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PRINT January 1999

SERMON ON THE MOUND: THIERRY DE CORDIER

I FIRST SAW WORK by the Belgian artist Thierry de Cordier in 1992 at Jan Hoet’s Documenta IX—the “Belgian Documenta,” if you will—and I experienced one of those critical all-systems-alert responses. The objects in question were sculptures: three rank, shaggy, dirt-caked structures shaped as oblong mounds, a bit like Hungarian Puli dogs, onto which objects more or less suggesting reliquaries had been affixed. Two of the mounted contraptions looked quasi-scientific and recalled the test-tube-and-burner gizmos of eighteenth-century genre scenes in which an experiment is being conducted in someone’s study. The third contraption, easiest to decipher, was a cross coated with tarry paint, wax, hair, and bits of hardware, including a flashlight. The whole assemblage had been doused in wine and urine, which accounted for the acrid topnote present from the start. (Other components, including a display of a cabinet de verdure, were positioned at some remove from the mounds and occupy a more recessive place in memory as well.)

De Cordie’s funky mounds prompted all sorts of associative leaps into the past. They projected some residual feeling of spontaneous observance or devotion, and were thus perhaps akin to roadside shrines and to the once-pagan Celtic monuments (menhirs, etc.), “Christianized” during the Middle Ages, that mark the countryside in lonely, North Atlantic regions of Europe. Roughly the shape and scale, too, of equine torsos, they conjured up visions of chivalric mounts, and their fetishistic armature further bolstered notions of courtly romance and battle. War and bloodshed seemed literally to be part of their matted turf, for the mounds also looked a lot like World War I trenches—more precisely, like the packed ridges of dirt dug up to make them. And, of course, they also looked like graves. The vision of a vanquished Belgium—of battlegrounds and burial mounds, of Flanders fields—came dolefully into focus. But if this last, looming image of landscape ultimately proved dominant, the others lingered on. These haptic or mnemonic qualities, redolent at once of the most acutely specific characteristics of terrain and the broadest human and temporal generalities, recall Simon Schama’s notion of topographical consciousness, the idea that sites themselves have souls, developed in his 1995 Landscape and Memory. “To see the ghostly outline of an old landscape,” writes Schama, “beneath the superficial covering of the contemporary is to be made vividly aware of the endurance of core myths.”

Well, de Cordier’s pungent and evocative mounds were certainly granted pride of place within the mythic landscape of this “Belgian Documenta”—on the central vertical axis of the Neoclassical Fridericianum, the traditional core of the exhibition as a whole. And a sort of ghostly pentimento was indeed in evidence, at least to those who had visited the site ten years earlier. It assumed the essence of a posthumous installation of sculpture by Marcel Broodthaers, the patron saint of postwar Belgian art, whose sardonic elegy to the country’s military past had itself occupied the same position in 1982, at Documents VII, under the auspices of Rudi Fuchs. Broodthaers’s piece, with its deadpan lineup of cannons, seemed to emerge as if from the mists of time to envelop de Cordier’s tombal compost heaps and together create a kind of imaginary memorial trilogy: first the deadly cannons, then the funereal mounds, and then the cannons again, this time as memento mori on a ghostly village green. It was almost as if a pair of curators and two artists—one from beyond the grave—had joined hands to play this dirgelike Lowlands chord to the fullest.

My next experience of de Cordier’s work took place five years later, at the 1997 Venice Biennale, where it was enshrined in the Belgian pavilion. Again those muddy oblong mounds! Only now they seemed plainer and terser than before, on their low plinthlike supports with their massive “backs” to the walls—and indeed, now the mounds also looked like giant headless shoulders. They seemed as well to be more obviously connected to fairly recent formal precedents in twentieth-century art. They transported one back, for example, in yet another way to the early ’80s, an era when commingling strains of Rousseauvian naturalism, Romantic expressionism, and advanced Beuysianism—evident in work by artists as different from one another as Anselm Kiefer and Richard Long—were reformulating pastoral, and in some cases national, mythologies for the skeptical, late-twentieth-century mind’s eye.

