Directors in dialogue
MoMu and Dr. Guislain Museum in Ghent join forces for their new joint exhibition 'MIRROR MIRROR – Fashion & the Psyche'. When two museums work on an exhibition together, they learn from each other, mirror against one another, and the reflections they create are never just on a one-to-one basis. Each new look adds and reshapes a fresh layer of perspective. Museum directors Kaat Debo of MoMu and Bart Marius of Dr. Guislain Museum reflect on the dialogue between the museums.
Where and when did the idea evolve for your respective institutes to work together on the theme of fashion and the psyche? What started the spark and how did it spread?
KAAT DEBO: "The idea of working together on this theme has been around for quite a while. There are of course many points of connection and the idea of psychological well-being is a very pertinent and relevant theme, in fashion as well as elsewhere. Several of the designers we have been working with recently are engaged with this issue. There is considerable mental pressure on creative people. Almost by definition, the people who end up in this rigid system of fashion are often fragile and vulnerable, and that can lead to personal dramas. Indeed, we can think of Alexander McQueen or John Galliano, but these problems are also found among those working behind the scenes. In addition, there are other pressing and pertinent factors that affect our mental well-being, such as the images that we have about our bodies, the beauty ideals that are constructed and maintained in fashion, and how we deal with them."
BART MARIUS: "We have indeed had this idea for some time. There are a lot of so-called outsider artists who are seriously engaged with questions about their personal identities and how they are externalized. But initially, the request came from MoMu. In addition, after the long COVID period, we wanted to offer people something that they were genuinely concerned about: psychic well-being and how we can express our concerns and our questions about it."
KD: "We at MoMu have experimented for some time with collaborations with other institutes. Fashion is at the very centre of society. We want to show that, and you cannot do that if you limit what you do to the article of clothing, the garment itself, just the artistic creation on its own. We also want to take stock of the impact those creations have, knowing that the divisions between the different disciplines we work with in the museum world are in any case artificial divisions, which are further reinforced by inflexible dictates that make change difficult. But change is happening. I have been at MoMu now for 20 years, and I do feel that other museums are becoming much more open to the idea of collaborating. We see that, for example, in the requests we receive for works on loan."
BM: "For our museum as well, that crucial open attitude to the outside world has everything to do with our museum. The Dr. Guislain Museum does not want to revolve around an isolated phenomenon. The psyche is a personal matter, but it equally has ramifications for the whole society. Timing, as always, is also important. Psychological vulnerability comes to the fore in many disciplines. Being under pressure is around us everywhere today, a very real presence in our lives. Working together is also in the DNA of our museum. We have always been multidisciplinary. We want to and must constantly be crossing that bridge."
The roles that our respective curators play are very important. We learn from each other, and in fact, everything takes place very organically. The two exhibitions are two complementary stories.
How does a collaboration like this work? Does each museum do its own planning? Is there autonomy, and how are the roles shared?
KD: "The roles that our respective curators play are very important. We learn from each other, and in fact, everything takes place very organically. The two exhibitions are two complementary stories."
BM: "We do not necessarily use our own collections as a starting point. We work primarily with objects on loan. I also have the impression that the two curators really connect to the respective DNA of the two museums, and because that DNA is different, the stories are also independent of each other. This means that you create two totally different exhibitions, rather than just a shared exhibition. One plus one is not two, but something new. You wind up with new questions, such as how does the world of outsider art relate to art in general? That question is now being asked by way of something that is very visible, namely fashion."
So-called outsider art is almost always looked at from the vantage point of art or psychiatry, rarely from another angle. In MIRROR MIRROR, that is happening from the perspective of fashion. What insights does that produce?
BM: "That is precisely what I mean: we are forced to focus on the subject by way of a different perspective. We are accustomed to ask ourselves, is this art? Now, the work is emphatically being shown in relation to the people themselves, so that brings psychological and identity issues more clearly to the forefront. This means that the importance of so-called outsider art is emphasized and new meanings become clear."
KD: "Categorizing things is always artificial and rigid, and daring to break out of those categories is important. MoMu has already taken strides in this regard. You are always risking being at the service of something, being instrumentalized. There are power relationships. You still want to be relevant, not just be a decoration. Divisions are artificial. Ultimately, in every piece, art and fashion are forms of expression that people simply exchange – they move from one to another. We want to experiment with that. We’ve done it before, with performances, for example during our opening exhibition. That created the dynamic we were looking for, even though it requires intense logistical effort."
BM: "With Danser Brut, we also tried to bring the performative element into our museum. We presented De Nieuwe Helden, Eric De Volder and other theatre makers."
KD: "In the performing arts as well, you see the urge to break out of your own particular shell, and there are efforts to discover very different places to perform."
BM: "That instrumentalization, or the illustration of a certain theme, which you were just speaking of, Kaat, is something we have been wrestling with for a long time. The questions we ask are inevitably from a scholarly or scientific perspective, because we are working from our specific institution. If you show something at our museum, you are instrumentalizing it – that is guaranteed. But by establishing a dialogue, you can avoid that mechanism. You bring motion into it, and you get that motion by working together."