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Why Can't an Entire City Be a Museum?

Curators in Ghent, Belgium, use art to force visitors into far-flung neighborhoods.

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Courtesy of SMAK

The clock tower at Sint-Pieters railway station in Ghent, Belgium, has been covered in some deceptive scaffolding since mid-May.

On a platform atop what amounts to a faux-construction site stands "Hotel Ghent," a temporary, one-room structure created by Japanese artist Tazu Rous. At its center is the station’s massive, four-faced clock, wedged into the room from floor to ceiling. This "hotel" is actually part of a city-wide exhibition called TRACK: A Contemporary City Conversation.

Organized by Ghent’s contemporary art museum, S.M.A.K., the exhibition features work by 41 international artists in a variety of mediums including film, sculpture and performance art.

"We wanted artists committed to creating new works, for whom the city and its context would be new," explains Philippe Van Cauteren, artistic director of S.M.A.K. and co-curator of the exhibition along with Mirjam Varadinis.

Rather than hanging on gallery walls, the 44 works that make up TRACK are scattered throughout the city, arranged in clusters that roughly correspond to city districts. Each piece is meant to be an individual artist's examination of the experience of living in a city.

Courtesy of S.M.A.K.

Some artists, like Tazu Rous, draw attention to an aspect that might otherwise be overlooked. Rous's “Hotel Ghent” does this by bringing visitors into close proximity with the clock tower. Ordinarily, the tower retreats into the distance as it looms above the city. The construction of a room around the clock face, however, forces the viewer to consider the weight and size of the object, a reminder of how rarely we stop and reflect on the individual elements of a city.

Italian artist Massimo Bartolini uses his installation to spotlight hidden-away places. For TRACK, Bartolini created "Bookyards," a series of 12 green bookcases in a vineyard near the University of Ghent. The shelves are filled with books and arranged alongside rows of vines so that one ends where the other begins. Bartolini’s pop-up library is only a short distance from the university Book Tower. In contrast to the university library, however, access to "Bookyards" is unrestricted — anyone can browse or borrow books, free of charge.

Courtesy of S.M.A.K.

TRACK also brings visitors to less well-known areas of Ghent. A number of works can be found in Macharius, a working-class neighborhood with a large population of Turkish immigrants, and Tondelier, a former industrial area currently being redeveloped as a residential district.

"We wanted to integrate other parts of the city into the exhibition, parts of which are necessary to understand what the city is but which are neglected and never seen," says Van Cauteren. "There is no hierarchy between the different places - one place is not more important than another."

Courtesy of S.M.A.K.

Bart Lodewijks, a Dutch artist, uses blackboard chalk to create line drawings on buildings in Macharius. Lodewijks’ drawings are a myriad of disconnected lines drawn parallel to one another. They appear - seemingly at random - next to doors, on the sides of buildings and inside living rooms, dining rooms and bedrooms. The lines never meet, but their presence in the neighborhood creates a sense of continuity.

Tourists in Ghent often see only the well-preserved city center. TRACK’s curators hope to change this by intentionally leading visitors off the beaten path. "A city center is the official version of what a city should be, but a city is more than its city center. In reality a city has tensions and problems," Van Cauteren says. "I don’t think in a kind of dichotomy between center and periphery, I look at the city as a whole."

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