‘Behind the distorted, antique glass, you see sculptures in the shape of trees or branches. The trees are nearly the same colour as human skin, so you end up with something fragile. Because the antique glass distorts your view, a couple of doors are left open, inviting you to look inside. I don’t want people to see the sculptures as trees, but as strange, vulnerable beings’ (B. de Bruyckere, quoted in Berlinde de Bruyckere: We Are All Flesh, ACCA Education, produced for Berlinde de Bruyckere: We Are All Flesh, Australian Centre for Contemporary Arts, Melbourne, 2012, https://www.accaonline.org.au/sites/default/files/BerlindeDeBruyckereEducationkit.pdf [accessed 23 May 2014]).
Inside a vast two-hundred-year-old museum display case, gnarled tree-like growths contort and spiral. Through the gently-open doors, we are enveloped by the expansive twisted forms of Berlinde de Bruyckere’s wax-coated forest, both beautiful and foreboding. Currently held in the collection of 40 Renn – Espace Claude Berri, 019, 2007 is a rare example of de Bruyckere’s haunting branch sculptures, a practice most recently showcased in the groundbreaking installation Kreupelhout-Cripplewood at the 55th Venice Biennale last year. Created in 2007, the present work prefigures the 2013 commission, both in its technical execution and in its hallowed aura of elegiac disfigurement – a quality central to de Bruyckere’s work. Situated within an oeuvre renowned for its unsettling yet captivating distortions of both human and equine forms, the present work is tinged with anthropomorphism, recalling the dismembered limbs and exposed sinews that recur throughout de Bruyckere’s practice. Laced with subtle hints of colour, de Bruyckere’s wax is uncannily reminiscent of human skin. Yet, as in so many of the artist’s works, the ultimate intention is not to disturb but rather to enlighten the viewer. As de Bruyckere explains, ‘for me it’s important when I started using the trees, they brought the part of life into the work. It was the moment when I started to pay more attention to the colour in the work, because it gave them more life. But the tree brought the element of hope into my work. I was very happy when I found the myth of Ovidius where the human transformed into a tree. When the body is dead and a tree is growing out of it, it becomes a symbol of life and hope’ (B. de Bruyckere, quoted in Berlinde de Bruyckere: We Are All Flesh, ACCA Education, produced for Berlinde de Bruyckere: We Are All Flesh, Australian Centre for Contemporary Arts, Melbourne, 2012, https://www.accaonline.org.au/sites/default/files/BerlindeDeBruyckere Educationkit.pdf [accessed 23 May 2014]).
De Bruyckere’s practice attempts to confront the realities of existence, seeking beauty and reconciliation in the universal phenomena of death and suffering. From horses strewn on the battlefields of World War One to martyrdom and crucifixion, her thematic muses are lyrically memorial, finding grace in the knowledge that trauma has always been essential to humanity. Extending from this practice, the branch sculptures constitute one of de Bruyckere’s most poetic and visually compelling strands, and it is significant that her career-defining exhibition at Venice reprised the aesthetic of the present work. Recreating a vast fallen elm tree, wounded and entangled upon the floor of the Belgian Pavillion, Kreupelhout-Cripplewood has its lineage in the organic proliferations that lurk behind the faded glass exterior of the present work. In both installations, we experience the insatiable force of life that radiates from these broken and trapped forms, a mesh of capillaries and tendons that seem to strain towards proliferation. As the artist has explained, ‘I don’t want people to see the sculptures as trees, but as strange, vulnerable beings’ (B. de Bruyckere, quoted in Berlinde de Bruyckere: We Are All Flesh, ACCA Education, produced for Berlinde de Bruyckere: We Are All Flesh, Australian Centre for Contemporary Arts, Melbourne, 2012, https://www.accaonline.org.au/sites/default/ files/BerlindeDeBruyckereEducationkit.pdf [accessed 23 May 2014]).
