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Jan Fabre's Exciting Friends vs the Curators (part 2): At breakneck gallop through Ostend

Jan Fabre is a bit like the Jan Cremer of Flanders but younger, five times more talented, multidisciplinary and eight times more social. 'It is quite an honour to succeed Jan Hoet,' says Jan Fabre. Together with art historian Joanna De Vos, he is the curator of HET VLOT. Art is (not) lonely.

The exhibition should further boost Mu.ZEE and the Belgian coastal city of Ostend this winter. Het Vlot is - after Jan Hoet's De Zee - salut d'honneur (+ 2014) - the second edition of a triennial international exhibition at the seaside art museum.

Inimitable giant

In furious gallop through the Mu.Zee (photo HT)

International artist Jan Fabre (born Antwerp, 1958) is an inimitable giant, a jack-of-all-trades with an amazing network. For (Dutch) readers who do not know Jan Fabre very well: he speaks flat Antwerp, even when he speaks English. He hit theatrical milestones and makes(s) pioneering art that seems to know no bounds.

Controversial? Definitely. In 2012, Fabre chased some tarantulas through a field of razor blades in Eupen. Earlier, he threw cats on the steps of Antwerp city hall for a film project.

Bird spiders and cats

A lot of Dutch people know Jan Fabre's work without knowing it. They gazed at Fabre's seven-metre-long bronze turtle ('Searching for Utopia') in Florence, on Ostend Boulevard or simply at home in Artis. In 2016, tens of thousands of Dutch people were introduced to Fabre's skulls at the Noordbrabants Museum, covered in shiny shells of jewel beetles, with paint brushes in their mouths. Yes, Fabre has a thing for animals and runs on contradictions, discussions and criticism.

(Photo HT)

Fabre possesses a crackling brain that is always churning. People from Ostend who work with him for Het Vlot tell me that Jan only sleeps three hours a night. He is a continuous idea machine who does not hesitate to call in the evening and at night with a new plan.

The 'plan' for The Raft. Art is (not) lonely doesn't just take place at Mu.Zee, Ostend's art museum. Jan's perfume also floats over various (unexpected) locations of the Belgian seaside city, about which more later.


Preliminary study of the Raft of the Medusa (photo HT)

The theme of the exhibition was inspired by Théodore Géricault's The Raft of the Medusa (1818) and Jan's 1986 'utopian raft' Art is (not) Lonely.

Jan Fabre's makeshift raft is a 1980s 'thinking model' of an imaginary world that transports his vision of artistry.

Raft of JF, photo Lieven Herreman

He says: 'At that time, I made a lot of viewing boxes and thinking models because I had little money and hoped I would be able to execute those utopian works wholesale later.'

The model is in the Mu.Zee. On the two floors of the boat, you can see a studio and a gymnasium including sports accessories. Outside on the 'deck' is an athletics track and a football pitch. On the sails it says in red capitals 'ART IS (NOT) SIMPLE'.

170 years

Géricault's painting and Fabre's installation are 170 years apart. But they share the same theme of searching, loneliness and (mis)hope. La condition humaine, the fate of being human.

At Mu.Zee - directly behind Jan's raft - hangs a small preliminary study of Géricault's painting. Of course: the real canvas is 5 by 7.5 metres and hangs in Paris' Louvre.

The Raft of the Medusa is based on the infamous sinking of the French frigate Méduse in July 1816 on the Atlantic Ocean, off the west coast of Africa. A large raft had to save 149 sailors. They were sent out to sea by the captain without food or water and floated around for several weeks. When a passing ship finally found them, 12 people were still alive. The others had been pushed overboard in battles, starved to death or eaten by their hungry fellows.[ref]Asterix and Medusa: A nice illustration of the fame of The Raft of the Medusa can be found in the comic book Astérix Légionnaire (Dutch: Asterix en het 1ste legioen, 1967). In it, Géricault's painting is parodied. After a quick sea battle all that remains of the ship of vanquished pirates is a raft with battered sailors. It looks like the cartoon version of The Raft of the Medusa[/ref].

'Cum here my vrunt...'

The Man of Three Hours Sleep leads us through Mu.ZEE at breakneck speed last Friday. Dressed in a black autocoat with stand-up collar and flapping belt, Jan Fabre flies past the halls at breakneck gallop. Thoughtful speeches or historical vistas are not Jan's thing. Full of self-effacing enthusiasm, the artist runs from installation to painting, pulling collaborating artists left and right out of the wings like living props to praise them elaborately.

'Cum here my vrunt... This is Carlos Aires, from the floor in the Venetian galleries, an outdoor location.'

'We also have a very talented artist from the Netherlands in the Hippodrome, Linda Molenaar, she is also going to do performances.'

With his white crest, Jan almost gives light in the dark rooms. 'Look there, a painting by my good friend Alex van Warmerdam, two men on a raft. He is also a great filmmaker.'

Alex van Warmerdam, Untitled (photo HT)

There are works by Penny Arcade ('Alone with the Sea', video), a painting by Michaël Borremans, Belgium's most expensive living artist ('Black Mould'), Mike Figgis's Surivival Skills, a look at The Raft of the Medusa as if it were based on a Hollywood screenplay, and an intriguing installation by Japan's Chiharu Shiota of red wool and sloops, which you can walk right through.

Existing work but also a lot made especially for the exhibition by the 'exciting friends' who challenged Jan Fabre to give his own interpretation of his theme.

