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 Jan Fabre's newestcreation: 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 organise itself. 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 brains...
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 gleaming colours? 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 rather of 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 Fabre 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 with 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' getsa rather sinister 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 - remember:
'Furore 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.
And we 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 it not 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.
When will they turn the other cheek to the master?
Stefan Beyst, October 2004.
museum of dust