Berlinde De Bruyckere on Not Escaping Death

The Belgian sculptor’s new work in San Gimignano reflects on mortality, medieval assertions of power and the migrant crisis

Having made her name in the 1990s with quietly compelling pseudo-anatomical sculptures of flesh, Belgian artist Berlinde De Bruyckere has subsequently adopted a less explicit approach in her work. The nine sculptures on display in Italy’s most-visited hilltop town were all finished this year but might reasonably stand as a retrospective of De Bruyckere’s means of suggesting the human body indirectly: through blankets, horses and, particularly, trees – whether trunks as torsos, branches as bones, sections as dismemberments. The tone is consistent; in the gallery’s words: ‘The sculptures illustrate an archetypal pain and reflect on timeless human themes such as vulnerability, mortality, loneliness, suffering and remembrance.’ De Bruyckere isn’t necessarily gloomy about that. As she’s said: ‘We are always trying to escape from death […] but it’s all part of us, we don’t have to escape from it.’

Modestly titled ‘A single bed, a single room’, the show actually spreads out over several rooms across two locations. The base structure of a former water tower provides an atmospheric backdrop for the most direct figuration in the show, a bronze of a horse slumped on a slab of rock in a peculiar pose in which the front legs cover the eyes. The title, Honte (2018–19) – ‘shame’ – leaves us to wonder whether the horse is dead, suggesting human responsibility for its fate, or consciously avoiding any interaction with viewers and their possible guilt. 

Berlinde De Bruyckere, Honte, 2018-19, lead, Belgian slate, 75 × 210 × 95 cm. Courtesy: the artist and GALLERIA CONTINUA, San Gimignano, Beijing, Les Moulins, Habana; photograph: Ela Bialkowska, OKNO Studio  

Berlinde De Bruyckere, Honte, 2018-19, lead, Belgian slate, 75 × 210 × 95 cm. Courtesy: the artist and GALLERIA CONTINUA, San Gimignano, Beijing, Les Moulins, Habana; photograph: Ela Bialkowska, OKNO Studio  

In a stripped back former apartment space overlooking the main square, De Bruyckere has hung semi-opaque tablecloths over the windows to ensure there’s no unmuting of the eight other works’ brown and grey hues, which make for a subtly stimulating abstract language. Infinitum (2017–19) puts elongated glass cloches, such as might have displayed holy relics, onto the domestic staple of a dining table. The tall domes echo San Gimignano’s famous towers, just visible through the window. They are filled – uncomfortably fully – with wax casts of wooden lumps, most of which are bandaged towards the top with cloths sufficiently tattered to suggest long-standing and little-treated wounds. Are they amputations? Perhaps, but there is also a phallic thrust to them, reminding us that the city’s famous towers were medieval assertions of power.

Another effective undermining of the domestic setting is a pair of works (Walburga, 2019) in which blanket-covered branches rest on skeletal iron beds. Such a set-up might speak of intimacy: the bed as the location of birth, love and death, the traces of those who’ve slept there. But these blankets have been left outdoors for many months, so they are worn, tattered and far from homely; they hint at the problems faced by migrants, many of whom arrive in Italy from north Africa.

Berlinde De Bruyckere, Infinitum, 2017-19, iron wood, glass, wax, textile, rope, epoxy, 1.6 × 2 × 1 cm. Courtesy: the artist and GALLERIA CONTINUA, San Gimignano, Beijing, Les Moulins, Habana,; photograph: Ela Bialkowska, OKNO Studio 

Berlinde De Bruyckere, Infinitum, 2017-19, iron wood, glass, wax, textile, rope, epoxy, 1.6 × 2 × 1 cm. Courtesy: the artist and GALLERIA CONTINUA, San Gimignano, Beijing, Les Moulins, Habana; photograph: Ela Bialkowska, OKNO Studio  

Deux Corps (2019) puts myth in play through a union of two massive upright tree trunks that – unlike those in Walburga – have been denuded of bark. They stand in the frame of a tall wardrobe which has lost its door and internal fittings. De Bruyckere has said that, for this sculpture, she had in mind the tale of Baucis and Philemon from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. It tells of two simple people who offered the gods such thoughtful hospitality that they were granted the gift of eternal life as trees standing side by side in the forest. Why, then, the removal of bark, invoking the better known, and more disturbing, story of the flaying of Marsyas – an arrogant satyr who challenged Apollo to a musical contest and lost? It’s as if De Bruyckere couldn’t quite bring herself to make the work upbeat. 

Does such focused engagement with a narrow emotional range over a 30-year career hone and reinforce the intensity, or does repetition lead to dilution? For all the familiarity of its underlying approaches, this grouping of works is a fruitful and substantive development of De Bruyckere’s concerns, not only resonating with the historic location, but playing off the domestic exhibition setting to undermine any comfort that might ordinarily bring.

Berlinde De Bruyckere, ‘A single bed, a single room’ is on view at Galleria Continua, San Gimignano, Italy until 1 Sept 2019.

Main image: Berlinde De Bruyckere, 16 november '18, 2019, textile, wax, wood, iron, epoxy, polyurethane, 1 × 4 × 1.3 m. Courtesy: the artist and GALLERIA CONTINUA, San Gimignano, Beijing, Les Moulins, Habana; photograph: Ela Bialkowska, OKNO Studio  

Paul Carey-Kent is a writer and curator based in Southampton, UK.

Issue 206

First published in Issue 206

October 2019

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