Radial Views

From March 13 to May 25 deSingel in Antwerp hosted an exhibition of work by interior and landscape architect Petra Blaisse entitled Radial Views. But ‘exhibition’ is perhaps not quite the right word. Blaisse wrote a scenario for this Belgian art campus and made a number of subtle interventions. Rooted to its context, her work is difficult to exhibit.

According to the website the exhibition was to open at 1 o’clock. I arrived 20 minutes early and wandered around the building. Suddenly I noticed an open door that led to the inner garden of the art campus. I looked around, saw no-one and slipped inside. It was Saturday, I realised. Not a day when lots of students are on campus. Not a time when Radio 2, also housed here, is heavily manned. I pushed a side door of the building but it was closed. So I walked further into the garden, past Blaisse’s Waterdrops, round reflective steel discs, dotted here and there in the grass as per the designer’s instructions. The trees, sky and building were mirrored in the discs. A curtain by Blaisse featuring an enlarged print of grass was flapping in the wind. Patches of light and shade inched across the ground while in the distance you could here the traffic on the motorway. But the world seemed far away from here in the garden. That’s what it felt like, until I was rudely startled by the words MAAR IK / DE WERELD / IK ZIE / JOU [free translation: but I / the world / I see / you ] that artist Rémy Zaugg had attached to the wall of the low building.

During my campus search I came across more and more relics of interventions by various artists such as Jan Fabre and Pierre Bismuth. DeSingel has a tradition of asking artists to make temporary interventions. It’s a way of offering insight into the spatial thinking of the artists instead of just showing their work in glass cabinets. So, too, in the case of Blaisse. For example, the juicy green cushions with a skin of grass called Instant Garden. I rested on a patch of grass next to one Instant Garden. Actually sitting on the cushions seemed disrespectful to me, so I sat next to them and waited politely till it was time for the door to the works inside to open. While Blaisse in her work tries to stretch the boundaries between inside and outside both optically and in terms of atmosphere, the visitor faced a shut door, a rock-hard barrier. At the entrance to deSingel Blaisse designed two flowerbeds. The intention is that the shrubs will grow to form a green 'plane' that reflects the form of the building façade. A path is cleared through the plane. The growth process will take about two years to complete and form a lasting relic from Blaisse at deSingel.

At ten past one I started to get worried. Was the building already open? I still hadn’t seen a soul. I decided too walk to the main entrance. There were no fewer than four front doors in a row. I pushed against one of them and to my surprise it offered no resistance whatsoever. The building seemed totally closed but was in reality wide open. And so I slipped into the empty building.

There I stood at the foot of the stairs that Blaisse had transformed into Cascade by sticking reflective strips to the risers. I found a book with an explanation of Blaisse’s work. In it was a plan that pointed out where the designer’s work was positioned in and around the building. That turned out to be extremely useful on my tour because not all of Blaisse’s work was easily to find.

As I walked, first through the gardens and then through the corridors of the building, I realised that the campus, designed by architect Léon Stynen, lends itself perfectly to Blaisse’s work. That had a lot to do with the tension between sound and silence that is palpable in every detail of the building complex. DeSingel houses, amongst others, a school of music, a theatre auditorium, a library and a studio for Radio 2. All these functions require silence. Walls and doors serve to seal off sound-sensitive spaces from noise or, you could say, to seal in silence. Thought of like that, silence becomes an entity that obeys gravity. The more closed the doors and windows, the quieter it is inside. The themes of inside and outside that Blaisse works with are closely linked to the contrast between silence and sound. Around the so-called Red Room I descried an almost mysterious wall of doors that provided access to the seats in the room. Here was Blaisse’s most subtle intervention: a plinth that was replaced by a reflective strip. The plinth seemed invisible, and the mass of wall above it seemed to float. More obvious was a reflective wall that replaced a concrete wall. It was as if new ‘windows’ had been made here to offer a view of the surroundings.

I was still wandering down empty corridors. Pushing against doors that were sometimes open and sometimes closed, crawling on my knees in search of typical Blaisse plinths, taking a swig from a bottle of Pernod Ricard that was there for the taking in the ‘closed’ bar. Eventually I slipped out of the building quietly. The front door banged shut behind me. I thought it was ever so friendly of our southerly neighbours to allow me in while they were out. It seemed as if Blaisse had arranged that, too; as if it was part of her carefully elaborated scenario. It was as if the building was mine, as if the Blaisse pieces were also mine, if only briefly.