PRINT November 1993


Though Patrick Van Caeckenbergh is an essential figure in the currently lively Belgian art scene, he is less known outside his own country than artists like Patrick Corillon and Wim Delvoye. Perhaps this is because he works slowly and produces little. It might also have something to do with the fact that his art is less accessible than theirs, more complex in its self-mocking ironies and carefully maintained contradictions. Van Caeckenbergh’s elusive genealogical investigations, based on language and literature—not on the object, or even on language as post-Modern object (i.e., quotation and appropriation)—not only butt up against literal language barriers (texts in Flemish, a language unintelligible to most viewers, frequently accompany his works), they clash with the persistent antiliterary bias of contemporary art.

All of Van Caeckenbergh’s collages and constructions are animated by allegorical or autobiographical narratives. Like a turn-of-the-century naturalist, he inventories animals, plants, and fruits; but he also devises quasi-scientific nomenclatures to order commonplace objects, not to mention anthropological, cultural, and literary data. Yet each ironic attempt to classify the world is not only destabilized by the heterogeneity of the elements categorized, it is perverted from the start by the subjective nature of the ordering principles imposed.

Like the writing of Jorge Luis Borges or Georges Perec (Penser, Classer), Van Caeckenbergh’s fictive inventories constitute a subversive language, one that defies the universal claims of scientific discourse; they work to decompartmentalize our own ways of perceiving reality, and so to liberate them. This kind of information distortion links Van Caeckenbergh’s work with the tradition of Belgian Surrealism, which arose in the breach that Marcel Broodthaers audaciously opened between words and things, between literature and Conceptual art, between the imaginary and the real. But while Broodthaers’ strategy depended on metaphor, Van Caeckenbergh’s work is all about metamorphosis.

To conduct his experiments, the artist builds customized “incubators,” like the one he presented at “Aperto” in the last Venice Biennale. A labyrinthian assemblage of fragile glass containers, Incubator, 1993, contained dead insects meant to nurture the little bearded and bespectacled “animals”—actually miniature photographic silhouettes of the artist dressed in a mousy brown bathrobe—scattered about the structure. The suggestion here was of a kind of in-vitro metamorphosis, whereby the artist becomes a new domestic species, something between hamster, parrot, and goblin.

Van Caeckenbergh’s conceptual fairy tales are enchanting, but what meaning and critical import can we glean from them? First, Van Caeckenbergh’s work engages in a mockery of art’s mores, just as La Fontaine’s tales ridiculed the manners of court life at Versailles; like Sean Landers’ depictions of himself as a satyr, also shown at “Aperto,” Van Caeckenbergh’s bestiary self-mockingly derides the status of the artist. But while Landers engages in shameless exhibitionism, Van Caeckenbergh’s strategy is one of sickly introspection, tinged with a certain misanthropy that compelled him, on another occasion, to present a mousehole (with nameplate) as an entry in a group show.

The habitats to which the artist retreats do not just counter the values of display and seduction that dominate much contemporary art. For Van Caeckenbergh, these environments reconnect his work with the primary function of art: to mark out a territory, like an animal spraying its scent. Van Caeckenbergh has developed an animistic (and anti-Modern) model in which his artistic language is an organic extension of the self a corporal envelope, like the shell of a snail or turtle. One of his earliest works, Living-Box, 1980–84, was, in fact, just that: a sort of mobile shelter for sleeping, living, and working, built as a more contained space within the larger studio.

More than a critical fable or an animist ecosophy, Van Caeckenbergh’s work suggests a skewed reading of Foucault’s Order of Things—a proposal for a new “archaeology of knowledge,” of the human sciences. It’s one in which the artist is “raised,” in the botanical and the naturalist sense, to the level of an exemplary figure or prize specimen.

What exactly do we learn from all this? Exercising what the artist calls a “muscular knowledge,” we follow Paul Valéry’s M. Teste, who, at the end of a futilely idealistic life, finally acknowledges that all that remains for him is to “feed certain thoughts.” A question posed by Van Caeckenbergh in one of his titles troubles us as we sit before our typewriters: “Why are we made of meat?”

Olivier Zahm is an art critic living in Paris.

Translated from the French by Diana C. Stoll.