Jan Fabre

A multidisciplinary artist, playwright, stage director, choreographer and designer, Jan Fabre is one of Belgium’s most celebrated creative minds. Exhibiting internationally at museums and galleries for the past forty years, the Antwerp-based artist has presented his work in the venerable Venice Biennale nine times, including this year’s survey “Jan Fabre. Glass and Bone Sculptures 1977 – 2017” at the Abbazia di San Gregorio, where he is smartly showing sculptures of human skulls, animal skeletons and monks. artBahrain contributing editor Paul Laster recently sat down with Fabre at the abbey in a room overlooking the Grand Canal to discuss the origins of the artist’s imaginative work with BIC pens, beetles, turtles and, naturally, glass and bones.

How did you start using BIC pens as a medium in your work?

It was a very practical choice. As a young guy, who had no money, I could steal these pens at a café, or almost anywhere. I started making drawings with them in the 1970s, when I was still studying at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp, and even used them in performances. It was a cheap way of working, but I soon fell in love with the colours—blue, red, green and purple—and the industrial design of the pen. Overall, I’ve mostly used blue, which has an important place in art history, particularly the Flemish arts.

What different ways have you used this Bic Art, as you call it?

I’ve used them in drawings, in mail art pieces and in performances. In 1977, I made a sculpture that’s in the Venice show and titled The Pacifier. I glued bits of glass to a pacifier that I sculpted in bone and then coloured the shards with blue ink by rubbing it on with my fingers. In 1981, I did a performance titled Ilad of the Bic Art, the Bic Art Room, where I locked myself in a room for three days and drew on every surface. Likewise, my first big drawings were made with the pens by following the paths of insects, as the creatures crawled over paper. Some of these drawings had 10,000 lines.

I was interested in researching the meaning of drawing at the time—beyond it just being a sketch for painting or sculpture. I wanted to emancipate the medium of drawing. There were different steps along the way. I used assistants to make large drawings on silk and drawings on the front and backside of paper. I made drawing shrines, where viewers could walk inside. In 1991, I covered an entire castle in Belgium with blue Bic Art drawings and even rubbed blue ink on all of the glass and metal parts of the building. Next year there’s going to be a show at the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels about the period of work from the 1980s and ‘90s that I call l’heure bleu (The Blue Hour).

Why The Blue Hour?

When I was a young man my first laboratory was in my parent’s garden. It was a tent in the shape of two noses. I was sitting inside of it and digging up worms, catching flies and mosquitoes and cutting off the wings and placing them on the worms’ bodies. I was a mini Dr. Frankenstein. I was 17 or 18 and my uncle came to visit us and when he saw what I was doing he said, ‘Jan, we have someone who wrote about insects in the family, the entomologist Jean-Henri Fabre.’ He shared some books and manuscripts about my ancestor with me and I discovered that he had quite poetically described “l’heure bleu” as the sublime moment of silence between the time when the night creatures go to sleep and the day animals awake. It’s this vital moment before everything breaks open again. 

How did you make the leap from ballpoint pens to beetles?

As I was saying, I was already busy with insects in the ‘70s, when studying and observing nature. I became an amateur entomologist while I was a student at the art academy and simultaneously studying the Flemish masters. I became fascinated with the insects in the vanitas still life paintings of the Old Masters and these different paths came together in my work. The first big sculptures that I made with the beetles—the jewel scarabs—were in the beginning of the 1990s, because I finally had the money to buy large quantities of them from the universities.

What do the beetles—these scarabs—signify for you?

They have different meanings. For example, when you look at art history the scarabs are the bridge between life and death that has a positive energy field in the vanitas paintings. When you study the creatures you find that they are very intelligent. We have one they call the dung beetle—a very beautiful one—that rolls balls with his back legs until they become bigger and bigger. It’s quite beautiful to see in action. This ball becomes a globe of knowledge from the place where he walks, yet it’s also a ball of food for survival. When the ball gets big it gets stored and he starts again. Essentially they are very intelligent animals—you could say that they are the radar of humankind. They are the oldest computers in the world because they contain all of this memory. It’s one of the few animals—like the turtle—that haven’t changed in millions of years. The outer skeleton has stayed the same.

