Berlinde De Bruyckere’s work is often unsettling. From her wax figures of men mid-metamorphosis, with deer antlers protruding from their stomachs, to her abstract sculptures made from real horse skins, De Bruyckere’s practice might at first seem to mine the macabre.
While walking through her new exhibition in Hauser & Wirth’s cavernous Chelsea space, however, it becomes clear that her sculptures are as romantic as they are disturbing, as powerful as they are pitiful, and as sublime as they are abject. With a distinctly European soft-spoken solemnity, closely cut black hair, and an all-black uniform to match, De Bryuckere’s presence feels like a passing shadow as she leads me through her latest body of work.
Lit theatrically by what she calls “moon light,” the exhibition is sparse, as if each work needs room to breathe. Standing close in order to read her expressions through the darkness, it’s evident that she feels a deep love for her practice. As she talks about her collaborators and materials, often employing phrases like “soul mate” and “first love,” the brutality and heroism of her sculptures begin to appear more nuanced.
She and her studio assistants have installed her tour de force, “Cripplewood” (2012–13), in a back gallery all to itself. Created in collaboration with South African novelist J.M. Coetzee for the 2013 Venice Biennial, the nearly 60-foot-long sculpture is a fallen elm tree rendered meticulously in flesh-colored wax.
In the weeks preceding the opening I watched in wonder as her studio nursed the work into being. With portable stoves melting lightly-hued encaustics, De Bruyckere and her team assembled the work’s dozens of parts, gently wrapping their joints with pillows and blankets. Like a slumbering giant, “Cripplewood” rests as its visitors circumnavigate its tomb.
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Kenta Murakami: I read that “Cripplewood” was meant to be a reference to Saint Sebastian, who was invoked as a guardian against the black plague in Venice. I think that the martyr is a beautiful way to think about your work. I was curious what drew you to that image.
Berlinde De Bruyckere: When I was working with the image of Saint Sebastian — because of his relationship with the history of Venice — I found that I had huge respect for him. He is able to deal with the arrows and the suffering and pain without showing it. He has this levelness that lets him overcome this for himself so that he is not asking us for compassion.
The way I was working with the Sebastian figure was in the way I manipulated the tree, in the way I cut off the branches and some parts of the roots. It’s a very aggressive gesture. You determine the tree; you determine that he’s not able to live or grow in the way that he wanted to grow. We, humans, we delegate all the time like this.
So that’s what I wanted to show here, in the bark. When you get closer you can really feel the flesh and the skin, and the amputations of the branches. But then these branches at the end, they are used to continue the movement. It’s like it is flowing.
KM: “Cripplewood” has a monumental presence at first, but then it invites you to get closer and becomes very intimate. I think it’s interesting how this creates a strange kind of time-scale, since the surface of the sculpture feels very animal, as if it is alive, yet at the same time it is this tree that has fallen over and has all this history embedded within it. What kind of space or time do you imagine your work residing within?
BB: My work is always related to the space that it is in. When I was working in Istanbul in an old hammam, for example, I was making these huge horse sculptures for a very narrow corridor. I like it when people are forced to have these physical feelings when they are close to the work, or when they are far away and are attracted to move closer.
So with “Cripplewood,” the first image is that it is this lying tree, and then you move closer and you see all the details, like the worms that make holes in the wood. At the end it’s like you are inside the tree. This play is something I like very much. My work uses a vocabulary that you always recognize. You have the trees; you have the horses, the human beings, the deer. So everyone is familiar with that, but then the meaning behind it is something you have to discover. It’s like you have to peel it back layer by layer.
KM: I noticed you are often drawn to very masculine figures, even if they appear emasculated. This is quite different from your early works, which used blankets. What interests you about the masculine?
BB: For me, I have both persons inside me. I discover very often that I have a male part inside myself, and the male part is maybe found in the gesture of something big; a huge movement. The female part is maybe in taking care of the cushions and the binding, as well as the light. I really love these two elements, and everyone has these two elements inside. Maybe I’m more able to show it because I’m an artist and I make this kind of work.
