Contemporary art as a tool for social change

I attended last week a unique artist talk at All Art Now gallery in Damascus by a real cosmopolitan figure. Born in Algeria, raised in Cameroon and educated in Brussels and Tokyo, artist Eric Van Hove with his Belgian nationality and Dutch surname is anything but ordinary.

Eric Van Hove

His art touches upon this very same intercultural context he comes from. He has toured the world using several art forms from installation to performance, video, photography and writing to discuss sociological, political and ecological issues.

I’m “interested in bringing contemporary art not only to the public space outside of the institutional confines of the contemporary galleries and museums (as is already done since the 1950s) but outside of the Western context itself.” Thus, “questioning the limits and ‘moral competence’ of contemporary art as a western institution once brought outside of its context,” writes Van Hove.

Equally unique is his story telling technique. Similarly to the Kamishibai of Japan who used to tell from the back of his bike different stories based on a number of picture cards, Van Hove introduced in his talk at All Art Now several artworks using photos of his exhibitions in different parts of the world. Van Hove told stories of birds droppings in Senegal, cockfight in Madagascar and X-CUBE lockers in Japan. One of his most striking stories however was that of a neglected little vegetable market in Okinawa Island.

Worms, World War II and the Japanese constitution

The artwrok

While on his tours, Van Hove visited the Noren vegetable market in the city of Naha in Okinawa Island. The result was a unique contemporary art work mixing worms with the Japanese constitution and bonfires. To better understand this hotchpotch of an artwork, a short history lesson is inescapable.

Although Okinawa used to be an independent kingdom before it was annexed by Japan in 1879, when taken over by the US forces during World War II (1939-1945) its people desperately defended their “Homeland” Japan.

The Island was returned to Japan in 1972 yet its people felt that the Japanese constitution, which was written by US lawyers during the time Okinawa was under US control, didn’t do justice to the Island. As laws governing Japan negatively differed from those governing Okinawa, the Islanders who lost thousands of their people in their fight to reunite with Japan felt discriminated against. It was this sense of inequity and the poverty the sellers in the Noren vegetable market suffered from that Van Hove wanted to address in his artwork.
The sellers, mostly elderly widowers, had the habit of burning at the end of the day the vegetables they couldn’t sell. In an attempt to make money out of the bio waste, Van Hove created a worm farm in the vegetable market to recycle the vegetables into valuable fertilizer that the women could sell to farmers and make additional profit.

The worms digesting the Japanese constitiution

But what does that have to do with the US, WWII and the Japanese constitution?

Van Hove used this very same worm farm to organize a symbolic bonfire of the constitution. He fed photocopies of the Japanese constitution to the worms and broadcasted live the sound of the worms’ digestion of the controversial constitution, which resembled the popping sound of a fire, on the local radio.

An old woman listining to the sound of the worms’ digestion
of the controversial constitution on the local radio.

“The sellers were too poor to have TVs but they all had radios and enjoyed the sound of the worms digesting the hated constitution,” said Van Hove in his artist talk. In fact, some people even wrote down some bad experiences they went through, dropped it in the worm farm and then hugged their little radios and enjoyed listening to the worms eat their pain away.

To read more about Eric Van Hove’s works log on to


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