About spirituality, humanism, and (inter) space

Lies Daenen

About spirituality

“Spirituality” is a tricky word. It is a little bit like it is with the word “art”: you can discuss it endlessly, but if you try to grasp it, it doesn’t really work unless you experience it. If language says something essential about art and about spirituality, then it is often where it shows its powerlessness: where it is hesitant, wavering.

The term “spirituality” is ambiguous and there is so much abuse of it that a small effort towards interpreting it, a suggestion, seems to me to be appropriate. You might describe it as “the quest of man for the connection with himself, his surroundings and that which exceeds him.”1 The definition from the liberal moral philosopher Leo Apostel (1925–1995) is slightly more complex: “To place oneself in the largest body, where men believe they belong, and to focus on the basic goals in function of one’s chosen lifestyle.”2 […] “(It is about) the full experience, in which we are equally concerned with the emotive as with the intellectual. […] We exceed — and so change — ourselves.”3 I sometimes formulate it myself, in short, as the art of living in a way that is both inspired and inspires.

As a reader it shall not escape you that we here extract spirituality from the exclusive field of religion and from mere self-care. And I suspect that you, as an art lover, immediately and intuitively sense that elements from these definitions touch upon what it is that an experience of art can be. In what follows, I shall indeed try to explain how contemporary art — in particular the work of Luc Coeckelberghs — can equally embody the spiritual dimension of life.

Short historical sketch

The relationship between art and spirituality is one that has been with us down through the ages and while it has perhaps become less evident as the result of changes over the centuries, that does not mean it has become less interesting. This is apparent when we focus on Christian, Western history.4 By contrast with other religions,5 the Catholic Church was quick to appreciate the ­importance of the presence of visual art in churches, books, etc.

Within the theocentric worldview of the Middle Ages, the use of images was partially a way of providing access to the stories from the Bible to the many who were illiterate. Additionally, art works were often objects of worship, focused on devotion and awe. Iconographic art is possibly the finest example of this. An icon was not an ordinary object or work of art, but a representation of the divinity. The identity of its maker was there­fore of no importance.

The Enlightenment brought about a revolution in this worldview. Instead of the divinity, humans came to center stage, as thinking and acting beings. Whilst religion still played a supportive role in society, science and art became more and more autonomous. There was room for the identity of the artist, for interpretation. Grand creations reflected unbridled optimism, the absolute faith in one’s own abilities; the Enlightenment was the motor of change for this. The artist, as a creative individual, was given the space to create his own universe, as we see for example with the likes of Leonardo Da Vinci and Hieronymus Bosch. But it is only at the beginning of the twentieth century, thanks to the birth of photography, that the coercion of the image completely disappeared, resulting in an explosion of creativity and originality.

Until the beginning of the First World War, belief in the socially engineered world was at its peak. With the war, that faith (or confidence) was severely shaken. The belief in an absolute, all-­ encompassing truth faltered and certainly later, after Auschwitz, the postmodern view was inevitable. In the same period, the modern metropolises developed — masterfully portrayed by Mondriaan — as places where nothing was simple or clear any longer. The world went to pieces. The process of secularization, put in motion by the Enlightenment, definitively permeated throughout Western society. Religion as an “anchor” lost strength, along with the credibility of any all-explaining belief system. Art was also in crisis. Minimalism and Conceptualism brought modern art to its essence, but at the same time diluted the possibilities of artistic language to a homeopathic level.6

Fortunately, repeated announcements signaling “the end of art” have not become a reality. But like the rest of society, the image of art today is very much fragmented. The absence of an all-­ ­explaining system again gives rise to an explosion of freedom and creativity, even though it does so in a manner that is different to what was the case a century ago. It is often about a resistance towards the “seeming-freedom” of our current society, where we get talked into new standards in a diffuse way and at the same time, carry vast amounts of responsibility for our own lives. The optimism of the past has given way to a vigorous search for personal breathing space, for genuinely free expression in a world where economy and mass consumption are the new gods. Art offers a way out of this.7 Art goes in all directions: from that of the superficial-commercial, the volatile and the cynical, to the fragile, the sensitive, and the inspirational. If we are looking for a new security, then we are heading down the wrong track with art. Yet art can provide some guidance today.

Art today: moments of eternity

In a way that is similar to that in which teenagers try to break away from the “omniscience” of their parents, we as Western people have had to liberate ourselves from the truth-proclaiming doctrines that have “raised us” over the centuries. As an adult, learning to live with the freedom that has been won involves not only letting go of the certainties that bid for security, but also embracing the uncertainties and the ability to deal with them. In that world, in which we must fend for ourselves and must vouch for our own decisions, art can inspire us to find sense.

