Installation view of “Berlinde De Bruyckere: No Life Lost” at Hauser & Wirth 18th Street, January 28 – April 2, 2016 (all images courtesy Mirjam Devriendt) (click to enlarge)

Berlinde De Bruyckere is a Belgian artist whose signature work consists of reconfigured horse hides, anthropomorphic tree fragments, and headless, heavily distorted figures cast in wax, all of which are often placed in old museum cabinets, coffin-like vitrines or tabletop bell jars.

Her solo show, Berlinde De Bruyckere: No Life Lost, currently on view at Hauser & Wirth’s 18th Street location, includes many of these familiar elements, but in some cases, there has also been an increase in scale. De Bruyckere’s work is always multilayered, with rich allusions to art historical traditions of the Northern Renaissance, mythology, and Christian iconography. However, while these themes have been given much attention, the artist’s treatment and manipulation of space has yet to be fully explored.

De Bruyckere often creates a dialogue with the architecture of the gallery space. The three rows of wax-cast hides that comprise “No Life Lost I, 2014 — 2015” (2015) hang from menacing-looking hooks near the ceiling all the way down to the cement floor, calling attention to the height of Hauser & Wirth’s first gallery, while “Kreupelhout – Cripplewood, 2012– 2013” (2013), a facsimile of a fallen elm that requires nearly 5,000 square feet of space, takes up much of the voluminous back room. However, De Bruyckere does more than passively acknowledge the gallery’s interior; she is heavily involved in the alteration of the gallery space and has frequently adopted modes of display typically employed by museums of natural history, houses of worship, and sites for eternal rest. Within Hauser & Wirth’s front gallery, “No Life Lost II, 2015” (2015), a weathered museum cabinet that houses a union of three entangled horses, demonstrates her interest in structures commonly used to exhibit and protect artifacts. Within the same dimly lit gallery, “to Zurbaran, 2015” (2015), a bound foal placed upon an altar-like table references the interior of a mausoleum or candle-lit church.

Installation view of “Berlinde De Bruyckere: No Life Lost” at Hauser & Wirth 18th Street, January 28 – April 2, 2016 (click to enlarge)

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, De Bruyckere was constructing metal cages without entryways, not unlike those of Alberto Giacometti and Louise Bourgeois, but soon she began contaminating her cabinets with tragic figures, both human and non-human, that, paradoxically, resist the very notion of display. Even the anti-heroic figures that are not ultimately placed in secondhand museum cabinets or vitrines in some way withdraw from the viewer: crouching in corners or upon poles; hiding beneath blankets; or shielding themselves behind wild manes of hair. Yet, it is the artist’s imprisoned figures that often possess a level of introversion so severe that it seems to imply a wish to cease to exist. Often there is a tripled sense of confinement: lone figures cave in upon themselves, or unions of figures engulf each other, within structures housed within the confines of the gallery space. Consequently, as witnesses, the gallery-goers become more aware of their own entrapment within the gallery’s walls. As they navigate the gallery space, viewers also become more aware of their own fragility and the vulnerability of flesh, especially when confronted by the overwhelming physical weight of the pieces on display, the balancing bodies of “No Life Lost II, 2015” (2015), or the enormous, hide-adorned, rustic barrel of “Penthesilea II, 2014 – 2015” (2015).

The experience of De Bruyckere’s work is not unlike confronting monumental works of Minimalism, such as Richard Serra’s leaning or torqued sculptures, which create a sense of unease and endangerment within the gallery space. However, in addition to physical weight, De Bruyckere’s work also conveys an equally immense emotional weight. This quality, which is essential to her oeuvre, is likely achieved, in part, due her choice of natural materials, like glossy horse hides and antlers, as well as her reliance on wax, an inherently fragile material quite unlike the more common wood, marble and bronze. The vulnerability of flesh is on full display with “Kreupelhout – Cripplewood, 2012 – 2013.” (2013). Extending nearly 60 feet in length under the hush of artificial moonlight, it depicts a remnant of the uprooted elm, its fallen branches resembling the exposed tendons and calcified bone of a flayed human arm. Patched with tourniquets, this haunting bough projects the twin desires of hope and recovery, or perhaps it serves as an emblem of our damaged psyche.

Berlinde De Bruyckere, “Kreupelhout – Cripplewood 2012-2013” (2013), wax, epoxy, iron, wood, fabric, blankets, and rope, 90 1/2 x 704 3/4 x 161 3/8 inches (click to enlarge)

Like other artists whose work came to prominence during the rise of Identity Politics, De Bruyckere undermines the idealized body in favor of an imperfect one with noticeable stitches and scars. The morphological transformations through which she objectifies such emotional wounds and voids mark of the artist as one singularly adept at mirroring contemporary traumas. Berlinde De Bruyckere: No Life Lost continues this exploration of a liminal region between life and death, where the objects on view mutate the gallery environment into a space of self-reflection.

Berlinde De Bruyckere: No Life Lost continues at Hauser & Wirth (511 West 18th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through April 2.

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Andrea Kutsenkow

Andrea Kutsenkow is a writer and an aspiring archivist based in New York City. Her research interests include collections management and artists who explore the human body and its adornment.