It’s not every day you get the chance to spend the night in a giant digestive system, but last week I did just that. At the Verbeke Foundation, midway between Antwerp and Ghent in Flanders, Belgium lurks CasAnus, the creation of Dutch designer Joep Van Lieshout.
Getting to the Verbeke Foundation by public transport was not easy. You’re made to work for your art. First, a train to St Niklaas, and unremarkable Flemish town on the Ghent to Antwerp line. Then a bus, packed with schoolchildren. Armed with instructions of where to disembark and then a map of what to do then, it was somewhat inevitable that I would first miss the bus stop and then take a couple of wrong turns before reaching the distinctly unusual entranceway that marks the entry to the foundation. It would be easier to approach the Verbeke Foundation by car. Once home to the freight forwarding business of Geert Verbeke, it is now one of western Europe’s edgiest art venues.
Here you’ll find artists in residents living on-site and working on ambitious projects, and a few unusual ways of paying the bills. And this is why I found myself sitting in a giant greenhouse at 6.30pm with an 8m long helium-filled fuselage of a plane to my left and various futuristic installations outside surrounding a man-made lake. Mr & Mrs Verbeke fund and operate the foundation themselves and were on hand during my visit. they seem both devoted to their work and immensely welcoming. Over dinner, I learnt more about their hard work to open and operate this astonishing place so far from Europe’s artistic heartland. It requires vision, dedication and not a little funding and huge amounts of hard work. It was impossible not to be impressed. Perhaps the remote location frees their hand to be truly innovative.
What brought me here in the first place is on an island in the lake. CasAnus is, as the name suggests, a huge human colon. It was made into a dwelling which, for a mere €120 a night – barely a three-star hotel in business-account Brussels – visitors can spend the night in. Before anyone reading this recoils in horror, staying here was a genuine pleasure, The small staff who work here, including Geert and CarlaVerbeke, are passionate about their foundation and the art being made and displayed here. On first arrival, a stroll around the grounds and through the large and important collection of collage works by artists from around the world sets the scene. There’s also the chance to have a drink in the bar-cum-cafe area with the resident artists and owners, who will happily fill you in on what’s new.
Then there’s the matter of getting your head around sleeping in CasAnus. You stroll through works of art including a huge white pod and a clutch of chickens (also a piece of living art, as it turned out) until crossing a small bridge to reach the intestines themselves. Once inside, the bed is comfy, there’s a shower and toilet and towels and bedding is provided. It is utterly silent and pitch black at night, so bring a torch if you want to creep around at night. It is as normal as sleeping in a slug-like space can be. I woke in the night wondering where on earth I was. Then I realised. It took me some time to get back to sleep as I digested the information.
Since opening, CasAnus has attracted everyone from curious hacks to overnighting artists to paying customers from many European countries. I asked how people take to the experience – apparently it is universally positive. If the novelty of staying in a giant polyester intestine wears off then there’s always the thrill of spending the night quite alone in an artwork. Not an everyday occurence.
The next morning you have breakfast in the large greenhouse and reverse the trip. for €120 a night you and a friend could enjoy a visit to what must be Europe’s oddest place to stay, surrounded by cutting-edge art in the most unlikely of locations.
Here’s a video of my visit to CasAnus.