Engelenkeel is the first solo exhibition of Berlinde De Bruyckere in the Netherlands since 2015. It includes a selection of sculptures, drawings and installations made from 2014 to the present, and new works created during the corona crisis. The exhibition is a rare opportunity to get acquainted with key lines in the work of this distinct voice in contemporary sculpture.
Berlinde De Bruyckere’s work explores, or perhaps bears witness, to the ways bodies situate themselves in an image space composed of inner, psychological experience and the articulations of materials as animal skin, wood, wax, textile, blankets, pedestals and cabinets. Normally we speak of emotions as fluid, moving, or resonant. They are in a sense, shapeless, when they are inner. But the flows of emotions as pain, joy, fear, love, despair, attraction, desire or feeling vulnerable, and the gestures and states of sheltering, holding, sleeping, caressing, opening, too have a weight. They envelop us from within and have the power to shape postures, gestures and expressions. De Bruyckere articulates the invisible weight of this inner space into materials that fold, hold, open, layer, envelop, drape over and oscillate between different kinds of bodies - human, horses, or trees - without drawing rigid distinctions between them. She allows these to become each other and to speak for each other.
De Bruyckere has a way to observe surfaces. In a group of works included in the exhibition she explores, and often blurs the distinction between human and animal skins and hides with their texture and colour. The first group of sculptures in the exhibition titled Penthesilea (2014-2015) was created as a part of the scenography for the opera by Heinrich von Kleist (1777-1811) with the same title. In Kleist’s interpretation, contrary to the myth, the Amazon warrior Penthesilea kills Achiles who she is in love with. Typical for De Bruyckere is to use large supporting structures, which are partly found – cabinets, pedestals, wooden bars. In Penthesilea she used large basin-like metal structures supported by vertical rods, onto which she draped over and suspended on a simple hook, large sheets, which look like flayed skin. Love and death, murderous rage and sensuality are translated into an encounter between the hard surface of the metal and the softness of folds draping over, and forming a vulva-like structures. The surfaces oscillate between fur and skin and are somehow both, formless and strongly present. Such surface articulations are precisely not abstract, they are visceral.
De Bruyckere’s sculptures are often inspired by religious iconography. Familiar figures as San Sebastian or Mary Magdalene are taken as departure points and recast to give way to new images, which situate themselves in a dialogue with the cultural continuum of the tradition of religious paining. One could say, such motifs are folded, or carefully broken, and reassembled just as she does it when she works with materials. Sjemkel I (2020), the second group of works is inspired by Giorgione’s painting Dead Christ Supported by an Angel (1502-1510). In the group of five works composed of animal hides and old blankets sewn around them, holding is rendered as the gentle gesture of enveloping. Still, the way the soft sculptures hang on the wall, suspended from a single point, suggest violence, and the partly red, partly greyish surfaces of the hides with tufts of short fur, imply death. The five pieces articulate a rhythm that belongs to inner, psychic spaces, a rhythm of death and mourning, holding and folding.
Tree trunks are the central protagonists in several works situated in the following rooms. Bodies, their anatomy, trees and flowers are transposed and displayed in ways suggesting medical science. Infinitum (2017-2019) is a constellation of small three trunks cast in wax with their top ends sawn in textile that resembles bandages. They are covered with glass jars as if they need to be preserved, or displayed as anatomical specimens. Poire d’amour (2017), displayed in the same room, is a series of drawings of genitalia made in a dialogue with a medical researcher. Their anatomical correctness spills over into flower forms, which are delicate, strong and vulnerable.
De Bruyckere articulates corporeality in such a way that it invites recognition and empathy, which extend to equally human and animal bodies, and trees. In San S II (2017-2019), the bark of a tree trunk with the approximate size of a human torso is pierced by two metal rods forming a cross-like structure. The title is a direct reference to the figure of San Sebastian whose endurance of his torture with dignity is transposed onto the silent presence of the tree bark. Embalmed-Twins II (2017) is a large three trunk covered with wax suggesting the colour of flesh, its branches are sawn off and bandaged with old blankets. The complex surface texture of the old tree with its protrusions, traces of worms, wound-like openings, and gentle folds speaks of time, and the life of this giant. No Life Lost II (2015) is a sculpture made of the entangled bodies of two horses blindfolded with bandages and shown in a glass cabinet that cannot contain them. The sculpture articulates what I can call emotional architectonics, a composition involving a desire to repair and heal, but that also from a certain perspective, of sensuality.
Covering over the face, or removing the head, is present in most of De Bruyckere’s sculptures. It is a motif that suggests anonymity, the anonymity of victims, but it also vulnerability, pain, holding and consoling oneself. Per Benedetto (2009), an homage to the Italian Renaissance sculptor Benedetto da Maiano (1442-1497), shows a human figure without a head that folds towards its interiority as if it wants to protect itself from the violence of display, of being looked at. There is always a minimal dose of violence in looking, in which we are all complicit as viewers. Perhaps De Bruyckere asks us to contemplate this, and possibly shift from the micro-violence of looking to empathy as co-presence. Arcangelo I and II (2020) are two human figures covered with an animal hides cast in wax, with fleshy colour and patchy tufts of fur. The two figures are leaning on their toes as it they were to jump or ascend. The suggestion of levitation and lightness stands in contrast with the heaviness of the surface, which covers their head and body draping, folding and flowing with gravity. A similar formal articulation is present in Met Tere Huid (2015-2016), a series of drawings that remind of vulvas or flowers.
Blankets are intimate surfaces, which envelop, protect and warm bodies and a key protagonist in many of De Bruyckere’s works. Courtyard of Tales (2017-2018) is a large sculpture made of second-hand blankets, which she had left for months outside exposed to the elements. The layering of old and torn blankets suggests covering over of old wounds, but also growth and expansion. Aletheia on-vergeten (2019) is a large installation consisting of a constellation of wooden pallets with layered stacks of animal skins. The iconographic resonances present in many of her other works are replaced with an almost literal reconstruction of the ways skins are stored in industrial tannery. Everything in the room is covered with salt. Its grainy whiteness resembles snow or ice and speaks of freezing, or perhaps the coldness and cruelty of industries harvesting the surfaces of countless animal bodies to transform them into material.
Bodies melt into each other, forms are spliced, limbs become branches, trunks become torsos, skin becomes fur, genitalia become flowers. Perhaps all this also speaks of the mixing of all flesh in its rotting after death, a transformation, that no one is exempt of. De Bruyckere’s sculptures present a Vanitas motif of sorts, but not quite. They also speak of the lived life of matter with the visceral memory of its emotions, of its life, and of its pain. Bodies rise again as art and their sculptural modulation make us feel it in our bones, that we are all connected, as layers, as branches, as skins. Bodies always know, it made me think, bodies always know of pain, of the weight of their emotion and the weight of their skin. And the title of the exhibition announces of the lightness of an Angel. Amsterdam June, 2021
For the Dutch translation by Noortje de Leij, De Witte Raaf: https://www.dewitteraaf.be/artikel/berlinde-de-bruyckere-engelenkeel/