After my experience with ‘Searching for Utopia', the heavy tortoise dropped on the Belgian coast without
any consideration for a harmonious relation with the environment - and after my problems with the ludicrous positioning of
'Man measuring the clouds', first on the roof of the SMAK in Ghent, then
on the 'Singel' in
Antwerp - soon on the dome of the Royal
Palace in Brussels? - I could not but expect the worst when going to look at
newest creation: Totem - a beetle that, on occasion
of the 575th anniversary of the university at Louvain, has been pinned on a 23 meter high needle erected on the Ladeuze square
in Louvain, with the Universitary Library as a background.
But my expectations were immediately belied: Jan Fabre's
needle is perfectly sited on the square, on the proper place and with not all too bad proportions. And that is an
important plus! For, before being a sculpture, a statue in a public
space is in the first place a beacon that is supposed to structure the space
wherein it is erected – not sculpture, but architecture. Think of the
obelisk on the Champs Elysées
in Paris or on Saint Peter's square in Rome.
In that respect, Jan Fabre has done a good job. His needle,
magnified into macroscopic dimensions is far more better than Claes
Oldenburg's needle, equally magnified into macroscopic dimensions, and erected already in 1995 in New York: that does
not fit into its environment at all.
THE BEETLE ON THE NEEDLE
But the fact that Jan Fabre could not refrain from spearing
a beetle on his
needle, definitely spoils the fun.
For, to begin with, that beetle comes to
articulate the needle and to break its élan. That, Jan Fabre's needle has in
common with Claes Oldenburg's needle, the élan of which is equally
broken, this time through a button. Therein, Jan Fabre as well as Oldenburg
are far surpassed by a
real master, Brancusi, whose 'endless columns' rise
to heaven totally undisturbed. The force with
which they do so is not at all hindered by the
fact that they do not gently decrease, quite the contrary.
Second, the beetle on the needle is a point of reference that the eye
cannot but relate to other points of reference on the square, such as
the surrounding facades. But, from
wherever you look look at the totem, it never
harmonises with the surrounding décor of
facades and library. Only
on the exit of the parking on the right of the square can a nice
picture be made of the beetle in a good proportion to the tower - on condition that you frame the building
itself out of the image.
On a hill-top in the open nature - far from
that damned square that dictates the proportions and the position of
your sculpture -
Jan Fabre's beetle
needle would have looked far better. It suffices to
remind of the statue of Rubens on the Groenplaats in Antwerp, to realise
how grave an error has been committed here
against the principles of the architecture of space. Wherever you go on
the Groenplaats, the statue of Rubens relates harmoniously with the
surrounding trees and with what shimmers through of the facades behind
them, and it elegantly courts the silhouette
of the beautiful tower of the cathedral on the background. The
architects of former times - and Bob van Reeth who knew to redesign
the square in an intelligent way - knew far better how to handle space
than our many-sided huomo universale.
And, last but no least, that volume there in the skies utterly destroys
the effect of the gradual diminishing in width of the needle.
Also the gradual diminishing in width of a
tower ensures that the movement towards the sky is balanced by the
volume that is left on earth. And also a good statue has
the same effect in that it is posted on a pedestal, around which the square can easily
In that Jan Fabre's beetle is pinned high above the square, he inevitably
creates a vacuum, a real void there beneath: the needle without
beetle would certainly have had a totally different effect. The
concentric circles around the needle on the floor of the square, can
only be seen on the plans of the architects or from a helicopter, and cannot remedy this shortcoming.
Before that beetle was pinned on its needle above the square, the Ladeuze square looked not so empty. And this
is in important shortcoming.
Talking about helicopters: Jan Fabre's poor understanding of the spatial
context of a sculpture is more than apparent from the fact that, when
the sculpture was inaugurated, a tower wagon was
summoned up to let the photographers make
photographs from above. Imagine
Rodin having his public hovering above his Balzac or his Burgers of
Calais! These masterpieces are not made to be seen from above, but from
the ground. Could there be a more telling testimony to the fact that Jan
Fabre has conceived his Totem in a purely abstract space, without
realising that it would be looked at from the ground? Despite
Marcel Duchamp, a sculpture remains a question of the retina, not of the
Above all by night, no one will remain indifferent to the magic charm
of the green shield, lighted against the dark of the sky. But it is a
cheap charm: any undulating green surface would have a similar
effect. Especially since, on a closer view, the
effect of the shield is made undone by the
dark legs of the beetle with those ridiculous lighted
points at their ends.
And so we arrive, after the glitter of the colours,
at the form on which they are applied. Any modal sculptor
- which is still another thing than someone who
bluntly repeats the magnifying trick of Claes Oldenburg - would have made a more convincing
representation of a beetle... pinned on a needle! Although 'needle' is
not longer the proper word. For, what in relation to the square
can be considered to be a fine needle, is, in
relation to the body of the beetle, rather something like a thick pointed trunk. And
that makes the serene symmetry of those wings all the more implausible:
when such a pointed battering-ram is driven through the poor body of a
beetle, would that not yield a totally different
- rather chaotic and slimy - spectacle than Jan Fabre's
neatly orchestrated symmetry and those
What should have been a tortured beetle, has
rather something of a groggy tortoise turned on its back!
All at once it becomes clear what the function of those gloomy colours
and that symmetry is: it does not serve beauty, rather has it to
negate, if not to conceal
horror. Not only glitter, hence, but also disguising appearance: glitter, in the full meaning
of the word! That will not prevent that the aesthetically uncensored -
sadistic - version of the sculpture - will certainly begin to haunt the
mind of many an inhabitant of Leuven - not to
mention the children. Not otherwise than, in former times, the
nails driven through the hands and the feet of
Jesus on his cross...