In 2012, 019, 2007 formed a centerpiece of the acclaimed solo exhibition Berlinde de Bruyckere: We Are All Flesh at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Arts, Melbourne. Speaking in a video interview about the show, de Bruyckere describes how the work is intended to be observed as a composite object, inviting the viewer to experience it from all possible angles. ‘It is so fragile – the fragility is underlined because you are not able to see every detail through the window so you really have to come closer, to feel and to find and to smell. And then you go around the work and you are completely blocked and for me this works in one way as a beautiful abstract painting, and on the other hand it’s flat, there’s no entry any more, you are completely lost and you have to fill it up with your own thoughts and feelings. So it makes it more [of] an object and you really have to go around to have the whole experience’ (B. de Bruyckere, quoted in video interview for Berlinde de Bruyckere: We Are All Flesh, Australian Centre for Contemporary Arts, Melbourne, 2012, https://www.accaonline.org.au/exhibition/berlinde-de-bruyckere-we-are-all-flesh [accessed 23 May 2014]). Recalling the artist’s early work, the blankets that sit at the bottom of the vitrine add a new dimension to the structure. ‘It looks as if they are shielding and nurturing the roots of the trees’, de Bruyckere explains. ‘I also refer to those blankets as a “soothing circumstance” because they can sometimes lead to a less harsh reality’ (B. de Bruyckere, quoted in Berlinde de Bruyckere: We Are All Flesh, ACCA Education, produced for Berlinde de Bruyckere: We Are All Flesh, Australian Centre for Contemporary Arts, Melbourne, 2012, https://www.accaonline.org.au/sites/default/files/BerlindeDeBruyckere Educationkit.pdf [accessed 23 May 2014]).
De Bruyckere’s conception of 019, 2007 in temporal, experiential terms corresponds with the fluid, malleable nature of her working method. Wax is a medium favoured by the artist for its expressive pliability, and the branch sculptures exploit the full extent of its potential for unpredictable textures and formations. ‘I start from the dead tree and make a mold’, the artist has explained. ‘We begin with that negative, a silicone mold, and in that we paint the encaustic in many layers, with epoxy and iron at the center to make it stronger. Only when you take the wax out of the mold can you see the resulting surface. Then you put all the parts together’ (B. de Bruyckere, quoted in F. Hirsch, ‘Correspondences: An Interview with Berlinde de Bruyckere’, Art In America, 8 July 2013, http://www.artinamericamagazine.com/news-features/interviews/correspondences-an-interview-with-berlinde-de-bruyckere/ [accessed 23 May 2014]). By relinquishing a certain amount of creative control in this way, de Bruyckere imbues her sculpture with a degree of natural process, thereby mirroring the very growth patterns of tree bark itself.
The metamorphic nature of de Bruyckere’s method certainly finds a neat parallel in the artist’s citation of Ovid in connection with the work. Discussing Cripplewood-Kreupelhout in a series of letters to John Coetzee, de Bruyckere’s curator at the 2013 Venice Biennale, the artist speaks of the myth of Daphne from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, a tale which sees the protagonist transform into a laurel tree in order to escape the unwanted advances of Apollo. A further story from Metamorphoses, Baucis and Philemon, may also be seen as relevant: rewarded by Zeus for their love and kindness, the couple are transfigured into a pair of trees, one oak and one linden, lyrically intertwined for eternity. Well-versed and erudite, de Bruyckere delights in lacing her work with narrative complexity and multiple layers of resonance. In this respect, 019, 2007 causes us to reflect on its knotted branches as harbingers both of past histories and of stories yet to be told – beings yet to assume their full form. Fear and hope combine to create a profound meditation on the very nature of our existence; de Bruckyere’s work becomes mythological in its own right.
It is perhaps appropriate that a work that speaks to notions of transformation and evolution should be encased within the trappings of natural history: a vintage museum display cabinet, acquired from Belgium’s Museum of Natural Sciences. With its antique glass distorting our vision, de Bruyckere leaves the cabinet doors tantilisingly ajar, allowing us to peer closely at its contents. In doing so, the viewer is cast as a privileged voyeur, invited into the rarefied mystical sanctuary of the museum display case. As in many of de Bruyckere’s works, in particular the renowned horse sculptures, the vitrine functions as a pristine visual contrast to the visceral media it houses. By invoking the world of clinical preservation, de Bruyckere introduces a sense of fragility that inspires pathos and contemplation.