What the fuck.., 2004. Polyester and steel, 12.3 x 2.3 x .95 m.

Seizing the Chaos of Life: A Conversation with Peter Buggenhout

Peter Buggenhout’s large, abstract sculptures force us to re-think the nature of art. They engage with the abject, with formlessness and chaos, preferring a jumbled reality to the order of symbolic systems. Covered with sometimes disturbing organic materials or dust, his works grow from a process of accretion; they are about transformation and, elliptically, about the messiness of life. Carefully planned installations built up of construction materials may resemble cheap structures ripped apart by hurricanes, while sculptural objects recall unknown machines covered in grime or heaps of dust-caked refuse. These works have something of ’50s Art Informel or ’60s post-Minimalism, but with a twist. Buggenhout upsets the status quo. This interview was conducted in Ghent in April 2008, at Buggenhout’s home and studio, which he shares with his wife, sculptor Berlinde de Bruyckere, and their two young sons.

Michaël Amy: What is your work about?
Peter Buggenhout: My goal is to achieve analogies for how I feel our world functions. Imagine yourself on the train, entering Brussels, passing behind all those old houses that have been completely transformed over time. New parts have been added to them, old parts have been torn down, a gabled roof has made way for a flat roof, windows with wood frames have been replaced by windows with plastic frames, and the design of the glass panes has changed. Some window and door embrasures have been sealed shut. New owners have modified these buildings in unforeseeable ways. The same is true of the room we are standing in, which has become my studio. It has gone through a great many changes since it was built over a century ago. It first served as the gym of a Catholic boys’ school. Then, the Neo-Gothic structure was transformed into a puppet theater. Next, it became a neighborhood movie theater, and then, 20 years ago, it became my studio. The space bears the marks of all of these changes. No one knows what transformation it will undergo next. Or take the sea: it washes over the shore, leaves something behind, rolls over the shore again and again, and gradually builds up a beach. Or this conversation: we jump from one point to another. A conversation is unpredictable—it’s chaotic, one has no overview. I am likewise inspired by my working-class neighborhood, where everything is in a state of flux. The flux of reality is one of the principal subjects of my work.

I did not start out with this view. Instead, I discovered my subject once I had produced quite a bit of sculpture.

I studied mathematics. Math uses the language of symbols. Images of things—which are, therefore, symbols for things—fail to seize the totality. That’s why I use analogy. Analogy stands so much closer to reality. My work does not include the least bit of symbolism. It is completely abstract. When we look at an image, we instinctively aim to recognize something in it. My sculptures do not escape this entirely natural impulse on the part of the beholder. However, each sculpture is built up in such a way that any impression one has of a reference is dismantled as one walks around it. After you have finished walking around one of my sculptures, you cannot help but conclude that it resembles nothing other than itself. The materials that I use are all abject—dust, stomachs, innards, blood, and hair. They lose their form and meaning when they are removed from their original context. Once this happens, they become repellent. The act of reading symbols, which is ingrained in all of us, makes us overlook the actual appearance of the object. By dismantling this tendency to work with symbols, I bring the viewer back to the object itself, and to its inherent qualities, which are bypassed by symbolism. That is why I work with abject materials. Bataille said that the abject was invented in order to declassify things. One declassifies by ignoring symbolism.