jan fabre in disneyland

searching for utopia': beacon on beaufort 2003?

Jan Fabre not only knocked together some handicrafts with beetles, he meanwhile also had some statues cast in bronze: after his ‘Man measuring the clouds’ and his ‘Man giving a light’, he now arrives at Flanders Nieuwpoort beach sitting on a heavy sculpture: the master himself, cast in bronze, riding on a tortoise, with a warrior’s soul’s glance scanning the broad horizon of the North Sea: ’Searching for Utopia’, as the thing is christened.

You cannot miss it: it is seven by five meter and three meter high. What prompted an unsuspecting art acolyte – the name art critic no longer applies to such copywriters – to use the epithet ‘monumental’. Which reveals that not only the difference between criticism and advertising has entirely evaporated, but also every awareness of the difference between ‘big’ and ‘monumental’. It is not through magnifying a Dinky Toys to the proportions of Fabre’s tortoise that it would suddenly have become monumental. Fabre’s tortoise has never been monumental, and will never become so, even when further magnified to whatever scale. Through magnifying trifles, you at best walk in the footsteps of a Claes Oldenburg. And that pays, as the New Yorker Action painters already understood some decades ago: were Fabre’s tortoise reduced to a becoming scale, nobody would be interested anymore. Whereas whatever object of that size, plumped down amidst the seaside visitors, cannot fail to be mentioned in the media. Apart from the fact that it commands a better price. Wherefore size and weight no longer can be thought away from contemporary art.

About the content, then. The sight of Fabre on his tortoise wriggling with its forepaws in the sand: it immediately reminded me of Peter Pan staying before the window, about to take off in the air. Or of Nils Holgerson on the neck of his goose. Or also: of the boy in E.T. that takes off on his bicycle – though that would not be a sinecure with Fabre’s heavy monster. Fabre likes to pose as a romantic. Yet, Romanticism does not precisely make me think of a boy’s dreams, rather of something like Hölderlin’s Hyperion. The term ‘Utopia’ grossly overstates the boyish destination to which all those little children are under way. Despite its title, Fabre’s ‘concept’ turns our to be rather meagre – to be more precise: infantile.

What about the sculpture as such? After all, a sculpture – despite Weiner’s three golden rules – is something more than a mere concept. Although already for some decades Fabre lives on a handful of ideas dating from his childhood, in a somewhat more creative mind concepts are surfacing at a pace of hundreds a day. Too much to let them all have cast in bronze. Which for most of them is entirely redundant, superfluous: they are enjoyable as such. Whoever thinks his concepts worth to be executed, and on a big scale and in bronze at that, has to ask himself the question whether such execution will add something to the concept.

But it would be a vain attempt to search for a substantial contribution brought about by the embodiment of the concept in an image. We already know why it is so big. Why would Fabre have had it executed in bronze? Why did he not simply set out to catch a giant tortoise on the Galapagos, where that race of the giant tortoises is anyway dying out, to have it subsequently stuffed by Damien Hirst and to eventually have a waxwork of Madame Tussaud’s staff fixed on it? That would have yielded conceptual art on a somewhat higher level. Perhaps the master deemed it far more artistic to use bronze, especially since that would link him up with impressive forebears. Does Fabre not consider himself one of the last representatives of that other race on the verge of extinction: the artists? Although it will escape nobody’s attention that a tortoise - as opposed to, say, a horned Moses - lacks almost anything that makes the task of sculpting something of a challenge. Anyone who calls himself a moulder could fix a tortoise in a jiffy, blindfolded, with his hands under the table. It is scarcely more difficult than cutting a boulder out of marble. Moulding a human figure is a different matter, although nowadays technology stops at nothing. Some embarrassment with the blunt photographic magnifying of the tortoise and its driver is betrayed in the poor attempts at making the whole thing not look as if it walked right out of Madame Tussaud’s. Not to mention the clumsy way in which the figure is put upon the tortoise: three-dimensional photo-shop for beginners! I rather prefer the illustrations from ‘The wonderful adventures of Nils Holgerson’, as I remember them from my early years.

