Since his debut, the aim of Jan Fabre’s research – artist born in 1958 in Antwerp where he still lives and works today – has been to discover the secret of beauty. While referring to different dimensions of space and time and creating a personal universe occupied with a multitude of symbolic figures, he has sought to retrieve the archetypal and primitive knowledge that present-day society has now lost. To do this, he uses a range of media capable of visualising the ideas behind all of his artistic activity: the centrality of the body in its physiological, intellectual and symbolic aspects; drawing’s leading role as the tool to know the body; and the possibility of interchange (or metamorphosis) between art and science, man and animal, life and death.
After studying in Antwerp at the Municipal Institute of Decorative Arts and Crafts and at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts, Fabre undertook his passionate life as a visual artist, theatre maker and author in the second half of the 1970s.
Antwerp, 1976, provided the stage for his first performances, later followed by daring actions such as Money Performance (1980), during which he wrote the words “ART”, “money” and “honey” with the ashes of cash lent by the spectators in order to reflect on the commodification of art. His first theatrical performance dates from 1980 (Theatre written with a K is a tomcat), exploring what a written text could materialise into: a graphical element, spoken language or the act of typewriting the recited script. Convinced that art is a sort of collective rite to carry out through the body, Fabre developed theatre productions such as: This is theatre as to be expected and foreseen (1982, lasting eight hours) and The power of theatrical madness (1984, lasting four hours, presented on occasion of the Venice Biennial), which were his definitive international breakthrough. Bringing real body, real time and real action to the stage those works changed the idiom of the theatre throughout the world. Since 2012 the two creations were re-enacted by a younger generation of actors and dancers and the current penchant for speed and the new media makes it perhaps even more radical today than it was before. Mount Olympus. To glorify the cult of tragedy, a 24-hour performance had its world premiere at the Berliner Festspiele in July 2015. It’s an exceptional and monumental project, in which thirty performers and four generations appear on stage, who display every dimension of his theatre work after more than thirty years of experience. Jan Fabre’s theatre performances are mainly based on vital and transgressive figures which, dominated by the instinct and irrationality that society has denied us, reveal mankind’s most primordial inclinations.
Despite the importance given to performance and theatre, which has also led him to make films (Lancelot, 2004), right from the first years Fabre’s starting point is writing and drawing. He has researched the medium of drawing and developed amongst others a specific work method based on the obsessive and repeated use of the blue Bic ballpoint pen. This method draws inspiration from the “Hour Blue” formulated by renowned entomologist Jean-Henri Fabre, to indicate the moment of the passage between night and day, when the nocturnal bugs retire and the daytime insects wake up, when everything blends together and transforms. In this cycle of works from the seventies to the nineties Jan Fabre uses the blue ink of the ballpoint pen to draw on fabric, paper, photographs, objects, walls and even on an entire castle (Tivoli, 1990).
In line with the metaphorical dimension intrinsic to the “Hour Blue” concept, Fabre has also devoted himself to drawing with his own bodily liquids, in order to evoke an emptying and therefore inevitable transformation of the self. In 1978, in My body, my blood, my landscape, he drew with his blood to underline the artist’s sacrifice in order to achieve authentic creation. Over the years, he has also drawn with sperm, urine, tears and sweat to allude to the fluid body and its vital and creative energy.
Basing himself on studying the animal world, the “Hour Blue” has led him to use some animal species as elements of his images, giving them a symbolic value: the tortoise, for its shell, is the symbol of protection from the outside world and an oracle stone; the owl is instead the graven animal, symbol of wisdom, farsightedness and messenger of death. The true protagonists of Fabre’s artistic universe are nevertheless insects: in particular beetles, and above all the dung beetle. Not having undergone any great variations over the centuries, the scarab can be considered the holder of the most ancient memories of the human history, as well as by tradition the symbol of death and at the same time of metamorphosis. It is no coincidence that the wing-cases of the jewel beetle made up the artist’s most impressive permanent installation (Heaven of Delight) which in 2002 covered the whole ceiling of the Hall of Mirrors in the Royal Palace in Brussels, their colours changing continually with the reflection of the light.
Throughout his oeuvre, Fabre has tried to visualise reality’s capacity to change, reflecting on the concept of perpetual change, and the overlap between life and death, man and animal, light and shade, dream and nightmare, beauty and ugliness. His works always stage the moment when a change in reality takes place: Fabre changes the visible through different media (sheets, canvases, objects, bodies, but also public spaces such as the Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature in Paris - La Nuit de Diane, 2007 – and the Antwerp ZOO – A tribute to Mieke, the tortoise and A tribute to Janneke, the tortoise, 2012). Like an alchemist, he thus transforms everything he touches, making it lose its material aspect, by empathy prompting a change in the mind of the spectator too. His interest in the brain, considered the most sexy part of the body, stems from here too, and so it becomes the central subject of some exhibitions such as Anthropology of a Planet (Palazzo Benzon, Venice, 2007), From the Cellar to the Attic. From the Feet to the Brain (Kunsthaus, Bregenz, 2008; Arsenale Novissimo, Venice, 2009) and Pietas (Nuova Scuola Grande di Santa Maria della Misericordia, Venice, 2011).
Other important solo exhibitions in which the artist has confirmed his leading position on the international artistic scene are: Homo Faber (KMSKA, Antwerp, 2006), Hortus/Corpus (Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo, 2011) and Stigmata. Actions & Performances 1976-2013 (MAXXI, Rome, 2013; M HKA, Antwerp, 2015). His famous The Hour Blue series (1977-1992) has been shown at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna (2011), the Musée d’Art Moderne in Saint-Étienne (2012), and the Busan Museum of Art (South Korea, 2013); the series of mosaics entitled Tribute to Belgian Congo and Tribute to Hieronymus Bosch in Congo (2011-2013) have already been exhibited at the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Lille (2013) and the PinchukArtCentre in Kiev (2013). Jan Fabre is also the first living contemporary artist to have exhibited at the Louvre (L’ange de la métamorphose, Paris, 2008) and to have been invited to hold a large scale solo show (scheduled for 2016) at the Hermitage Museum in Saint-Petersburg. November 18 2015 the Cathedral of Our Lady in Antwerp officially welcomes Jan Fabre’s bronze sculpture The man who bears the cross (2015). It’s the first time in more than 100 years a work of art is acquired by the Diocese and it will be installed in direct relation with The Descent from the Cross by Peter Paul Rubens (1611-1614).
Turin, September 2015 Ilaria Bernardi