This year it's exactly four decades ago that the M HKA was conceived. Flor Bex, its first director, had been playing with the idea of a contemporary art museum for some time. When Gordon Matta-Clark visited Antwerp with a view to turning one of the city's dilapidated buildings into a work of art Bex set to work attempting to preserve the building for posterity. These efforts faltered, but did result in the creation of the International Cultural Centre, the ICC.
The conceptual artist Gordon Matta-Clark focused his attention on an old building ripe for demolition a stone's throw away from the Steen Castle. Parts of the interior were cut away transforming the building into a work of art. Unfortunately, it didn't prove possible to preserve it for posterity, but a work based on photographs of the building's interior, « Office Baroque », is one of the twenty-five highlights of the M HKA collection now permanently on show.
The ICC was established in a former royal palace on the Meir in Antwerp in 1981. Within no time its director Flor Bex collected an impressive corpus of American and British art. Bert De Vlegelaer takes up the story: « In those days the icons of the Eighties were still quite affordable. Today they are priceless. The ICC soon developed into a particularly dynamic institution. There were performances and readings and always something going on. Soon the building became too small for the growing collection. »
It was in 1985 that the fledgling Flemish government decided to establish a contemporary art museum of its own, but it took a further four years before the M HKA could open in Antwerp. The M HKA went from strength to strength, but by the teens of the present century a complete revamp was needed. Architect Axel Vervoort was enlisted to turn the Eighties building around.
Bert De Vlegelaer: « The old M HKA was a child of its time: it was a white cube. The museum consisted of one enormous, white hall, impersonal white walls and neon strip lighting. Axel Vervoort completely transformed the interior. The entrance lobby doubles as a library. The M HKA boasts an impressive collection of books that includes the film library collection of Cinema Zuid. A selection of 2,000 works can be consulted on the ground floor. All works linked to the 200 key artists represented in the M HKA's collection. There are books, exhibition catalogues and magazines. Everything can be consulted free of charge. Students are regular visitors and here the lowest shelves are used for the children's library. »
Architect Axel Vervoort is fêted by the rich and the beautiful. He has worked for Madonna, Robert De Niro and Kanye West. The renovated M HKA was his first commission for a public building. It embraces the mantra of recycling. All the materials are natural materials, oak and other recuperated woods. Vervoort considered the impact on the environment and opted for stools and benches from the recycle shop.
As the Flemish Community's sole contemporary art museum the M HKA belongs to us all. The museum has adopted the Anglo-Saxon approach and admittance is free for the permanent collection and related exhibitions on the ground floor. Charges only apply for temporary exhibitions.
On a visit to the M HKA note the collection's oldest work: a painting by the British artist Marlow Moss dating from 1934. Did she influence Piet Mondriaan or did he inspire her?
Axel Vervoort also went to work on the rest of the ground floor. He consulted the original building plans and discovered affinities with Germany's Bauhaus that played with perfect geometrical forms: circles, rectangles and triangles, witness the shape of the exhibition rooms used for temporary exhibitions linked to the museum's permanent collection. The highlight on the ground floor is the labyrinth room. Here Vervoort has used the labyrinth form to create extra space to accommodate all the works. The colours of floors, walls and ceilings are dark. The colour used is, he believes, as close as possible to the colour of shade. The approach works.
In the labyrinth the M HKA has brought together twenty-five works epitomising the museum's entire collection of 5,000 pieces. There are Flemish artists like Jan Fabre, Luc Tuymans and Panamarenko, « Office Baroque », the work by Gordon Matta-Clark that set the ball rolling in the Seventies, but also works by internationally acclaimed artists: Otobong Nkanga, a Nigerian who has been working in Antwerp for a decade now, Jimmie Durham whose works are inspired by the faith of his Native American ancestors and South Africa's Marlene Dumas.
Outside the labyrinth note also David Claerbout's installation. Entirely computer generated the work runs day and night and follows the seasons to show the real time disintegration of Hitler's Olympic Stadium in Berlin.
Find the M HKA on Leuvenstraat 32 in Antwerp.