Art

The Alchemy of Sorrow: Mixing Memorial Art with Contemporary Sculpture

Jan Fabre
Jan Fabre’s “Gisant (Homage to C.E. Crosby)” (2012), marble, at Galerie Daniel Templon (all photographs by the author for Hyperallergic)

Jan Fabre’s current exhibition at Galerie Daniel Templon in Paris features an open coffin and insects crawling all over human brains, yet it’s one of the least startling things the high profile Belgian artist has done. This is, after all, the artist of the infamous cat-throwing incident and the covering of the ceiling (and a chandelier) in a Belgian palace with beetle wings, not to mention works like this skull eating a taxidermy parrot. However, while death, whether through insect parts or the really direct use of memento mori’s like in his skeletal “Piétas” at two Venice Biennales, has always been a present, heavy-handed focus, this exhibition is a subtle step back, and it’s a welcome and unexpectedly thoughtful use of memorial art as inspiration in contemporary sculpture.

Jan Fabre
Jan Fabre, “Gisant (The bridge between life and death)” (2012), marble
Jan Fabre
Jan Fabre, “Gisant (Homage to K.Z. Lorenz)” (2012), marble

Called Gisants…, translated from French as referring to the recumbent statues that often rest as effigies on top of tombs, the exhibition stretches between Daniel Templon’s two Paris spaces along Rue Beaubourg, with each room having one massive work of memorial art at its center. Precisely sculpted from milky marble material, the art is swarmed with bees, butterflies, beetles, and even a praying mantis that are settled all over the sculpted corpses and atop the smaller models of brains, which act as sort of chorus of Vanitas, the old still life reminders of life’s decay. (Brains, which Fabre see’s as the “most sexy” organ, and who can blame him for all their alluring knowledge and mystery, are a favorite of the artist, with other pieces including brain’s with eyes and turtles pushing brains.) One large memorial is an homage to Nobel Prize-winning biologist and zoologist Konrad Zacharias Lorenz, the other to neuro-anatomist Elizabeth Caroline Crosby, but both are also indirect tributes to Fabre’s own parents who passed away during his research on the scientists.

Jan Fabre
Jan Fabre, “Gisant (Homage to K.Z. Lorenz)” (2012), marble

They’re very much embracing personal memorial in art, and linking it all to an obsession with beauty, which is really there in most of Fabre’s work (perhaps more the beetle wings than the unfortunate cats). The shrouded tribute to Elizabeth Caroline Crosby is a direct reference to Giuseppe Sanmartino’s 1753 “Veiled Christ” in Naples, a famously haunting sculpture where Christ’s wounds are vivid through a thin carved cloth, and both are the kind of grand recumbent memorials of people sprawled on their death beds that have now fallen out-of-favor for the departed. However, if it all seems a little morbid, it’s only because of this current trend away from memorialization as a place for beauty, as we instead tend to look for ways of moving on or forgetting rather than obsessing over an eternal sculptural tribute to the dead. As Fabre said in a video interview for Galerie Daniel Templon: “I do not create out of suffering, I create out of pleasure.”

Jan Fabre
Jan Fabre, “Gisant” (2012)

Jan Fabre: Gisants… is at Galerie Daniel Templon (30 rue Beaubourg, Paris) through April 20. 

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