Return Guest: Chambres d’Amis

Chambre d’ami means “guest room,” and back in 1986, 250 Belgian francs bought a ticket good for admission to 58 of them. Valid from June 21 through September 21, the ticket issued by the Museum van Hedendaagse Kunst in Ghent looked like a must-acquire list for a scavenger hunt, with the many local street addresses and artists’ names arranged in numbered order, each with an empty check box. An excerpt:

Raf BUEDTS          Wiedauwkaai 26    <24>    [    ]

Michael BUTHE    Hoogstraat 68       <25>     [    ]

Günther FÖRG      Oude Houtlei 113   <26>    [    ]

The numbers corresponded to a guide that came with the ticket, which introduced the show’s premise and mapped the locations of the private homes in which the works by contemporary artists were installed. Ghent is a mildly industrial, slightly shabby Flemish city that reached a cultural zenith in the Renaissance, with a cathedral and altarpiece (no less than Jan and Hubert Van Eyck’s Adoration of the Mystic Lamb [1432]) to prove it. Not exactly the kind of place one expects to ring doorbells and find a Dan Graham pavilion in someone’s back garden.

According to the exhibition guide: “You need two days to visit all the houses. Therefore, two circuits have been mapped out: Circuit A (red) on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. Circuit B (blue) on Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday.” A handful of works were visible without entering, for instance Norbert Radermacher’s horn-shaped tin bells on the rooftops of homes hosting artists’ works. Lawrence Weiner’s bold graphic text in three languages slapped every chambre d’ami with an earthy Low Countries welcome: MY HOUSE IS YOUR HOUSE / YOUR HOUSE IS MY HOUSE / IF YOU SHIT ON THE FLOOR IT GETS ON YOUR FEET. Christian Boltanski’s installation, visible only at night, cast shadows of a dancing paper silhouette around a room and out a window that could be glimpsed from a nearby café.

Looking at my pass, which strangely still feels valid after all these years, I see checks by not quite all the numbers, but enough to earn one BONUS check entitling me to a return visit to any three Chambres d’Amis. No second checks were marked in 1986. I’m taking my bonus now.

I’m surprised to discover that I didn’t write anything down when I was there. Especially given the intensity with which I experienced my first European immersion in a world of contemporary art and ideas, by way of what turns out to have been one of the milestone exhibitions of curatorial practice, I wish I had jotted something for future reference. (God knows that as an avid American student of Northern European art history, I do have notes about virtually every panel painting I encountered on this same trip.) All I find are some crummy snapshots in an envelope, stuffed inside my copy of the exhibition’s hefty and elegantly designed hardbound catalogue. Published in time for the opening, the catalogue didn’t document the completed installations but was composed instead like a portfolio, allocating a section for each artist to represent their own project. From these pages and my photos, plus some scrounging on the Internet (which yielded little), I can piece together some of what made this show so resonant.

The first photo shows what looks like a billowing, shabby ghost of a zeppelin, a monumental work by the Belgian artist Panamarenko moored in the grand hall of the Museum van Hedendaagse Kunst. The point of departure for Chambres d’Amis in every way, Ghent’s museum of contemporary art was where you bought your ticket. It was also where (and why) the museum’s director and exhibition curator, Jan Hoet, first hatched his plans to infiltrate the city with contemporary art. Part of that posse of maverick men (Walter Hopps, Pontus Hultén, Kaspar König, Harald Szeemann) who kept curatorial practice apace with Conceptual art practices in the 1960s and 1970s, Hoet had a scheme for Chambres d’Amis that went well beyond a typical summer museum show. It involved much greater visibility, and the promotion of a homey sense of comfort and everyday appetite for contemporary art. It was also part of a larger scheme to win permanent independence from the encyclopedic Museum of Fine Arts that was then in charge of his museum’s collections and acquisitions.

Of course, Hoet’s long-range plan—in 1999 S.M.A.K. as we now know it became an independent entity—was probably invisible to most of his guests at the time. To the approximately 120,000 visitors, it was simply a huge exhibition featuring major names in Conceptual art, Arte Povera, and the next generation of artists that was already emerging (it was an important early show for Juan Muñoz, for example). He invited local residents (many of them art collectors) to make a room (or rooms) available in their homes for the artists’ installations. Judging by the show’s success, Hoet was the perfect host. Witness the next snapshot: my friend and colleague J. pretending to feed Panamarenko’s sculpture of alligators in a little pen, Krokodillen, (1967), with the artist’s Aeromodeller (Zeppelin, 1969), looming in the background. Clearly we were having a good time.

