If the streetlights of Ghent’s Sint-Veerle square flicker, they are not betraying a problem with the electricity supply. Instead, this is public art: an installation by the Italian artist Alberto Garutti that makes the lights flash each time a baby is born at one of the local hospitals.
Ghent’s enthusiasm for such work makes it an ideal weekend destination for art fans, and never more so than now. A festival called Track, which runs until September, aims to use the entire city as a gallery through which visitors can wander, stopping off at installations along the way.
The event features 37 installations by artists from countries ranging from Japan to Finland, with many of the most interesting works housed in private houses or rarely opened public buildings. The loosely linear trail leads north from the train station, with lots of offshoot tracks to take visitors to hidden corners of the city.
I set out on a blustery morning, looping eastwards from the central area towards the district of Macharius. Track’s organisers recommend no particular order for tackling the installations, preferring the sense of chaos created by criss-crossing the city’s canals, bridges and squares as if blown by the wind.
First stop is Hotel de Ghellinck, a grand 19th-century townhouse at canal-side Korenlei. The building is being redeveloped, and the Belgian artist Michael Borremans has used the canvas of exposed bricks and flaking plaster to display two large bronze busts that sport beaks in place of noses. He collects dust from the room each day to dull the bronze against the glare of the huge windows.
“I love the way the light is never constant in Ghent,” he says, his blues eyes sparkling. “I consume light. I can taste it.”
By contrast, Dutch artist Bart Lodewijks has set his work, Street With No Name, around the city’s eastern Zonder-Naamplein, a district composed of Turkish immigrants and older-generation Flemish residents. I find Lodewijks, who looks like an athlete in his Day-Glo cycling gear, chalking lines on the ceiling of a Turkish bakery. “I discovered this place while walking home one night,” he says. “The mix of communities attracted me, so I started drawing on the street. Now people all over the community ask me to draw on their houses.”
On my walk back to the central Blandijn district, I pass several of the more offbeat works: first Tadashi Kawamata’s wooden shanty town, built on the water in the turning basin of the canal at Gent-Dampoort; then a giant helium balloon flying above the Vooruit Arts Centre by the Turkish artist Ahmet Ogut.
My favourite work is an open-air library overseen by the Italian artist Massimo Bartolini. Set amid vineyards, against the medieval backdrop of St Peter’s Abbey, the 12 rows of bookshelves are filled with 8,000 donated books. The order is random and visitors are encouraged to borrow books and return new ones.
“Ssh,” grins Bartolini, adopting the persona of head librarian as I greet him between the tightly packed shelves. “I first saw an outdoor library in Hay-on-Wye. This place feels like an extension of the cloisters: part interior, part exterior. I like that.”
Some of the works in Track are challenging, some puzzling and others downright odd. But the enthusiasm of the artists and organisers is infectious. “It is a little adventure to discover more about contemporary art,” says Bartolini, handing me a Flemish guide to sociology. “Just take a book,” he laughs, “and dive in.”