Have you heard the Big Bang! in Leuven?

Text: Claire Lessiau
Photographs: Claire Lessiau & Marcella van Alphen

The Big Bang theory was formulated in 1931 at the University of Leuven by Georges Lemaître (1894-1966). It was not the first ground-breaking discovery made in the Belgian city. Some of the illustrious alumni and professors of the University of Leuven are the 16th century, Andrea Vesalius (1514-1564) who produced the first complete description of the human body, the cartographer Gerardus Mercator (1512-1594) who invented the projection that allows to properly visualize the globe in 2D, Jean Pierre Minckelers (1748-1824) who invented gas lighting and the linguist and great humanist Erasmus (1466-1536), to name the ones who have had the greatest impact on our lives.

As such, the off-the-beaten path student town with its picturesque centre, has been a melting pot for innovation and intends to remain so. On its cultural stage, a biennale festival takes place highlighting not only scientific discoveries, but also the arts, bridging themes in a universal and humanist approach. Between October 2021 and January 2022, the BANG! Festival will challenge you through three excellently curated exhibits and many engaging events!

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To the Edge of Time at KU University Library

The Big Bang theory bridges the work of three of the greatest 20th century scientists: Albert Einstein’s 1915 new theory of gravity – commonly known as Theory of Relativity – that could be applied to the entire Universe, Georges Lemaître’s 1931 theory of “the day with no yesterday” and Stephen Hawking’s findings that bridged both, in essence proving that time has indeed a starting point.

Contrary to Newton’s absolute time, since Einstein, time has become relative, depending on where you are and how you move: time and space can stretch, bend and squeeze. The 1919 solar eclipse photographed by Arthur Eddigton and verifying Einstein’s theory is showcased: Eddigton could prove that a cluster of stars was apparently shifted from its normal position as the massive Sun passed through, hence distorting light. Curated by physicist and cosmologist Thomas Hertog (who obtained his PhD under Hawking himself) and contemporary art expert Hannah Redler Hawes, To the Edge of Time exhibition is housedin the main university building, just above the iconic library reading rooms. Artworks and scientific artefacts echo each other. The Flipped Clock by Thomson and Carighead requires an effort to read time, reminding us that this fourth dimension is an invented notion to help us organize ourselves. Even in their titles, artistic creations such as the video installation Time Only Exists so that not Everything Happens at Once by visual artist Troika highlight this relativity of time.

Studying Einstein’s equations, the genius mathematician Lemaître realized that the Universe was expanding, meaning that it must have been smaller in the past. A “primeval atom” of astounding density gave rise to space, time, matter and the Cosmos. Lemaître then produced diagrams – on display in the exhibit – of how the Universe would grow from this t=0, from this “cosmic egg”, resonating with the modernist sculptor Brâncusi’s 1920s’ Beginning of the World and his perfectly shaped eggs. If the theory seemed flawless, it is only in 1964 that the proof was obtained by a couple of Bell Labs engineers working on a radio antenna which picked up a hissing sound that could only be explained as a faint relic of the Big Bang. Lemaître was told on his deathbed: “I am content. Now we have the proof” were his last words…

… His research has remained a pillar of cosmology. Stephen Hawking’s blackboard that used to hang in his Cambridge office – a rarely exhibited piece – faces videos of particle accelerators in the European Centre for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Geneva. This is where scientists recreate the conditions of the Universe when it was only a few seconds old: where the first stars gave birth to atoms, where the first elemental particles were formed, where nuclear reactions took place, creating more elements and ultimately… where life must have initiated from!

From another perspective, thanks to light, we can time-travel throughout the Universe. The Hubble Space Telescope allows us to look as far as a galaxy which light took 13 billion years to travel to us! This takes us very close to the Big Bang that is estimated to have happened 13.7 billion years ago… Sciences and arts merge when analysing the faintest light from the most distant galaxies with super telescopes. Melanie King’s Pillars of Creation sublimes Hubble Space Telescope’s most famous image of gas and dust in the Eagle Nebula captured just after a star exploded.

As René Magritte in La Belle Captive points it out to us, we are part of the very Universe we are trying to understand, making it all the more complex. Yet, the universality of the quest brings us all together, transcending time and space, generations and borders: “No nation lay claims to the heaven”, as Gavin Jantjes puts it. The artist in his 1988 Untitled serigraphy recalls the southern African Khoi San’s cosmic Creation Myth. Looking at the almost monochromatic art sends me back under the Milky Way in the African bush. The burning embers from the fire, thrown into the sky with its wake of ashes by a young girl creates the stars and the Via Lactea. As it was the case for the oldest civilization on Earth, “I don’t know anything with certainty, but seeing the stars makes me dream.” A universal quote by Vincent Van Gogh…

Laws of Motion in a Cartoon Landscape by Andy Holden, 2016

Imagining the Universe at the M Museum

At the art museum of Leuven, the modern M Museum in the heart of the city, the Cosmos is considered as an ever source of inspiration for artists. From Egyptian sarcophaguses to Mesopotamian seals, from 12th century Islamic magic bowls to European religious paintings, from hand-illustrated Genesis to trailblazing scientific publications (sometimes wrong with Ptolemy’s geocentric vision and Arabic manuscripts, often right with Galileo’s heliocentric approach), from Rubens to the contemporary nature artist Richard Long, artworks have been gathered to contemplate how artists and philosophers have answered our deepest questions over the millennia, also transcending time, space and cultures: “who are we and how did we get here, in the Universe?”

An Eternal Gaze at the Park Abbey

As hinted at the M Museum, it is hardly possible to mention the Big Bang theory and the dawn of the Universe without considering the religious take on Creation. Interestingly, if both approaches have often been presented as conflicting, Lemaître himself was both a scientist and a priest, bridging this gap painlessly: “once you realize that the Bible does not purport to be a textbook of science, the old controversy between religion and science vanishes”.

The Eternal Gaze exhibit, beautifully set up in the 12th century Nobertine Park Abbey attempts to showcase the place we have in the grand cosmological story through the prism of Christianity (but for a couple of Buddhist artworks). Religious art has expressed mankind’s relentless will to shape and understand the world, the Creation of the Universe and our existence, the Apocalypse…

The Dutch writer Marjolijn van Heemstra (1981-) masterfully sheds a light on these artworks thanks to her theological background and modern take. Her thoughts about how our wish to bring order to chaos pushes us to oversimplify by applying an antinomic and vertical classification to all things resonate as we are walking the vast abbey grounds around the ponds to reflect on this holistic food for thought. Heaven vs. hell, good vs. bad, light vs. darkness, God above humans, men above women, humans above animals …

Even if it is so deeply rooted, isn’t it time to pass the divide and bridge gaps as the BANG! festival pushes us to do so between arts and sciences?

Travel tips:

  • Make sure to not miss out on any of the other events organised in town and refer to Visit Leuven to secure your time slots!
  • Apart from spending time to soak up the excellent exhibitions the venues in which they are set deserve some attention even if there are no temporary exhibits at your time of visit.
  • To stay in style in the heart of Leuven, the Fourth Hotel is your best bet.
  • Check out this interactive map for the specific details to help you plan your trip and more articles and photos (zoom out) about the area (short tutorial)!

For more highlights of Leuven & Belgium, click on the images below:

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