A photo of an embroidered cushion is pinned to the wall: “I have been to hell and back,” the cushion reads, “and let me tell you, it was wonderful.” Nearby, a severed arm lies carelessly on a windowsill, while through the window – among the family debris of a treehouse and trampoline – a torso transforms an upturned crate into a makeshift butcher’s block. Even the dog chews on something disturbingly limb-like. In Berlinde De Bruyckere’s sunny studio in Ghent’s harbour quarter, the skeletons of the Belgian sculptor’s art are everywhere.
The ‘bodies’ here might be made of wax or plaster, but this only heightens the sense of Freudian uncanny that lingers around De Bruyckere’s work. Viewers are drawn in by the seeming familiarity of her human and animal figures before finding themselves repulsed as deformity reveals itself and the creatures become suddenly monstrous. In the artist’s hands traditional iconography – whether Christianity’s pietà and the crucified Christ, or the visual tropes of other mythologies – emerge transfigured, refracted through the visual touchstones of our own age: the debased figures of Abu Ghraib or the blanket-wrapped victims of the Rwandan genocide.
Although active since the 1980s, De Bruyckere first came to international attention in 2000 with a war-themed commission for the In Flanders Fields Museum in Ypres. The resulting installation of five life-sized casts of horses, their glossy skins animating their contorted pawings and writhings, explored the elisions between man and animal, life and death, that have dominated De Bruyckere’s work since. It also captured the peculiarly immanent quality that has since become the hallmark of her sculptures – the figures are always caught in the moment of becoming, decaying, growing or changing. Never still, never complete.
De Bruyckere’s first Australian exhibition, We are all Flesh, currently at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art in Melbourne, borrows its title from the insistent shout of dancers in Alain Platel’s ballet Pitié!. It’s a cry that has echoed repeatedly through De Bruyckere’s work for the past 20 years, from her earliest “blanket women” to her Schmerzensmann (Man of Sorrows) sequence and her celebrated horses, with their stunted, often headless, forms.
“If you are honest with yourself as an artist,” she explains, “there are not many possibilities. You have your questions, angers and fears, and while the format or form might change, the topic remains the same. I’m not looking to alter my whole way of thinking with each exhibition, or searching for something new. One work just grows into another and then another.”
But while flesh for De Bruyckere has always been a theatre of cruelty, it is also the site of transcendence and transformation. Bodies writhe and melt into one another in anguish – or could it be ecstasy? The dance of Eros and Thanatos is a delicate one in De Bruyckere’s hands, an encounter staged in the arch of a foot, the curve of a horse’s neck, or even a tender sprawl of branches over a trestle.
It’s a collision staged with particular fervour in the centrepiece of We are all Flesh – two horses (bodies cast in wax and then reconstructed in epoxy, before being covered in the original horsehide) suspended together from a column. “The beauty here is in the impression that these figures are making love. But who is making love? It is the bodies of dead horses. I don’t mean this as an aggressive statement. Once the veterinary students are finished with these bodies they go to the incinerator; it’s as though I could not accept this, couldn’t let it happen, so I took them with me and made something beautiful from them. That is how people should view them, not as dead flesh or meat, but as something living.”
This living ‘language of the body’ is something De Bruyckere first learned from the Flemish Old Masters, poring over books of paintings by Hans Memling and Rogier van der Weyden in the library of her Catholic boarding school – an escape from the restrictive world of the nuns. It is these images rather than sculptures that have supplied what De Bruyckere describes as her artistic “genes”, as a visit to Ghent’s own Museum of Fine Arts makes immediately clear.
The drooling monsters of an anonymous master hang next to a pietà in shrieking juxtaposition while, across the room, vivid, fleshy crucifixions display their torture. In the translucent limbs of Hugo van der Goes’s Christ, the suppliant contortion of Hieronymus Bosch’s St Jerome and the glow on the cheek of van der Weyden’s Madonna are the germ of De Bruyckere’s own forms, her bodily preoccupations.
When the London Telegraph recently decried the artist’s creations as “Frankenstein’s monsters for an age of genetic engineering” it unmoored them from the position they occupy in the natural trajectory of European art, which has embraced the grotesque alongside the rarefied, the banality of the everyday as well as the spiritual. The age of Rabelais and his oozing, penetrable bodies was also the age of da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, something De Bruyckere understands as well as her Flemish predecessors.