KM: You’ve collaborated with the South African writer J.M. Coetzee in the past, pairing images of your works with his texts. I’ve noticed that many of the artists that are referenced in relation to you seem to be literary or cinematic. Who inspires you the most?
BB: It’s not always an author or a movie or a poem. Like with the work “to Zurbarán” (2015) in this exhibition. I was in Brussels seeing the exhibition of Francisco de Zurbarán. I’ve known the painting “Agnus Dei” [or “The Lamb of God”] since I was 18, but I’d never seen it in real life so I had these big expectations. And when I saw it I was with my youngest son and was like, “What is this?” I couldn’t put words on my feelings or the experience. The only way I can react, as a woman or as an artist, is to create a work starting from that feeling. And I try to translate it into my own language.
Because of the way the legs have been bound, the animal appears so innocent. It is a lamb that is offering itself for slaughter and it is we as human beings who have done it. To translate that into my own language, I was looking for a foal, but a very fresh one, not one that had lived already for a week as by then it would already be a small horse.
The one that I used was only one day old when it died. And it has the wish to live and to stand up, but on the other hand it’s not able to because I’ve done this binding. And making it blind came from another inspiration. When I was watching the news I saw the image of Alan Kurdi, the three-year old boy who arrived from Syria. That image had the same impact on me.
This blinding, for horses, works completely the opposite than for humans. When we put something over our eyes we are completely disoriented, but for horses when they become wild or nervous, they do the blinding and it pacifies them. So there was this sort of duality in the work. The blinding of the horse wasn’t done in an aggressive way, but more to protect him from our cruel world.
KM: Where do you get the horses?
BB: When I got the idea to work with the foal I contacted the university in Ghent — which I’ve worked with since 1999, when I first started using horses — and I described what I wanted, which was an unborn or just a few days old foal. It was really important that it had really short hair so I could feel the bones underneath its skin and the fragility of its young life.
So then when one dies I have to go and see what there is. And then I have to fall in love with the animal. Only then can I start to think about what I can do with it. If there’s not that first love then I’m not able to make a work with the body of the horse. With each horse there’s not always a relation, but I’m inspired by it. Sometimes it’s the movement, sometimes it’s the color of the skin, the shape; but sometimes it doesn’t happen and I have to say no, I can’t use it.
KM: Could you talk a bit about your relationship with Romeu Runa? He’s served as a model and muse for you, but your work has in turn inspired new choreography for him.
BB: My relationship with Romeu already goes back 10 years. In the beginning he was just a model for me, as I saw him working with the Les Ballets C de la B. At the time I saw Romeu I was making these figures in wax and it was like one of my sculptures had come to life. I asked him if he was interested in modeling for me and things went further and further. The first performance we did, the Romeu, My Deer performance, with the antlers, was something we made together. He was at my studio to model and was doing some poses with the antlers, and then the second day he came back and said that he dreamed of a performance piece that he’d done with them. And then he did a performance — not with the idea that it would be a work, but just to show me. And that was so emotional and so right that afterwards we decided we should do something in the future.
When he performed at my exhibition in Zurich, I could feel the reactions of the people after they had seen the performance. When they saw my work again it was different. Before, when people would look at my work, they’re always saying, “Oh, it’s so sad. It only has to do with suffering and pain”. But after they saw Romeu dancing, they saw that it has to do with things of desire, power, and love. It’s not only one-sided.
For the performance in this space I took him to the workshop in Anderlecht, Belgium, where they treat the skins of the animals with salt. And for him it was shocking. Not because it was dirty, but because of the beauty of the respect these people have for the skins, even though they have no value. It’s just skin, it’s nothing. And then to take care of it and put the salt on it and give it a name on a label. It’s beauty. After death there is a new future. This is something I really want to talk about in my work. That death is not the end. That there is always something next.
Berlinde De Bruyckere: No Life Lost is on view at Hauser & Wirth (511 West 18th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through April 2. Romeu Runa will be performing “Sibylle,” a work made in response to Berlinde De Bruyckere’s exhibition, in the gallery on April 1, and April 2. RSVP for the performances at firstname.lastname@example.org.