jan fabre: the new prometheus.

cmments on 'the man who gives fire'

More are forthcoming, but meanwhile already four have been erected: one in the Gezelle Museum in Bruges, one in the Kunsthalle Wurth in Schwäbisch-Hall, one in the Collection Claudine et Jean-Marc Solomon, and one in Zoetermeer: sculptures of Jan Fabre in full size (65 inch) and with full weight (300 kilo). Moulded in a trendy outfit, he has his raincoat pulled over his head and holds in the thus formed cavity a fire in his hand: whence the title 'The man who gives fire'.

On the pedestal in Zoetermeer, a poem is carved, signed by 'The Emperor of Loss'  (Jan Fabre):

Ik brand heviger dan mag en voorzien
Ik brand en niet alleen voor mezelf
Maar ook om anderen vuur en licht te geven
Op diezelfde manier
Heb ik vuur en licht van anderen gekregen

I burn heavier than allowed and foreseen.
I burn and not only for myself
but also to bring fire and light to others
In the same way
have I received fire and light from others.

Praise Jan Fabre that he has had this poem - not more than a badly written statement - carved on the pedestal of his sculpture as a kind of manual. Otherwise, it would forever have remained a riddle how to solve this rebus. A rebus is an image that has to be converted in words: possibly the worst thing you can say about a work of art. The only problem with Jan Fabres rebus is that it is not compelling: all options are left open. When the original sculpture was inaugurated in the Gezelle Museum in Bruges on occasion of the Gezelle year in1009, Fabre told us : "Just like I have received the fire form Gezelle through images in his poems, just so do I hope to hand over the torch to other people'. (Jan Fabre who hands over the torch of Gezelle: ever compared a verse of the great Flemish poet with one of Jan Fabre?) And, judging from the comments on the webpage of Zoetermeer, another interpretation is possible: Jan Fabre inserted his sculpture in the concept of 'the four elements earth, fire, water and air, the basic idea behind the concept of the Hoekstra park'. No longer the fire of art here, but fire as an element. Talking of polysemy! Jan Fabre has always been a many-sided man, and that is also the least you can say of his rebuses. That is why he manages to introduce them so easily in the most different contexts. Totem - the beetle on the Ladeuze Square in Louvain - is another example of Jan Fabre's opportunistic 'polysemy'.

No shortage of interpretations with Jan Fabre anyway. The inhabitants of Bruges had created their own interpretation when the sculpture was inaugurated in their museum. According to them, Jan Fabre's 'Man who gives fire' would be the representation of the saying 'holding a fire burning under one's coat', a sign with which homosexuals used to make their intentions known to kindred spirits, on a parking for example in the drizzly rain. And, in view of the inclinations of Guido Gezelle, the celebrated priest-poet, that interpretation testifies of a cleverness that surpasses the ingeniosity of many an art critic. Although the question remains why Jan Fabre would have applied the saying to his own self-representation. But that highlights all the more the rebus-character of the work in question: polysemy is here a painful testimony to the utter failure of the image.

Let us leave the approach of 'The man that gives fire' as a combination of text and image for what it is, and focus on the image itself. Then, we have finished with it even faster than with his equally masterly tortoise with the pretentious title 'Searching for Utopia'. 'The man who gives fire' is not more than a glittering cast of the grandiloquent master. And, as happens to be the case with casts, it is not only gleamy, but also empty. Whereas artists like Segal and Anthony Gormley know to coax some eloquence precisely from such emptiness, 'the man who gives fire' cannot but remind us of the awkward gestures and unnatural attitudes of a - for the occasion gilded - mannequin.

That makes us only ask the question why Jan Fabre absolutely wants to venture himself in such a precarious undertaking as making a convincing sculpture in our times. Why did he not just restrict himself to the verbal statement from 'the Emperor of Loss'? Why enforce such masterly verses by transforming them into a life-size bronze sculpture? To lend them more 'weight? In the wake ofLawrence Weiner, who had his statements cast in tons of steel?

