BERLINDE DE BRUYCKERE seems to be something of a sage. She has not left her hometown of Ghent for more than 20 years; she was born there, grew up there, got married and started a family there, all the while creating new artworks at her studio in the harbor district. She chose to open her solo exhibition at Galleria Continua in Beijing the day after— according to Mayan prophecy— the world was due to end. Her enormous sculptures are like offerings, greeting a world after the apocalypse, and the vast, empty exhibition space also heightens this sense of ceremony. There is no singing, chanting, or music in the exhibition, but it feels as if the specters of Antonin Artaud and Ovid are wandering about the theater-like space, each artwork muttering in a low voice, tangling, pulling, bound together and groveling on the floor, peaceful echoes floating in space.
This new exhibition showcases the three most important themes in De Bruyckere’s sculpture at present, extensions of the forms of horses, trees, and deer and deer antlers. Emotional metaphors of life, belief, disease, and death run through each of these artworks. They have a somber, classical spirit, and this pervasive fixation makes her work appear less “contemporary.” As opposed to the worship of passion of breakneck contemporary society, the expressive restraint in De Bruyckere’s sculptures avoids spectacle and social elements; it avails instead of a minimal use of language, the ceaseless reflection and excavation of its themes, the pursuit of innermost feeling, a Yogi-like stubbornness and piety, and the belief that to answer crucial questions, we must create.
The revision, recombination, and deformation of the body is the most frequently discussed element of De Bruyckere’s sculptural aesthetic. It is also the most rich in controversy. She invites models to her studio to be photographed, and then cast in plaster. Later, she assembles their body parts into different combinations, pouring emotion into new bodies that diverge from reality. These incomplete and distorted bodies have a sense of tension that brings images of religious suffering to mind. The calm, restrained, and introspective emotions expressed through these limbs immediately evoke a physical response in the viewer; these aesthetic characteristics are also frequently seen to represent loneliness, suffering, and death. The definition of “beauty” is rooted in the senses; according to De Bruyckere, it is difficult to lead every visitor from their senses to “beauty,” but all art-works should possess a duality between beauty and instability. De Bruyckere grew up in Belgium, a country known for its oil paintings, and painting was always a greater inspiration and influence on her than sculpture. She was inspired by the deformation of bodies in German Renaissance painter Lucas Cranach the Elder’s work to refine and transform her own artistic language, meanwhile becoming more resolute in her own artistic judgment and creative direction. She is also heavily influenced by Matthias Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece.
As a sculptor, De Bruyckere often takes the corpse as a starting point for her work. She insists her father’s work as a butcher was only an influence on her inasmuch as she was never afraid of dead animals, even as a child. Her work departs from her father’s in that she strives for a kind of respect for dead animals, seeking to create new things from them, not destroy them. De Bruyckere’s re-sculpting processes embody a preoccupation with the law of nature, and the resulting art- works no longer possess a sense of the corpse— rather, they are turned into emotional bodies which reflect their past lives. Whether the limbs used are those of a person, animal, or some- thing without a clear shape, she always tries to preserve them in a state of interrupted growth. This preservation is an inadvertent manifestation of their alienation, and their change conforms to the forces of nature.
Mythology is another important context for De Bruyckere’s work, and the names and subject matters of many of her works are taken from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. In Actaeon, stag antlers have been wrapped in felt and cloth and piled on an old, badly weathered table. Colored and sealed in wax, the antlers are cruel, graceful, and very lifelike. The implied connection between the two is self-evident, and stories of fate and punishment in Greek mythology are obviously not enough to give a perfect explanation. Potential metaphors and connotations aside, De Bruyckere is apparently more concerned with a flowing sense of beauty and transience in deformation. One sculpture of a human body stands as if stooping downward, his torso extended like a tree trying to grow back into the earth. The body makes a gentle, comfortable curve, the tree grown out of the earth and the two feet planted on the ground forming a curious cycle.
