Luk Van Soom’s sculptures tackle life’s biggest questions


A retrospective at De Warande cultural centre in Turnhout features sculptures from throughout the Flemish artist’s 40-year career

The surreal universe

If you live in Belgium, you have more than likely come upon a sculpture by Flemish artist Luk Van Soom. While his works have featured in numerous exhibitions, including the 1992 World’s Fair in Spain, the public sphere has been his main playground throughout his 40-year career.

More than 50 of Van Soom’s large-scale sculptures can be found in prominent spots all over Belgium and the Netherlands, from the “The Man from Atlantis” near Brussels’ Naamsepoort metro station and the tree on the beach in Middelkerke – which lights up at night-time – to the monumental “Walhalla” statue in front of the federal government’s finance centre on Italiëlei in Antwerp.

But now you can see dozens of them all in one place at De Warande cultural centre in Turnhout, Van Soom’s hometown. 

Van Soom thinks big not only in terms of size but also subject matter. “I am interested in life’s big questions,” he says. “In every era, the same kinds of problems arise; everything repeats itself. That’s why I’m not interested in life on earth in that sense, but in the bigger picture, the universe. Why are we here? What are we doing here? Why do we feel the need to go to Mars?”

It comes as little surprise then that religion and science, both looking for answers to these essential questions, play a pivotal role in his oeuvre. Van Soom’s works are full of religious references, from the obvious “Adam and Eve” sculpture, depicting the biblical figures in a close embrace, to the more subtle “With Me You are Safe”, where an overcoat is meant to symbolise saints protecting orphaned children.

Oh, Superman

But Van Soom doesn’t see himself as a religious person. “Art has always been connected to religion,” he explains. “I’m inspired by the mythology around it. Even as a kid I was fascinated by the stories from the Bible: Jesus walking on water, turning water into wine… For me he was the superman of his time.”

The “Oh, Superman!” sculpture (pictured) is Van Soom’s own take on the traditional crucifix, which he says is the most reproduced sculpture in the world. “I thought it was time to take him off the cross and replace it with something else.”

I think I was born a sculptor. I think in sculpture

- Luk Van Soom

So far Van Soom has put some 250 pieces into circulation, one of which he gave to the pope. “I wrote a letter to our local bishop asking for an audience, but it was meant as a joke,” he says. “I couldn’t believe it when I got the call and was invited to the Vatican.” 

This light-hearted approach is typical of his work. Though he deals with particularly heavy questions, Van Soom often adds a dash of humour, fitting well into the tradition of Belgian Surrealism. His favourite movie, unsurprisingly, is The Adventures of Baron Munchhausen by Monty Python’s Terry Gilliam.

His sculptures carry multiple meanings, drawing not only on religion and science but also pop culture, his personal life and literature. In his series of sculptures of gates, he drew inspiration from Franz Kafka’s parable Before the Law, while at the same time referring to the thresholds everyone must pass through during their lives, from birth to death.

Love at first sight

References to art history are aplenty, too, fuelled by Van Soom’s unmistakable admiration for the Old Masters – especially those of the Baroque. Fascinated with Michelangelo, Giotto and the like, he has travelled numerous times to Italy over the last 30 years. “That is a place where I could imagine living one day,” he says.

And yet Van Soom has spent his entire life in the surroundings of Turnhout. He discovered his love for sculpture at a very early age during a visit to the Middelheim Museum, an open-air sculpture park in Antwerp.

“I was only a kid when I first visited the place, but I realised right away that this was the language I wanted to express myself in.”

At 16, he enrolled in evening classes to learn how to sculpt, and the stage was set. “I never wanted to do anything else,” he says. “I think I was born a sculptor. I think in sculpture.”

Itchy feeling

After secondary school, he studied sculpture at Antwerp’s Royal Academy and hasn’t stopped creating them since. Every morning, he goes to his studio in the Flemish countryside, just as others go to the office.

“When I don’t work for a few days, I get this itchy feeling,” he says. “I need to sculpt. It’s my way of communicating and processing my thoughts.” 

While some artists working on larger sculptures have an army of assistants, Van Soom takes care of every little detail himself. He makes his own models and researches new production methods, secures deals with bronze casters and organises transportation.

“There are so many aspects to consider,” he says. “I think in my next life I’ll just be a painter.”

There are so many aspects to consider. I think in my next life I’ll just be a painter

- Luk Van Soom

His medium of choice has always been clay, which, he says, is more flexible than other materials. “When you carve in stone, it’s done,” he says, “but with clay you can constantly change and evolve, move the leg a bit, position the foot differently.” 

The clay mould is then filled with bronze by a local foundry. Bronze, Van Soom says, is one of the most durable and weather-resistant metals, ideal for outside installations.

At the exhibition Luk Van Soom: Achter de wereld (Behind the World) at De Warande, some of his bronze sculptures have been set up right outside the entrance. One of them features an athlete lifting a barbell – the weights appear to be lifting him up instead of pulling him down. 

The retrospective features works from throughout Van Soom’s career. Has he found any answers after 40 years of dealing with life’s biggest questions?

“No, not really,” he says with a smile. “But that’s not the point. The questions are more important than the answers.”

Until 20 August, Warandestraat 42, Turnhout