Heaven of Delight, 2002. Beetles on ceiling and chandelier of the Royal Palace, Brussels.

Measuring the Clouds: A Conversation with Jan Fabre

Jan Fabre lives and works in his native Antwerp. Contemporary art aficionados know him for his powerful figurative or abstract drawings executed in blue ballpoint and his sculptures fraught with surface ornament. Fabre’s early drawings and sculptures of the 1970s reveal his abiding interest in performance art. The drawings often explored themes or motifs for a range of performance pieces, and the sculptures frequently arose out of live acts involving the body. Fabre’s works, which treat the weighty subjects of life, memory, and death by indirection, often come across as great feats of physical endurance.

Salvator Mundi, 2000. Armor, angel hair, and insects, 54 x 20 x 39 cm.

The drawings, consisting of dense, monochrome fields of all-over hatching marks, eventually grew in scale. They were displayed either freestanding, with their rectos and versos exposed to view like pieces of sculpture, or glued onto forms ranging from bathtubs and sheds to the vast Castle Tivoli at Mechelen (1990), near Antwerp. The copper thumbtacks that Fabre employed in the early sculptures to encase representations of his body, as well as accompanying objects, eventually made way for (usually green) iridescent jewel beetles. The latter were affixed to invisible armatures of wire-mesh, suggesting three-dimensional things such as a urinal, a microscope, a Latin cross, a dress, and a hooded mantle. Today, the artist encloses voids with thin slices of human bone mounted on wire-mesh supports.

Fabre’s interest in performance art is reflected in his manifold activities as actor, author, choreographer, and film and theater director. This Belgian artist with seemingly inexhaustible energy is also the co-founder, publisher, and co-editor of Janus, a quarterly magazine on art and culture. Fabre has had over 50 one-person shows since 1984 and has taken part in numerous group exhibitions including the Venice Biennale (1984 and 1997), the Bienal de São Paulo (1991), Documenta IX (1992), and the Istanbul Biennale (1992 and 2001). This interview took place late one night at a terrace on the main civic square of Bruges, following a rehearsal of Fabre’s new theater production Parrots and Guinea Pigs (2002).

Le Chaton de Dieu, 2000. Skull, scarab beetles, and cat, 32 x 30 x 19 cm.

Michaël Amy: Beekeeper (1998–99), in the collection of the Provinciaal Museum voor Moderne Kunst at Ostende, depicts a hooded mantle built up of hundreds of glowing jewel beetles. The mantle appears to hover in space, alongside the wall to which it is attached. What is the meaning of this work and where does your interest in beetles come from?

Jan Fabre: That sculpture depicts a male angel, a monk of sorts. It is based on Bruegel’s drawings of beekeepers. A beekeeper is a protector, who accompanies one and serves as a guide. I am interested in man and, consequently, interested in angels. An angel is original, perfect, and unique, and man is the opposite of all of that. With that sculpture, I aim to express the idea that man wishes to improve and seek what is perfect, unique, and never changing. Man fails in his attempt to achieve this and has to rise again to the challenge. I have confidence in man. In my work, I seek to create a more perfect human image—an ideal place or space. I believe this is possible. My work rejects all forms of cynicism. So much contemporary art is deeply cynical, so much of it is overly concerned with power and commerce. These languages are foreign to my thinking about art. There is an alternative to an art permeated by the society in which one lives. In many of my recent sculptures, I seek to render the body spiritualized—the body reduced to a shell. We have internal skeletons and beetles have external skeletons. My sculptures are bodies built up of hundreds of scarabs, in other words, of hundreds of skeletons.

Beetles have survived for millions of years. They have adapted themselves to their changing environment. They possess information, they have the greatest memory. These creatures can be understood as the oldest computers, the oldest memories. I load the empty space of my bodies with that memory. The body you mentioned is a shell made up of memory that is older than the human body. Jewel beetles appear in Flemish vanitas paintings. They symbolize our passage to death, though death understood in the sense of a positive energy field, death as something that keeps us awake, death as a concrete object, like a table, which you can accidentally bump into, hurting yourself.

The monk-like figures I have been working on have their origin in my writings about a fluid body, a body consisting exclusively of blood. I have been thinking about what would happen should our internal skeleton be projected outward and become an external skeleton. One consequence would be that we could no longer be wounded, which would lead to the development of a whole new range of thoughts and feelings. We in the West, for instance, would no longer believe in that man who walked on top of water. My spiritual voyager, who no longer works and only has free time and thinks, is my hope for humanity. In our society, we do not get paid to dream—dreaming is forbidden. Well, those figures dream and think, and they are invulnerable.

