publication of the International Sculpture Center
Clouds: A Conversation with Jan Fabre
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Jan Fabre lives and
works in his native Antwerp. Contemporary art aficionados know him for his
powerful figurative or abstract drawings executed in blue ballpoint and
his sculptures fraught with surface ornament. Fabres early drawings
and sculptures of the 1970s reveal his abiding interest in performance art.
The drawings often explored themes or motifs for a range of performance
pieces, and the sculptures frequently arose out of live acts involving the
body. Fabres works, which treat the weighty subjects of life, memory,
and death by indirection, often come across as great feats of physical endurance.
of Delight, 2002. Beetles on ceiling and chandelier of the Royal
The drawings, consisting
of dense, monochrome fields of all-over hatching marks, eventually grew
in scale. They were displayed either freestanding, with their rectos and
versos exposed to view like pieces of sculpture, or glued onto forms ranging
from bathtubs and sheds to the vast Castle Tivoli at Mechelen (1990),
near Antwerp. The copper thumbtacks that Fabre employed in the early sculptures
to encase representations of his body, as well as accompanying objects,
eventually made way for (usually green) iridescent jewel beetles. The
latter were affixed to invisible armatures of wire-mesh, suggesting three-dimensional
things such as a urinal, a microscope, a Latin cross, a dress, and a hooded
mantle. Today, the artist encloses voids with thin slices of human bone
mounted on wire-mesh supports.
Mundi, 2000. Armor, angel hair, and insects, 54 x 20 x 39 cm.
in performance art is reflected in his manifold activities as actor, author,
choreographer, and film and theater director. This Belgian artist with
seemingly inexhaustible energy is also the co-founder, publisher, and
co-editor of Janus, a quarterly magazine on art and culture. Fabre has
had over 50 one-person shows since 1984 and has taken part in numerous
group exhibitions including the Venice Biennale (1984 and 1997), the Bienal
de São Paulo (1991), Documenta IX (1992), and the Istanbul Biennale
(1992 and 2001). This interview took place late one night at a terrace
on the main civic square of Bruges, following a rehearsal of Fabres
new theater production Parrots and Guinea Pigs (2002).
(199899), in the collection of the Provinciaal Museum voor Moderne
Kunst at Ostende, depicts a hooded mantle built up of hundreds of glowing
jewel beetles. The mantle appears to hover in space, alongside the wall
to which it is attached. What is the meaning of this work and where does
your interest in beetles come from?
Jan Fabre: That
sculpture depicts a male angel, a monk of sorts. It is based on Bruegels
drawings of beekeepers. A beekeeper is a protector, who accompanies one
and serves as a guide. I am interested in man and, consequently, interested
in angels. An angel is original, perfect, and unique, and man is the opposite
of all of that. With that sculpture, I aim to express the idea that man
wishes to improve and seek what is perfect, unique, and never changing.
Man fails in his attempt to achieve this and has to rise again to the challenge.
I have confidence in man. In my work, I seek to create a more perfect human
imagean ideal place or space. I believe this is possible. My work
rejects all forms of cynicism. So much contemporary art is deeply cynical,
so much of it is overly concerned with power and commerce. These languages
are foreign to my thinking about art. There is an alternative to an art
permeated by the society in which one lives. In many of my recent sculptures,
I seek to render the body spiritualizedthe body reduced to a shell.
We have internal skeletons and beetles have external skeletons. My sculptures
are bodies built up of hundreds of scarabs, in other words, of hundreds
Chaton de Dieu, 2000. Skull, scarab beetles, and cat, 32 x 30 x
Beetles have survived
for millions of years. They have adapted themselves to their changing
environment. They possess information, they have the greatest memory.
These creatures can be understood as the oldest computers, the oldest
memories. I load the empty space of my bodies with that memory. The body
you mentioned is a shell made up of memory that is older than the human
body. Jewel beetles appear in Flemish vanitas paintings. They symbolize
our passage to death, though death understood in the sense of a positive
energy field, death as something that keeps us awake, death as a concrete
object, like a table, which you can accidentally bump into, hurting yourself.
The monk-like figures
I have been working on have their origin in my writings about a fluid
body, a body consisting exclusively of blood. I have been thinking about
what would happen should our internal skeleton be projected outward and
become an external skeleton. One consequence would be that we could no
longer be wounded, which would lead to the development of a whole new
range of thoughts and feelings. We in the West, for instance, would no
longer believe in that man who walked on top of water. My spiritual voyager,
who no longer works and only has free time and thinks, is my hope for
humanity. In our society, we do not get paid to dreamdreaming is
forbidden. Well, those figures dream and think, and they are invulnerable.
with Bones, 2001. Wire and human bones, 160 x 60 x 45 cm.