All the more since an image is not added to the word unpunished. Jan Fabre's sculpture contradicts not only his 'poem', but its title in the first place. The last thing one would think of when confronted with the sculpture unprepared, is of someone offering a fire to a smoker when it is windy. If 'The man who gives fire' has something to do with smoking at all, then rather with someone who just tries to light his own cigarette against the wind. But there is no trace whatsoever of a cigarette in the mouth of the sculpture. Neither does the sculpture suggest that the master would be offering a fire from under his cap to some smoker who cannot give up smoking. And when you were to give that unclear - and hence failed - gesture a meaning nevertheless, the only possibility would be to suppose that Jan Fabre has removed his cigarette form his mouth - and for precisely the same reason as why he has himself descend from his pedestal and take place among the ordinary mortals on the earth's surface. Granted: to light oneself in shameless self-gratification standing on a pedestal and moulded in bronze that gleams like gold at that - that is not done! And if it is indeed allowed to resort to a text when interpreting a sculpture, then it cannot escape our attention that the second verse of the text on the pedestal asserts and denies the self-gratification in one and the same sentence: 'I burn and not only for myself'. Speaking of 'concept art' - say: contempt of the image! And, again in the wake of Weiner, concept and the crudest photorealism coincide also here. Although the contradiction between image and text is here a revealing lapsus at that. The rebus too polyinterpretable, hence, and the image not precisely interesting. Perhaps the message might be revelatory? Take that 'fire' that consumes Jan Fabre. What fire might that well be? No doubt the man is consumed by a burning desire: as from the commemorative plaque that he personally placed on his birth house, he cannot stop from immortalising himself in bronze statues shimmering like gold. And thàt fire he no doubt stole from gods like Duchamp, Warhol & Co, who were no less greedy of immortality - say: of becoming famous at any price. And no doubt, Jan Fabre knew to hand over that fire to others, with whom he will have to share the fate of immortality. There are meanwhile innumerable Fabres in spe. In that sense Jan Fabre's ship is sailing under true colours.

But that is reckoned without the commentators whom Fabre has whispered his message in the ears: according to them, we are dealing her with the fire that Prometheus stole from the Gods and brought to men. (You read it well: Jan Fabre as the new Prometheus!) Jan Fabre's sculpture tells a totally different story than his words. In the sculpture, the Olympic fire is reduced to the meagre flame of a lighter - a 'Bic' like his meanwhile famous blue ballpoints? Nothing in common, hence, with the fire of which Nietzsche asserted with a somewhat more founded self-conceit that he drunk its flames back into himself.

Even less than a lighter with Olympic fire has Jan Fabre to do with Prometheus. Again, it is his statue that speaks volumes here: what should have been a promethean hero, has more of a sneaky drugs-dealer in a musty alley - not to mention more obvious but more obscene associations. Unwillingly, the image tells the truth about its maker: for there is no trace whatsoever of a promethean revolt against the Gods in Fabre's work. Rather has it something of the obstinate 'fuck you!' that the puber utters whenever something is put in his way. And just like many a puber, Fabre is thereby immensely admired by the countless impotents, who dare not bring themselves to even mouth such a word. I prefer Luigi Nono's Prometeo - although it sounds like a blasphemy in my ears to even mention these names in Jan Fabre's context.

Even further removed than a lighter from an Olympic fire and than Fabre from Prometheus, is the wind against which Jan Fabre tries to protect his flame behind his pulled up raincoat from the divine might against which Prometheus had to stand up. Call a breeze, that does not even blow Jan Fabre in his trendy outfit and dito shoes aside, storm, or even head wind, wouldbe no more than a ridiculous overstatement. Anyway, what does Jan Fabre know of head wind? His presumed protest against the 'establishment' is merely a sales stunt that has meanwhile proved very successful: the delusion that art would be synonymous with 'undermining well-established values' - stealing the fire from the Gods is quite another matter - is still all too common among the members of the art community. Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres, the French minister of culture in person, did not refrain from showing with his loud applause to an audience of well cultivated 'Parisiens' not so much what is 'bon ton', but foremost a 'compelling must', when a genius like Jan Fabre deals, by means of naked women pissing on the scene, a 'fatal blow' to 'the establishment'...

Meet again on occasion of the next inauguration of the newest copy of 'The man that gives fire'?

Or of the inauguration of next multiple of this master who stole the fire from Michelangelo?

© Stefan Beyst, June 2005.