Ber­linde de Bruy­ckere No Life Lost

Art Press - - SCULPTURE -

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Wax, thread, ban­dages, hor­se­hair, skins, pig­ments bound with egg white: these are the ma­te­rials with which Ber­linde De Bruy­ckere first set about re­pre­sen­ting the hu­man bo­dy, back in 1999. There are two com­ple­men­ta­ry ges­tures at work here: mo­de­ling and se­wing, bin­ding and fixing in or­der to pre­serve the in­te­gri­ty of the bo­dy. Pain­ting, too. The subtle shades she uses to pro­duce the illu­sion of flesh de­serve close ins­pec­tion. These ma­te­rials and ges­tures confound and “found” in a single ele­ment both hu­man and ani­mal bo­dies—wit­ness the horse first shown in France at La Mai­son Rouge in spring 2014. What I re­mem­ber of that exhibition are the slen­der, pale, na­ked bo­dies, bent un­der the weight of we don’t know what—exis­tence?—along­side horses that were al­so pros­trate, li­fe­less. At a time when vi­deos shot in abat­toirs are re­vea­ling prac­tices we find re­vol­ting, her art is sin­gu­lar­ly per­ti­nent. Ber­linde De Bruy­ckere spent her child­hood bet­ween a boar­ding school run by nuns and the fa­mi­ly but­che­ry-char­cu­te­rie. The ca­ta­logue of her exhibition Les Pa­pesses, shown at the Pa­lais des Papes in Avi­gnon,(1) fea­tu­red a pho­to­graph in which she ap­pea­red un­der a gar­land of big thick sau­sages and hams. A recent work seen at the Hau­ser & Wirth gal­le­ry in New York, in early 2016, re­sul­ted from a vi­sit to a slaugh­ter­man’s shop, and was ac­com­pa­nied by pho­to­graphs of vic­tims of wars and ter­ro­rist at­tacks around the world. Its title, No Life Lost. On en­te­ring Hau­ser & Wirth, and ha­ving pas­sed the white stair­case sur­roun­ded by li­ve­ly, clean-loo­king mul­ti­co­lo­red stripes—an ins­tal­la­tion by Mar­tin Creed which has been the obli­ga­to­ry point of pas­sage in the Chel­sea space since 2013—I was di­so­rien­ted. This was a bad start: I was miles from her world. But it all coin­ci­ded with my me­mo­ries again when I en­te­red the first room. I had an ap­point­ment with the ar­tist. STO­RY OF A VI­SIT At first, in the half-light, eve­ry­thing looks dull. The num­ber of works is li­mi­ted. I go up to the ar­tist, ha­ving re­co­gni­zed her boyish form. She is all in black. She leads me to the work des­cri­bed in the press kit as ha­ving been concei­ved “at the be­gin­ning of the Sy­rian re­fu­gees cri­sis.” The image of the lit­tle boy, Alan Kur­di, found on the beach, with whom Ai Wei­wei al­so iden­ti­fied in Sep­tem­ber 2015, mo­ved de Bruy­ckere and re­min­ded her of a Zur­barán pain­ting, the Agnus Dei, that she saw in 2013 in the exhibition at the Mu­sée des Beaux-arts in Brus­sels. The col­li­sion of the two images led her to sculpt a kind of horse with its legs tied to­ge­ther, like the lamb, with a band over its eyes in or­der, she says, to pro­tect it from the hor­ror of the world, to soothe it. This work brings us back to the shores of art his­to­ry— its title is To Zur­barán. The child’s bo­dy ef­fec­ti­ve­ly en­te­red his­to­ry through press pho­to­gra­phy. The exhibition of the corpse is not going to save anyone. These people died for no good rea­son, says the ar­tist. They were “vic­tims of ha­ving ima­gi­ned a bet­ter fu­ture.” And they re­main deaths for no­thing, even if the title of the exhibition seems to think other­wise. To com­me­mo­rate a loss is not to can­cel a loss. No Life Lost is a cry of hope, des­pite the pre­vai­ling hor­ror. The eye gra­dual­ly grows used to the half-light. Things emerge from the sha­dow. The ochers, the browns and the blacks of the coat of th­ree en­tan­gled horses re­veal