In the next photo, also taken inside the museum, J. is waving a copy of the guide, which is red like the cheerfully large stripes on the wall of what looks like a bedroom, except that we are in a gallery. This installation is half of Daniel Buren’s Le decor et son double (1986): a mirror-image re-creation of his Chambres d’Amis hosts Annick and Anton Herbert’s minimally furnished bedroom (complete with adjoining bathroom), where the artist applied his signature papiers collés stripes. In the catalogue, Buren titles the work in the spirit of a French bedroom farce: Pièce en deux actes ou Un acte pour deux pièces (Piece in two acts or An act for two pieces). The couples’ address is also given. But since Raas van Gaverstraat 106 was not one of the ticketed destinations, J. and I never found out just exactly how faithful a reproduction of this chambre d’ami this installation was.

Who knows (or cares) if, after leaving the museum, we took Circuit A or B? Let the snapshots create their own order. In the next one, a long bow/boat-shaped sculpture, one of Gilberto Zorio’s “canoes” rigged with alchemical instruments and substances, stretches the length of a living room and touches down in a sunroom, like a traveler or a conductor, connecting two worlds. In the next, Kazuo Katase’s giant beam pokes out the window of an empty room soaked in blue light; on the wall is a picture of Hieronymus Bosch’s painting Christ Carrying the Cross (ca. 1490). Cross and beam visually intersect in an installation quietly suffused with references to Christian and Buddhist spiritual faith. I remember being moved by the fact that I had just seen that very Bosch painting in the Museum of Fine Arts in Ghent.

In the corner of one living room, the owner’s pair of knee-high wooden Congolese figures (possibly the only whiff of Belgium’s colonial past in the entire exhibition) stand on the floor with overturned water glasses resting on their heads. This was one of the many mighty slight gestures by Robin Winters, who used his space in the catalogue to protest the lack of women artists in the show: “It is like an insurance convention in Norman, Oklahoma. Mainly imported men, installed in private homes. I am deeply critical.” Winter’s lament is only amplified by the lack of racial, class-based, queer, and non-European identities that would diversify a similarly large group of artists today. One of the few artists to push Chambres d’Amis in a political direction was Jef Geys, who chose to install his work in the homes of lower-class and immigrant residents on the urban periphery. He inscribed the ideals of the French Revolution—Liberty, Equality, Fraternity—on a series of doors that opened onto the walls upon which they were hung, like panel paintings.

Just a train ride away in Arnhem, curator Saskia Bos’s Sonsbeek 86—another exhibition with a map, this one of site-specific sculptures installed in a park—presented works by a relatively more gender-balanced selection of artists, many of whom were simultaneously participating in Chambres d’Amis. The significant number of Belgian artists in Hoet’s show, however, demonstrates what careful attention he paid to his local constituency when he invited the art world to visit the peripheral city of Ghent.

Hoet did invite four women artists, including Maria Nordman, who used her catalogue pages to claim her own priority within the project. “This work begins with the first visits to Ghent, starting in 1968,” she writes of leaving a door ajar in a building in the center of the city “where people live and work” to create an unscripted social space. Hoet acknowledges Nordman’s claim: “Her creations have precisely that dimension which Chambres d’Amis is aiming for: in which space is no longer a neutral, abstract, aspect . . . but a concrete, tangible material affected by life, upon which the artist must graft his or her work in a flexible, creative way.”

The installation in the next photo, perhaps more than any other Chambres d’Amis, embodied Hoet’s desire to create curatorial spaces that come fully charged with material—psychic, historical, architectural, et cetera—for the artist to respond to and work with. Here, J. stands in front of a neatly cluttered desk in a room that is overpowered by an installation of wallpaper by Joseph Kosuth. Huge lines of text excerpted from Sigmund Freud’s 1901 book The Psychopathology of Everyday Life is almost illegible under the heavy black lines that redact every word. The wallpaper continues outside this room, covering every surface that a patient might see when visiting the home office of analyst and homeowner Dr. Andre Vereecken.

