Anthropologist of his own life


Twenty years ago, Patrick Van Caeckenbergh was the rising star of the Flemish art scene, crowned with a highly praised presence at the 1993 Venice Biennale. But after his last retrospective exhibition in this country, in 1996, the Aalst-born artist faded from public view.

The wondrous world of Patrick Van Caeckenbergh at Museum M

Twenty years ago, Patrick Van Caeckenbergh was the rising star of the Flemish art scene, crowned with a highly praised presence at the 1993 Venice Biennale. But after his last retrospective exhibition in this country, in 1996, the Aalst-born artist faded from public view.

After he moved to Sint-Kornelis-Horebeke, a tiny hamlet in the Flemish Ardennes, in 1997, critics have often described him as a hermit. “Me being a recluse has become the big cliché,” he says. “But I have never been more sociable than since I moved there.”

He surely isn’t a hermit in my eyes. I meet him at Museum M, where viewers can finally make – or renew – an acquaintance with the 51-year-old artist at the wondrous retrospective La ruine fructueuse (The Fertile Ruin). He’s in Leuven on this day because he has to cook soup for 120 children from his village, who are visiting the exhibition. The small refectory, walled by a large folding screen, is in fact part of the show.

At the start of the exhibition, a work called “La psychopompe” (“The Psychopump”) offers insight into Van Caeckenbergh’s roots. This mixed-media sculpture is comprised of 64 photographs of other artists: He calls them “my friends; they form my family tree.” Strikingly, only a few (Duchamp, Piranesi) are visual artists. Writers (Gogol, Elsschot) and scientists (Darwin) dominate his artistic pedigree. “When studying at the academy in Ghent, I much more often went with a good friend of mine to his philosophy courses than to the courses I was supposed to follow.”

Contemporary art, says Van Caeckenbergh, was appealing because of the endless possibilities. “It received me with the words: ‘Come to us, and you can do whatever you want.’ I can build a house, without being an architect. I can perform surgery, without being a surgeon. Everything goes!”

Living in the cigar box

“I don’t create many works,” Van Caeckenbergh concedes. “Honestly, I’m not very ambitious. My only desire is to be in my cigar box and do whatever I feel like.”

Cigar box? That’s the nickname for his studio. The entire studio is part of the exhibition; the outside walls are decorated like a cigar box. Inside, it’s crammed with books about the most diverse subjects.

“I’ve a strict schedule. I get up at half past six and prepare breakfast. My wife leaves for work, the children for school, and around 8.00 I enter my cigar box. Until half past three, when I start thinking about what I’ll cook for dinner.” Seven days a week he goes to his box. It’s a necessity; life and work can’t be separated.

The cigar box also contains a desk and, surprisingly, a bed. “I couldn’t do without it,” Van Caeckenbergh insists . “I read a lot, preferably when I lie down.” The bed is the place where his ideas germinate.

“I like to draw the parallel with cooking,” he says. “At the beginning, I have a big kettle filled with onions, leek, carrots, you name it, which I let boil down until I end with a small bouillon cube. This can take years.”

Less metaphorically speaking: the artist cobbles elements together to make assembled pieces in which he combines drawings, cut-outs and texts.

Collecting a life

Van Caeckenbergh is an insatiable collector of knowledge. “It’s my obsession to see the world in one glance.” This desire manifests itself in his avid reading and his endless cuttings of images from magazines and books. “Tesser” (“The Rabbit Hutch”) is a small wooden house: its walls are full of hatchways. You’re not supposed to open them, but touring the exhibition with the artist does have its advantages. Inside, I see different collections: fire engines, angels, cigar bands.

Obsessively collecting becomes a real mania in “Collection de peaux” (“Collections of Skins”): the enormous work fills an entire room and consists of only displays of cut-out pieces of skin, glued onto cardboard so they can stand on the wrought iron shelves covering the walls.

”When I was five, I found two of my father's porn magazines,” says Van Caeckenbergh. “The images gave me an enormous shock: I didn’t understand them. And I didn’t want to see them, but they were, and are, burnt into my memory. This work is pure therapy. To get rid of the images, I cut out the most abstract parts of naked bodies.”

The exhibition ends with 29 drawings of old trees, at once photorealistic and gloomily gothic. For the past three years, the artist hasn’t made anything else. This looks like a radical change, but it isn’t: having some very old, hollow trees in his garden, those drawings are as much a reflection of his life as the other works. It’s clear that whatever he does, Patrick Van Caeckenbergh stays the anthropologist and the archaeologist of his own life.

Museum M says goodbye to Veronique Vandekerchove

“When you saw Veronique talking, you never wondered why art is important. It was crystal clear from what she said and how she said it.” Museum M general director Luc Delrue is talking about Veronique Vandekerchove (pictured), the museum’s curator and deputy director. She died on 25 January after being hit by a car in Leuven.

After studying art history and archaeology in Leuven, Vandekerchove worked as a scientific researcher at the Museum Vander Kelen-Mertens, the city’s former art and heritage museum. After being appointed its curator in 1998, she succeeded in getting rid of the museum’s dusty image. She also fought for its renovation, which eventually led to the new award-winning Museum M.

“Her death also means the loss of a lot of knowledge about artwork,” Delrue continues. “She had an incredibly huge network in Leuven, in the economic world and with other museums. The latter is essential to facilitate the loan of works. Thanks to her, we could turn to The National Gallery or the Prado. We now have to re-establish these contacts.”

Museum M isn’t searching for a successor. “It won’t be possible to find someone who knows our collection better than she did,” says Delrue. “Someone with better contacts in the city of Leuven or in the university – impossible. We’ll divide her tasks among the current team and see in a few months what we’re still lacking.” In the meantime, M will dedicate one of its rooms to Vandekerchove, and the University of Leuven will name a tenured professorship after her.

Anthropologist of his own life

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