What are some of the ways that you have used these beetles in your work?

My first angels—the angel-shaped figures—and the monks, which are a subject that I’ve returned to often, were made with scarabs. I was thinking about the artistry, as there are a lot of artistic references to the erotic body, such as the paintings of Ingres, and research about the physical body, with its blood and muscles. I was interested in the spiritual body—the body of the shell. While the scarabs have an outer skeleton we humans have an inner skeleton. I wanted to make figures that have an outer skeleton, which I did with the scarabs. It something very ancient and at the same time something very futuristic and visionary. Imagine that you have humans like the monks in the Venice show, with an outer skeleton, and you cannot wound them anymore.

One of the biggest projects that I made 15 years ago, with 1.6 million scarabs, was Heaven of Delight, which covers the ceiling and a chandelier in the Hall of Mirrors of the Royal Palace in Brussels. I got the commission from the King and Queen of Belgium. The ceiling space was white and empty and I painted it with light, metaphorically, by using the iridescent wings of the scarabs to make a kind of mosaic. I gave the ceiling a new skin. I made references to the colonial past with animals and skulls and pieces of ivory, which was something we stole from the Belgian Congo—Brussels is built on the blood of the Congo.

What’s the importance of the brain in your sculptures and installations?

Throughout my work of the past 40 years my interest has been research and the subject has been the human body, or the transition between animal and human, human and animal. I made blood drawings in 1977. I made drawings with my own tears, with the salt in the tears, in the ‘80s. In the ‘90s, I made drawings with my own sperm. I’ve researched the skin in different ways, as well as the skeleton. Of course, I had to come to the brain, which is the most important part of the body. This progression happened organically. For me, the brain is a metaphor for the terra incognita. I’ve worked with several scientists to research it and to help me realize this work.

What role do animals play in your art?

Animals are the best doctors and philosophers in the world. My father had an interest in art and was a very good draughtsman. When I was a boy of 10 years old he took me to the Rubenhuis (Rubens House), where I had to copy Rubens paintings and drawings. And every Wednesday and Saturday he took me to the Antwerp Zoo, where I had to make drawings of the animals and the people. As a young kid I was fascinated by the intelligence of animals—the way they walked, the way they would stand and look around. By studying animals we see how intelligent they are. For example, dolphins are as smart as computers in the way they can cross the oceans with their echo-graphic system. And look at butterflies, which can see many more colours and fragments of life than us. We are inventing machines to do what animals can already do. 

How did you start using your self in your work?

It came to me very early in life. When my father took me too see the work of the Flemish masters I saw that they all made self-portraits. As a young artist, who doesn’t have money, the first thing that you do is to find a subject in the mirror. You always know that you cannot make a proper portrait of your self, but you can make a portrait about your self. There’s a line in my oeuvre about the body. I was my first body—and it’s still often my model.

For example, my sculpture Chapters I-XVIII is a representation of me from age 20 to 80, at different ages and as different animals. I first made a small version of the sculpture The Man Who Measures the Clouds in the 1970s, but it took 20 years to realize it life-size, in bronze. People mistakenly think it’s me, but it’s actually my brother, who died quite young. I always thought of myself as his substitute because there was a picture of him in the living room and my parents would say that’s Jan now. I made the sculpture as an homage to him, but it’s also an homage to the “Birdman of Alcatraz,” Robert Stroud—an ornithologist, or bird specialist. Stroud was interviewed when he left Alcatraz and asked what he was going to do now that he had become famous as an ornithologist and he said, ‘I’m going to measure the clouds.’ It’s based on this story of Robert Stroud, but it has the face of my brother. Another sculpture, The Man Who Bears the Cross, has the face of my uncle that gave me the entomology books of Jean-Henri Fabre.

What does the sculpture of you riding the giant tortoise—Searching for Utopia—signify?

