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“Our future is a skeleton.” A conversation with Jan Fabre ahead of the “Glass and Bone Sculptures 1977-2017” exhibition in Venice

"The Catacombs of the Dead Street Dogs", 2009-2017. Murano glass, skeletons of dogs, stainless steel
“The Catacombs of the Dead Street Dogs”, 2009-2017. Murano glass, skeletons of dogs, stainless steel.

It took Jan Fabre over 40 years to conceive what I was about to see in April at the Abbey of San Gregorio in Venice. The Belgian artist’s fascination for the themes of metamorphosis, life and death is well documented, and on this specific occasion, a collateral event of the 57th International Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia, they were represented through a selection of works in glass and bone that he started to create in the 1970s.

When I reached the Abbey, located between Ponte dell’Accademia and Punta della Dogana, I was already expecting his exhibition, aptly titled “Jan Fabre. Glass and Bone Sculptures 1977-2017”, to be not only a site-specific event, but also the celebration of an artist’s peculiar fixation.

This impression was reinforced after my guided tour with Giacinto Di Pietrantonio, one of the curators along Katerina Koskina and Dimitri Ozertov, and I was curious to understand if what I had just seen represented more the crystallisation of a reached goal, or a new creative departure instead.

Jan Fabre by Stephan Vanfleteren. Copyright: Angelos bvba
Jan Fabre by Stephan Vanfleteren. Copyright: Angelos bvba.

Nicolò Gallio: A new exhibition gives the chance to artists, also to established ones like yourself, to look back at one’s own career and take stock of what has been done so far. So where do you feel you are, right now, as an artist?

Jan Fabre: I’m a young artist. It takes a lifetime to become a young artist. And it’s true that the more I got from life, the more I can give back. And I’ve become much freer as an artist than when I was younger. Nine years ago, for the Louvre exhibition I made this piece, I let myself drain: it’s me, as a dwarf, against a classical painting. And I’m nosebleeding. Don’t forget I’m a dwarf born in a country of giants. I was born next to the Rubenshuis. My father took me there to make drawings when I was 7 years old. When you’re born in a country like Belgium, Flanders, Antwerp, with these great masters like Rubens, van Eyck, van Dyck, Jordaens… You have to compete with them. And then you understand that you’re a dwarf. But understanding this makes you much freer.

N. G.: Back to today’s show, I really appreciate how your works perfectly integrates with the setting of the Abbey. Giacinto di Pietrantonio was telling me that you bought back Canoe from a collector. It is in my opinion one of the most powerful pieces showcased here, and it seems this may be the key piece of this exhibition for you, and that you have a special attachment to it…

J. F.: There are two pieces that I hold dear. One is The Pacifier, from 1977. I made it after seeing an exhibition by Joseph Beuys who inspired me when I was twenty years old. There was this piece, an interrogation chair… Because I was young I didn’t understand much of his work, but I understood how ethical values and esthetical principles can get together. For me this work from 1977 represents the way I think about art: it’s comforting, almost feminine, and the small pieces of glass are masculine.

I made the boat piece in 1991. I bought it back from a collector and restored it. In those days it was taboo to talk about the colonialism of Belgium. We did a lot of bad things over there. Brussels’ outstanding [architecture] is built on the blood of Congo. And the hands… I used the hands of a friend of mine, from Congo; the ones of a friend from Morocco; of a Turkish; of an Afghan. And years later this work has become a very political piece. Because of the refugees… We stand here on the Grand Canal and all the tourists are passing by… It has gained a political dimension in time.

"Canoe", 1991. Murano glass, animal and human bones, Bic ink, polymers
“Canoe”, 1991. Murano glass, animal and human bones, Bic ink, polymers.

N. G.: Do you feel that your art has a political dimension when you create it, or does it acquire it over time?

J. F.: I think all art is abstract and political at the same time. Now in Europe everybody makes works about the refugees. I don’t know how to make works about refugees. Yet at the same time this piece from 1991 talks about them, in another way, on another level.