These ideas have
led me to the use of human skeletons, which I acquire in India and Leuven
and saw into thin slices that can be sewn together. These slivers have
the visual characteristics of Bruges lacework, a transparency of sorts.
A year ago, I arrived at a new type of external skeleton, a new skin,
which comes out of my thinking about the spiritual body. We are presently
creating a new type of man in this technological age. How can we return
to our innermost selves? My work has a lot to do with the Middle Ages.
I find medieval thought beautiful.
MA: Do you
believe in angels?
JF: I believe
in the model of the angelwe need role models. I even believe in
the model of the church. I believe the church is necessary, which does
not mean that I will be subjugated to its authority. We need to reclaim
spiritual places in our society. I create spiritual realms through my
You mentioned Pieter Bruegel and Flemish memento mori. How important are
the early Flemish masters?
1996. Jewel beetles and wire, 180 x 60 x 60 cm.
JF: Many of
my sculptures are based on the observation of Old Master paintings. I
find early Netherlandish painters of the order of Jan van Eyck and Hugo
van der Goes great masters in terms of their powers of plastic conception,
their spatial thinking, and consequently their sculptural thinking. I
recently made two lambs of gilded bronze, one dead and the other alive,
which are inspired by van Eycks Altarpiece of the Mystic Lamb in
Ghent. Gold appears in Old Master painting: I use it in a sculptural manner.
These recent sculptures can be traced back to my work of the late 1970s,
namely to depictions of myself covered with copper thumbtacks that have
a gold-bronze look to them. Now, I finally have the means to produce bronze
My other great source
of inspiration is the animal world. My father took me on drawing trips
to the Antwerp Zoo. I was influenced by Karel van Lat and Alfred Ost,
who were not great artists, though they were undoubtedly skilled draftsmen.
These excursions explain my interest in biology and the other sciences.
My greatest sources of inspiration are Edward O. Wilson and Barry Bolton,
philosophers of sorts. Bolton studied antsinsects that lead social
livesand Wilson is the author of Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge.
When I look back at my work, I realize that for the past 20 years I have
been using a conciliatory language. By this I mean a merging of elements
from different disciplines guided by theory and practice. An understanding
of entomology can, for example, lead to new interpretations within the
visual arts. Or vice versa. Once you manage to reconcile the kinetic qualities
of beetles and the kinetic qualities of humans, you obtain new interpretations
that can be applied to each of these species. I have allowed the subjects
that I have studied over the years to influence each other. I am not an
eclectic artist, I am not a multi-media artist: I have always been very
aware of what is performance, what is theater, and what is visual art.
2000. Beetles and human bones, 100 x 15 x 5 cm.
I owe a great deal
to my parents. My father also took me to the Rubens househe taught
me how to appreciate painting. My mother translated French literature
into Flemish for me. My interest in words and images can be traced back
to them; drawing and writing are the foundations of my work. I think as
I write, and I draw as I think.
I am interested
in the independence of the artist. This strikes me as one of the characteristics
of the Belgian artistic tradition. Artists I admire, such as Ensor or
Magritte, are one-man movements. There is actually something rather bourgeois
to that sustained involvement with ones own world, plans, strategies,
and thought patterns.
use of human bones or wrapping columns in slices of ham (at the Rijksuniversiteit
Gent for the Over the Edges exhibition, 2000) may raise moral
concerns. Has your work been censored?
JF: My meat
pier was based on a 1978 work that was made by gluing thumbtacks
onto a representation of my body, following a performance in which I had
used sandpaper to remove the skin from one of my legs. At the university,
my idea was to skin the legs of the house of reason, which was clearly
an unreasonable act, while being at the same time an act of exploration,
of research. That work was successful in that it forced people to engage
with social and political ideas. It was also visually striking, for the
ham resembled slices of marble. It was an old idea of mine, which I was
suddenly able to carry out on a large scale. Some people found the whole
thing scandalous, but for all the wrong reasons. There was no censorship
involved. However, certain groups became increasingly aggressive and at
one point private security guards had to be hired to protect the work.
(harnas), 2003. Metal, leather, and cotton, 202 x 75 x 75 cm.
MA: Does The
Man Who Measures the Clouds (1998, Stedelijk Museum voor Actuele Kunst,
Ghent) have its source in the world of dreams? Do dreams play an important
role for you as sources of inspiration?
JF: No, they
do not. That sculpture pays homage to my late brother, who was a dreamer.
