Lost in the haze of wonder, or quite possibly just channelling my inner Alice on a particularly curious day, I found myself in a rabbit hole where the rules of reality were bent—and suddenly, being lost never felt so found. All around me, absurdity held court. Industrial machine vessels were frothing at the mouth and belching out bubbles. A nude man was swaying in slow motion over a piece of cold machinery, while the golden trophies ahead, paranoid at his presence, sprouted six watchful eyes. Overseeing it all was an XXL ode to hedonism, in the form of a colossal sized party-drug sculpture. You’ve just taken a peek at the brainchild of Middelheim Museum and DE SINGEL, where sculpture mingles with performance in Antwerp’s buzzing fold, beckoning you to Come Closer.
It's a mad, mad world indeed, but that’s what happens when around twenty-five international artists create pieces that redefine the relationship between artist, artwork, and audience. They invite the viewers to shed their usual passive roles and instead become active participants in an exploration of identity and societal roles, compelling us to embrace fresh perspectives.
As Middelheim Museum and Art Centre DE SINGEL describe:
"This project says something not only about art today but also about our everyday lives. Because in the countless interactions we engage in daily, we assume different roles each time (…) As such, we are constantly making choices, either actively or passively. Do we show ourselves as individuals, or do we commit to the collective? Do we want a personal or a social experience? How much do we make visible, and what do we keep hidden? This is mostly subconscious. Until someone offers us another role or starts a conversation about it. Come Closer is a playful invitation to discard our role and try a new one."
As one might infer from the introduction, chaos takes hold and sculptures run amok at Middelheim. Unlike typical museums, this is one that melds with nature, exhibiting its treasures in an open-air ‘Art Park’. As we strolled from one piece to the next, we stumbled upon an assortment of wonderfully weird scenes, just as delightfully odd as foretold. From frothing machines to colossal party drugs, alongside other equally unconventional creations, each piece told a unique tale, brought to life by its creators. 
You’ll be shocked to find that I described the scene of the nude man moving languidly on machinery exactly as it is. Titled ‘Pathways’ [2024] by British artist Roger Hiorns, this jet engine found on the grass of Middelheim is indeed one that you’d sooner stumble upon in a factory or a garage. Does this actually belong in a museum? The artist remains hushed—cue the naked man—and suddenly you’re struck by the unfiltered attraction of the human form. 
Hiorns explains in the exhibition dialogue: “The work immerses us in the paradox between life, youth, and fantasy on the one hand, and the strict, rational mechanisms with which our lives are organised. The lustful, physical life versus passivity and sterility” 
This piece opens a category found throughout the exhibition: sculptures that can be activated by a performance. This is where you also find the aforementioned industrial machines belching out bubbles and foam, known as A Retrospective View of the Pathway’ [2024]. Another piece by Hiorns, this one intends to confront you with an unpredictable situation. Standing nearby, I felt a genuine wave of stress as the foam was carried by the air, spreading it across Middelheim. This was, however, the intention all along: to create a piece that isn’t static, and in this case, you’re the one that activates it. You can decide to play with the foam, watch it, or, better yet, avoid it altogether. 
Standing ahead, Hiorns went on to explain, “As an artist, you sort of occupy the space; you kind of find a way of trying to understand that sort of permanence. I think I reacted quite strongly to this sort of identifiable and legible form, and I wanted to think about maybe an artwork which slipped through the possibilities of being consistent, of being consistently formed in a way you would anticipate (…) The foam itself is a kind of anomaly to the landscape. Within this context, there was this idea that you have these foams that would be present. And so, as you can see at the moment, it’s just repeating itself basically successfully, and it's allowing itself to become present within the landscape.”
Just ahead lay a similar type of work, one that also took on a more industrial look yet touched with its own organic appeal. Describing her work in the exhibition’s dialogue, Dutch artist Isabelle Andriessen said: "In Arabian folklore, ghouls or scavengers are fictitious monsters that roam cemeteries, looking for human flesh." Andriessen “explored how these mythical creatures might appear today. Her search took her to the Craeybeckx Tunnel beneath the museum. An underground motorway with an audible but invisible roar of cars.”