Time now to concentrate on the content: for the siting of a sculpture in
an environment is not only a question of forms and proportions, but
content in the first place.
On first sight, it seems that Jan Fabre's Totem is not devoid of any
contentual relation with its environment either. On the contrary, Jan
is suspiciously lavish with spawning comments that are supposed to clarify
the relations. According to Jan Fabre, the beetle knew to survive for million
years thanks to its armour, and is the oldest computer in the world
possessing a huge quantity of knowledge and memory, like a library.
Therefore, his pinned beetle would be an 'ode to the science' gathered in
the library on the background...
But, also with regard to content, the first glance is merely
a deceiving appearance. For, such an ode does not sound very convincing when a dusty
library is opposed to those gleaming shield of a beetle that is supposed
to be the oldest computer in the world, that will probably survive man.
Let us therefore leave the intelligent remarks of the master for
what they are, and concentrate on what the sculpture says.
For, however much Jan Fabre might stress that he has made an ode to science,
the very image of a beetle, pinned on such a murderous pin, tells a
totally different story: that of sheer sadistic delight in the destruction of
a defenceless creature awaiting its death with floundering legs - the
layer of aesthetic glitter over this violence cannot remedy this, even
less Jan Fabre's unctuous words.
And such sadistic delight is in its turn only the surface above an even
deeper, and, if possible, more lugubrious layer. In every modal mind,
the idea of pinning beetles and butterflies conjures up the idea
of the murderous urge to 'determine and inventorise' of 'sterile science'
to which many a beetle has been sacrificed... Against such science, Jan Fabre plays
off the élan of art that, in a reversal of the gesture with which the
beetle is pinned on the ground, is pointing to heaven - say 'in the
blue'. As opposed to the poor termites that have to patiently build the
termite hill of science: the self-satisfied universal genius of the
artist, who harbours the sources of science within himself and draws
from them his own 'private mythology', not otherwise than the scarab
that, according to the Egyptians, begets itself. In
short: the immensely arrogant gesture of the omniscient artist.
What Jan Fabre presents as an ode, then, is in fact a nearly disguised
attack on science that kills every creativity. And this is not Jan Fabre's first attack. Only
remind the precedent in that other universitary city in Flanders, Ghent, where
Jan Fabre wrapped the respectable columns of the Aula in layers
of ham, delighting in the idea that they would soon be covered
flies and mould ('The Legs of Reason Skinned',
2000). Despite Jan Fabre hollow
phrases, also that gesture speaks volumes.
Apparently, Jan Fabre, a graduate of the Antwerp Academy - not precisely
the pinnacle of intellectual life - has a more than
ambivalent attitude towards science and Universities. On the one hand,
he cannot refrain from posing as the huomo universale
that not only practices all the arts, but, not otherwise
than da Vinci, even science; and, in his private mythology, he
pretends to descend from the entomologist Jan Fabre, who
certainly knew about
determination and cataloguing. But, far more stronger than his obsession
to be a huomo universale is Jan Fabre's 'Unbehagen in dem Geist' (discontent in
the Spirit). For Jan is obviously more at ease
in the fluids of the body
- je suis sang/ I am blood – than in the house of the Spirit, that
he therefore so willingly debases to a dusty library...
The reduction of the whole environment of the Ladeuze square in the
historic universitary city of Leuven to a mere décor for the staging of
such 'Unbehagen in dem Geist' gets a rather
overtone when we realise at what place and on what occasion this
sculpture is erected. Only about Monseigneur Ladeuze a good deal could
be said. But it is above all the library on the background of the
square that catches the eye:
after the books in the Universitary Hall had been been burnt during the Great War a
new library was built after the war with gifts of American Universities -
teutonico diruta, dono americano restituta' (Destroyed by the German
Fury, rebuilt with America help). During the Second World War, the
library has been destroyed by the flames a second time, this time
through the doing of fascist violence. Today, through that
obscene gesture of Jan Fabre, these books are burnt for
a third time, albeit merely virtually.
could regress even further in time - after all, Leuven is a historic
city that harbours a university for already 575 years. Even when one certainly can have some afterthoughts on the history of the university, somebody
should remind Jan Fabre of the fact that Erasmus used to dwell on the
very place where science is now accused of scarabicide. Jan Fabre's totem is
not only merely an appearance of glitter and symmetry that has to hide
brutal sadism, hence, but also a well-wrapped Judas
kiss on the cheek of well-paying patrons....
Let us not be mistaken: Jan Fabre is not alone with his 'discontent in the
Spirit'. Just like the sadistic games with beetles, also Jan Fabre's
'private mythology' is not so private as might seem on first glance:
rather is it part of an undercurrent that only threatens to grow. A
'Totem' in front of the library of the 'Alma Mater'
(not otherwise than Delvoye's 'cloaca' in what
used to be called a Museum of Fine Art): such 'discontent in culture' is
the counterpart of the widespread 'discontent in politics', even when
those who no longer feel at home in the democratic context at least
still have the decency to give priority to 'the own people', while figures
like Jan Fabre, Delvoye and the like
give priority to 'the own genius' in the first place. Does
testify to some overestimation of oneself when
the sacrifice of the creative artist through
science is staged as a gift to the 575
years old temple of the spirit...?
Although we should question even more the measureless masochism with
which the universitary authorities put up with such a Judas Kiss.
will they turn the other cheek to the master?
* The magnificent - but rather critical - photos of 'Totem' have
been removed because Jan Fabre found no better solution than insisting
on having us pay ...copyright fee for photos of his masterpiece!!!
More on Jan Jan Fabre: see 'The
Background to this article:
stefan beyst: theory on art and music
An example of better sculpture and perfect integration in the
environment: Antony Gormley