their subtle shades. These horses are set stran­ge­ly in­to a glass ar­moire re­cu­pe­ra­ted from an old cha­pel. The doors gape open, but their em­brace holds them down. The worn sur­faces of bits of blan­ket and the ban­dages that dress them show in­fi­nite va­rie­ties of beige and gray. The hairs of their coat stand out. Fur­ther on, skins of epoxy coa­ted in wax hang from but­cher’s hooks, com­po­sing an in­fi­nite pa­lette of grays, pinks and bluish tones. The works can be ap­proa­ched gra­dual­ly, “in that Zur­barán chia­ros­cu­ro.” Not tal­king, we move around the se­ven­teen “skins,” each wei­ghing a hun­dred ki­los, that are the “in­di­vi­dual ver­sions” of Pen­the­si­lea, wi­th­drawn for the exhibition No Life lost I. We brush past them, sen­sing their re­la­tion to our size and our weight. We are in­deed wal­king in the set crea­ted for the Hein­rich von Kleist tra­ge­dy, Pen­the­si­lea, the queen of the Ama­zons, which was adap­ted and set to music by Pas­cal Du­sa­pin and Beate Hae­ckel for the Théâtre de la Mon­naie Brus­sels, in spring 2015.(2) On stage, these sculp­tures re­pre­sen­ted the Ama­zons’ vic­tims. Here, they are si­mu­la­cra of great hu­man hides, han­ging down. We can iden­ti­fy with them, says the ar­tist, who shows me the one she feels clo­sest to. She crea­ted these forms af­ter going to see a slaugh­ter­man’s shop in An­der­lecht, just out­side Brus­sels. Main­ly men work there, but Ber­linde De Bruy­ckere trans­poses all this on­to a fe­mi­nine le­vel. She works with wo­men, she tells me. The mol­ded skins come from cows. A big skin sculp­ture tit­led Pen­the­si­lea II is ex­hi­bi­ted away from the others on a stain­less-steel frame, like a hide left to dry. She shows me an ud­der—it comes from a hei­fer, yet the struc­ture is like a “big phal­lus.” Still, “the stret­ched, de­fen­se­less skin is the po­lar op­po­site of that. It is fe­mi­nine and vul­ne­rable. […] the pink co­lor of the in­side of the skins gives them sen­sua­li­ty and fe­mi­ni­ni­ty.”(3) On the walls the wa­ter­co­lors of Met tere huid (Of soft skin) re­peat these folds, for­ming vul­vas in warm, pin­kish tones. They ad­di a mis­sing ele­ment to the re­per­toire of dra­ped forms drawn up by Georges Di­diHu­ber­man.(4) For De Bruy­ckere, to sculpt is to heft weight; it is to ap­proach that which we have in us that makes us bow and bend to the ground, col­lap­sing like ani­mals. It means loo­king clo­se­ly at our bo­dy in its most fra­gile in­ti­ma­cy. The dra­wing of the big lips, ana­to­mi­cal­ly na­med nymphs, re­calls the giant lips that hung down bet­ween the legs of an Afri­can slave, the Hot­ten­tot Ve­nus, a cast of whose bo­dy, along with the ge­ni­tal or­gans kept in for­mal­de­hyde, re­mai­ned on dis­play at the Mu­sée de l’Homme, Pa­ris, un­til 1974. Ins­tead of that kind of exhibition, De Bruy­ckere of­fers the dis­tance and res­pect of a true gaze. THE ERECTION OF SAINT SE­BAS­TIAN Kreu­pel­hout (Dead Wood), a work first pre­sen­ted in the Bel­gian Pa­vi­lion at the 2013 Ve­nice Bien­nale, is an im­po­sing sculp­ture with strong sexual conno­ta­tions. The tree is an “in­car­na­tion of Saint Se­bas­tian,” said the press pack, and de Bruy­ckère ex­plains that it’s an elm from Bur­gun­dy, which sho­cked her when she first saw it. She made a cast of this dead tree and trans­for­med it consi­de­ra­bly in the pro­cess. The pho­to­graph of the tree, re­pro­du­ced in the ca­ta­logue of her re­tros­pec­tive in Ghent, shows how she ad­ded more branches, with lots of rags and bits of blan­ket knot­ted on­to the stump. This im­po­sing work is at least ten paces long. In

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