These ideas have led me to the use of human skeletons, which I acquire in India and Leuven and saw into thin slices that can be sewn together. These slivers have the visual characteristics of Bruges lacework, a transparency of sorts. A year ago, I arrived at a new type of external skeleton, a new skin, which comes out of my thinking about the spiritual body. We are presently creating a new type of man in this technological age. How can we return to our innermost selves? My work has a lot to do with the Middle Ages. I find medieval thought beautiful.

Monk with Bones, 2001. Wire and human bones, 160 x 60 x 45 cm.

MA: Do you believe in angels?

JF: I believe in the model of the angel—we need role models. I even believe in the model of the church. I believe the church is necessary, which does not mean that I will be subjugated to its authority. We need to reclaim spiritual places in our society. I create spiritual realms through my art.

Meat, 1996. Jewel beetles and wire, 180 x 60 x 60 cm.

MA: You mentioned Pieter Bruegel and Flemish memento mori. How important are the early Flemish masters?

JF: Many of my sculptures are based on the observation of Old Master paintings. I find early Netherlandish painters of the order of Jan van Eyck and Hugo van der Goes great masters in terms of their powers of plastic conception, their spatial thinking, and consequently their sculptural thinking. I recently made two lambs of gilded bronze, one dead and the other alive, which are inspired by van Eyck’s Altarpiece of the Mystic Lamb in Ghent. Gold appears in Old Master painting: I use it in a sculptural manner. These recent sculptures can be traced back to my work of the late 1970s, namely to depictions of myself covered with copper thumbtacks that have a gold-bronze look to them. Now, I finally have the means to produce bronze sculpture.

My other great source of inspiration is the animal world. My father took me on drawing trips to the Antwerp Zoo. I was influenced by Karel van Lat and Alfred Ost, who were not great artists, though they were undoubtedly skilled draftsmen. These excursions explain my interest in biology and the other sciences. My greatest sources of inspiration are Edward O. Wilson and Barry Bolton, philosophers of sorts. Bolton studied ants—insects that lead social lives—and Wilson is the author of Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge. When I look back at my work, I realize that for the past 20 years I have been using a conciliatory language. By this I mean a merging of elements from different disciplines guided by theory and practice. An understanding of entomology can, for example, lead to new interpretations within the visual arts. Or vice versa. Once you manage to reconcile the kinetic qualities of beetles and the kinetic qualities of humans, you obtain new interpretations that can be applied to each of these species. I have allowed the subjects that I have studied over the years to influence each other. I am not an eclectic artist, I am not a multi-media artist: I have always been very aware of what is performance, what is theater, and what is visual art.

I owe a great deal to my parents. My father also took me to the Rubens house—he taught me how to appreciate painting. My mother translated French literature into Flemish for me. My interest in words and images can be traced back to them; drawing and writing are the foundations of my work. I think as I write, and I draw as I think.

I am interested in the independence of the artist. This strikes me as one of the characteristics of the Belgian artistic tradition. Artists I admire, such as Ensor or Magritte, are one-man movements. There is actually something rather bourgeois to that sustained involvement with one’s own world, plans, strategies, and thought patterns.

Queue, 2000. Beetles and human bones, 100 x 15 x 5 cm.

MA: Your use of human bones or wrapping columns in slices of ham (at the Rijksuniversiteit Gent for the “Over the Edges” exhibition, 2000) may raise moral concerns. Has your work been censored?

JF: My “meat pier” was based on a 1978 work that was made by gluing thumbtacks onto a representation of my body, following a performance in which I had used sandpaper to remove the skin from one of my legs. At the university, my idea was to skin the legs of the house of reason, which was clearly an unreasonable act, while being at the same time an act of exploration, of research. That work was successful in that it forced people to engage with social and political ideas. It was also visually striking, for the ham resembled slices of marble. It was an old idea of mine, which I was suddenly able to carry out on a large scale. Some people found the whole thing scandalous, but for all the wrong reasons. There was no censorship involved. However, certain groups became increasingly aggressive and at one point private security guards had to be hired to protect the work.

Sanguis/Mantis (harnas), 2003. Metal, leather, and cotton, 202 x 75 x 75 cm.

MA: Does The Man Who Measures the Clouds (1998, Stedelijk Museum voor Actuele Kunst, Ghent) have its source in the world of dreams? Do dreams play an important role for you as sources of inspiration?