If art today can inspire, then it is no longer at the service of a higher purpose (religion, ideology), but as an inspiring, personal encounter, as an invitation to an experience that is “of another time,” which makes us stand still, and provides an escape from the hectic pace in which we live; in other words — as a contemporary spiritual experience. Therein lies an opportunity for a different sort of experience of eternity.

In her book Kairos. A New Engagement,8 Joke Hermsen quotes the Dutch poet Nijhoff in Het Uur U (H Hour): “It took maybe a minute, but one which was an eternity.” Nijhoff talks about the moment of fascination, of “being struck” by something, which we can undergo while reading a poem, or when contemplating a work of art. Such a moment interrupts and transcends chronological time and in this sense, can be seen as transcendent.

My own sense of “being struck” at the sight of a work by Marlene Dumas does not refer to (the illusion of) a distant promise, but to the vulnerability of the here and now, to a full presence and a total otherness. Similarly, with an installation in situ by Luc Coeckelberghs, such as he created for an exhibition in Tienen, 1978,9 for example, I am — as a spectator — slowly but surely incorporated into an experience of the interaction between the work of art, the space, and my own position. The true art experience comes close to what happens in mysticism, in the sense that it completely throws us back on ourselves and at the same time, snatches us from the complacency of our ego. Leo Apostel speaks of an experience of “decentration,” stepping out of your own center. It is about taking part in a larger whole, though that whole is not entirely unambiguous and not identified. In other words, the point is, to abandon the experience of our own self as the core of the universe. By escaping the “absolute view of the I creates space for freedom, and we are capable of a greater awareness, and a greater empathy with the world. It is like the Buddhist way, of an unselfish life, being the basis of an attitude of compassion.”10

Luc Coeckelberghs: a postmodern, humanistic perspective

I also recognize this detached attitude in Luc Coeckelberghs and in his work. I had met him briefly a few times before we really got to know each other. What immediately struck me was the quiet, unassuming confidence that he radiated, an attentive, almost wordless presence, with no trace of selfishness. Luc is a man that rids you of any tendency to thrill, with whom a conversation is not necessarily of a high word count, but in which each is substantial, and no-nonsense. A decentered attitude does not mean that you are going to completely relativize your ego and that you are actually going to disappear as a person, absolutely not. Luc Coeckelberghs knows very well what he wants, but is not driven by the desire to strengthen his own ego and position. He creates himself the space to take different perspectives, so that new possibilities, new connections arise.

The work of Luc Coeckelberghs reflects his character. Each of his works contains a core of clarity and simplicity, without being banal or unambiguous, but at the same time, the direction of his work is unpredictable. It is the expression of a constant search for the appropriate expression of an idea, at a certain moment, in relation to the given space, without worrying about his image and success. At first glance, it may be difficult to see the coherence in his work. Graphics, sculpture, installation, and painting alternate with each other, and outside of the broad term of “abstraction,” it cannot be defined under a single denominator. Yet there is indeed a common thread present in his work: the process-based quest for the meaning of “space,”11 from a postmodern humanistic perspective.

It strikes me that despite the inspiration that he draws from geometric space, he never fails to relativize, to undermine any claim of perfection and entitlement towards “the absolute,” and to bring every work back to what I would call “the human scale.” In one of his first sculptural works, Ring (1976/8), this shows itself in the incision, the interruption of the perfect round shape, in which the circle breaks with the idea of its perfect form and therefore becomes human, imperfect. Or look at the tactile sculptural paintings of Ziggurat (1999/9), in which he relativizes the interplay of geometric forms referring to ancient tombs and makes them vulnerable by using colors and patterns that refer to the mundane, such as the color samples for a striped suit, or the material from the seats in a train compartment.

The attention to the relational also refers to this humanistic perspective. Each visual work of art revolves around the interplay of relationships: the relationship between the artist and the work of art, and the relationship of the work of art and the spectator. With Luc Coeckelberghs, there is also the relationship of the work of art and the space, the space and the spectator, and the relationship of those relationships to each other, which all come into play — not to mention the individual freedom of the viewer, which also plays an essential role in all these other relationships.

To the soul of the work

“Maybe we are slowly reaching the point again where we see the soul as a connector, as an entity which allows the body and mind, the material and the immaterial, but perhaps also the sacred and the profane to communicate with each other, and in this way can neutralize the absolute sides of the contradiction between the two poles,” said Joke Hermsen.12 The soul expresses itself in language only through the paradox, a central element in mystical literature. A paradox is not a contradiction but is in fact about the art of the tension between what is seemingly opposed, and finding a kind of balance there. This considered, in the work of Luc Coeckelberghs, we find the paradox is also reflected. The paradox that reoccurs in his work is the tension between the geometric abstraction, the mathematical concept of “space” as an inexhaustible source of fascination and inspiration, and the very concrete of the execution. The latter is often understated, subtle, pure, and never aloof. Each work, through a personal intervention, receives a human, fragile character.13 It is about brittle materials, colors, symmetry, hand-drawn lines, and simple motifs. Here we see an un­mistakable kinship with Dan Van Severen.