In 2000, De Bruyckere began exploring the theme “what is war today,” and decided to incorporate horses as a new element in her artworks. She realized it was impossible to use human bodies to discuss specific source mate- rial or metaphors of death in war, be- cause of their excessive intensity; it was only by turning to the larger forms of horses that these messages could become clear. Horses are characterized by complexity and ambiguity within De Bruyckere’s aesthetic expression; in the vast majority of her artworks, horse bodies are abstracted in order to highlight particular body parts or a sense of strength. Sometimes they are modeled so as to appear weightless, shattered, or without the ability to run; sometimes different horses are combined into one, their bodies twisted together, the amalgam of their limbs producing a strange sense of animation. These enormous, sturdy animals bring humanity’s emotions and disasters alive. However, it is not their corporeal bodies which are important. De Bruyckere’s sculptures are always monuments of high emotion.
LEAP: You have been working in a former Catholic boys school in the harbor district of Ghent for the past twenty years. What made you decide to locate your studio there?
Berlinde De Bruyckere: I didn’t choose to be in a Catholic school building. It happens to be in my neighborhood where I was born. My parents live on the same street. Now it’s completely restored and beautiful, but 25 years ago we spent all our holidays and weekends restoring the building. I know how important the studio is because it’s a place where I can create. I have to travel a lot for work but I’m never creative on location.
LEAP: In what ways have the unique ambiance and vast space of your studio influenced your work methods?
BDB: My works are huge and require a lot of space, and the school building was the perfect space for me. I work in the whole basement, which has four classrooms (8 x 8 x 4 meters each). Two are for the wax pieces, the other two for horse pieces. I can’t combine the two materials because my work methods are completely different. This also gives me the freedom to work with different assistants. I prefer to be with one or two assistants at a time, not more. I believe in making decisions with my assistants and going slowly. You don’t have to force it. I believe in long processes. Some pieces take months, others are much faster. It depends on the solutions I find for each piece. Then we have the corridor and some other spaces to show works and to see if they are finished or not. And when I’m stuck on one work, I can continue to work on others. On the roof there’s a smaller place where I make my drawings. A private room where I work isolated, with my inspiration, books, images and texts.
LEAP: In many of your artworks, blankets, cloth and other ready-made articles take on different imagery and expression. This produces a sense of contrast with the wax, wood, and other natural materials. What sort of relationship does this hint at?
BDB: If you look at the wax pieces, they are all very fragile. I put cushions in the antler pieces to protect them because they are so fragile. They become more human because I use the same color as the skin of my human figures. Just to pay attention to the fragility, I use the cushions. The cushions come from our own history. We use blankets on the bed so they become part of us in our lives.
LEAP: You weaken the focus on head and organs by covering them in a pillow or blanket. What’s your point?
BDB: The reason why I never use faces is that I don’t want people to recognize them. I don’t want people to recognize the expressions. The faces are not timeless. They are too private and have nothing to do with eternity. The body is always the same.
LEAP: Where do you find the balance between abstract and figurative impulses?
BDB: The horse is such an elegant and strong animal. We humans have to use the bridle to control it. That’s how I think about the abstract and the figurative in my work. In the future I might work more in the direction of the abstract, but it always depends.
LEAP: Do you have specific religious beliefs? Do you think the value of religion is interconnected with the value of art?
BDB: I’m not a practicing Catholic but all my education went through the Christian religion so I know it by heart. I make sculptures with the same names— like the figure of Saint Sebastian, a topic that I’ve used for several works. For me it’s coming from the past and it has a special meaning. I like to translate it into my own language and make it contemporary. It’s true that suffering is important to my work. Maybe Saint Sebastian, who is related to suffering and religion, serves as an entry into my work so people can feel and question themselves. This is just one layer. I grew up with all these references. They are not something that I use. They are just there. All the other layers come from daily lives, my re-search into literature, discovering Pasolini, and so on. (Translated by Sarah Stanton)