Belgium was home to René Magritte, whose surrealism permeated Chambres d’Amis. A theatrical still life of a violin, photographed sitting on an upholstered chair, could represent the music student whose chambre d’ami Jan Vercruysse occupied. And in another photo, even if the train in Magritte’s 1938 painting Time Transfixed doesn’t emerge from one of those two fireplaces, the simple spectacle Reiner Ruthenbeck has made of clusters of bare lightbulbs hanging from the ceiling and nearly touching the floor in adjoining empty rooms is still disconcerting. Especially combined with the prerecorded playground noises that I remember playing in the background.

I was surprised to remember the participation of Paul Thek, who died from AIDS just two years later. Forming an intense bond with his hosts, who told him he was welcome back anytime, Thek worked closely with the children of the household and their toys. In the foyer, a assemblage of household objects looked playful at first but was actually profoundly aggressive—paper tubes turned into an arsenal of nuclear missiles—under the weight of the artist’s catalogue statement, which began: “Shall I explain it all to you? What it all ‘means’?”

And I shall never forget Bruce Nauman’s installation. I don’t need a photograph to remember being led by a uniformed nanny past children having their breakfast to a neon-painted hangman, with a jumping-jack-flashing erection, installed at the top of the home’s staircase.

In his catalogue essay, Jan Hoet imagined the potentially alienating effect of works of art in private homes—the shock that guests might experience at encountering art under such vulnerable and intimate circumstances. He wrote that he himself had yet to fully absorb the show’s significance, since at the time the catalogue went to press, his experience of the art was still forming and impressionistic, and the public had yet to arrive. “Chambres d’Amis is a mysterious, sensitive penetration. Art discreetly pervades regions where it has been excluded for a long time: houses, spaces inhabited by people!”

Thus the exhibition became a kind of research into possibilities that have since penetrated and now percolate throughout curatorial and artistic practice. Examples include Project Unite, a group exhibition organized in 1993 by the artist Christian Philipp Müller. Motivated in part by what he perceived as a disengagement with social realities in Chambres d’Amis, Müller invited artists to create installations in the vacant apartments of a mostly depopulated mega-structure designed by Le Corbusier for the French city of Firminy, itself an industrial ruin. Artists, residents, and viewers attended the opening, where tensions were running so high, a fight broke out. More recently, at more deluxe accommodations, the spectacle of visitors wandering all over Kassel, maps in hand, for Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev’s dOCUMENTA (13)—which spread through museums and parks and generally infiltrated spaces all over the city—was deeply reminiscent of Chambres d’Amis.

Chambres d’Amis was much more than a sprawling group show inhabiting domestic and oddball spaces. In terms of my own work, I think its biggest impact involved being a part of a public that was so thoroughly engaged in being present for art. For one summer, Jan Hoet made Ghent a pilgrimage site for contemporary art—its manifestations and its mysteries. And I am increasingly amazed when I think of all of the individual, creative, cultural, municipal, governmental, philanthropic, and administrative forces that had to be inspired, cajoled, and leveraged to make it the success it was. (Paul Thek would have known another Pied Piper when he met one.) Whenever he is asked if he would do another Chambres d’Amis, Hoet dismisses the possibility as too touristic. So, should I be embarrassed to say how much I loved the chance to go inside strangers’ homes, see their stuff, and generally enjoy such a friendly view of life in a foreign city?

I was recently back in Ghent doing research for an upcoming exhibition of the work of Jason Rhoades, who was one of several artists to participate in This Is the Show and the Show Is Many Things, a 1994 exhibition aimed at making artists feel at home in a museum; the exhibition unfolded over time and over the process of them making their work. Organized by the curator Bart de Baere at the Museum van Hedendaagse Kunst, with Jan Hoet at the helm, the exhibition posits a link between Chambres d’Amis’s lively embrace of artists and their work, and the burgeoning practice of Relational Aesthetics. After I left the museum, I wandered out into the city, expecting to feel some special familiarity. Instead I felt the opposite. Without a ticket, a map, open doors, art, and an animating public, the city seemed sealed shut, like a place that never was.