‘The String Traveller’ at S.M.A.K.

Ghent’s contemporary art museum is featuring an idiosyncratic exhibition marking the final edition of the artists’ magazine ‘Gagarin, the Artists in their Own Words’. The exhibition features work by over a dozen artists who share the magazine’s world view. Flandersnews had an exclusive interview with curator Wilfried Huet as he was putting the final touches to the exhibition.

The last edition of the artists’ magazine Gagarin is being published shortly. Since the year 2000 33 editions have appeared but at the very start Wilfried Huet, the artist behind the publication, decided it would have a limited number of editions. To mark the end of the road for Gagarin two exhibitions are being staged: one in The Hague in the Netherlands that runs until 27 February and a second in the Ghent contemporary art museum, the S.M.A.K. That exhibition has just opened.

“The exhibition in The Hague is called “See How the Land Lays”. Here the astronaut Gagarin after whom the publication is named returns home from space; he passes through the cloud cover and is amazed by what he sees below. What to make of it?”

“In Ghent you have the opposite approach. The exhibition is entitled ‘The String Traveller’ and Gagarin's gaze is towards space. He discovers the heavens.”

The name of the magazine refers to the first man in space, Yuri Gagarin. For sixteen years the magazine 'Gagarin, the Artists in their Own Words', has documented our world in texts written and produced by artists. In each edition eight artists from eight different countries are given a say. The result means that the entire world is involved and the contributions are particularly diverse.

Wilfried Huet :“By the year 2000 art criticism had started to become a world of its own. Essays were written and they had little to do with the subject the artist was talking about. Gagarin was a reaction to this, to the academic approach to art. I wanted to allow artists to have their say again. Artists would regain their voice. I told them no theory, no descriptive tracts, don't go explaining your work! No colour or images… Of course colour and images appeared in Gagarin. Rules are there to be broken, aren't they?”

“Jazz singer Louis Armstrong put it well when a journalist once asked him 'Can you explain jazz?' ‘Sure' he said. 'If you need to have jazz explained to you, you will never know'. And that's how it is with art too.”

Wilfried Huet asked numerous artists to contribute and many were happy to do so. Always he selected artists who contrasted with one another. The texts in their various forms that appeared in Gagarin are all works of art in their own right.

“We had contributions in Mandarin, Gujarati and even Dutch. Always with a translation. Only once did we shy away from providing a translation. That was a Georgian artist who published extracts from her diary. She said it was too personal and didn't want it translated from the Georgian. One contribution only featured one word. ‘Rumeur’. It was enough.”

“Willem Boshoff wrote his contribution 'Book that is Afraid' when he was in a South African jail. He used a secret cypher. There's no punctuation. It's hardly legible, but we published. It's art!”


The exhibition in The Hague features work by artists who appeared in Gagarin. In Ghent the approach is somewhat different. Many artists are contributors. Others share the same attitude towards art as the publication. In Huet's words: “the artists who share Gagarin's stubbornness”. The results are indeed stunning. In Ghent fifteen artists have contributed: Leonor Antunes, Jack Arnold, Rosa Barba, Maya Deren, Marcel Duchamp, João Maria Gusmão + Pedro Paiva, Bernd Lohaus, Anthony McCall, Roman Ondák, Amalia Pica, Michael Ross, Grazia Toderi and Marilou van Lierop.

There's a 16mm film featuring a parrot in his cage. It runs in a loop. Another work shows the attack on the Russian Duma with strings joining the people featured in the work and the spectators. String is a red thread though the exhibition with another work showing two women on different peaks of a mountain linked by a piece of rope. Photocopies are suspended along the rope and these have been coloured by the museum's staff!

Don't forget to put on the headset to hear the words of Pablo Picasso. Picasso is recorded while he is destroying a work!

Many people are also looking forward to the special event on 10 March, when police officers from a dozen nations will read out texts in their own language published in Gagarin.

Wilfried Huet “We're flying in a London Bobby, a French gendarme, an Italian carabinieri and a Punjabi police officer. They will all read pieces in their native language. It did take some convincing to get this event off the ground, but we're doing it. It proves the point that art can be direct.”

‘The String Traveller’ runs at S.M.A.K. until 16 April.

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