During our chat, when discussing what she hopes viewers take away from her piece, Andriessen added:
“These underground spaces, these shelter spaces, these tunnels and bunkers—they are both used or functioning as a shelter as well as a method to invade or colonise a country. It was very fascinating and inspiring for me to be working now with the underground, under-Earth, underworld structure. As a first physical layer, what I hope to give away is that you realise that this sculpture might not be what it appears to be and that somehow this more dark agenda will reveal itself when you spend a little bit more time with it. Somehow there is this interaction or this interplay between the sculptures, the scenic effect of these cars rushing underneath the tunnel, and the rattling of the doors. It’s almost like an out-of-space, dystopic noise. It’s as if they are portals to this science fiction, speculative landscape.”
Turning to the watchful golden trophies, they are the creations of Hew Locke, titled Gilt [2022]. The British artist is best known for creating artwork that delves into the visual codes of power and cultural diversity, often through intricate and visually striking works. 
"They appear like historical urns and trophies that you often see in museums in the West. Yet the Gilt translates literally as ‘imposter’ or ‘cheat’. Indeed, the beakers are not made of real gold but of gilded resin. They are not even real vases. They are just beautiful façades and rough at the back," remarked Locke in the exhibition dialogue. 
Afterward, we ventured to De Singel, where the rest of the exhibition lay. Here you’re greeted with dancers quite literally suspended off the building, set against a backdrop of flames, wriggling at the hands of this enormous figure named Bababuá’ [2024], also the piece’s title. This performance piece by Elen Braga draws on local stories about giants, from which she developed her own giant. 
At the forefront is Temitayo Ogunbiyi’s workYou will find companionship in greener grounds [2024]. This large, thirty-metre stainless steel line charts the walking route between Antwerp and Lagos, where the artist works and lives. 
"The shape is based on a journey across Algeria and over the Mediterranean, in which she connects countless communities. The intercultural connection is also present in the new herb garden. Indigenous Flemish crops are places besides plants that are popular in Lagos and elsewhere. They grow together as an ode to the diverse communities that have settled in Antwerp from across the world, each with their own culinary culture," remarked the artist in the exhibition dialogue.
Barely a nudge is needed to entice a visit, so arm yourself with nothing but curiosity and a healthy dose of scepticism. Remember to keep your wits about you. 
From near and far, the participating artists of this eclectic exhibition come from all corners of the world. Among them you find Isabelle Andriessen, Chloë Bass, Elen Braga, Zuzanna Czebatul, Dries Depoorter, Monika Grabuschnigg, Anthea Hamilton, Roger Hiorns, Florentina Holzinger, Andrés Jaque / Office for Political Innovation, Joan Jonas, Kiluanji Kia Henda, Paul Kindersley, Hew Locke, Tuur & Flup Marinus & Ariadna Estalella Alba, Monsters Assembly, Isamu Noguchi, Temitayo Ogunbiyi, Amanda Piña, Sarah & Charles, Ula Sickle, SUPERFLEX, Dennis Tyfus, Stef Van Looveren, and Liliane V.
MIDDELHEIM - Dennis Tyfus, De Nor, 2017 © The Artist - Photo: Léonard Pongo.
DE SINGEL - Anthea Hamilton Mash Up installation view M HKA 2022 © Anthea Hamilton. Courtesy the artist and M HKA. Photo: Kristien Daem.
DE SINGEL - Florentina Holzinger, Ophelia's got talent © Gordon Welters.
DE SINGEL - Temitayo Ogunbiyi, You will Find Companionship in Greener Grounds 2024 © Pieter Huybrechts.
MIDDELHEIM - Joan Jonas, Mirror Piece I & II, 1969-2018 © The Artist - ARS & Amanda Wilkinson Gallery.
MIDDELHEIM - Joan Jonas, Mirror Room III Outdoor, 1968-2024 © The Artist & Amanda Wilkinson Gallery - Photo: Léonard Pongo.
MIDDELHEIM - Roger Hiorns, A Retrospective View of the Pathway, 2017 © Roger Hiorns - Photo: Roger Hiorns.
MIDDELHEIM - Ula Sickle, Relay (extended), 2023 © Ula Sickle - Photo: Marine Gastineau.
MIDDELHEIM - Paul Kindersley, The Dreamer of the Forest, 2024 © The Artist - Photo: Léonard Pongo.