Berlinde De Bruyckere - Pick up the pieces

  • Berlinde De Bruyckere, Into One-Another II To P.P.P, 2010.
Laura Stamps

‘We do not stare when the soul leaves the body, but veil our eyes with tears or cover them with our hands. We do not stare at scars, which are places where the soul has struggled to leave and been forced back, closed up, sewn in (…).’

J.M. Coetzee in Age of Iron, 1990


Flemish artist Berlinde De Bruyckere (b. Ghent, 1964) chooses to look at precisely those things from which we prefer to avert our gaze. This makes her a kindred spirit of the author quoted above, South African novelist and recipient of the 2003 Nobel Prize for Literature J.M. Coetzee. The two have maintained an artistic friendship over many years. Chosen to represent Belgium at the 2013 Venice Biennale, De Bruyckere actually invited Coetzee to collaborate on the ‘Cripplewood’ installation she created for the Belgian Pavilion. His role was not to act as a curator, but to provide an inspirational text to accompany the installation. However, De Bruyckere says that his words are subtly present in all her works. Her whole oeuvre is about finding ways to make us look at things we would prefer to ignore, but cannot help seeing.

A saint in wood

‘Cripplewood’ is a spectacular installation based on casts of gnarled tree trunks. They resemble human body parts and that is no accident. The work is inspired by De Bruyckere’s exploration of Saint Sebastian, a Christian martyr who refused to deny his faith in a world fiercely opposed to it. No other saint is more deeply venerated and more often portrayed in Venice. Although tortured and shot with a multitude of arrows, he stood firm and clung stubbornly to his belief. De Bruyckere is particularly fascinated by the saint’s strength of mind. When she came across the tree on which ‘Cripplewood’ was eventually based, she immediately saw the tortured body of Saint Sebastian in its shape: injured yet still full of strength and vigour.

Into One-Another II To P.P.P.

De Bruyckere’s parents ran a busy butcher’s shop. At the age of five, she was sent to a boarding school run by nuns, where Catholic iconography became deeply ingrained in her. It is no accident that her sculpture Into One-Another II To P.P.P. (2010), now in the collection of the Gemeentemuseum, is dedicated to Italian film-maker Pier Paolo Pasolini (1922 – 1975). Like him, De Bruyckere is influenced by the rituals of the Catholic church, as well as by European literature, Renaissance painting and current political events. Her fascination is not literally with Catholicism, but with the symbols it provides to help the faithful live their lives. Into One-Another II To P.P.P. represents a greatly reduced human body inside a traditional glass display case. The body is supported on its knees and retains identifiable feet, thighs and shoulders, although the head and arms are missing. Or is it two different bodies welded together? Although De Bruyckere uses casts of real human bodies in her sculptures, she does so in a fragmentary fashion. Her models are often dancers. They leap, whirl and stretch in her studio until she sees a movement expressing what she is looking for; then she takes a plaster cast of parts of the body in that attitude. The fragments are ultimately recombined to form a wax sculpture.

Stitched together

The casts are stitched together, leaving the seams visible. The result is clearly not an intact body, but one that has been roughly reassembled following a stage of complete disintegration. De Bruyckere then uses a special painting technique to give the wax the appearance of pale human skin barely veiling the veins and flesh beneath. The flesh displays obvious red patches, creating the suggestion of a body that has been tortured. Using these techniques in Into One-Another II To P.P.P., De Bruyckere evokes the beaten and crucified body of Christ. Sacrificed for our sins and risen from the dead. The association is underlined by the dedication to Pier Paolo Pasolini, whose famous 1964 film Il Vangelo secondo Matteo (a.k.a. The Gospel According to StMatthew) retells the story of Christ’s life as narrated in the first book of the New Testament. As an atheist, Pasolini produces an account of Christ that is down to earth, rather than heroic. By emphasising its human aspects, he turns the gospel story into one of hope. Whatever happens, you can always start again. ‘Just pick up the pieces.’

This text is based on a passage in Laura Stamps’ essay ‘Wat bezielt ons’, in De anatomische les – van Rembrandt tot Damien Hirst (published by Thoth, softcover €19.95; hardcover € 24.95). The Dutch-language book accompanies the exhibition entitled The Anatomy lesson – From Rembrandt to Damien Hirst, on at the Gemeentemuseum Den Haag. It is for sale at the museum shop.

With thanks to Irene Brouwer