Cripplewood*

Cripplewood was an experience not something that descriptions with words could accurately convey.  Its inception was based on artist Berlinde De Bruyckere's wide interests and inspirations from different sources.  The result was stunning.  Standing in front of Cripplewood was an experience evocative of feelings residing deep-down yet difficult to articulate.  The reaction was visceral and gut-wrenching, at the same time the work was captivating as if it wished to retain you with it in an eternity.  While visiting I felt myself unable to move away from this piece inside the Pavilion of Belgium.  At the same time, I was not immediately clear as to what I was so fascinated by or what I was exactly looking at.  All there was to guide me was my emotional reaction and the innate energy it exuded upon me. From it, something triggered a deep curiosity, but of what and why?  At the time, I was not able to give myself any good answers.  Until now, I am no longer there anymore and I am trying to put it all together.  With in my reflections I hope to be able to identify this mystery but at the same time not to break the mystery that once captivated me.

Reclining in the middle of the pavilion, there seemed a half-human and half-beast of a creature.  Although the shape of a tree and its branches were strongly evident yet, its joints, connective tissues, and veins seemed to tell me that there was still a little bit of life contained inside.  While the surrounding atmosphere felt dark and somber as if I had just fallen into a dark void.  With subtle illuminations and soft lighting falling on the piece, it seemed to suggest a sense of fragility and vulnerability untouchable by mortal beings.  If the description reads to you as if I am trying to describe a higher being that could not have existed in a human body, then you are beginning to understand where I am trying to go with this.  A part of the whole reason for Cripplewood's birth was inspired from studies of different portrayals of Saint Sebastian. 


Berlinde De Bruyckere Kreupelhout Cripplewood, 2012 2013
© Mirjam Devriendt 

Berlinde De Bruyckere Kreupelhout Cripplewood, 2012 2013
© Mirjam Devriendt

Berlinde De Bruyckere Kreupelhout Cripplewood, 2012 2013
© Mirjam Devriendt

In the city of Venice through the centuries, Saint Sebastian** became a symbol for the tormenting sufferings of many unfortunate people dying as the result of an epidemic known as Black Death or plague.  One much feared aspect of this diseases was that no one understood what it was and therefore it had the unforeseeable and the unstoppable power of ceasing lives of loved ones and killing off a mass population.  Saint Sebastian was often depicted in paintings by Bellini, Titian and Veronese as the protector of plague victims.  The use of red fabric in Cripplewood and its vibrant color in sharp contrast with the otherwise shaded and worn pieces of fabric wrapping around the body of the tree was visually inspired by the color red often seen in 16th Century paintings by Bellini, Titian and Veronese.  For in this piece, the depiction of Saint Sebastian was from a slightly different angle.  It was not only to signify the sainthood of Sebastian but for his vulnerable yet stoic veneer as it physically embodied both death and life.  In classic paintings, although pierced by arrows and wearing bleeding wounds that revealed of arrows came from all directions, yet Saint Sebastian was always portrayed with a serene expression on his face.  As if accepting his fate and suffering.  To the people of the time he also became a symbol for heroism and a symbol of a savior.  While looking at this piece, it felt like looking into the face of death while simultaneously witnessing the stoicism of a stubborn life that refused to give way.  Through the thin veins, life seemed as if still pulsing in echo to the last few breaths.  Its overall human-like form was undeniable, yet it was also very clear that what I was looking at was not at all human.  It mimicked the corporal outlines and faint gestures of a heavenly creature struggling in the hands of death, but had it already died?   

Berlinde De Bruyckere Kreupelhout Cripplewood, 2012 2013
© Mirjam Devriendt
 
De Bruyckere's fascination with Saint Sebastian was only one of the sources of inspiration in the production of this piece.  Similar to her other sculptures, this one also evolved around a recurring theme.  The theme of exploring possibilities of the physical conditions between life and death in a semi-human like being.  During a trip that took place some years ago, De Bruyckere discovered a forest of ruined trees and dead fields left after a violent spring storm while on her way to Burgundy.  There, she encountered crowns of trees lay scattered across the field, simply ripped from their trunks.  Uprooted trees splintered like kindling.  On this scene, she found in an open spot the remains of an enormous tree that was struck by a tremendous force and split into two.  Its gigantic crown smashed to the ground.  As she wandered amongst the remains, she felt incredibly small and humble through the ruins of the storm, as oppose to the powerful force and the catastrophic aftermath of the storm.  The tree ripped in pieces became for her a symbol of life and strength.  As she tried to imagine what the storm might have been like, the experience felt almost tangible in her mind.***  From then, she was not able to let go of the image from her mind and wished to somehow translate this into her work.  When she was approached to work on the Pavilion of Belgium for La Biennale di Venezia, she had decided that it was her chance to realize this idea.  

Berlinde De Bruyckere Kreupelhout Cripplewood, 2012 2013
© Mirjam Devriendt

Before starting to work on the piece for the pavilion, De Bruyckere also had the chance of appointing a curator as her collaborator.  For this occasion, she chose John Maxwell "J.M." Coetzee who is a novelist and recipient of the 2003 Nobel Prize in literature.  De Bruyckere had been impressed and moved by the works of Coetzee, and even though he never worked in the capacity of a curator for visual art nonetheless he accepted the offer.  De Bruyckere appointed a writer for her project as to hope to receive inspirations and be guided spiritually in the process of making the project come alive in the Pavilion of Belgium.  While there was nothing directly instructional Coetzee felt he could offer at first, nevertheless he did provide one unpublished story to her as a trajectory for further conversations and later developments. 

