On beauty and the sublime

In the seven-hour performance Sanguis-Mantis, one of the best known works of Jan Fabre which was first presented in 2001, the Belgian artist – holding a warrior’s shield and wearing a zoomorphic helmet – moves amidst an installation consisting of drawing tables. At one point, a nurse carries out a blood transfusion from the artist’s body. Fabre then uses his own blood to paint on the paper placed on the drawing tables. The performance, which was documented on video and is presented as such at «Who shall speak my thoughts (of my body),» Fabre’s solo exhibition currently being held at the Alpha Delta gallery, includes one of the most recurring aspects in the work of this reputable and idiosyncratic contemporary artist: the use of his own body fluids – not just blood but also tears, sweat, sperm and urine – to make art. Forty of these so-called «body fluid drawings» are presented in the well-designed and compact Athens exhibition which was held on the occasion of the presentation at the Megaron Concert Hall of «I am a mistake,» a spectacle designed by Fabre. The exhibition provides a comprehensive understanding of Fabre’s work. Besides the drawings and the Sanguis-Mantis video, it includes two installations: In the surreal-like installation «Ruins with Tears» – shown for the first time internationally – plaster casts of body parts seem to grow out of oversized glasses. In «I let myself drain,» the effigy of the artist as a dwarf stands right in front of a replica of a Flemish painting. The wall is painted red, suggesting a bleeding artist. The work which will be the first shown in Fabre’s large exhibition scheduled for the Louvre in the spring, underscores the artist’s fascination with Flemish art and the history of art in general. Flemish, early Renaissance painting is actually the source of his inspiration for the use of blood in his work. «I made by first blood drawings after seeing in Bruges an exhibition about Flemish masters. In these works, most of which were about stigmata and flagellation, I could see elements of performance art. The bodily aspect is very strong in these works, not only because what the paintings show are wounds but because these were artists who used their own blood to paint whenever they wanted to make the red of the wounds appear deeper. These artists were both scientists and artists, they were alchemists,» Fabre told the English edition of Kathimerini during his visit to Athens. Flemish vanitas paintings also inspired Fabre to explore the world of insects. The scientific research of his grandfather, Jean-Henri Fabre (1823-1915), a famous French entomologist was another major impetus. Insects and particularly beetles are probably the most characteristic motif in his work. «You can learn a lot about humans when you look at animals. We are creatures with an inner skeleton. Insects are creatures with an exoskeleton, they have an outer skeleton and this is their armor. We humans are always looking to find an exoskeleton, a metal armor to survive,» Fabre said. Danger and death are elements that prevail in the artist’s work. «I think it is because on two occasions in my life I have been in a coma, so after coming out of the coma, the intensity of my life changed, every movement, every millimeter became a happening in itself. So this idea of living in this post-mortem stage of life is very important in my work,» says Fabre. The allusion to death is not meant as self-defeat but as a challenge to awaken man to his own powers and to challenge him to live to his own limits. This is exactly what Fabre does when he uses his own blood. He perceives this as a kind of sublimation, overcoming fear of death by confronting danger. This is probably why, despite the underlying presence of death and danger, Fabre’s work is not dark. It has both calm and beauty. For Fabre, beauty is related to ethics. «Beauty is a form of empathy toward life, it means being open to things, being able to perceive reality with all one’s senses, not crushing things. For me beauty is not about aesthetics. Aesthetics is only makeup, beauty is about an ethical principle,» he says. «Because a lot of contemporary art is not sincere, a lot of contemporary art is cynical. My work is against cynicism, it refuses cynicism. It is about sincerity, about believing in beauty and believing in the potential of man. I find this sincerity in the old masters. Their work had craftsmanship, it contained scientific elements but also had a political point of view – [Hieronymous] Bosch for example was deriding society, attacking the church and the rich but in a playful, imaginative way, by using irony,» he says. This strange, terrifying, distant but powerful beauty is present in Fabre’s work, a broad-ranging and complex work which includes performance, theater, writing, film, video and theater. The Athens exhibition provides a solid sense of the artist’s original thinking and imagination. «Who shall speak my thoughts (of my body),» at the Alpha Delta gallery (3 Pallados, 210.322.8785) to Jan. 31.