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Oak cases with wings, filled with a mix of artefacts, decorated the rooms of Mechelen’s Augustinian nuns for hundreds of years. They were made in the first half of the sixteenth century, in and around their convent. For these sisters, who cared for the sick and the elderly and administered the hospital, the little Gardens represented a microcosm of the larger world and formed part of the nuns’ spiritual life. In essence, the Enclosed Gardens suggest a paradisiacal garden, a utopia.
The series It Almost Seemed a Lily consists of monumental wooden frames containing a single silhouette: that of a flower resembling a peony or a lily. Disproportionately large and imposing, yet at once vulnerable and fragile. The frames are constructed from eighteenth-century oak floorboards, iron, weathered and frayed blankets, wallpaper and a semi-transparent layer of wax built up in different colours. These materials overlap, cover and reveal an amorphous form, in which the attentive viewer makes out flower, stamen and pistil. They allude to De Bruyckere’s other work – the evolution of which is also explored in the exhibition – and are enriched with meanings that refer to the Mechelen Enclosed Gardens.
For four years, the Enclosed Gardens were teased apart, studied, documented, photographed and conserved with a view to the reopening of Museum Hof van Busleyden in 2018. Never before has so much information been gathered on Mechelen Enclosed Gardens. A team of ten conservators, amongst them MoMu-conservator Frieda Sorber, was joined by other experts to oversee the operation.
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