What do dead trees, headless horses, deer antlers and pale naked people in contorted postures have in common? For the uninitiated, they might be passed off as something frivolous, done by an artist because, “they felt like it”, but these subjects of acclaimed Belgian artist Berlinde De Bruyckere from the past decade or so actually mean something.
In The Pillow (2010) a pale naked person hides his/her head in a pillow. But is he/she really hiding or being stuffed into a pillow? The fact that the whole head is submerged into the pillow makes one think of the latter, because in hiding, one would be under the pillow. But then again, who is doing the stuffing? It remains unclear as this sexually ambiguous person does not appear to be under captivity.
In Into One Another III, To PPP (2010) two sexless bodies appear to be having sex, but somehow become intertwined, metamorphosized together into one body, the closer to the head the sculpture goes.
This also happens in We Are All Flesh (2009), where two bodies are intertwined in a sensual/sexual posture, however it is unclear who is male and who is female. As opposed to Michaelangelo’s Statue Of David, here the genitals are ambiguous, undefined, unclear whether one is looking at a vagina or a penis. It is also unclear who is doing the penetrating; whether the person on top is actually flipped up and being penetrated from behind or is lying face down and doing the penetrating on the other person.
I don’t think artists should try and understand everything. If I could put the answers into words, I wouldn’t make sculptures any more. So as a general rule, I try to say as little as possible about my work… Berlinde De Bruyckeye, 2008
One thing for certain is that Bruyckeye just wants her work to do all the talking, not sure if she appreciates the graphically sexual descriptions of the sexually sexless artwork. Perhaps the literal and literary descriptions limit an artwork, by putting it in a box. For maybe in a hundred years people might see something different in them.
These headless humanoid beings also used to describe various emotional states common to man, with what appears to be guts spilled out from inside of a body to the outside in In Doubt (2007), and a portrait of someone, Marthe (2008), whose head transforms into the branches of a tree or maybe roots of a tree, and further transforms into antlers of a deer, which hold up the whole upper body, or weigh it down depending on how one looks at it.
Trees in western mythology are a symbol of life itself, a giver of life and a place of abode, a home. Animals live in it. So when Bruyckere saw this grand old tree fallen and uprooted by a storm lying by the roadside, the same feelings of loss, loneliness and disappointment found in her earlier works were aroused and so decided to bring a representation of it to the Venice Biennale, entitled Cripplewood (2013).
Taking it a step further she also got Nobel peace prize winning novelist J.M. Coetzee to create a fictional tale of a son visiting his dying mother who took care of stray cats and an abandoned mentally disturbed man, to be an accompaniment to the exhibition.
The tree, represents the mother who had nurses come and tend to her during the day, and so the bandages on the tree indicates the wounds which have been cared for by people. In fact, if one strips away the bark, the tree somewhat resembles those pale naked people found in Bruyckere’s earlier sculptures.
The dying tree also symbolizes ruins, and situated in Venice provides a commentary on the classical architecture, beautiful palaces that are being slowly turned into water-logged ruins, swallowed up by rising water, mold and decay. Which explains why the walls of the exhibition hall are black, with mold-looking fabric hanging from the ceilings blocking sunlight from fully entering.
And believe it or not, in this dark, depressing environment, this sculpture is actually about hope. As the mother recalls the incident which lead her to adopt these cats, when she saw a pregnant cat giving birth in a dirty gulley and didn’t want ‘to live in a world in which a man in boots would come and kick you to death (because he felt like it) taking advantage of your being in labour and thus unable to escape. So too would she have nurses tend to her needs and her own son to visit her. A world of strife, greed and abuse of power is beginning to be transformed from an act of kindness; a place of brightness in the middle of a dark, decaying environment.