From 9 June to 23 September 2007 GAMeC is “moving” to Venice with the extraordinary solo exhibition Jan Fabre. Anthropology of a planet, set up in the rooms at the historic residence of Palazzo Benzon overlooking the Grand Canal. It presents the multifaceted research of the Flemish artist, ranging from sculpture to films, drawings and installations. The exhibition is curated by Giacinto Di Pietrantonio, who also curated the 2003 solo show of Fabre’s films and drawings, Gaude Succurrere Vitae, at GAMeC in Bergamo and oversaw the publication of the monograph Homo Faber, with a complete collection of the artist’s works from 1978 to 2006, published for the exhibition held in Antwerp in 2006. The exhibition is part of collateral events at 52nd International Art Exhibition– La Biennale di Venezia.
The exhibition is displayed along the entrance hall and the rooms of the Palazzo Benzon, offering several large installations; a lot ofdrawings and many small and medium-sized sculptures.
The route through the exhibition immediately reveals the title – Anthropology of a Planet – which materializes at the entrance of the building in the form of a white marble sculpture “Antropologie van een planeet” (Marmeren Denkmodel, Studie, I) “Anthropology of a Planet” (Model of thought, Study, 1), 2007, in which an anatomical-muscular man stands on a human brain, with all his muscles exposed in the act of digging the brain beneath him.
In his multiple areas of expression, Fabre focuses his research on the body, understood as a physical reality and mental dimension. It is the brain, the physical counterpart of the intellect, that the artist concentrates on in this exhibition. He develops this particular theme – that are to be considered as models of thought – in drawings, sculptures, installations and films such as the work “Is the Brain the most Sexy Part of the Body?” (2007). It is a 15-minute film in which we see the artist seated facing the natural scientist-ecologist Edward O. Wilson beneath two police-like lamps in an interrogation, in the continuous exchange of roles, between policeman and gangster about the meaning of beauty, of ethics, of sexuality, the meaning of life in short.
The portico next to the entrance is the location of “De Man die op het water schrijft” (The Man Writing on Water), 2006, a sculpture made up of 7 bronze bathtubs, where there is a sculpture-portrait of the artist seated in the second one in the process of writing on the water with his finger. This is a gesture of impossibility, but a metaphor for metamorphosis of creating, the created and ongoing creation.
In addition to the artist’s obsession with the brain and its intellectual and creative potential, the show also reveals all the salient aspects of Fabre’s poetics; his art reflects the human nature – necessarily fragile and mortal – and the desire each of us has to overcome this precariousness, through the subjects that are intrinsic to the Flemish tradition: madness, illness, death, the sweetness of sin, regeneration and spiritual power. The human being, man’s precariousness and frailty are central to Fabre’s oeuvre, exalting the cycle of birth-life-death-rebirth. Man and death, therefore; and it is to death that the work work Ik spuw op mijn eigen graf (I Spit on my Tomb, 2007) refers.
The work consists of 250 headstones of black or gray veined granite on which the names of insects are engraved in Flemish with the date of birth or birth and death of artists, philosophers, musicians writers, scientists, etc.. In the cemetery the figure-sculpture-portrait of the artist spits on his own tomb in homage to the writer Boris Vian, from whom he borrowed the work’s title; and also “Dependence”, 1979-2002 in which the artist represents himself hanged, we see the figure shining as if it were gold.
The artist considers death the essence of living, the space of what is no longer alive and to which art restores life. Thus, for the artist the body is the highest representation of flow, of the cycle of life, and of what begins and ends only to begin again. At times elements of daily life appear in this circle as symbols of this passage, like milk, which is considered a real and symbolic image of the mother with whom the artist tries to resuscitate the animals in “Het reclameren van de dode straatkatten” (The Complaining of the Dead Street Cat), 2007. Sometimes the artist dwells upon he idea of pain as in the sculptures “Tranensculpturen II (Ivana e Annabelle) (History of Tears II -Ivana and Annabella), 2006, a homage to the feminine figure, warrior of beauty par excellence, two white sculptures, two nudes whose bodies have knives, wounding axes and glasses, phials to collect and contain the humors, stuck into them. The two sculptures are surrounded by drawings made of tears: tears of irritation by onion and insomnia, tears of emotion caused by worry and incomprehension or spiritual tears of music.
Sometime Fabre considers the moments of passage – between the visible and invisible, day and night, life and death, immanence and transcendence – and the figures that represent and symbolise them are central to his oeuvre. So figures of the night and symbolically the bringers of misfortune, owls (or rather their heads) are at the centre of the work “Boodschappers van de dood onthoofd” (Messengers of Death Decapitated), 2006, a long table with a Flanders tablecloth set with the heads of 7 owls. In the work there is the idea of decapitation of the symbol and of death, because the owl is traditionally a harbinger of death, human death, and here the heads of the owls, decapitated messengers, have artificial human eyes in the place of their own.
Fabre often develops this concept of rebirth and the overcoming of limits through the image of insects, creatures that inhabit his imagination and work, in particular the scarab beetle. For him the scarab beetle is the paradigm of transformation and regeneration. He inherited his interest in science and his passion for insects from his great-grandfather, the famous entomologist Jean-Henri Fabre, and this aspect marked a key transition in his artistic training. The artist uses this insect as an important element in various works in the exhibition: fragments of the scarab’s shiny armour and heads are seen in a battlefield, indicative of a landscape of life and death and the memory of the knights of beauty (“Sanguis mantis landscape battlefield”, 2004); he turns them into the armour of a symbolic sphere of Earth and the cosmos from which a swan’s head rises (“Le problème”, 2001); or they cover the tail that sticks out of a human pelvis. The tail remains a mythical memory of the anatomical extension that disappeared from mankind with evolutionary change. Referring to and retracing these millions of years, Fabre’s work opposes the simple process of civilization that caused us to shed myths and legends (“Tail”, 1999).