N. G.: You work with many materials, using different languages. Is there something that you haven’t tried yet and you may want to consider for your next works? What if I say virtual reality?

JF.: This exhibition purposely talks about the memory and the quality of the human material. My thinking refuses technology, robotics… It defends the force of the power and the vulnerability of mankind. The force over material, over bones, over blood. It’s so rich and full of memory. We, as humans, have an interior skeleton. The monks [Monk (Umbraculum), 2001, Monk (Brugges 3003), 2002 and Monk (Paris), 2004)] have an exterior skeleton. They’re based on drawings from Bruegel and at the same time they’re futuristic human beings. I image humans with outer skeleton, who cannot get wounded anymore. It means we get away from the stigmata of Christ. By accepting the model of Christ, you can create a new model.

"Monk (Paris)", 2004. Human bones, iron wire. Collection: Courtesy Gallery Daniel Templon, Paris-Brussels
“Monk (Paris)”, 2004. Human bones, iron wire. Collection: Courtesy Gallery Daniel Templon, Paris-Brussels.

N. G.: Talking about bones, Di Pietrantonio highlighted that they are the symbol of the impossibility of being racist, as we all are made of bones, which they are white. This, again, is a political statement, but it comes with a material quality intrinsic to the medium you used…

JF.: All my works, by definition, are political. But I’ve never been busy with politics. When you look at my works, my writings for the stage, my visual art… My major topic is the human body, and when you think about the human body, you think about politics.

N. G.: If politics is an underlying dimension of your art, on the surface it shows layers of symbols intertwined by the themes of life and death. Do you think you are showcasing more of the former or the latter here?

JF.: We have a saying in Antwerp, that can be translated as “when there is no friction, there is no glance.” The same goes for life and death, and male vs. female: their friction gives a glance. I was twice in a coma, and I am living on borrowed time. I’m living in a post-mortem state of life. So I feel death very near to me. And when you look at vanitas paintings, in the Flemish tradition, they are full of those symbols. In my culture death is very close by. And if we think about it, we’re living with death inside ourselves. Our future is a skeleton.

"Cross for the Garden of Delight", 2013, Murano glass, skeleton of a snake
“Cross for the Garden of Delight”, 2013. Murano glass, skeleton of a snake.

N. G.: In this respect, one of the most captivating pieces is Cross for the Garden of Delight. I remember seeing a similar piece at the Félicien Rops Museum for the “Rops/Fabre: Facing Time exhibition.” How many of these variations have you created?

JF.: The green cross, along with the green scarab with the tree of life [Holy Dung Beetle with Laurel Tree], are the newest pieces. And why green? It’s the colour of poison. And it’s the pharmakon. My work is about pharmakon, which is a Greek word for something that can poison or cure you. The same goes for my work: as an artist, I want to cure you or poison you.

N. G.: What you’ve just said about pharmakon reminds me of Damien Hirst’s take on this topic through its work on pharmaceuticals. If I just look out of this window I see Punta della Dogana, where he is currently exhibiting “Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable.” Do you feel your works are, on any level, somehow connected?

JF.: He’s a good artist and I came to his opening. You see the British Empire. It’s a glorification of power, of money, of great dimensions. And then I look at myself, a Belgian artist. Belgium was occupied by the Spanish, by the French, by the Dutch, by the Germans. Britain ruled the world, Belgium was always occupied. But at the same time you look at the art in Belgium… It’s all under the radar. You look at the 14th and 15th centuries and you see the subversion, the irony. I think in this exhibition you see more calm, subversion, irony than in the British Empire. I’m not saying it’s better or worse, but it’s another way of thinking about art. And of course it’s related to geography: my cultural roots are Belgian, Flemish, and his are British. And you see the difference.

"Holy Dung Beetle with Laurel Tree", 2017. Murano glass
“Holy Dung Beetle with Laurel Tree”, 2017. Murano glass.

“Jan Fabre. Glass and Bone Sculptures 1977-2017” is on display until 26 November 2017. The catalogue is published by Forma Edizioni.