In many works by both these artists, the geo­­metric pattern is created in a concentrated, repetitive action in which a contemplative attention is palpable. The universal quality of the form is given a tactile character, which confronts and reconciles us with the transience of the world in which we live.

Instead of referring to an ultimate reality outside of us, with Luc Coeckelberghs it is about a spirituality of the here and now, of the soul in ordinary life, of wonder at the beauty of mathematical forms, and the possibilities of human creativity. His work reflects a sobriety that says yes to life in its imperfection and impermanence. As with Dan Van Severen, his work is a ritual craft, a meditative practice, a constant trial.

A way between

As indicated earlier, the work of Luc Coeckelberghs resists any attempt to define meaning. It is no coincidence that there is no clear framework to discover, no obvious formal line. In his search for an authentic experience and expression he always eludes any fixed frame of reference. He does take a position, but never in an obvious, unambiguous manner. Precisely because he does not work from the need to promote an image of himself, he manages to stay true to himself and to commute between different options, different perspectives. It is this fragility, the not directly identifiable position that he occupies with his work, which gives the attentive viewer the unique opportunity to have a very subtle, authentic experience. It is precisely because you cannot fit what you see into a category, cannot identify it, that when you stand before his work, a “naked experience” can occur. It is the convergence of the pure, material object and the mental strength exceeding that object that surprises you. That stubborn and fragile anonymity gives his work an unmistakable identity. But at the same time, this makes it into something that is never fully explainable. Perhaps fortunately so…

In any case, the fact that the work of Luc Coeckelberghs has escaped the confines of any kind of framework has nothing to do with the aspiration to be “different” or “original.” His work resists all forms of appropriation, or entrenched concept. His paintings are also sculptures. Installations seem to be composed of painted canvases; invisible carriers become visible components, as is the case in Toner (1998/7). Not to confuse, but to continue to push his own limits in an ongoing process, and every time, to draw the gaze and the attention back to what is happening now, here, in this reality. To really make you look. With the risk of not being understood, nor seen, nor respected, he treads his own stubborn way, which often turns out to be a way between, an untrodden path, and it can only therefore be followed by those who look with sincere attention, intuitively. There is a requirement to release all frames of reference. Again, as in mysticism, it is about the attention for the true encounter, the willing­ness to contact that which is not nameable.

Space and architecture

I would again like to emphasize that the diversity of Luc Coeckelberghs’s work does not mean that it goes in all directions. All his work is imbued with a fascination for space itself, for geometric shapes and architecture. Constantly balancing between awe and relativization results in works that are a cross between architecture, sculpture, and painting… A good example of this is Inside – Outside (realized for the opening exhibition of the M HKA in Antwerp (1987/2)). What art has in common with good architecture is that it is essentially material and at the same time, it fully transcends the material. What distinguishes them is that, as an object or thing, there is nothing more useless and futile than a work of art, yet precisely because of the sake of the highly fragile, “non-consumable” factor, it contains the ability to touch the essential. This applies to the visual arts in general and is in itself a reason why art can play a special role in the human quest for the meaning of life.14 By taking universal geometric shapes and space as a subject, Luc Coeckelberghs adds a dimension to the tension between materiality and its transcendence.15 Referring to the beauty of the abstract language of geometry, his work brings up a different reality than the materially visible. Withdrawing from every kind of categorization — even in the most rational universe of mathematical geometry — he makes an appeal to capabilities other than the rational. By connecting abstract concepts with the everyday, he challenges to transform. Art becomes a ritual act. When viewing the installations Luc Coeckelberghs stelt 9 tekeningen en 140 balletjes tentoon (Luc Coeckelberghs puts 9 drawings and 140 balls on display; Provinciale Normaalschool, Tienen, (1978/4)), and START II— Luc Coeckelberghs (Brussels Centre for Fine Arts, (1980/6)), we cannot escape the impression that Luc Coeckelberghs designs a ritual space. He thereby manages to avoid claiming all the attention for his own intervention, but instead begins a dialogue with the original space and renews it, giving it another dimension, or just making it more visible.

