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Berlinde de Bruyckere’s ‘Plunder | Ekphrasis’
In conversation with Albert Shyong
Ekphrasis (ek·phra·sis) – the use of detailed description of a work of visual art as a literary device
A sublimation of nature’s creations through its own primal elements, Berlinde de Bruyckere’s exhibition Plunder | Ekphrasis at Montpellier Contemporain is a view into the ceremony of birth and decay. Earthly kingdoms meld into the kingdom of angels, in a modern scripture written with wax, hair and hide spanning three separate salons, including six new works specially produced for this occasion. The Flemish artist and A#3 Curated By Haider Ackermann contributor explicitly intends to overwhelm, with tenderness and brutality, through a monographic exploration of metamorphosis, eroticism and sentient suffering.
Albert Shyong: It’s great to see you here, Berlinde. It feels like we’re coming full circle after 20 years, when you contributed to our third issue with Haider Ackermann. The work then was very much about the human form, in quite a blatant way. I’m curious about the transformation in your work in these past decades, in regards to evolution in the themes or praxis.
Berlinde de Bruyckere: I think it’s something that happens in a fairly natural way. It’s not that I was done with the human body, but I thought about how to portray the same themes with other icons. Horses, trees and still the human are present in this body of work. It also depends on the invitation for the specific exhibition, for example here at Montpellier Contemporain – the space is so immense that you really need big installations to make the story vivid. There’s a dialogue between the works present here. If you look at the sculpture of the foal on the table, To Zubaran, you can see that the head is blindfolded by the same blankets as the wax installations on the wall, Courtyard Tales. For me, these are also ‘Pietàs’ when you look beyond the nails or crucifixion, and there is still this relation to religion.
BdB: Growing up, I attended a religious boarding school, an experience I often reflect upon in my process, especially when I am working with bodies. Very often, it relates to suffering, anger and fear, all elements that you often find in religious art. But now I’ve found another way to express myself, sometimes with soft materials, but not the ones that you really want to have. They are falling apart. They are destroyed by nature, by time. It’s more symbolic of the way I feel towards our society. When I was working with blankets in the 90s, it was a material that through which people would access my work, as they found the colours and the patterns inviting. Because of this, they could deal with the topics at hand.
Back then, when the naked body was covered by blankets, it allowed for a sense of shelter and comfort. These days that’s all gone. We’ve promised too much that we cannot realise, and the blanket has failed. That’s the reason why I put the blankets in my courtyard for months, for it to lose all strength, colour, pattern and integrity. Hung up on the wall, they are now disintegrated and falling apart, in repetition among the layers upon layers.
AS: Others have speculated that the sculptures commissioned for this exhibition, Arcangelo IV & Arcangelo V, were cast from a woman’s leg. In fact, they were cast from your son’s legs. I’m very curious about how even with the human body, there’s an additional sense of humanity that the audience projects onto the artwork – is this something you actively try to evoke, perhaps with an intention of ambiguity?
BdB: It’s interesting because the angels don’t have any sexuality in themselves. They were cast from my youngest son, who is only 16. He has a body with which I was able to portray a more feminine figure, not with the idea of transforming him into a female, but just with certain details and aspects in the form. Even in previous iterations of the Arcangelos, people had always asked me whether they were male or female. I always replied, “It’s up to you.” People can see what they want, it’s not up to me to decide and choose what exactly comes to the imagination.
AS: Featured at the very beginning of the exhibition, After Cripplewood II is a seminal sculpture that occupies the entire space of the first salon. You described the unknown in the process of removing the silicon mould and finally seeing the work, which I find quite poetic in a way…that aspect of not knowing. Do you feel like this anticipation, or lack thereof, often informs your work?
BdB: Absolutely. It’s something I’ve gotten quite accustomed to since I’ve started working with wax. The most exciting moment is when I finally take off the silicone mould and see what I’ve produced. It’s never 100% certain. Sometimes it’s good, better than what I had expected, and other times it’s something that I put straight back into the melting pot. The material allows for this type of freedom, of being able to always start all over again. The surface has to be white wax and the perfect colour, but all the layers underneath can utilise the re-melted wax. One thing I keep in mind is maximising material to reduce waste, and there is very little waste because we do this recuperation of the wax.
AS: I can’t help but notice that the drawings hung on the walls of each of the three rooms are very symbiotic with the sculptures. I find the aquarelles and sketches subtle yet in definite dialogue with the theme of the given salon.
BdB: We worked really hard with the team to define three different salons with different meanings. Here in the second, it’s about nature and time. The first salon is a more mystic one, and finally the last one is reminiscent of Dante going into the Inferno. You have to behave yourself in the first two salons, but the last one is completely overwhelming – you will have to find your place and address yourself in between the sculptures.
At The Renaissance Society, Chicago, an untitled exhibition curated by the artist Shahryar Nashat and writer & curator Bruce Hainley simultaneously investigates the enigmatic relationships between image, perception, and the human body as a living or undead currency.
The 25th issue of has been guest edited by Chitose Abe of the Japanese cult label sacai. As the first Japanese woman to curate an issue, Abe has called upon her inner circle of friends, family and artistic collaborators to contribute cultural and creative content across the 200 page magazine.