Berlinde De Bruyckere at the Biennale of Venice

Berlinde De Bruyckere at the Biennale of Venice
Yareah Magazine

For the 55th edition of the Biennale di Venezia (Biennale of Venice), Berlinde De Bruyckere presents ‘Kreupelhout – Cripplewood’ at the Pavilion of Belgium.

A new in situ installation that occupies the entire pavilion and is inspired by the artist’s dialogue with the city of Venice, its history and the numerous paintings and sculptures of Saint Sebastian around the city. ‘Kreupelhout – Cripplewood’ is the artist’s plea for undisclosed beauty.

Berlinde De Bruyckere at the Biennale of Venice

Berlinde De Bruyckere Kreupelhout – Cripplewood (detail) 2012 – 2013
wax, epoxy, iron, textile, rope, paint, gypsum, roofing
937 (h) x 1002 x 1686 cm | 368 7/8 x 394 1/2 x 663 3/4 inches

Kreupelhout – Cripplewood’ is a synthesis of themes that are the foundation of De Bruyckere’s oeuvre: life and death; Eros and Thanatos; strength and vulnerability; oppression and protection; desire and suffering; desolation and unification.

Her signature practice of making life-size reconstructions of objects and bodies is continued in this installation; however, instead of animals or human bodies, this work is an enormous, gnarled and knotted, uprooted elm tree, merging into a mass of trunks and limbs with an almost disturbing resemblance to the muscles, tendons and bones of the human form. Between the tree’s limbs, soft pillows, blankets and rags are used to soothe and support the exposed body. In ‘Kreupelhout – Cripplewood’, the metamorphosis from man to tree and vice versa, is tangible, but incomplete.

Working with J.M. Coetzee

De Bruyckere perceives her contribution to the Venice Biennale as a project that is linked to a certain context, which she has fully absorbed in order to translate it into a complex and layered installation. To accompany her on this journey, she invited the South African novelist and recipient of the 2003 Nobel Prize for Literature, J.M. Coetzee “Not to assist me during the working process or to help me make any decisions”, she wrote to him, “but as a source of inspiration (…). For me this summarizes my commission to you, as my curator; to give me something to feed on, something to digest on for a while and spit out afterwards”.

J.M. Coetzee and Berlinde De Bruyckere have long admired each other’s work, which resulted in the collaborative publication, ‘We Are All Flesh’, in 2012. For ‘We Are All Flesh’, De Bruyckere re-read Coetzee’s entire oeuvre, selected quotes and excerpts that appealed to her and re-arranged them according to themes related to her own work. She made a corresponding selection of her own work by singling out details of existing images and combining those with the text fragments, which she then sent to Coetzee. “Throughout this communication, the connection between his work and mine became increasingly clear”, she says. “Killing animals, the quietness, the pain, the importance of wounds and scars… in all my works, his words are subtly present“.

In his novel, ‘Age of Iron’, Coetzee writes: “We do not stare when the soul leaves the body, but veil our eyes with tears or cover them with our hands. We do not stare at scars, which are places where the soul has struggled to leave and been forced back, closed up, sewn in…” De Bruyckere sees this quote as describing where she belongs: “I’m the one sewing it in, not letting it slip away. Unveiling the scars, cherishing the scars. This is where I create. The moment man ceases to be”.

Berlinde De Bruyckere did not ask J.M. Coetzee to contemplate on her work as would normally be expected from a curator. Her request to him was to provide a parallel text, a juxtaposition that reveals the connection between both oeuvres. He sent her ‘The Old Woman and The Cats’, an unpublished text that she absorbed and gradually translated into the work. During the working process, a correspondence arose between the artist and the author. She described the entire process meticulously. He sent her his thoughts, associations, suggestions and a text about the title ‘Kreupelhout – Cripplewood’. Due to the actual physical distance (Coetzee lives on the other side of the world), this correspondence was their only means to communicate. Through their letters they circled around the work, ‘sculpting’ it in words.