JF: No, they do not. That sculpture pays homage to my late brother, who was a dreamer. It expresses the feeling of planning the impossible, which is actually what the artist does. That figure symbolizes my trade. Artists attempt to get a grip on things, but it never quite works out as planned. Life is so fluid and flexible: today, we are no longer where we stood yesterday. The artist measures: he or she establishes connections—mental, physical, political, and philosophical rapports. I am constantly measuring these types of relationships—that is my duty as an artist. As an artist, I constantly measure the clouds.

The Man Who Measures the Clouds represents a frozen action—an homage to death and to the artist. The man is shown standing precariously on top of a library ladder placed at the edge of a crate, while holding up a school ruler. It’s dangerous to be an artist—both literally and figuratively speaking. The history of this work can be traced back to the early ’80s, when I made a version out of clay. The ornithologist Robert Stroud has strongly influenced me. In The Birdman of Alcatraz, when he is finally released from prison, Stroud states: “I am going to measure the clouds,” with the full understanding that it is an impossible mission.

Heaven of Delight, 2002. Detail of beetle-encrusted surface.

MA: How do you delegate work in colossal endeavors of the order of Castle Tivoli (1990) or Heaven of Delight (2002), your recent ceiling for the Hall of Mirrors of the Royal Palace in Brussels?

JF: Castle Tivoli was a drawing/sculpture and a sculpture/drawing that you could penetrate or walk around—it was a vibrating piece of drawn sculpture. In my work, I have sought to achieve the independence of drawing as a self-sufficient medium. I want to rid drawing of its personal signature. What better to achieve this than by creating a colossal drawing—a large energy field—with 30 assistants in which the hand of the artist becomes irrelevant. Castle Tivoli raises questions as to what exactly is a drawing and what exactly is a sculpture. It was the culmination of that particular period in my career. I was involved with Heaven of Delight for three years, although actual work on the ceiling took three months. This sculpture/drawing comprises 1.4 million jewel beetle shells. My first drawings in blue ballpoint were created by following insects on paper—the splitting of space. Next, I proceeded to replace the ballpoint line by the insect itself. The shimmering ceiling at the Royal Palace is the apotheosis of my development involving the beetles. That is why I am currently conducting research on the body, that strange laboratory we wake up with every morning.

My work is concerned with the release and the absorption of energy, with electricity. I still do a lot myself. I register energy, time, and intensity. I am interested in the act of making. I could have drawn over a photograph of that castle in Mechelen, but instead I chose to cover the entire castle with blue ballpoint. The process of making, or letting others make, gives me tremendous pleasure. I cannot get away from that—I love that physical experience. My nerves cannot be tamed.

As far as the ceiling is concerned, I first created a wide variety of forms and patterns by gluing beetles onto small surfaces. Then I told my 29 assistants that they could start inventing forms, knowing full well what they would come up with. This process allowed me to discover who was good at what type of pattern. Once I had this information, I could assign different areas of the ceiling to different assistants. Those thousands and thousands of beetles form drawings within the larger drawing, as in my large ballpoint drawings. My sculpture seeks to conquer space.

Detail of Heaven of Delight, 2002. Work installed in the Hall of Mirrors at the Royal Palace, Brussels.

MA: Where do you get thousands and thousands of beetles?

JF: I obtain the scarabs from universities I have connections with and through the open market. The Sternocera acquisignata used in the Royal Palace is a non-protected species that appears abundantly in certain countries. In Thailand, the beetle is fried for consumption and its shell is discarded.

Detail of Heaven of Delight, 2002. Work installed in the Hall of Mirrors at the Royal Palace, Brussels.

MA: Your work can look extremely delicate. Is it ephemeral?

JF: I use strong materials, which happen to have a fragile appearance. The color of those beetle shells will never fade, for the outer integument contains chitin, one of the strongest and lightest materials on earth, which was used for objects destined for the Mir space station. Scientists are once more studying the world of insects. I love the durability of things. I create for the future. I believe that my work contains many riddles and layers, which will reveal themselves more clearly to the beholder in, say, 50 or 100 years. Only then will my work be better understood. I find it such a beautiful thought: we live in a society where no one is concerned with durability, while artists are precisely engaged with issues of durability. Durability is a rather old-fashioned concept. You are no longer allowed to believe that your work will have value in, say, 100 years. I believe, on the contrary, that its significance will increase. I would stop making art if I believed that my work could hold no future meaning.

Michaël Amy is a frequent contributor to Art in America, tema celeste, Sculpture, and The New York Sun.