provides space for the collection, but also creates room, as it were, for a historical space – the Floralia Hall. In this way, the volumes of the S.M.A.K. become accolades between which the elongated historical hall stretches out. But how did the thoughts and writing around Le Musée et son Double actually originate? This brings me back to the architectural competition that was launched in recent years for the refurbishment of the neighbouring ICC (International Congress Center). At a certain moment during the competition, Peter Swinnen of the architecture office CRIT. proactively approached the S.M.A.K. with a speculative proposal and a concrete attitude. I recall it as follows: the qualitative future of the Citadel Park can only be fully realised by making fundamental choices regarding the public accessibility of the collection of the S.M.A.K. in the Citadel Park and the concomitant infrastructural needs of the museum. Le Musée et son Double is a first visualisation of an architectural future of the S.M.A.K. in the Citadel Park: a bi-polar museum in a multi-polar park. It is the role of the museum to help imagine the future, to enable debate and discussion, to take a different view on the mission and significance of a museum in an urban fabric. Or perhaps Sandberg would have put it this way: a museum is nothing more than a roof under which the performing event of showing, thinking, collecting, acting, enjoying and appreciating art takes place. Le Musée et son Double wishes to enable – in all its openness – the creation of such a roof.
Philippe Van Cauteren, Zele, October 4th, 2020
PS: The title Le Musée et son Double echoes the key work Le Décor et son Double by Daniel
Buren which is part of the S.M.A.K. collection. The work was realised for the pivotal exhibition
Chambres d’Amis in 1986.