In one gesture, the modesty of the intervention turns our attention to the emptiness, the space between the objects. The acceptance of the void, of the passive space, opens the possibility for freedom and creativity. Here again, it is possible to draw another parallel with Buddhism. The void is an integral part of the experience of Luc Coeckelberghs’ work related to space. For him, this experience of space is essential. And again, therefore, his work is similar to good architecture: it does not always have to be conspicuous; its character shows itself in the quality of the experience of the person who enters the room.

If we look at the installation for the exhibition Kaspar in de ver(d)rukking (on the site of the coal mine in Genk (2001/18)), a narrow look at the installation itself may leave us with a slight sense of disappointment. But he who is willing to be open to the setting will experience a glorious interplay of fragile interaction between the simple, fragile wires and the equally vulnerable greenery surrounding them. It reminds me of the works with shredded paper by Guy Mees, a technique that is childishly banal in itself, but one that produces works that are peculiar and revealing within their spatial context.

It is from this experiential approach that we need to understand the light works of Luc Coeckelberghs. Here, he finds himself in a mental interspace. In their intangibility, the light sculptures, such as Lighthouse — realized for the exhibition ContourLight in Mechelen in (2009/3) — offer, when we enter them, their own, almost ultimate experience of space, a presence that permeates everything, not accessible yet unavoidable, and in that way more present than any material object. In that respect, this experience approaches the direct, emotional experience of music, but the intense color/light experience indeed reflects a material presence.

Finally, I will mention the striking gate-like structures that Luc Coeckelberghs erected outdoors, such as the one produced for the exhibition Kontakt (organized by the IKOB Eupen in (1993/5)). In its functional context (the entrance to and exit from a building), the gate marks the transition between an inside and an outside. The gate is essentially a “space between” and therefore carries a symbolic meaning.16 By isolating this space between from its functional context, Luc Coeckelberghs undermines and reinforces this idea of (inter)space, giving the gate a sacred character.

In conclusion

Luc Coeckelberghs resolutely opts for the fragile richness of the margin. He moves in border areas and takes a stance by not choosing a definite position. By continuing to offer other perspectives, he reconnects what seems somewhat separated and so, continually renews not only our gaze, but also our experience of space and of ourselves as human beings in that space. Uncompromisingly, he strives for nothing less than “the full experience, in which we are equally concerned with the emotive as we are with the intellectual. […] We transcend—and thus change—ourselves.”17 A fragile, courageous position. The effort that he demands of us as spectators is more than worthwhile.


  1. This is the description that the SPES-Forum sometimes uses. SPES is a pluralistic network that brings people together and develops activities to revive the place of hope and spirituality in the various walks of social life. The author was the manager of this network.
  2. Leo Apostel, Atheïstische Spiritualiteit (Brussels: ASP, 2013; third print), 24.
  3. Leo Apostel, Atheïstische Spiritualiteit, 18.
  4. A detailed analysis of this can be found in Paul Tanghe, Toeterweltoe. Zin, onzin en waanzin van religie (Tielt: Lannoo, 2008).
  5. Such as within Islam, for example, but also in certain tendencies within Christianity. The debate over whether or not to allow images says something about the consciousness of the great power of these images.
  6. Are we not stuck with concepts that position the idea center stage, sometimes only existing as an idea, in a one-sided primacy of reason, the new idol of the Enlightenment?
  7. Despite or because of the crisis, never have so many people actively participated in artistic life.
  8. Joke Hermsen, Kairos. Een nieuwe bevlogenheid (Utrecht: Arbeiderspers, 2014), 37.
  9. Luc Coeckelberghs stelt 9 tekeningen en 140 balletjes tentoon, Tienen, Provinciale Normaalschool, 1978, see pag. 190.
  10. Leo Apostel, Atheïstische Spiritualiteit (Brussels: ASP, 2013; third edition), 30.
  11. I will return later to the concept of “space.”
  12. Joke Hermsen, Kairos. Een nieuwe bevlogenheid (Utrecht: Arbeiderspers, 2014), 236.
  13. “The fragility preserves your work, in some way, for sentimental expression.” Frank Maes in Everything from the Phenomenon of Painting. Luc Coeckelberghs in conversation with Lies Daenen, Frank Maes and Etienne Van den Bergh, Meensel-Kiezegem, February 17, 2014, see pag. 162.
  14. I argue this in the belief that everything in life is essentially at the level of the undefinable, and that art offers an opportunity to indirectly bring this to expression and relate it to us.
  15. The power of a work of art is closely related to the way in which it knows how to reveal these and other paradoxes.
  16. This turns the space of identity, of tension, from social to personal space, from free to formal space, from cultural to public spaces…
  17. Cf. footnote 3: the definition which Leo Apostel gave to ‘spirituality’.