The city of Bruges staged a series of successful triennials in the past, but the practice had lapsed. The Mayor of Bruges, Renaat Landuyt, was eager to breathe new life into the concept enlisting the help of several curators, who are familiar with the city. Their results are on show until 18 October.
Co-curator Michel Dewilde: "The concept for the show is clear: we wanted to see how artists would play with the following idea: what would happen if the five million tourists who visit Bruges each and every year were to stay here for good. The concept is very appropriate for Bruges. Most of the old town is protected. 95% of the old town has not evolved since 1870. So urbanisation is clearly under enormous constraints in Bruges. At the same time, the world's cities are booming. Nearly everybody lives in the city nowadays. So the artists had their work cut out for them."
The two current curators, Michel Dewilde and Till-Holger Borchert, know the city well and this was absolutely necessary if you wanted to bring modern art into such an old and protected setting. Preparations for the triennial only started in 2013. Two years on the results are there.
Michel Dewilde: "Things are not always easy in Bruges. There is the city's medieval heritage that enjoys enormous protection. To put modern art in the historic setting of the Bruges old town we needed an awful lot of permission: permission from the city authorities, from the Flemish regional authorities, but also from UNESCO as this is a world heritage site."
"We chose the eighteen artists on the basis of the concept "what would happen if 5 million visitors stayed in Bruges?" Everybody we approached was enthusiastic and most of the projects have been realised. A number had to be abandoned though: renowned Flemish artist Pieter Buggenhout wanted to put a pulsating sculpture high up onto the world famous bell-tower. That got a veto, but most of the projects did get the go-ahead."
One of the more challenging projects is the work of the Scottish artist Nathan Coley. His project About A Place Beyond Belief combines an existing work and a new one made especially for the Bruges Triennial. The two works represent a dialogue between the old and the new. On the Burg, the square outside Bruges' medieval city hall, you find a piece (pictured above) with the words "A place beyond belief". This work was conceived in the aftermath of New York's 9/11: the people of New York have to reach a place beyond belief in order to deal with the 9/11 trauma. However, not everybody who passes the work is aware of its background and everybody gives their own interpretation to the words.
You encounter the work made especially for the triennial on the courtyard of the bell tower building that housed the medieval exchange, a market place. It features five crucial concepts of Islam: belief, mind, land, wealth and life. The five words have been affixed to the medieval building and without the necessary authorisation would clearly have been a criminal act.
Outside the bell-tower building on Bruges' market square you find a second remarkable project. Vibeke Jensen's Connect or diamondscope. This mirrored, octagonal structure is a focus for the many tourists milling around the old town. If you know the Bruges post code you can also access the construction. The Norwegian artist sees her installation as an intimate meeting space. The idea is for one of the town's locals and a visitor to meet inside for a one-to-one. They can look out at the world outside, while the world outside is completely oblivious to their existence and the tourists continue to take snaps of the Diamondscope.
One of curator Michel Dewilde's favourites is the canal swimmer's club erected by the Atelier Bow-Wow. The Japanese collective decided to build a floating lounge at the confluence of two of Bruges' world famous canals. To come with the extra 5 million mortals Bow-Wow has added to the territory of Bruges: a new pleasant space in which to relax by the water is given to residents and visitors alike.
Studio Mumbai that combines architecture and traditional craftsmanship have created another of Michel Dewilde's favourites: the Indian studio designed an original bridge house. Michel Dewilde: "Studio Mumbai wanted to activate features that had fallen into disuse. There is an old fire-escape leading onto the canal from the property opposite. It can no longer be used, but if Studio Mumbai's Bridge by Canal is put in place it can once again be employed. "
The triennial has been divided up into three handy routes that take you along all the works of art. Other highlights include Tadashi Kawamata's Tree Huts in the Bruges beguinage and Song Dong's Doing Nothing Doing.
Michel Dewilde: "This is how Japanese artist Tadashi Kawamata solved the problem of how to deal with the population influx: tree huts in UNESCO world heritage site, the beguinage. Here not only did we need the permission of the local authorities and UNESCO, the beguines had to give the green light too. And they did!"
Doing Nothing Doing or Wu Wei Er Wei consists of windows that were recovered from Chinese houses that were being demolished.
When you are in Bruges don't forget the indoor exhibitions too! At the city hall you can visit Imaginary Cities, an exhibition of models of cities that were never built!
The Written City in the Cloth Hall below the bell-tower on the market square looks at politics and urbanisation and includes a remarkable black and white film dating from 1968 that was recently discovered at the Imperial War Museum in London. The film shows what would happen if Belgium came to an end. It illustrates how different forces take control of the country and is a satirical look at how cities can be divided by politics.
Bruges is a city with an extremely conservative approach to its heritage. Unfinished Cities at De Bond shows how cities in the Middle East and the Far East are currently undergoing constant change.
The Visionary City in the Arenthuis, finally, shows how modernist architects and planners have sought to absorb social change.