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Curated By

Ilse Roossens


18 - 21 May

La ville a des rumeurs de coquillage vide
(Francesca-Yvonne Caroutch, Les veilleurs endormis (Paris: Debresse, 1955), p. 30)

Searching for a way to wake up peacefully in his Paris home, philosopher and morning person Gaston Bachelard quotes the poet Yvonne Caroutch in La poétique de l’espace: “La ville a des rumeurs de coquillage vide”. When Caroutch listens to the hubbub of the city, she hears the murmur of a shell, an echo of the sea. Bachelard elaborates on the city-sea theme, describing it as two moving masses constantly fluctuating between ebb and flow. When the noise of the city becomes too overwhelming, he imagines a thunderstorm breaking out in which the wind wails around him and speaks to him. Bachelard ‘naturalises’ sound to make it less hostile. The power of imagination helps him feel safe and happy in his home, proudly weathering the storm. In a subsequent chapter, the philosopher returns to the shell, as in Caroutch’s quote, but this time because of its function as a house. It is an enclosure, usually built by the owner himself, to protect the occupant.

Approaching the shell as a purified form of a dwelling helps to see the essence of the house as well. Bachelard writes that the mollusc's motto would be that one should live to build a house, and not build a house to live in. He refers to the empty shell, which provides a space for daydreaming. And for him, being able to daydream is essential to being at home.

I read these poetic words from my own home in Ostend, regularly daydreaming like Bachelard, occasionally gazing at the sea from my window and thinking of the exhibition in the stately building on the Turnhoutsebaan in Borgerhout, the road’s traffic sounding like a rolling sea. I think of the shell: a home, a casing, a mould, a collector’s item and a subject of study in which many a scientist felt the poet in them emerge in naming and classifying species. Even before molluscs were studied as inhabitants of the shells in so-called malacology, the focus was on conchology: the study of the shell. Since the seventeenth century, people have been collecting and studying shells en masse. Back then, the shell was mainly a status symbol among well-to-do citizens, today it is more of a decorative element for anyone wanting a physical reminder of a walk along the coast. The shell teaches us that signs of wealth, and therefore highly prized collectibles, do change over time. For instance, it appears that in eighteenth-century Amsterdam, a rare conus gloriamaris shell was auctioned for three times the price of a painting by Johannes Vermeer. Conchylomania was huge and could exist purely because of the – euphemistically worded – increasing overseas trade. In India and Africa, shells were a means of payment and colonial powers took advantage of this: with cowrie shells, they bought not only goods but also people. They enslaved them, made them pick up and polish shells, among other things, and then Portuguese, Dutch and English traders took those shells back to their homelands along with other luxury goods.
In this sense, the importance of the shell is largely a consequence of globalisation. The mollusc was also known in the past as a symbol of pilgrims, i.e. of travel, and for many, the idea of the nomad who can be at home anywhere does capture the imagination (with the shell as a kind of caravan). The spiral shell is seen as a reference to the universe, which ties in with the idea of globalisation or globetrotting that transcends national borders and continents, but presumably mainly has to do with the endless rotation of the spire that is linked to the rising and setting of the sun. We also know this spiral through the golden ratio, a system for achieving a balanced composition in which mathematics and art come together to achieve the ideal of beauty. Perhaps in that perfect proportion lies one of the reasons why shells have been a source of fascination for centuries, both as collectibles and depicted in painting. Portraits of wealthy patrons were often populated with the most exquisite snail shells to indicate their wealth, intellect and sense of aesthetics. However, this kind of expensive object also has an important vanitas symbolism: wealth and knowledge are merely earthly, fleeting and irrelevant in a seventeenth-century Christian-Protestant context in which life was supposed to focus mainly on the spiritual. Of course, the snail is also a slow animal – without a home very weak and vulnerable – and is a reference in the vanitas still life to the fragility and slow passage of time.

Other shell shapes in art history we know from the birth of Venus, Aphrodite, references to genitalia, the rococo art movement (derived from the word rocaille) and slightly more recent but probably hugely influential for the artists after him: Marcel Broodthaers. Whereas in the past the shell still had a huge aesthetic impact with its perfect spiral or mother-of-pearl, Broodthaers used the less appreciated mussel, say moule, as an object and concept referring to the empty form that also has the qualities of a mould. In doing so, he links a worthless objet trouvé to visual art and poetry in a purely conceptual way: matter becomes more or less unimportant. Therefore, the mussel shell is a form in which something can happen, a home for an idea. This again connects us to Bachelard, who considers the void to be at least as important as the form, because the shell or house is necessary to make daydreaming possible. The daydream in which the less attractive becomes attractive after all, is the sublime experience that is nonetheless mainly unique to art. La ville a des rumeurs de coquillage vide is a reminder of the possibility of rethinking a situation. Noise becomes soothing, worthless becomes interesting, emptiness becomes potential. I look at my book and it lies upside down on my lap. I have no idea how long the rippling sea has held my gaze.

Ilse Roossens

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