The foal’s spindly legs, gently bound together in a chiasmus and lit, as though by overhead moonlight, formed a shy shadow on the darkened gallery floor. The animal—sacrificial, symbolic, stunning, meaning both marvelous and stupefying—had its eyes covered by frayed cloth, but, coming into sharp view, it was revelatory, a subtle kind of piercing. Laid out on a wood-and-iron table, the foal evoked Francisco de Zurbarán’s small oil painting Agnus Dei. And indeed, the piece, by the Belgian sculptor Berlinde De Bruyckere, was called to Zurbaran and dedicated to that Baroque master.
De Bruyckere—a soft-spoken woman, whose quiet, deliberate intensity echoed the steel-rod strength of her work—saw Agnus Dei about a year and a half ago at a Zurbarán exhibition in Brussels and was, she said, “surprised” by it. Standing in front of her work on the eve of the opening of her show “No Life Lost” at Hauser & Wirth, De Bruyckere said that the only way she knew to “react to that painting was making a work out of this feeling and emotion. I was so attracted by what I saw I couldn’t do anything else, just work with that idea, that feeling.” And so she began with the visuals: “The holy lamb was bound—the legs together in the same position as I did with the foal. And then it was also placed on wood, very poor wood; it’s not a rich table with a lot of class and glamour, it’s a really poor wood. And also the fact of chiaroscuro—the dark and the light in the painting was something that inspired me, and it’s also why I decided to keep the darkness in the space.” But as she worked on the fragile blankets that would bind the animal, she felt that it was not enough. This was around the time she first saw images of Alan Kurdi, the drowned Syrian boy, and these images elicited again the feeling she had at seeing the Zurbarán. “From that moment on,” De Bruyckere said, “I was doing the blind-making of the horse not in terms of making blind in a negative way but just in a positive way. It was like the dream of [the] people of Syria who try to make it to Europe. They have a dream, and very often this dream will never happen. And especially with the boy who arrived dead already, there was no chance to live and to become someone. And it was the same with the foal, he died after one day, there was no future for him.”
De Bruyckere has long been making work that might be called provocative were it not for the persistent touch of gentleness, of softness, that is always, always at the core. Or perhaps it is more proper to say that the work is provocative precisely because of that tenderness: it forces us to look directly at abjection, at death, and to find beauty in it. It is a decadent sort of art, focused on decay and disintegration, on objects (and subjects) held together by the force of the artist’s will. And yet the decadence is a form of immanence, too, a reminder of love, of grace proceeding from suffering. As Alexandra Coghlan remarked on the occasion of De Bruyckere’s 2012 show at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, there is in her work, as in the work of the Old Masters, the coexistence of Rabelais and Vitruvian Man.
De Bruyckere herself casts the balance in other terms. Referring to No Life Lost II, a found-object vitrine holding three stacked, embracing horses, she spoke of the ways in which the piece was at once figurative and abstract: “I like this idea that it’s not just a figurative sculpture, but that from one side, there is a more or less certain shape of something that you don’t recognize immediately,” she said, circling the work. And, several times, she noted the ways in which life and death, Eros and Thanatos, pulled at and played with each other throughout her oeuvre and more and more animate her work these days. “It’s always about Eros and Thanatos. Death and life, these are the topics I talk about,” she said. “And that I have to deal with—everybody, we have to deal with as human beings. And when you are young, you can escape from that, it’s far away. And when you are getting older—I am more than fifty, and my parents, they still live but they are older people—it’s like, yeah, you feel that—I feel really my position now, where I am in my life, what I did before and what I want to do, and yeah, it deals always with love and death.”
The shock of De Bruyckere’s work—and it is shocking, in its vulnerability, its stark but quiet force, its capacity to resonate in the viscera, its intimation of a lost battle, a battle we are bound to lose but persevere in fighting—is the way in which life and death, love and aggression, are not separate forces in it, but intertwined ones. Of the foal, she explained, “It’s not that I am only interested in the dead horse. I am trying to talk about something living. For me, this horse—it’s like a moment that I have frozen. For me, this horse is not dead. If you see the power in his belly, for me, it’s like he still can start breathing again.”
Something similar happens in Cripplewood, originally shown in the Belgian pavilion at the 2013 Venice Biennale. The piece—a fallen tree, its branches, some bandaged, suggesting desperate hands reaching for salvation that may never come—tells, in De Bruyckere’s own telling, several stories: of Venice and of Saint Sebastian, of the tree itself, an important recurrent motif in the artist’s work, of her collaboration with the novelist J. M. Coetzee, whose novels (she used the word romans) she admires and whom she invited to serve as curator for her stint at the Biennale.
“For me, there are many layers in [Cripplewood],” she said. “One layer is that I look at it like a wounded body, who needs that someone take care of it. When I was working with my assistants on Cripplewood, very often I would get the idea that we were nurses, doing all these bandages around the legs, which were broken and had to be restored or repaired. And this shows you much more the vulnerability of the work, of the tree. So the body was one layer. And on the other hand, you have Saint Sebastian, which was another layer. Sebastian is a very strong person, in the way that he has to deal with his suffering, with the arrows. He is never showing his pain, it’s like he is in a mental state that is above all this physical pain. And that is something that I really want to try out also in my own work, that we are above pain and suffering, that we’ve survived it. And then for sure also the fact of the tree, which isn’t a real one, it’s a collage, the branches are not coming from this trunk, from these roots. It’s something that I’ve collected, and to make one big sculpture from this assortment … They are not installed in the way we are used to seeing trees, and it’s like a big thing also from the ocean. And then the colors that we chose, they are all related, the red to blood, to the wounds we all have to work on. Each detail has a reason why they exist. The cushions are not just somewhere, they are placed, they need to be there.”
She suggested, in describing the work’s precision, the writing of poetry, or maybe it only seemed that way because the work seemed to me so poetic, a seemingly fragile accumulation of meaning that holds together even as it collides head-on with our necessities, confronts—and, momentarily but hauntingly, transcends—our limitations. And though De Bruyckere tactfully assented when I sighed “It’s like a poem” in front of the moonlit Cripplewood, she might see her work in somewhat different terms. Speaking of No Life Lost I, a hanging grid of animal skins re-created in wax, she had noted that she “wanted to show the skins as real individuals, as portraits.” Smiling, she described “asking some people in the gallery here, What’s your favorite skin?, the one that they picked out, I told them, It’s your portrait.” And which one was her favorite? “The last one is my favorite, the large one,” she said without hesitation. “It’s like a monk.”
Yevgeniya Traps lives in Brooklyn. She works at the Gallatin School of Individualized Study, NYU.