It expresses the feeling of planning the impossible, which is actually
what the artist does. That figure symbolizes my trade. Artists attempt
to get a grip on things, but it never quite works out as planned. Life
is so fluid and flexible: today, we are no longer where we stood yesterday.
The artist measures: he or she establishes connectionsmental, physical,
political, and philosophical rapports. I am constantly measuring these
types of relationshipsthat is my duty as an artist. As an artist,
I constantly measure the clouds.
The Man Who Measures
the Clouds represents a frozen actionan homage to death and to the
artist. The man is shown standing precariously on top of a library ladder
placed at the edge of a crate, while holding up a school ruler. Its
dangerous to be an artistboth literally and figuratively speaking.
The history of this work can be traced back to the early 80s, when
I made a version out of clay. The ornithologist Robert Stroud has strongly
influenced me. In The Birdman of Alcatraz, when he is finally released
from prison, Stroud states: I am going to measure the clouds,
with the full understanding that it is an impossible mission.
do you delegate work in colossal endeavors of the order of Castle Tivoli
(1990) or Heaven of Delight (2002), your recent ceiling for the Hall of
Mirrors of the Royal Palace in Brussels?
of Delight, 2002. Detail of beetle-encrusted surface.
Tivoli was a drawing/sculpture and a sculpture/drawing that you could
penetrate or walk aroundit was a vibrating piece of drawn sculpture.
In my work, I have sought to achieve the independence of drawing as a
self-sufficient medium. I want to rid drawing of its personal signature.
What better to achieve this than by creating a colossal drawinga
large energy fieldwith 30 assistants in which the hand of the artist
becomes irrelevant. Castle Tivoli raises questions as to what exactly
is a drawing and what exactly is a sculpture. It was the culmination of
that particular period in my career. I was involved with Heaven of Delight
for three years, although actual work on the ceiling took three months.
This sculpture/drawing comprises 1.4 million jewel beetle shells. My first
drawings in blue ballpoint were created by following insects on paperthe
splitting of space. Next, I proceeded to replace the ballpoint line by
the insect itself. The shimmering ceiling at the Royal Palace is the apotheosis
of my development involving the beetles. That is why I am currently conducting
research on the body, that strange laboratory we wake up with every morning.
of Heaven of Delight, 2002. Work installed in the Hall of Mirrors
at the Royal Palace, Brussels.
My work is concerned
with the release and the absorption of energy, with electricity. I still
do a lot myself. I register energy, time, and intensity. I am interested
in the act of making. I could have drawn over a photograph of that castle
in Mechelen, but instead I chose to cover the entire castle with blue
ballpoint. The process of making, or letting others make, gives me tremendous
pleasure. I cannot get away from thatI love that physical experience.
My nerves cannot be tamed.
As far as the ceiling
is concerned, I first created a wide variety of forms and patterns by
gluing beetles onto small surfaces. Then I told my 29 assistants that
they could start inventing forms, knowing full well what they would come
up with. This process allowed me to discover who was good at what type
of pattern. Once I had this information, I could assign different areas
of the ceiling to different assistants. Those thousands and thousands
of beetles form drawings within the larger drawing, as in my large ballpoint
drawings. My sculpture seeks to conquer space.
do you get thousands and thousands of beetles?
JF: I obtain
the scarabs from universities I have connections with and through the
open market. The Sternocera acquisignata used in the Royal Palace is a
non-protected species that appears abundantly in certain countries. In
Thailand, the beetle is fried for consumption and its shell is discarded.
MA: Your work
can look extremely delicate. Is it ephemeral?
of Heaven of Delight, 2002. Work installed in the Hall of Mirrors
at the Royal Palace, Brussels.
JF: I use
strong materials, which happen to have a fragile appearance. The color
of those beetle shells will never fade, for the outer integument contains
chitin, one of the strongest and lightest materials on earth, which was
used for objects destined for the Mir space station. Scientists are once
more studying the world of insects. I love the durability of things. I
create for the future. I believe that my work contains many riddles and
layers, which will reveal themselves more clearly to the beholder in,
say, 50 or 100 years. Only then will my work be better understood. I find
it such a beautiful thought: we live in a society where no one is concerned
with durability, while artists are precisely engaged with issues of durability.
Durability is a rather old-fashioned concept. You are no longer allowed
to believe that your work will have value in, say, 100 years. I believe,
on the contrary, that its significance will increase. I would stop making
art if I believed that my work could hold no future meaning.
is a frequent contributor to Art in America, tema celeste, Sculpture,
and The New York Sun.