TILBURG, NETHERLANDS.- About four years ago De Pont exhibited a number of works by Berlinde De Bruyckere (Ghent, 1964) for the first time. The sculptures and drawings from the series Sewn Together received many positive responses and have been shown frequently since then. Internationally as well, interest in the work of this artist has risen considerably over the past few years, as evident from presentations at the Muhka in Antwerp, the Venice Biennial and the Saatchi Gallery in London.
De Pont is now organizing a large exhibition of her work. This will be accompanied by a publication, with the same title, containing texts by Barbara Baert and Harald Szeeman.
The work of Berlinde De Bruyckere is marked by corporality. Her drawings and sculptures are literally portrayals of bodies and shapes of bodies whose anatomy is often contorted and disfigured. Particularly evident is the skin which, as a fragile surface, covers the body and provides protection. With certain works human hair and, with her animal figures, hides also seem intended for protection and covering. As such these works relate to De Bruyckeres early sculptures in which she used blankets as a metaphor for vulnerability and shelter. Under a blanket, though, one can also hide and suffocate. These positive and negative aspects are consistent with De Bruyckeres image of mankind. With respect to the Sewn Together sculptures, she has remarked, They have been stitched together with black thread, from all kinds of separate pieces. At a certain point, there isnt much left of the humanity image in my view. When I think about how we, as human beings, respond to certain situations, how we deal with each other, then I find that we can be very ugly at times; and that is when the image of a beautiful mankind falls apart for me. With those Sewn Together sculptures I tried to go back to a single image of mankind by using fragments of it, stitching it back together and composing it again. And with that I did use the the blanket as a kind of skin that joins the pieces of man and creates a new image.
For her animal figures, De Bruyckere makes models of horses bodies and then stretches their actual hides over these. Barbara Baert describes such a creature as the deformed body of a horse that writhes, collapses into folds and then rises again like the prehistoric mutations of nature. The dramatic effect of these sculptures is perhaps even greater than that of her human figures. This may have to do with the stances in which the horses are portrayed reclining and stretched out, or even hung high in a tree. The bodies are literally elevated from the ordinary but have hereby lost all their natural power and perfection. What remains is helplessness and tragedy. The hide now serves only as the shell of an identity that does not reveal itself easily. These creatures are too withdrawn and shut off from their environment to do so. The beauty of their outward appearance contrasts with a sense of physical vulnerability and mortality. This duality was also expressed with the earlier blanket figures as a contrast between love and suffering and between the inner world and the outer. According to Florent Bex, the work of De Bruyckere is about the disturbing beauty of suppressed desires and fears, about the sublimation of death.
Even so, the work deals just as powerfully and succinctly with the theme of life. Her sculptures and drawings voice intimacy and sensuality not in a banal kind of exhibitionism, but in a veiled and subdued manner. De Bruyckere frequently combines her figures with everyday objects, which she employs as pedestals: tubs, tables, cabinets or stools worn household articles that bear the scars of time. These objects, too, evoke a sense of intimacy. The works remind us of news images of people who have lost their homes and seek refuge while carrying the remains of household effects and humble belongings. Here we see life in its saddest expression of vulnerability. This is not the sublimation of death, but a desperate struggle to survive.
A central work in the exhibition consists of a large flatbed trailer loaded with all kinds of boxes, bundles, blankets, pieces of plastic and branches (The Zone, 1996). This is the work by which the artist made her mark in the exhibition de Rode Poort held at the smak in Ghent at that time. The temporary installation left a profound impression on the public due to its poignant associations with the floods of refugees which were being seen then in former Yugoslavia and in Rwanda. And sadly, the world does not appear to have improved a great deal since then. We may see new disasters and new victims, but the images remain the same. In the face of all this catastrophe, the work of De Bruyckere serves as a memory and, in a certain sense, as solace not as an easing of the actual suffering, but as testimony of something that we normally do not wish to see shrouded in beauty, yet confrontational and to the point. The other works shown in the exhibition One, 2004 are also characterized by this mix of emotional confrontation and consoling beauty. In many of her sculptures and drawings, the artist creates new images through combinations of forms and meanings. The powerful bodies of horses rest on supports in contorted and helpless-looking positions (Joined, 2003). Melted torsos lie on blankets (Joined, 2003-2004). A small, fragile figure seems to be hiding beneath blankets (Creature, 2003-2004). And the monumental One, 2003-2004, consisting of two old display cases containing damaged and entangled figures, shows a macabre, yet meticulously arranged and stored image of mankind.