Berlinde De Bruyckere

Gent Belgium 1964, lives and works in Gent

In first instance, Berlinde De Bruyckere is a sculptor, obsessed with the physical world. The way she models her bodies is anchored in a different view on what constitutes the taboo. Onschuld kan een hel zijn (Innocence Can Be Hell) is the motto that frames one of her works. Anger resulting from involvement mixed with shame seems still possible. (...)

For Berlinde De Bruyckere it is all about the body, not about physiognomy or the psychology of behaviour. She therefore hides the face of her sculptures with colourful blankets or under a thick mop of hair and all energy is needed for the stance of the standing or crouching body. What we are confronted with are the basic positions and states of the body (waking, sitting, sleeping), contact with others (speaking), the pose of the body in water (a fresh perspective on the Ophelia theme; a line-up of washtubs that reminds of women’s labour). But trees, too, the artist transforms into a body. She covers them, wraps them with ribbons, envelops them with organic matter, nestles herself at their feet.

De Bruyckere covers haystacks and vehicles. Bags, crates, faggots tell us about migration, escaping, trek. The history of our times becomes extraordinary lively. The recent history of art, too, surfaces in this work. In the prosaic confrontation with a sculptural obsession we discover references to Joseph Beuys and Mario Merz or Louise Bourgeois, to Paul McCarthy, Mike Kelley, Pavel Althamer, Miroslav Balka,... But De Bruyckere is definitely not related to artists such as Sooja Kim who works with fine textiles. Berlinde De Bruyckere is a Flemish artist. In In Flanders Fields she calls the particularly tragic bodies of horses that shout her love of the horse and her anger at what people do to it: anaesthetized horses in the animal clinic, bodies of horses in blank museum spaces resembling a slaughterhouse, horses hurled between groups of trees (photographs taken during the First World War), slaughtered horses hanging from branches, waiting to be gutted. These are images that cannot fail to move us. They make us understand the shame the female figures feel as they hide their faces behind a wall of hair.

The more recent sculptures are inspired by scenes of the Crucifixion. These wax figures are headless – but the contorted body is extremely expressive. How the consciousness of the body evolves can be inferred from the way Christ’s feet are fastened to the cross in of the Crucifixion. In Gothic art each foot is nailed separately to the cross. From the Renaissance onwards, however, one nail is sufficient to nail both feet to the cross – from addition to plastic amplification. De Bruyckere presents her bodies as the contorted body of Christ crucified, with elongated, emaciated limbs, headless, but with particular attention to the feet and toes.

In the twentieth century figurative sculpture aimed at eradicating the pictorial features of the body – hands, fingers, feet, toes, the male genitals – or, alternatively, simplifying them or hiding them by turning the body towards the floor (cf. Constant Permeke’s Liggend naakt [Reclining Nude]). It therefore comes as a surprise that De Bruyckere dares to reverse this development, blowing-up malformation to sculptural proportions.

Being acephalous guarantees that the sculptures will last forever, the wax lets them briefly become one. The act of love as an act of redemption and the fulfilment of the lonely figure on the cross. Who can think of a more intense and beautiful representation of redemption through suffering?

text: Harald Szeeman