Completely different is the collaboration Berlinde De Bruyckere established with co-curator Philippe Van Cauteren, artistic director at S.M.A.K. Van Cauteren lives in Ghent and was able to follow the creation process from nearby, in De Bruyckere’s studio and in Venice. As a result, they spent a lot of time together discussing the physical and artistic aspects of the project as well as its meaning within the oeuvre of the artist.

Saint Sebastian

To integrate this contemporary sculpture in Venice, a city that has been an epicentre of art and culture for centuries, De Bruyckere has incorporated the iconography of Saint Sebastian into her work. In Venice, no other saint has been portrayed more than Saint Sebastian, who is often shown tied to a tree and shot with arrows. In a city that was repeatedly struck by the plague, Saint Sebastian – who resisted the divine arrows that, according to tradition, spread the plague – became the most important protector saint.

De Bruyckere was particularly fascinated by the mental strength of the saint: “It’s his stubbornness, mostly, that attracts me. This young officer in the Roman army, tortured to death, as he would not deny his Christian faith. The stoical acceptance of his fate, the pride in his posture that remains unaffected. Not a glimpse of pain in his expression. The arrows do not seem to harm him, although they are penetrating his body. This tells me something about his mental state; he embodies a combination of beauty and self-contempt, a ‘mystical pain’.”

De Bruyckere has found Saint Sebastian in the shape of her twisted and tied-down tree. There are places where the bark has been removed, where the delicate skin that lies beneath is uncovered. The tree’s branches – its arms and legs – have been removed, leaving behind a bare trunk. The removed branches have left their marks; the injured tree reveals its scars.

For the artist, Saint Sebastian is no longer tied to the tree; he has become the tree. The deep red cloths that support the tree appear as if they are soaked in the blood of Saint Sebastian, but are also reminiscent of the typical reds in the paintings of old Venetian masters, such as Bellini, Titian and Veronese. The immense force that radiates from this enormous trunk personifies Saint Sebastian’s vigor and strength.


Throughout De Bruyckere’s oeuvre the plinths of her sculptures have been an integral part of the work. These bases are all gathered from elsewhere. They have served different purposes, told different stories, but they relate to each other as a power socket and a lamp: without each other they produce no energy.

In the Pavilion of Belgium, De Bruyckere uses the same working method on a very large scale. “The entire pavilion will be treated in the same way as in my previous sculptures. I want to create an atmosphere for both sculpture and viewer. The Black Death, a huge and overwhelming phenomenon, can be compared to more recent problems like cholera, aids and even civil wars.” The fear for the plague, which returned many times to Venice and wiped out half of the city’s population, is tangible in the dark, gloomy walls and the black floors of the pavilion.

The architecture of the pavilion contrasts heavily with the city that bathes in the beautiful Venetian light. Instead, it reveals what’s hidden beneath the surface of the water. “The decadent Venetian walls carry the marks of their past.”De Bruyckere states. “Swollen by the rising water, which searches its way through the different layers of paint and plaster, creating scars and revealing wounds”. These ’weeping walls’ surround the work that according to the pavilion’s curator, J.M. Coetzee, “brings illumination, but the illumination is as dark as it is profound”.

S.M.A.K. – Museum of Contemporary Art Ghent

Belgium Pavilion

Berlinde De Bruyckere’s “Kreupelhout – Cripplewood”

Debuts in Venice

Pavilion of Belgium

55th International Art Exhibition – la Biennale di Venezia

1 June – 24 November 2013

Preview: 29 – 31 May 2013

Commissioner: Joke Schauvliege, Flemish Minister of Environment, Nature and Culture Berlinde De Bruyckere

Artist: Berlinde De Bruyckere

Curator: J.M. Coetzee

Co-curator: Philippe Van Dauteren

Organization: S.M.A.K., Museum of Contemporary Art, Ghent, Belgium

‘Her sculptures explore life and death – death in life, life in death, life before life, death before death – in the most intimate and most disturbing way. They bring illumination, but the illumination is as dark as it is profound’. J.M. Coetzee, January 2013

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