The exhibition project Middle Gate II – The Story of Dymphna is a collaboration between M HKA (Museum of Contemporary Art Antwerp) and the cultural centre de Werft in Geel. Middle Gate II is the follow up to the exhibition Middle Gate, curated by Jan Hoet in Geel in 2013. The exhibition concept is closely tied to the legend of the holy Dymphna, saint of the possessed, the mentally ill and patroness against epilepsy and insanity. The legend of Dymphna shares a strong connection to the identity of Geel, "the charitable city".


Consult the e-publication as a PFD here: Middle Gate II - The Story of Dymphna

Consult the e-publication as an E-Pub here: Middle Gate II - The Story of Dymphna

With the exhibition Middle Gate (2013), Jan Hoet returned to his origins, announcing he wanted to depart from the middle gate. As did the exhibition, that activated art's potentiality and offered immediate added value to both people and society.

Middle Gate testified of a love of art – by effectively departing from works of art that had been chosen for their intensity – and a high degree of casualness. This also translated itself organisationally, with a problem solving attitude as permanent alternative to a monetised operation that is based on professional, market and marketing mechanisms. Together with the show Sint-Jan in Saint Bavo's Cathedral in Ghent and the unfinished De Zee [The Sea], both curated by Jan Hoet, Middle Gate formed a trilogy of exceptional exhibitions that showed a joyful commitment to art, averse to system pressure.

It’s something to be remembered. In the second half of the twentieth century, Flanders has been a heartland of international contemporary visual art (albeit in a somewhat crippled way), with phenomenal and headstrong artists, legendary collectors, small independent galleries and – as far as public institutions goes – lame and underfunded incentives. 

We should not forget that ground-breaking exhibitions were made here – starting with the exhibitions at G58/Hessenhuis and, more recently, Catherine de Zegher’s route that resulted in Inside the Visible, Laboratorium [Laboratory] by Barbara Vanderlinden and HUObrist, Troublespot Painting by Luc Tuymans and Narcisse Tordoir, and the first chapter of Anselm Franke's Animism project. Yet central to all this is the figure of Jan Hoet, who with Chambres d'Amis changed the idea of what an exhibition can be. Earlier, he had already curated ground-breaking overviews like Aktuele kunst in België: inzicht/overzicht, overzicht/inzicht [Contemporary Art in Belgium: Insight/Overview, Overview/Insight] or Art in Europe after 1968. After Chambres d 'Amis he would also take on Documenta IX.

Let us continue to include Middle Gate in this overview: doing this for the special, small city of Geel, is a nice ambition. Five years after Middle Gate, we therefore make – to the best of our a(rt)bility – that what in film terms is called a 'sequel'. Actually, it's a 'prequel', because we go back to the origin of that story of art, myth and madness that Jan Hoet reactivated in Geel: the legend of Dymphna, the female saint who is worshiped here and whose cult made Geel into a 'barmhartige stede' – a Merciful Town.

We noticed how amazingly topical Dymphna's story is: she's a princess who had to leave Ireland because her father forced her to go to bed with him after the death of her mother: 'to marry him', the story has it. Violence, migration, and the mad end: the father who'll decapitate Dymphna personally if she continues to refuse. What is the role of faith here, the reason for which, according to legend, Dymphna refused, fled, and eventually died? Is it a starting point of the story: first act, the heroine becomes Christian. Is it its core: Dymphna symbolising one's own way of being in, and one's own relation to the world. Or is it just the horror that permeates the entire story, a way of collectively dealing with that madness?

The legend of Saint Dymphna, the Irish princess with a life course that reads like a novel, incites reflection. It's a poignant and topical story about incest, flight and (wo)manslaughter. How do we react when we are confronted with something impossible, even if the impossible is within us? How do we deal with delusions, in and around us, with violence and with the nullity of our existence?

Perhaps the happiest moment in the tale of Dymphna is the moment after her torture, when a community appropriates and shapes her story. After all the madness and violence, the relics are transferred to Geel, where the community builds a church around them, not only to give the possibility of spirituality a collective place, yet also with the intention to transform that spirituality into humanity and compassion, and to deal with the madness.

Middle Gate II – The Story of Dymphna seeks an opportunity to update this story. The legend is translated into four themes, around which works of art are collected that seem to make a dialogue with this theme possible, works that can impart something.

That relationship is not straightforward. The work De verdamping van de grondwet [The Evaporation of the Constitution] by collective Where Dogs Run from Yekaterinburg, Russia, could logically fit into the theme of 'Violence' – in de Halle, the former town hall – because is there anything that brings more violence into the world than the decline of the rule of law, as we see it happening all over the world? With the text of law and all that is fixed evaporating, it could have been a metaphor for 'Madness'. Its placement under the heading 'Spirituality' then, is a voluntaristic choice, since even if the constitution evaporates, something remains in the air: the meaning from which the constitution originated.

Bart De Baere and Leen De Backer