The Middelheim Museum has undergone a major metamorphosis. The grounds have been expanded by five hectares, taking the total area up to 30 hectares. World-renowned architect Paul Robbrecht is currently guest curator of the Middelheim collection, and his Ghent architectural firm, Robbrecht and Daem, was commissioned to build a semi-open pavilion in the new grounds, which will host more vulnerable works that cannot withstand the elements of the open-air museum.
The new pavilion has been dubbed The House “because the house is the most basic concept in architecture,” says Robbrecht. “This is what we wanted to do: return to naive definitions of architecture, sculptures and paintings. What is the origin of painting? It is looking through the window and beholding the landscape. What is the origin of sculpture? It is the human body. In our new pavilion, the sculptures will be inhabitants, and we hope the visitors will get the feeling that they are guests.”
The House is being inaugurated with an exclusive exhibition of sculptures by contemporary German artist Thomas Schütte, which will run until 16 September.
Middelheim also celebrated the acquisition of new works that were custom-made for the museum. Swiss conceptual artist Roman Signer built a monumental steel ramp in the middle of the park. At the lower end of the ramp is a small concrete bunker. During the grand opening celebrations in late May, the 74-year-old artist, surrounded by hundreds of spectators, climbed on to a construction lift and raised himself to the top of the ramp.
There, Signer pushed a barrel of water down the ramp, which rolled at an amazing speed and splashed open against the bunker. The remains of the smashed barrel will stay in the bunker forever, but Signer will never again repeat his dramatic act.
The second new work is a small red bridge designed by the well-known Chinese artist Ai Weiwei. Conceptualising the bridge between East and West as well as Weiwei’s troubled love-hate relationship with his own country, the bridge is extremely hard to traverse because it is sculpted in the shape of China’s border.
The final new work is a fountain designed by Flemish artist Philippe Van Snick. In a small elliptical pond filled with grey rocks from Montana, 10 pumps blow air into the water. At one point, all the pumps stop and the surface of the water becomes calm again. “This is a meditative sculpture, says Van Snick. “When the air stops, the colour of the stones comes out. In this work, I show some elements that are omnipresent in my oeuvre. You have the eternal motion of the ellipse, which has always fascinated me. You have the air pumps that are placed on 10 fixed points to define the ellipse’s position. I like to show nature, or the nature of things, intellectually, like a calculation.”
In what will no doubt become the most-photographed new feature at Middelheim – and a work that is impossible to miss when you arrive at the entrance – is a new sculpture by Erwin Wurm. The Austrian artist built a surreal replica of a blue sailboat that is literally diving into the water from a balcony next to the Middelheim mansion. The mansion itself was also renovated and is now fully integrated into the museum’s activities. There is a new visitor’s reception area with a cafe and a bookshop.
But that’s not all. Together with the expansion and new works, the entire existing collection has been revisited. Some works have been placed in more advantageous locations, others underwent thorough restoration or received new pedestals. Several works from the Middelheim collection that had never been displayed before are now on show in the existing Braem Pavilion.
Before entering the Braem Pavilion, you are asked to put on yellow shoe covers, which are rather hard on the eyes. And then you discover the carpet inside the pavilion has the exact same lurid colour. Germans Jutta Kraus and Bernhard Willhelm are the joint driving force behind Bernhard Willhelm, a fashion label uniting textile, visual art, performance and folklore into one multi-disciplinary practice.
In the Braem Pavilion, they were told to do whatever they wanted, and so they did. A large triplex wooden box holds a built-in television showing pictures of traffic jams and scary-looking people. At the same time you hear a shameless house version of Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game”. And then you really get horrified when you discover that this freakish wooden box is a pedestal for the likes of Alberto Giacometti, Auguste Rodin or Käthe Kollwitz.
According to Willhelm, he and Kraus want to provoke a discussion about good and bad taste, although he admits there’s subjectivity. “I know what I like; you should also know what you like. That is your taste, and you should stand behind it. Most people don’t really know what they like, and that’s a pity.”