‘I’M TRYING TO TRANSLATE THE COMPLEXITY OF THE WORLD INTO A SCULPTURE’ (Berlinde De Bruyckere on beauty – The Utopia Parkway Files, part 7)
‘Consider it a birth. A birth where horror was carved into beauty, down to the bone, to become Cripplewood-Kreupelhout.’ It is the opening sentence of the catalogue accompanying Berlinde De Bruyckere‘s exhibition for the Belgian pavilion at the Venice Biennale. Not that we really needed an extra argument to interview the Belgian artist about beauty. There is no mistaking that it has played a major role throughout her career. ‘Beauty is much dearer to me than ugliness.’
Is beauty something that is at the back of your mind when you’re working on a sculpture?
Berlinde De Bruyckere: ‘Absolutely. Beauty is something I think about a lot when I’m working on a new sculpture. That’s why I find it often very confronting when people tell me that the word horror or revulsion springs to their mind when they are looking at one of my works, just when I think it is quite beautiful. Arthur Rimbaud wrote in the prologue to Une saison en enfer (A season in hell): ‘One evening I sat Beauty on my knees. And I found her bitter. And I reviled her.’ I totally understand what he’s trying to say with that.’
‘Beauty passes. That sublime moment of beauty is always temporary. Moreover: it’s a highly personal thing. If something is beautiful to me, you might not find it beautiful at all. But maybe in two years time you will.’
‘Apart from that: there are different ways of looking at beauty. There’s the beauty we experience in our daily life; everyday, around us. And then there’s beauty in art. Where you can say: it’s beautiful, even if that thought is brought about by a feeling of pain or sadness. By something you would normally not label as beautiful.’
‘Beauty is temporary, and then it becomes something else. Umberto Eco wrote two books: History of beauty and On ugliness. Well: I think that if I had to come up with a word that would define the opposite of beautiful, that word would definitely not be ugly. There are plenty of other possibilities.’
Which word would you suggest?
‘There’s not just one word. Beauty is very fragile and vulnerable. If it’s gone, it doesn’t mean that something becomes ugly, all of a sudden. It becomes hope, for instance, or vulnerability, or skin. Beauty is much more dearer to me than ugliness. There’s already enough ugliness in the world surrounding us. Maybe, as an artist, I try to do the opposite: I try to bend ugliness into beauty. So, in that way, yes, they could work as opposites.’
Could you give an example of a work of art that you consider to be really beautiful?
‘I could give you an example, but my answer would probably be completely different in a year or so. But that notion of the beauty of it won’t last forever is always present. When you experience beauty, you just know that feeling is going to be temporary. I’m very aware of the fact that beauty passes. And most of the time that other thing, the thing it becomes after that short moment of having been beautiful, stays with you much longer.’
‘But sometimes beauty does knock you off your feet. That’s true. I remember going to Naples, to the Capodimonte museum. I wanted to see a work by Luca Giordano. But instead I was awestruck by Caravaggio’ s Flagellation of Christ. I think I sat for at least a couple of hours in front of that painting. It was mesmerizing. It is about the flagellation of Christ, but when you’re really looking at it, you notice that there’s much more to it than that. The painting really forces you to look at it in a certain way. The sheer beauty of the way it is painted, the colours, the passion involved. It’s an entire universe of feelings and experiences.’
‘Experiencing beauty in such a way is very rare. It has only happened to me a few times. And most of the times it comes as a total surprise. It happens when you least expect it. You find yourself standing in front of a work of art and then it happens, all of a sudden.’
‘Of course that’s an effect I strive for. The thought that a work of mine can knock someone off his feet? That is a really motivating force for me, as an artist.’
‘And do I think that I’ve succeeded in accomplishing that? It would be a really vain thing to say. But I must confess that I have been baffled completely, once, by a work of mine. And yet again: it had to do with the temporary aspect of that particular work.’
‘It was a work I created in the Belgian town of Aarschot, in 1998, for the exhibition Speelhoven 98: a large flower carpet in different hues of red and pink, somewhere in the fields and the woods. It meant you had all these different shades of green next to these shades of red. Some 40 people were needed to create it. We did it in two days. And when it was finished it really blew me away.’
‘Looking at it and knowing that these flowers would start to wither the next day already? And so they did. For a month or so we let nature have its go, without interfering. The flowers started rotting, the grass started growing and started covering the flowers. It struck me as really beautiful: you create something out in the open, something wonderful and perfect, but nature is so powerful that a day later it is already wilting and after a month your work of art is completely destroyed.’
I once asked choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker if she ever experiences beauty while she’s dancing. To her that was a strange question. Do you ever experience anything like that, when you’re busy with the wax and the moulds in your atelier?
