Berlinde De Bruyckere: Stages & Tales
Hauser & Wirth, Somerset
28 September, 2018 - 1 January, 2019
Review by Stan Portus
When you visit Hauser & Wirth, Somerset, what is striking from the very beginning is the grandeur of the location. Nestled just outside the village of Bruton, the large complex of restored farm buildings seems at odds with the local rugby club’s goal posts, that are just visible above the site’s perimeter. Inside the gallery, the warmth of the brick walls welcomes you, and the surrounding land is framed beautifully in floor to ceiling windows. Because the landscape is immediately so integral to the experience when visiting these galleries, it feels odd that in the first room of Berlinde De Bruyckere’s exhibition ‘Stages and Tails’, the windows are covered up. White fabric is stuck over the panes, allowing sunlight to pass through, but dispersing its rays in the process. The reason for this is obscure at first, and remains so for quite some time.
The space contains three objects which make up a new work by De Bruyckere, ‘Anderlecht’ (2018). Each is a pallet with layers of folded and stacked hide, forming their own contours and falls, where the odd pinks, yellows and blues of these objects speak of the fatty animals these hides once were, and the treated material they will become. But they only speak of this origin and future. When you look closer these objects reveal, after quite some guessing, that they aren’t on this transitional journey - they won’t be turned to leather - because they are in fact casts of hides, meticulously hand painted by De Bruyckere in wax, and embellished with the hairs and salt from the original hides. On closer inspection too, the wooden pallets are bronze. ‘Anderlecht’ then is a trick on the visitor, deployed through De Bruyckere’s artistry, and maintained by the covered windows. The light, explains the gallery assistant, could melt the works.
The joy of discovering the deceit of this work is followed quickly by the relief that you are not facing the actual skins of animals. De Bruyckere’s work raises questions about death, why society wants to prolong its inevitability as much as possible, and why it is something that people shy away from discussing. So, this relief is cut with irony; death is presented, but really it is hidden. De Bruyckere likes to deal with themes in a lofty, abstract sense. Death is death with a capital ‘D’. The ideas of bodies and flesh in her work verge on the phenomenological rather than the literal. These themes appear to be discussed in an ahistorical sense as opposed to a temporal one.
‘Courtyard Tales’ (2017-2018) is a series of works made of old blankets that De Bruyckere left to decompose in the courtyard of her studio hanging over one another to create abstract, layered compositions. The provided text explains that the broken down weaves of the woollen blankets represent, “the failure of social structures”, and that they are, “particularly compelling at this turbulent moment in history.” The blankets hang over unseen structures making them bulge and fall in uncanny ways. The iron nails pinning them high to the wall surely can’t be the only way they are suspended. Despite their holes and gashes that make them appear so miserable and forgotten, their framing in the gallery makes them seem like rich drapery more than anything else - even if that is drapery in ruins.
Like ‘Anderlecht’ they make you wonder about their creation, but any specific social structures or turbulent moment seems far removed from these works. Instead, ‘Courtyard Tales’ is best read in relation with ‘Anderlecht’, where the works fall into a strange cyclical relationship. Walking between the two gallery spaces the hides of ‘Anderlecht’ started to appear more like blankets that had been folded into stacks, and the blankets of ‘Courtyard Tales’ appeared to look more like hides. De Bruyckere may not speak of a particular moment or structure, but together ‘Anderlecht’ and ‘Courtyard Tales’ open a space to consider the cycles of creation and dispossession, meanings lost and meanings gained, that through the fabrics held close to bodies, play out in life’s most intimate moments.