jan fabre's heaven of delight:

sistine chapel or alhambra?

After the ball-pointed Tivoli and the hammed pillars of the ‘Aula’ of the University in Ghent, Jan Fabre comes to surprise us with a veritable master-piece: the beetled ceiling of the Royal Palace in Brussels. Splendid integration in the architecture, which is at once elevated to a higher level. An extraordinary rich palette of colours, marvellous decorative motives derived from the material itself. And on top of that even some symbolic freight: the grass from Bosch’s ‘Garden of Earthly Delights’ projected into the skies from where a spider descends on a thread. A feather on our Jan’s cap!

It is only too bad that our master-decorator, eagerly assisted by a chorus of intellectual acolytes, poses as the successor of Michelangelo and his Sistine Chapel. Apart from the fact that both had to resort to scaffolding to do something on a ceiling, Michelangelo and Fabre have nothing in common. Fabre has rather something to do with the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel as it looked before Michelangelo’s divine hands touched it: a beautiful heaven studded with silver stars – which by the way was far more becoming to the architecture than Michelangelo’s volcanic eruption. Were it not for the fact that Fabre’s scarabs cannot fail to remind of the mosaics in the Hagia Sofia. But even with those Fabre has only the shimmering of the stones in common: no trace of the wondrous epiphany of what used to appear through it. Fabre rather belongs in the tradition of those other master-decorators: the Islamic masters of stucco and mosaic, as we know them from the Alhambra – even when with Fabre their refined geometry is replaced with a swarming far more appropriate to our times.

Commentators and critics variously said it was grandiose enough to be compared with the Sistine Chapel or to a classical Byzantine Mosaic'
(Marlise Simmons, International Herald Tribune, February 8, 2003').
This comparison has a rather sinister overtone: the Islamic conquerors did not recoil from covering the magnificent figures of the Hagia Sofia with geometric patterns like those of the Blue Mosque. And the same goes for our modern iconoclasts. Whoever pretends to discern an afterglow of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel in Fabre’s beetled ceiling, is no less a victim, if not an executor, of the mimetic taboo, that other insect that by now for more than a century is eating away the plastic arts from within. With the sole difference that his secret admiration for the forbidden fruit is betrayed in the fact that he lets the impotent negation pass for the ultimate fulfilment. As if one would sell us the Blue Mosque as the quintessence of the Hagia Sofia!

Jan Fabre: the decorator who poses as an artist. And is granted the privilege of appearing on the photograph rubbing shoulders with The Queen herself! Were it not for the fact that it would be a real blasphemy to even confront one of Fabre’s ‘sculptures’ with even the least of Michelangelo’s creations, should we not for the occasion rename our text 'Are da Vinci and Panamarenko colleagues?'’ in ‘Are Michelangelo and Fabre colleagues?’…

© Stefan Beyst, October 2001.

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