Jan Fabre: feeling with the brain


The multidisciplinary Flemish artist launches a new exhibition in Brussels after a fruitful dialogue with an acclaimed Italian scientist

A jump into the unknown

The human body has always been of major interest in the oeuvre of artist Jan Fabre, together with his lifelong quest for beauty and a fascination with insects. All these concerns have now found their way to the brain – according to the artist, our sexiest organ – at an intriguing exhibition with new marble sculptures, drawings and a film.

Of course, he answers in the affirmative to the question that makes up the title of the exhibition at the Daniel Templon Gallery in Brussels: Do we feel with our brain and think with our heart? “My whole work is precisely about that!”

Researching and questioning the brain is but an “organic” development in his career as a writer, a theatre director and a visual artist, he explains. “I researched the skin, the skeleton, the organs and the bodily fluids. It’s not a surprise my next step would be the human brain.”

He arrived there five years ago, pushed by a fruitful meeting with the Italian neurophysiologist Giacomo Rizzolatti (pictured below with Fabre), who received worldwide acclaim after discovering mirror neurons, the scientific explanation for empathy.

The two met at an international congress on the brain in Ostend, where Fabre was invited to give a lecture about his work. They hit it off and decided to work together.

No risks, no poetry

In a playful video, the result of their collaboration, they discuss what connects and what distinguishes them. “The link between a good scientist and a good artist is that they both dare to jump into the unknown,” Fabre tells me. “A scientist who does not take risks is nothing more than an accountant. No risks, no poetry!”

A scientist who does not take risks is nothing more than an accountant

- Jan Fabre

This said, the disappointment you sometimes notice in Fabre’s eyes when he speaks to Rizzolatti is real, like when the scientist stipulates that science “just like art” can only speak of things that are real.

I mention that mirror neurons were only discovered by chance – when the researchers in Rizzolatti’s laboratory in Parma saw a monkey’s neurons respond to someone picking up a banana. But Fabre keeps emphasising the importance of instinct and intuition, and the intelligence needed to translate and research these.

His fascination is sincere, not least with possible future steps in brain research. Today scientists can make scans of our brain, using this information for research. But will we ever be able to feel what happens in our brains? Can the abstraction of registering be replaced by really feeling it?

Rizzolatti’s answer is a very clear “no”. But Fabre is not convinced.

“I did some experiments with actors and dancers,” he says, “and I noticed that, through repetition, you can register and evoke a certain state, emotion or pain with a specific colour. So for me this path isn’t totally blocked.”

Marble giants

Entering the field where the imagination of the artist surpasses that of the scientist, visitors cannot ignore the Carrara marble brain sculptures at Fabre’s first solo exhibition in a Brussels art gallery. 

There’s a giant brain with a large corkscrew planted in it (pictured above). The smaller ones are decorated with fruit and peanuts, referring to Rizzolatti’s experiments with monkeys, but also with insects and scissors, addressing Fabre’s own back catalogue and personal life. One sculpted brain even looks like a toaster. “Well, my brain easily boils over,” Fabre says, winking.

My thoughts about the human brain are related to the idea of a post-mortem phase of life

- Jan Fabre

It’s not the first time Fabre has worked with Carrara marble. Three years ago his Pieta, a group of five marble sculptures and a very personal interpretation of Michelangelo’s masterpiece, caused controversy at the Venice Biennale. And last year he exhibited marble effigies at the Paris headquarters of the Daniel Templon Gallery.

Carrara is special in that it’s the world’s whitest marble. Fabre's reason for using it is, again, very personal: “My thoughts about the human brain are related to the idea of a post-mortem phase of life. Twice in my life I was in a coma and the only thing I can remember is the white, milky tunnel I entered. This white marble reminds me of that. For me it’s like breast milk. It represents something pure and virginal.”

Also, his marble gisants – reminiscent of the ancient cemetery memorials displaying a sculpted body on a coffin – were associations with the same white, unknown path. “Let’s call it the bridge between life and death,” Fabre says. Connecting the personal with the universal, his gisants were a homage to his parents, art and science.

“My parents really resembled two scientists I was very much inspired by – the biologist and zoologist Konrad Zacharias Lorenz and the neuro-anatomist Elizabeth Caroline Crosby. After more than 30 years, my biggest heroes in the visual arts are scientists and my parents.”

No imagination, no eroticism

But why has science always been so important in his life and career? “I have always been an artist who enjoyed looking over the wall,” he explains. “I am not a multimedia artist, nor a hybrid artist, I really consider myself a consilience artist.” 

In other words, as an artist connecting the dots between art and science, between the physical and the spiritual world, between the consciousness and the subconsciousness, between the past and the future.

“As a young bloke, my father and my uncle gave me these books about insects by Jean-Henri Fabre. They got me fascinated by the behaviour of insects – their colours, their symbolic value, the ‘planets’ they’re like. You know, in the late 1970s, we wanted to travel to Venus and Mars, but we were living here among creatures we hardly knew. For me this secret world was a way to look over the wall and wonder myself: ‘What’s happening there?’”

This voyage of discovery has now led him to the human brain. Unlike Rizzolatti, Fabre feels it has an aesthetic value, with a form, a colour, a metaphorical sense. “The brain is not only the most important part of our body, but also the sexiest,” he says. “I always said: No imagination, no erection. So without a brain, neither eroticism nor beauty can exist.”

Jan Fabre: Do we feel with our brain and think with our heart?
Until 31 May
Galerie Daniel Templon
Veydtstraat 13a, Brussels

Photos by Isabelle Arthuis, courtesy Galerie Daniel Templon 

More visual arts this month

Tim Etchells: And For The Rest/Order Cannot Help You Now
British visual and performance artist Tim Etchells is all over Brussels during Kunstenfestivaldesarts. The public poster campaign And For The Rest gives a voice to those – mostly undocumented people and the homeless – who are not allowed to vote on 25 May, filtering provocative phrases into demands for social change and poetic statements. The artist plundered the Argos archives for works that question the way language articulates our demands for change. He also displays a new neon work, “Mirror Pieces”. And For The Rest, until 24 May, public space Brussels; Order Cannot Help You Now, until 29 June, Argos, Brussels

Made in New York
In the coming months, the private Charles Riva Collection focusses on contemporary paintings and photos by eight American artists associated with a New York scene trying to cope with emerging (digital) technologies. A work by Christopher Wool, the veteran of the movement, combines the principle of silk-screening, associated with minimalist art, with a street art touch. The younger generation is represented by artists such as Kelley Walker, Seth Price and Josh Smith, emphasising the recycling of images or questioning the status of reproduction, all trying to reinvent art as we know it. Until 15 October, Charles Riva Collection, Brussels

Isabelle Cornaro
Talented French artist Isabelle Cornaro’s first solo exhibition in Belgium is highly recommended. She graduated as an art historian, and that resonates in her installations (pictured). Giving the objects she collects at flea markets a new context – arranging and structuring them in different patterns, reminiscent of certain art styles – she challenges our perception of reality, which is clearly dictated by both culture and history. Until 3 August, M Museum, Leuven

Jan Fabre launches a new exhibition in Brussels after a fruitful dialogue with an acclaimed Italian scientist

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