And then that photographical realism, so scorned by all the artists of the twentieth century! It seems like an homage to the photographic surrealism of Paul Delvaux, who has his museum some two villages further in Saint-Idesbald. Were it not that the lack of quality rather points in the direction of the super-realism of Star Wars spacecrafts and imaginary beings – if not of the plastic model spacecrafts of Fabre’s early years. Does that not remind us of how the cheapest photo-realism surfaces in the works of Weiner, the pope of conceptualism? With the same champion of concept art Fabre has also in common a predilection for lending some weight to his empty concepts by casting them in tons of steel … (see Weiner elsewhere on this website).

Were Fabre’s tortoise not cast in bronze, but in plaster and painted in rose, it would not be misplaced in Neuschwanstein, the castle of another fossil, this time from the age of absolute monarchs: Ludwig II, who used to arrive in the guise of Lohengrin on a boat drawn by a swan. Were it not for the fact that the stride from tortoise to swan also indicates the distance between Fabre’s soul of a merchant - did he not first sell the name and then the ware? - and that rather complicated and far more subtle soul of the Swan King. Albeit that both understood equally well the art of compensating for their lack of artistic capabilities through hitching real artists to their cart – as opposed to Wagner, who did not only write the music to his Gesamtkunstwerk, but the text as well. Where concocters of concepts like Fabre also meet art intendants à la Jan Hoet. Not in Bavaria then. Disneyland would be a more becoming location, this time for a version in coloured polyester, were it not for the fact that the artistic standards are higher there, even when this art is meant for children. That is why Neverland of Michael Jackson, yet another grown up child, would do better. But it is only when executed in sand that Fabre’s tortoise would stand out really well on one of the festivals for sand-sculptures on Flanders coast. Or, when executed in ice, on the yearly Harbin Ice Sculpture Festival.

Talking of Hyperion: a furtive glance at that other sculpture that formerly used to look out over the seas above, suffices to realise how low sculpture in the twentieth century has fallen. Not to mention the calibre of the art tourists and the seaside visitors that certainly will gape at this sculpture as if it were the seventh wonder of the world. Although they will have to content themselves with an inflatable tortoise when diving in the surf.

It is a pity that despite its super-realism, Fabre’s sculpture will never come to life: we could have witnessed then how it would, wriggling with its forepaws, slowly but surely disappear in the waves...

© Stefan Beyst, April 2003.


Ronald Bruynoghe referred me to a drawing of a child on a tortoise of Salvador Dali for his 'Ballet des Vendangeurs'from 1953 (click on the fourth icon). Jan Fabre, who is not only a sculptor, but also a choreographer of ballets, and above all a genius in 'sampling', has also drawn other inspiration from that source. A comparison between Dali's modest drawing and Fabre's heavy sculpture immediately reveals that quality is not a question of weight... It pays also to make a comparison with 'Il Nano Morgante' of Cioli Valerio in the Boboli Gardens in Firenze.


 We read in the newspapers that Jan Fabre's masterpiece had been mounted on a pedestal. In reality, just some steel beams have been placed under the legs of the tortoise - with the apparent intention that they should remain hidden under the sand, to give the impression that the heavy tortoise is crawling over the sandy surface. Which is only another testimony to the complete disregard of the site where the sculpture has to be integrated, even when the disregard is this time of a purely technical nature: the see wind will not stop laying bare the beams, so that the desired effect is completely undone. The tortoise does not so much crawl, but rather is lifted up by magnetic forces, like a levitating mystic. No pedestal, hence, in the sculptural meaning of the word. And that is a pity, because if Jan Fabre's tortoise had been erected on a real pedestal, it would have conveyed far better the idea of paving its way to the sea - although such seeming paradox is perhaps beyond Jan Fabre's sculptural understanding. So, bluntly placed on the sand amidst the seaside visitors, Jan Fabre's tortoise gets caught in another paradox: a fence had to be build around it, so that the intended realism annihilates itself. Rather that paving its way to the sea, the tortoise seems to be locked up in a fenced enclosure in some zoo and to melancholically raise itself on its forepaws in a vain attempt to get a glimpse of the see, wherein it will never be able to disappear.

Only Jan Fabre does not seem to be aware of the situation: undisturbed by what is happening around him, he continues to head heroically towards Utopia....

© Stefan Beyst, June 2005.

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