jan fabre's man who measures the clouds


(L'homme qui mesure les nuages)

Or: how art transforms the real world...

Already in three locations - the SMAK in Ghent (1998), the National Airport in Brussels (1998) and De Singel in Antwerp (2004) - he is doing it by now, Jan Fabre in person, on a ladder, four steps high: holding his measuring stick against the clouds .


Although you have to go to some lengths to discover the sculptures in question: they stand somewhat lost amid the antennae and the flagpoles on the roofs of those giant buildings. That they are cast life-size, in brilliant bronze at that, cannot remedy this.

It used to be otherwise: sculptures in a somewhat larger format constituted an integral part of the buildings which they helped to shape. It suffices the compare the facade of the SMAK with that of the old museum in front of it, to realise that some sensibilities seem to be irretrievably lost. Elsewhere on this site, we already criticised the disposition of Jan Fabre's Totem in Louvain and of 'Searching for Utopia' in Nieuwpoort. But like no other of his sculptures, 'The man who measures the clouds' makes it clear how little Jan Fabre understands his sculptures as a concrete presence that gives shape to the concrete space that surrounds it. They are nothing more than mere ideas concocted behind a desk - or, worse still: frozen performances. Their embodiment in bronze serves only the purpose of having the sculptures erected somewhere in view of the production of photos for the media. No doubt, a good photographer can make beautiful photos of the ensembles, especially in the beautiful surroundings of the Singel in Antwerp... But that is worlds apart from what there is to be seen in the real world...


Details are always vulgar
Oscar Wilde

It speaks volumes that, on the photos appearing in the media, Jan Fabre's sculptures are never shown in their true architectural context. In Louvain, the photographers had to be lifted up with a tower wagon to make photos of Jan Fabre's 'Totem', and in Antwerp they have to make a hazardous climb on the roof to makes pictures of 'The man who measures the clouds'. Apparently, Jan Fabre's creations ask to be seen from close up - and from a point of view that offers a better proportion between sculpture and architecture.

Why then not place it on the ground from the beginning? Not that sculpture should not be mounted on the top of builings, quite the contrary. Already the Egyptians and the Greeks did it. But the texture and the detail of the sculpture have to be adjusted accordingly. Nobody gets the idea of climbing the tower when seeing a weather cock. As is still apparent from the Statue of Liberty in New York, artists used to leave out the details and to simplify the contours so that they achieve the desired effect when viewed from the ground. Not that the sculpture would be better off on the ground - or rather: when viewed from the roof of the buildings in question. Viewed from close up, Jan Fabre's all too apparent failure to convincingly shape a human figure cannot but catch the eye...


Not only from the inappropriate detail is it apparent that 'The man who measures the clouds' is not meant to be mounted on the top of a building, but above all from the overall silhouette of the sculpture: Viewed from the ground, nor the legs of the ladder, nor the feet of the measurer can be seen:  the trousers disappear in the platform of the ladder, and the ladder in the roof. But it is foremost the proportions of the body that are disturbed: the trousers seem too broad, the shoulders too small, the waist too high and the chest too short. The effect is only enhanced through the spreading of the arms.


How little the sculpture was meant to be mounted in the height, is above all apparent from the fact that 'The man who measures the clouds' is standing on a ladder - as if one would mount the weathercock on the miniature tower of a miniature church before lifting it on top of the spire. A rather ridiculous ladder, besides: with its poor four steps - was Jan Fabre afraid that it would not hold? - it rather resembles the prudent ladder of the cleaning woman, than a height climbed to come nearer to the clouds. Precisely by having his 'Man who measures the clouds' stand on such a half-hearted ladder, Jan Fabre misses the effect he would have obtained by having his sculpture arise directly from the edge of the abyss of the facade. That would have rendered far more better the intended idea: as it is stated in an interview: 'The man is shown standing precariously on top of a library ladder placed at the edge of a crate, while holding up a school ruler. It’s dangerous to be an artist - both literally and figuratively speaking'.


This quotation brings us to our last point. Like all the sculptures of Jan Fabre, also this one cannot do without comment. We are told that the master identifies with the ornithologist Robert Stroud "The birdman of Alcatraz". Judging from the tagline to the film, we immediately understand why: 'Inside the rock called Alcatraz they tried to chain a volcano they called "The Bird Man". Can you picture it: jan Fabre, the volcano tamed by the institutions? Well, that volcano - in reality a psychopath murder - must have spoken the words “I am going to measure the clouds”. And, just like the other sculptures of Jan Fabre, also this one only negates the alleged interpretation. For what an ornithologist does is to classify, to fit the world into pigeon-holes - in the case of Robert Stroud also literally: keeping hundreds of canaries in cages. And that cannot fail to remind us of that other Jan Fabre - an entomologist this time - who must have pricked thousands of insects for the sake of science. Which makes the gesture with which Jan Fabre is measuring the clouds in Ghent, Brussels and Antwerp, resemble that other gesture with which he pricks a beetle against the sky in Louvain. Pricking beetles on needles and measuring clouds: these are not precisely the gestures of an artist, but rather of a rather murderous science.....

And that throws a new light on that other communication of Jan Fabre: that his sculpture would be an homage to his brother who died early, and of whom a photo is still hanging in the parental house, in the living room. On the facade of that same parental house, Jan Fabre himself had fixed a memorial plate for himself. In another house, further in the street, hangs another memorial plate, on the house where Vincent van Gogh stayed. That painter equally had a brother who died early. Jan Fabres brother must have been a 'real dreamer'. Of real dreamers, it is said that they have their heads in the clouds, not that they tackle them with measuring sticks. No dreamer, hence, but the very opposite: a measurer. The reversal proceeds still further. For, on closer view, it is not his brother that is immortalised here in bronze: this time, Jan Fabre has pushed him off the ladder to mount the steps himself. So, with that measuring stick between him and the clouds, he poses as Robert Stroud: a pimp jailed for having stabbed a client who could not pay. Also in jail he could not hold his murderous impulses in check. Which did not prevent our 'volcano' from being 'deadly' struck by the sight of a wounded bird, which would have inspired him tot tend canaries and to cure and study them. But a furtive glance on the photo of the actor who plays the role of Robert Stroud, Burt Lancaster, suffices to convince oneself of the fact that Jan Fabre not only identified himself with Robert Stroud, but with Burt Lancaster in the first place. And there is, finally, also that other Jan Fabre, the entomologist, on whom the measuring of clouds and pricking of beetles applies par excellence. Jan Fabres big brother, the great Burt Lancaster and the great Jan Fabre - the entomologist: what do they have in common? Precisely that what little Jan is lacking: that they are 'big', respectively in age, in shape and in quality.

Thus, that little ladder on which Jan Fabre tries to make himself look bigger acquires an - albeit not artistic, but rather autobiographic - meaning: art as 'private mythology' staged before the eyes of the entire world.

Extremely interesting....

Stefan Beyst, June 2005.

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