But while painting provides essential inspiration for her work, it’s a genre the artist herself finds restrictive. “When I was a painter I was always gluing materials to the paper – the surface of the painting was never sufficient for me. There is no possibility of touch, no softness in the material to give you hope.” It’s this urge to softness, to the fragility of natural substances – wood, skin, hair – that tempers the violence of the artist’s work. Wax, De Bruyckere’s primary material, serves as an extension of her own touch, a “very generous” medium that allows her a freedom that she doesn’t feel in drawing.
“For most artists it is the reverse; if you are working in stone one wrong cut can force you to start all over again. But wax is like clay – it’s a process of cooperation, an ongoing dialogue between artist and material.”
This dialogue expresses itself in the chaos of De Bruyckere’s studio, a once derelict Catholic schoolhouse she shares with her artist husband. The smoothly tiled hallways with their arched Gothic windows give way to classroom studios, the floors pitted and pocked with wax. The effect is somewhere between laboratory, abattoir and operating theatre. A row of saucepans (incongruously floral) on a tabletop stove hold now-rigid wax, while a black-and-white picture of an uprooted tree finds answer in the branches heaped in a corner.
This is a porous, semi-public space, one De Bruyckere shares with her team of assistants, who participate in the construction of her pieces. Each sculpture, however, starts off as a sketch, a process that takes place well away from the studio. “In order to draw I need to be on my own,” De Bruyckere explains. “It’s something I need a private space for, not only physically but also inside my head. Drawing asks more of me creatively than sculpture.”
Ghent’s Old Masters shaped De Bruyckere’s aesthetic, and their brutal physicality chimed with experiences the artist was having much closer to home in her parents’ butcher shop. Critics have been quick to trace the connection between the flayed carcasses of De Bruyckere’s childhood and her sculpted forms, but the artist herself stresses a slightly different chain of influence. “My father was not only a butcher but a hunter, and the animals he brought home from the country made the greatest impression. They would be lying dead on the floor of the basement – their beautiful eyes still open. I just remember sitting next to them crying and asking why.”
As De Bruyckere has previously declared: “I don’t need human bodies to talk about humanity.” While deer have recently emerged as a rival trope in De Bruyckere’s Actaeon-inspired Romeu ‘my deer’, horses have always offered particular resonance for the artist.
“People have often asked me whether I would work with another animal, and for the past ten years I have said no. The horse is the most natural canvas for human attributes and feelings – not only beautiful but clever. If you look through history and art history horses have always been there; human beings have always lived close to them, wanted to control them.”
We are all Flesh is a title the artist has used previously in London, but while that show featured only De Bruyckere’s human forms, the ACCA exhibition unites human and animal sculptures for the first time under the name – a bodily marriage of themes. Indeed, We are all Flesh was devised specifically for ACCA: “The space is very beautiful; it has a monumental character, and I saw it almost as a church.” The main space is thus transformed to a nave, complete with equine “altar”, while the smaller rooms become contemplative side-chapels.
De Bruyckere has spoken of her work as “a view on my surroundings rather than a collection of stories”. It’s an approach that places the onus on the audience – there are no fully formed characters waiting for us, but rather our point of view creates the work anew from each angle or approach.
It’s this allusive abstraction, the resistance to completion, that gives De Bruyckere’s works their fascination, appealing primarily to personal collectors rather than investors. “One collector in Antwerp lives with one of my huge horses in his living room,” she tell me. “Visitors are rather taken aback by it, but he says it’s just like part of the family.”
“My purpose is to tell of bodies which have been transformed into shapes of different kinds”, wrote Ovid in his Metamorphoses. It’s a task shared by Berlinde De Bruyckere, who takes in violation and deformity as well as transfiguration and growth – often in the same work. To those who bring ideas of Frankenstein, of debasement and human cruelty, De Bruyckere’s figures will always amplify them, mirroring them back tenfold in their convulsing limbs and eyeless gazes. Yet approach her monumental, fragile creations with tenderness and they will echo that as loudly. A pilgrimage through her works is a trip to hell and back, but let me tell you – it’s pretty wonderful.
We are all Flesh is showing at ACCA, Melbourne, until 29 July.
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