I come from a family of five children, fours dogs, six cats, two turtles, fishes, and pigeons that sat on the chimney and that would also sit on the cats without danger. When I came home from school the turtles would come to me and walk around the chair like a dog. I made Super 8 movies with them and sculpture. Because I had been committed to turtles in my youth I later started working with them in my art. I also used them in performances—for example, the Zeno X Gallery in Antwerp is named after one of my performances with turtles. Like the scarab, the turtle is one of the oldest animals in the world, and it also has an outer skeleton. It became a very important symbol in my work. Years ago I made this sculpture, which is permanently on the coast in Belgium, and I’m sitting on it and driving it, searching for utopia (which is what it’s called). It’s a female turtle that brings a male artist to the other side of utopia.

How did you come to use human bones in your sculptures?

In 1977, when I was 19, one of my professors that liked me very much gave me train tickets and an envelope with money to take a train from Antwerp to Eindhoven in Holland to see a German artist. I went and I discovered Joseph Beuys, one of the greatest artists of his time. There was one work in particular that really fascinated and inspired me. It was called The American Interrogation Chair, which was a simple chair with a tack on the seat to inflict pain. I came home that evening and saw children were playing with glass objects. The two things came together in my thoughts and inspired me to make The Pacifier, my bone pacifier with glass shards on the nipple area. It’s something very comforting that hurts. Looking back at this work from 1977, which has always been in a Belgian collection, I see it as a metaphor for art and beauty. Art and beauty have to comfort, but at the same time has to create wounds. I hope that I can also create wounds in the spectators’ minds—that they can think and feel a different way. It was my first use of glass and bones, but we have a tradition of working with glass in Belgium. It’s dates back to the Middle Ages. To shape and mould in heat—the way you mould and shape glass—it’s almost like a woman shaping a baby’s skeleton in the womb. And later, when we grow old, our character also shapes our skeletal form. That’s one of the reasons I brought these contrasting materials together.

What’s the most complicated, or most difficult, piece that you’ve made in glass?

The most difficult piece is Cross for the Garden of Delight, which I made a couple years back. It’s a pharmaceutical cross that’s green, the colour of poison. It has a skeleton of a snake made with bone on it, which references the pharmakon, a Greek term for something that can poison or cure you. That’s what I want to do as an artist—to cure you or poison you. I worked on this piece for one-and-a-half years, making multiple tests on the small pieces of glass that construct the skin of the piece. I wanted the fragments to be shaped like leaves and the wings of scarabs so that they would construct a patterned, mosaic surface. I returned to work at the glass factory in Murano 20 to 30 times in order to experiment with the materials. Even though it’s not the biggest piece that I’ve ever made, it’s definitely one of the most complex.

How does your visual art differ from your theatre productions?

Theatre has a completely different memory, a completely different history and a completely different technique from the visual arts. They are two different mediums, but of course there are links. I’m learning a lot from my theatre writing and staging, as well as the kinetic intelligence of my actors and dancers—all things that I apply to my visual work. And the other way around, my visual work influences my writing and theatre work through the topics that I’m researching and objects I create. I’m a servant of beauty who uses the best medium for what I want to do. Dmitri Ozerkov, the curator of my retrospective at the Hermitage Museum and one of the curators for the Venice show, described my work as a butterfly, where you have the body, which is the solo performances and actions that I created in the ‘70s, and one wing is the visual arts and other wing is the theatre.

Your work has broken taboos and created a lot of controversy. Is that intentional or just the result of creating avant-garde work?

I’ve never thought about provocation. I’ve always done what I like to do, what I’m curious about and what interests me. What for me is organically researched is sometimes perceived as a provocation to the outside world, but not done so on my part. When provocation—in the good meaning—means education of the mind I can say, ‘Yes, I’m provoking.’ But I’m not interested in a cheap idea of scandal, nor was I ever interested in it. I’m fuelled what triggers my body and my mind.

Even though you are creating contemporary art, you often reference the Medieval Age and the Renaissance. What is about those times that fascinate you?

I’m a dwarf born in a country of giants. I was born in Flanders, just 100 meters away from the Rubenshuis in Antwerp. I studied the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch, Jacob Jordaens, Anthony van Dyck, Peter Paul Rubens and the Brueghels, and I still find them to be extraordinary masters. There’s a power to the work of that time—a power that you rarely find in contemporary art. That’s the reason they still inspire me, and why I keep stealing their ideas.