The Timeless Value of an Artistic Joke out of Exasperation

by Christian Wauters

Until the 5th of June, in ‘De Halle’ in Geel, the city where he spent his youth, runs – as a homage to Jan Hoet (1936-2014) – the impressive exhibition ‘Ungenau’ (“inaccurate” but better translated as “precarious” or “off-beat”). Hoet, remembered as a globally renowned art expert and curator, established for the first time, exactly thirty years ago, his international reputation with the exhibition Chambres d’Amis to which he invited American and European artists to create artworks for homes in Ghent, private residences but open to the public for several weeks. However, not everyone was enthusiastic about this heavily acclaimed innovation, including even one of the participating artists…


Among Flemish examples of so-called Money Art, a young art genre (especially emergent since 1990) that aims at the creation of art objects on the basis of real or symbolic money, Chambres d’Amis (‘Guest Rooms’ – 1986) by the world-famous installation artist Panamarenko (pseudonym of Henri Van Herwegen, b. 1940) presents a remarkable case that cannot be ignored by the art lover focusing on the relationship between art and money. The art object consists of a wicker birdcage and a shoe box on a coconut doormat with the imprint Chambres d’Amis (97 x 105 x 67 cm). The cage is filled with copied money and a pile of (ersatz) banknotes lies on the box. The work that was not even recognized as ‘art’ in its setup, quickly proved to be a playful, mocking and even quite insulting statement or provocation by a humorous but deliberately rebellious artist. It demonstrates (and this could be the ‘hidden’ research question) how an artistic ‘parody’ can become a genuine work of art, for Chambres d’Amis made its way to prestigious art collections and an international auction (Christie’s [London] 28 June 2012), at which it was sold for £ 25.000.

The background of this joke has been extensively documented. Jan Hoet (1936-2014), both hyped or maligned as an ‘art pope’ in artistic circles, organized an unusual exhibition under the auspices of the Museum voor Hedendaagse Kunst (Museum of Contemporary Art) in Ghent (Belgium), from the 21st of June to the 21st of September 1986. It was an art event in which fifty-one residents of Ghent declared themselves willing to provide (part of) their home to an artist for three months. The underlying idea of this idiosyncratic exhibition, which housed contemporary works of art in a social context, was to break the conservative exclusivity of the museum. One of the artists who was to participate in the project, called Chambres d’Amis, was Panamarenko who declared in a television interview (BRT-Flemisch Department, 21 June 1986) that he considered the initiative as ‘heresy’ and as restricting freedom and did not feel like participating. In his own idiom, he stated:

 (…) I was forced to make something for people in the so-called art world, (…) [I]t had to be modern of course, because they had here and there made an earlier purchase. (…) [T]hey wanted a modern version of all that old crap, without the content being different and that annoyed me.[1]

He nevertheless took part in the event:

So I took a birdcage and filled it with [fake] money and I did the same with a shoe box as well [sic] (as everybody always said that I possessed shoe boxes full of cash!). Finally, I added a doormat with the imprint ’Chambres d’Amis’ in big letters and there you have it!

In order not to have to say no, I said no by participating. I presume that many people, being so ostentatiously faced with that money, feel that they have been miffed.

Although the work was exhibited in the hallway (after all, the base was a doormat!) of the De Wilde-Van Peteghem residence at the Olympiadeplein n°.9 in Ghent, the organizers were not pleased with the contribution of an artistic funnyman! In his opening speech of the art event Chambres d’Amis Jan Hoet said: “This is something that we cannot call a true work of art!” But Panamarenko’s provocation did not end there:

The anger [of the curator] became even worse during the opening ceremony, which was broadcast on television. While the lectures were held, Jef Geys [°1934, an internationally renowned Flemich sculptor, photographer and installation artist] and I sat, deliberately uninterested, at a table, eating oysters and talking. That was an idea of Jef Geys, but of course it was staged. They [the organizers] had agreed but nevertheless. While ministers were speaking and everyone was listening, we sat at a table for two, eating oysters and babbling, with a lot of swearing in between and the television people of course broadcasted the silliest excerpts that nobody understood. The oysters have been paid by Jan Hoet but for Jef Geys, the game was over: in Ghent and in the presence of Jan Hoet, he was never to show his face again. But he [Hoet] just did not dare to throw me out (laughs).

With his mockery Panamarenko had pointed out the weakness of ‘modern’ (i.e. 1986-) art-enthusiasm as described in the testimony of art historian Dirk Pültau, editor-in-chief of the Flemish/Belgian art magazine ‘De Witte Raaf’ (The White Raven):

The atmosphere around ‘Chambres d’ Amis’ is indicative for the “ardency” of that time. Jan Hoet was the great defender of contemporary art and present-day art was presented as something that was afflicted and had to be defended. (…) If you look at it afterwards that enthusiasm was really only aimed at presenting contemporary art as a kind of controversial spectacle-commodity. This promotional fire has, in the long-term, made any serious approach to the art of our time impossible. The total acceptance of present-day art comes atz the expense of flattening it and making it more enjoyable. But I must admit that I have followed that apologetic discourse for a long time. I was far too uncritical of the things the museum did. (Gielen, 2004, p. 197).

With a bitter undertone, the above quoted cultural sociologist Pascal Gielen has also noted in his publication ‘Kunst in Netwerken…’(Art in networks…, 2004, p. 197) that ‘Chambres d’ Amis’ paved the way, for Hoet himself, to Documenta IX (Kassel, Germany – 1992):

The concept-note, with which Hoet finally applied for Documenta, covered only five pages. From this you can at least deduce that discursive mediators play a minor role in such decisions. Selection processes often build on previous merits and networks of formal and informal contacts. Moreover, in the art world, ‘babble’ is more central than text.

Furthermore, ‘Chambres d’Amis’ meant the end of the collaboration between Jan Hoet and the television director, executor and scriptwriter Jef Cornelis (b. 1941) who, between 1963 and 1988, made numerous artistic and cultural-historical breakthrough programs for the Flemish  department of the Belgian Broadcasting Corporation, thereby drawing TV attention to Hoet as well. Cornelis dedicated a six-hour broadcast called ‘De langste Dag’ (The Longest Day) to ‘Chambres d’Amis’. It was a satire on a mad contemporary art world, figuring, for example, quarrelling artists (a.o. Panamarenko and Geys) as well as Hoet’s (frequent) outburst of anger. In the year 2000, the director explained his point of view:

I lampooned Hoet in front of the camera; this was not an attack on his person but by reason of the media show in which the art had ended up at that time. A few moments later Hoet became aware of that and it meant the final break. (Gielen, 2004, p. 196).

With this contribution to ‘Chambres d’Amis’, Panamarenko, in his own picaresque way, commented critically on a wide-ranging promotional initiative for contemporary art. As we have seen, history proves that he was not the only one to comment in a critical way on propaganda  for “a modern version of old crap, without the content being different.” In this perspective, the birdcage and shoe box filled with photocopies of bank notes, can be considered as an authentic work of art with a far-reaching, meaningful and even timeless symbolic value.

[1] This text and the two following citations are quoted from an article by Panamarenko, which he mainly edited himself: Indispensable lexicon …” in the Flemish newspaper ‘De Standaard’ (The Standard) of the 21st of April 2005 (my translations).