This story is called The Old Woman and the Cats****.  It is a wonderful story about a young man who went back to an obscure little village to visit his mother.  During the visit, the young man and his mother have many misunderstandings and partly due to the limitation of verbal language when used for communication between two people of intimate family relations.  To the young man's surprise, his mother has been providing shelter for the village's invalid and someone who was neglected behind by everyone including his own family members.  Moreover, his mother has also become the protector of numerous street cats abandoned and unwanted by the village people.  The story illustrates vivid imagery of the conditions of his mother's house, the village invalid who never washed or changed his clothes and the setting of these series of events that take place.  In The Old Woman and the Cats, there is also a little story told by the young man's mother justifying reasons for why she decided to collect these unwanted animals and while everyone else in the village seemed to want nothing to do with them.  The story is about love, a complicated relationship between a son and his mother; his mother's generosity toward an invalid who was abandoned; and the love and protection his mother felt oblige to provide for the homeless street cats.  The story also conjures up repulsive and if not revolting images of the neglected invalid, of the smell and filth in his mother's house caused by all the street cats.  Most of all, it touches on the subject of what human characteristics we tend to cast on non-human beings and how we identify certain traits of humanity in things or creatures that are not at all human. 
  

Berlinde De Bruyckere Kreupelhout Cripplewood, 2012 2013
© Mirjam Devriendt

For De Bruyckere, she appreciated the story for its visual imagery and it inspired her to incorporate fabric and rags in Cripplewood.  The fabrics on one hand was made from sheets and pillows that once served the purpose of providing comfort and warmth.  Implemented as if the weathered cloth wrapped around the body of Saint Sebastian.  The fabrics also seemed to humanize the piece of wood used in this work.  From Coetzee's story, De Bruyckere gathered the sense of a plea for the useless and the neglected.  It translated into her work in the way by which the physical appearance of Cripplewood was like a dying patient or of someone struggling from a terminal illness that gradually disfigured the him.  The artist and the writer had kept constant correspondence throughout the course of realizing Cripplewood.  In a suggestion by Coetzee, he mentioned the story of the metamorphosis of Daphne into a tree.  When she was shot with the arrow of Cupid, the god of love,  she became the object of desire to Apollo.  Yet, upon her wish to retain her chastity her father agreed to turn her body into a tree and thus prevented Apollo from obtaining his object of desire.  From this inspiration, De Bruyckere also found a way to integrate this female pendant into the work. 


Berlinde De Bruyckere Kreupelhout Cripplewood, 2012 2013
© Mirjam Devriendt
Berlinde De Bruyckere Kreupelhout Cripplewood, 2012 2013
© Mirjam Devriendt

Berlinde De Bruyckere Kreupelhout Cripplewood, 2012 2013
© Mirjam Devriendt

For me, the work was powerful on many different levels.  But to go back to the beginning where I asked myself of what and why this piece felt more captivating than others.  Even though I still wish to retain some of its mystery yet, I can now somehow conclude a few characteristics.  To begin, the physical environment of the Pavilion of Belgium felt like entering into an underground tomb or into a pitch dark void that seemed to have no beginning nor an end.  It metaphorically suggested of a grim tale taking place in an eternity.  Amidst the indecipherable darkness, there it was a gigantic and vulnerable yet threatening creature sleeping quietly.  It looked as if it had once been a human being like you and I.  I could tell from the dried up blood stains, and the fine veins that might have been once supplied with fresh blood and filled with life.  From this I could also see that it had been wounded and thus was now helpless.  Cripplewood was beautiful to look at because of its sinuous form held in a gesture that contained gracefulness.  This beautiful grace came at a cost, the cost of a deep trauma.  As the result, the creature worn bandages and used rags to support the joints that were once lubricated and active.  But it was also a grotesque creature, its limbs suggested of famine and starvation in the dark ages.  Its body was emaciated from lack of nutrients, it made you feel pity for the giant creature.  Even now, I still struggle with whether it was a living creature or a dead creature.  It seemed alive because of the movements that it suggested even in its serene and stable posture.  It seemed dead because of its dirty cloth that looked as if no one had changed or dressed the wound in a long time, and also because it was all by itself in the dark cave.  As if an animal when realizing his death is near, he goes off to a quiet solitude and to die in peace.  In the end, I think Cripplewood was a powerful experience because I still am not able to articulate what I exactly saw.  As many different emotions are going through my mind I find myself utterly speechless. 


*Berlinde De Bruyckere
Kreupelhout – Cripplewood
Pavilion of Belgium

Commissioner: Joke Schauvliege, Flemish Minister of Environment, Nature and Culture
Artist: Berlinde De Bruyckere
Curator: J.M. Coetzee
Co-curator: Philippe Van Cauteren
Organization: S.M.A.K., Museum of Contemporary Art, Ghent, Belgium
55th International Art Exhibition – la Biennale di Venezia 1 June – 24 November 2013

**Sebastian was a young officer in the Roman Army who was tortured to death as he would not deny his Christian faith.
***This recount is told in a correspondence to J. M. Coetzee from Berlinde De Bruychere and is presented in the exhibition catalog.
****J.M. Coetzee's The Old Woman and the Cats is included in the exhibition catalog.

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