‘I keep on saying it when I’m working on a sculpture: this is beautiful. My atelier is almost filled to the half with just that word alone. That is also because beauty can be a gateway to a work, as some of my sculptures are referring to really heavy or deep stuff. Or because of the fact that they aren’t that accessible, right away. Sometimes it’s not that easy to grasp what they are about. You have to make an effort. They are never perfect.’
‘The material I work with, or the way in which I construct a sculpture, often makes a work more accessible or graspable. Take the skin of my horses, for instance. People can’t help it: they just have to touch that skin. They want to feel it. Caress it. Or the blankets in some of my sculptures: they evoke a feeling of warmth and comfort. The same applies for my wax sculptures. The surface of those sculptures is nice to watch, with all the details in it. People tend to discern something beautiful in that.’
‘There’s not one single Holy Grail. There are many Grails. Because if there’s one thing that I appreciate in the work of other artists, then it’s a kind of complexity. Maybe thát’s the word. The world around us is so complex. If there’s one thing that I’m always trying to do then it’s that: trying to translate that complexity and turn it into a sculpture.’
‘That’s why my sculptures always have different sides. You can always look at them from different angles. There’s always one good side, of course, but they always have a dark side too. The demon as opposed to the loved one. I often say it: you have to walk around a sculpture. A sculpture doesn’t have four sides. There are many ways to look at it. Which makes creating a sculpture very difficult. Very complex. It’s always a struggle. But at the same time that complexity and that struggle provide you with a driving force, to create a new one.’
Can you give an example of a work of art that has lost its beauty? A work of art that you fell for, at a certain point, but that has, since then, lost its magical power?
‘I once saw Bill Viola’s Small saints in a church. On big screens. It was a very powerful experience. Later on I saw the same work again: on six little screens. Reduced to postcard-size. All of a sudden it became a totally different work of art, just by the way it was presented. I experienced it in a completely different way.’
‘Context and the moment at which you see a work of art are very important. I once paid a visit to the Thoronet Abbey in France. It was a very physical experience. I went to see it again, later, and it had changed completely. The abbey was still the same, but the road towards it had changed. Too much traffic, too many tourists.’
‘These experiences have made me extremely conscious of the way my work is presented. You have to be really careful. If a work is presented in the wrong context, or next to works of art that don’t match, it ruins everything. I may have done everything that’s in my power to come up with a good work of art, but if it is shown in the wrong context, or if people experience it at the wrong moment, it will ruin everything.’
When did you experience the power of art for the first time? How did you end up being an artist?
‘My father was a butcher. There wasn’t room or time for art in my parents’ lifes. We didn’t have many books at home, or art related objects. The only thing I remember having was something rather silly: a book by Artis-Historia. That was the name of a Belgian editor that sold books without illustrations (1976-2004). You could get those illustrations by collecting points, by buying certain products. Mine was a book about the Prado, and when it was given to me I still had to glue all the images in it. But it had a huge impact on me.’
‘At school we went to museums once in a while. I still remember going to the Museum of Fine Arts in Ghent, seeing works by Gustave Van de Woestijne, and Christ carrying the cross by Hieronymus Bosch.’
‘Those experiences didn’t make me say: that’s what I want to do as well, but they did awaken a sense of wonder. It was a world I wasn’t familiar with, but it appealed to me. Because as a child I had been drawing a lot. It had always been my way of expressing myself. And people kept on telling me that I was rather good at it too. Seeing those works of art made me realize that one could do what I was doing on an entire different level too.’
‘Because of the fact that my parents were too busy, I was sent to boarding school at the age of 5. I left it when I was 14 years old and I went straight to an art academy. It was what I had been dreaming of for years.’
‘And now my parents are really proud of me. The funny thing? My father often accompanies me, when I go to the veterinary medicine school in Ghent, to help me with the horses I need for my works of art. He is a hunter too, so now that I’ve started working with deer as well, he helps me to get them.’
Have you ever been in doubt, since, about the path you have chosen?
‘No, because it was what I really wanted. I just went for it. Of course: I’ve had to fight for it, coming from the place where I grew up, but I have never doubted my choice. That’s also due to the fact that I’ve been very lucky. I’ve been able to maintain my independence as an artist, by teaching at art school, in the beginning of my career, for instance. I never had to go commercial.’
‘But let me correct that: of course there are moments of doubt, in my atelier. When I’m asking myself: What is it I want to transmit? How do I avoid repeating myself?‘
‘And now? There are plenty of works I want to work on. Plenty of ideas. Too many, really. I hope I get to live long enough, in order to finish them all.’
‘Kreupelhout/Cripplewood’, Belgian Pavilion, Venice Biennale, through November 24.
Works of Berlinde De Bruyckere are also included in ‘Les Papesses‘, Avignon (France), through November 11.
SMAK (Ghent) and Gemeentemuseum (Den Haag) will present a survey of De Bruyckere’s work in 2014.
(Interview by Hans-Maarten Post, for Utopia Parkway, 2013)