Emotion, suffering and hope

The chilling story of the survivors of the Medusa shocked Europe and discredited the French government. On 25 August 1819, The Raft was presented at the Paris Salon under the title Shipwreck. The huge canvas almost bursts with emotion, suffering and hope. Behind high waves and under an ominous sky, a miniature ship, even smaller than Jan Fabre's, can be seen in the horizon. Will that be its salvation?

The Artists (photo HT)
The Trustees (photo HT)

Yes indeed, the football match between artists and curators organised by Jan Fabre to close the opening days at KV Ostend stadium on Saturday 21 October was no mere fun. The angry tongues in the audience who claimed the result was "scripted" were right.

Jan drew inspiration from Monthy Python's famous skit, The Philosophers' Football Match. In it, Greek philosophers play a football match against German peers and the Greek philosopher Socrates scores the only goal after a lot of thinking.


So in the Ostend epigone, the artists had to and would score the only and decisive goal. That it became 3-2 due to overenthusiasm from Artists and Curators does not matter. For there is a deeper truth beneath the match. Jan Fabre no longer wants to be lectured to by curators.

He puts it this way: 'The artist who makes the curator a star, that is over. The artist must take centre stage.'

And he adds, standing in front of Katie O'Hagan's Life Raft: 'The artist as well as the people are central. We are not above the people!'

For the third time that afternoon, Fabre tells us the story of Sister Annie of Poverello, an 88-year-old lady with blue eyes. She devotes her life to feeding poor people.

Jan Fabre: ' We did plenty of searching for locations and I spoke to a lot of interesting people for that. I was particularly charmed by Sister Annie from Poverello. I met so many different people who are enormously generous. Those people are also concerned with beauty. I want to engage them and let their statements be heard.'


Jan Fabre is always looking for surprising connections, which he calls consilience'.

Fabre: 'We looked for locations in Ostend that are not obvious to make the heartbeat of the city felt.'

Because the city needs to be 'activated' with art in order to engage in dialogue with its beauty.

Carlos Aires, Black Sea, 2012. Installation made from planks of discarded escape boats; right: the maker (photo HT)

We visit the sites 'extra muras', as they call the expo sites outside the museum in Ostend. Unfortunately without Jan, as he has to go before and disappears at the speed of light.

Ostend has 22 external Vlot locations. In and on churches, racecourse stables, parks, city hall, Kursaal, an abandoned penthouse, hotels, sailing ships and ponds you will find installations, paintings, videos and performances.

Luc Tuymans, Naval officer (photo HT)

The Mercator is a three-master moored in Ostend marina. There, a painting by Luc Tuymans, The Naval Officer, hangs in the commander's cabin. The captain of the Mercator says: 'It fits very well here. I still said to Tuymans: let it hang.'

Runaway ship

From the 20th floor of the Europa Centre, you have a grand view of Ostend and the North Sea. On zeezicht, a video by Elisabetta Benassi runs; a runaway refugee ship that, with its engine running, drills further and further into the coastline.

The other side of the flat, landside, is obscured. There is a video of Pieter Geenen there. You're looking towards southern Spain here. Basically, you could see the African coast, from where many refugees leave.

Such an interpretation immediately reveals the weakness of Het Vlot's theme: the association with refugees is (too) tempting in this day and age. Some artists cannot get out of it and get stuck in obligatory images and installations.

Pet bottles

Michael Fliri, Early One Morning with Time to Waste (photo HT)

Not the Italian Michael Fliri. He built (in 2007) a slender white boat with hundreds of new PET bottles and presents it at the Dominican Church, Sister Annie's church. He also sailed it, which went more stably than expected.

In St Peter and Paul church, simplicity crows victory. Alberto Garutti flutters a white A4 sheet from the ridge of the church every four minutes. There is absolutely nothing on it and everyone watches with fascination (the thought of the sandwich bag from the film American Beauty twirling in the wind comes to mind) the steady fall of an A4 sheet between the pews.

Meaning? Figure it out for yourself.

Katie O'Hagan, Life Raft (photo HT)

Yes, we learnt something in Ostend. According to Jan Fabre's gospel, art comes from the artist and not the curator. Curators are the water carriers of art. They can support artists but should not use them for the glory of their curatorship.

In other words, Johan Cruijff and Lionel Messi are always more important than the technical director. But the supporters are most important of all.

The catalogue of The Raft. Art is (not) Lonely is thick, white, bulky and extremely readable. Price: €45. In the front is an excerpt from Jan Fabre's Third Night Book:

'Kassel, 5 May 1992

Washed up in the Jan Hoet Land. / I am a castaway.

(I have hidden my raft / so that I can depart again unnoticed / to my country, the country I have yet to / discover.)

Jan Fabre.'

Good to know

'The raft. Art is not Lonely' runs from 22 October 2017 to 15 April 2018. See further and

Harri Theirlynck

Freelance (travel) journalist. Graduated cum laude in Dutch language and literature from Radboud University Nijmegen. Worked as a teacher, comedian and science journalist. Then successively became editor-in-chief of (ANWB) Kampioen, NU De Tijd van je Leven and REIZEN Magazine (ANWB Media). Since 2013, freelancer for Pikas Media, REIZEN Magazine (ANWB), Kampioen, TravMagazine, Djoser, de Telegraaf, Blendle and Arts & Auto, among others. Teacher of (travel) journalism at Fontys University of Applied Sciences. Provides training courses in creative & business writing and travel journalism.View Author posts

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