To an extent, in other words, they looked post-Minimalist and seemed to share certain material qualities and attitudes with Beuys’s fat-and-felt sculptures as well as with arte povera in general, whether Mario Merz’s earthiest “igloos” and organic displays or Giuseppe Penone’s subtly anthropomorphic clay urns. But a few other specimen types were also available for scrutiny. Exhibited on pedestals were a couple of murky figurines, for instance, whose forms, composed of dirt, hair, bits of textile, and, at least in one case, an old pair of children’s shoes, clearly denoted figures with inchoate heads, like primeval—or was it postapocalyptic?—Humpty-Dumptys: self-portrait fetishes, it turns out, one of many in various guises within the artist’s oeuvre. And there were also drawings, displayed archivally in a long, flat vitrine. Some were rather exquisite and almost Old Masterly—or Symbolist, perhaps. A few looked like cryptic pages torn from nineteenth-century manuscripts or ledgers; others were embellished with whimsical handwriting that reminded me of word constructions from the 1960s and ’70s by Jean Tinguely.

Yet de Cordier’s work, and in particular the figures—so physically present and yet so mute—seemed in general to be more withholding than that of any of those buoyant veterans of 1968. One felt tempted to place it further back, at midcentury, in the postwar existentialist void between, say, the cosmically silent figures of Alberto Giacometti and the late-winter quietude of Cy Twombly’s early abstract sculptures. Yet de Cordier was born in 1954, some three decades after Beuys, and more than twenty years later than Twombly and most of the artists originally associated with arte povera. Within the context of the ’90s, de Cordier’s work seemed paradoxically, but quite radically, ahistorical. Who was this elusive yet strategically positioned figure, who seemed in so Panglossian a fashion to be tending his angst?

“JE NE SUIS PAS TRÈS MODERNE” is de Cordier’s cri de guerre. And the artist, who at one point liked to think of himself only half-jokingly as the “Maitre de Schoorisse,” after the Flanders village he inhabited until recently, has long cultivated his own rusticated persona. Studiedly old-fashioned, black-and-white photographs of de Cordier, reproduced in plainspun catalogues that are themselves tributes to more purely literary publishing styles of yore, establish the image of a rough-hewn man in rough-hewn clothes doing rough-hewn things in a rough-hewn time and place. The very notion of a rugged-looking fellow like de Cordier working in a hamlet somewhere in the Flemish countryside endows his eccentric and unexpectedly various body of work with an aura of seasoned character that belies a certain greenness at its core.

De Cordier’s trajectory as an artist suggests the old-fashioned, picaresque, Romantic path of self-discovery-outwardly discontinuous, yet steadfast in its pursuit of introspection for its own sake. He attended the Academy of Fine Arts in Ghent between 1972 and 1976, then stopped making art altogether for about seven years, during which he worked at odd jobs, had “adventures” that may or may not be apocryphal, and reinvented himself as a dilatory, semireclusive, slightly crackpot philosophe. When he reappeared on the scene, it was as a performance artist of sorts: Face painted blue, he first presented himself at the museum in Ghent in the guise of a “noble pariah” in search of dialogue or human contact. Somewhat later, wearing a black hood and holding a megaphone, he installed himself next to an expressway under a banner proclaiming the words “Moi, Thierry de Cordier, né en Flandre le 17 juin 1954, philosophe-autodidacte, j’ai dècidè de changer le monde.” He delivered himself of earnest and inaudible “world speeches” from remote or unpopulated vantages, such as the roof of a train station and an exhibition center in Lyons, and in Milan, an empty Piazza del Duomo. Some of these actions recall those of James Lee Byers, only less, well, social.

Even some of de Cordier’s most concrete work from this mid- to late-’80s period seems to have been destined for near oblivion, and can only roughly be surmised today through soft-focus photo-documents and typically vague written accounts. In 1988, for example, the artist installed a fully realized penitential figure, made of plaster and cloth, in the square in front of the old church in the medieval French village of Puycelsi. But on the very evening of its unveiling, the sculpture, Crucifixion malheureuse (Attrape-souffrance)—or “Wretched Crucifixion (Pain-catcher)”—was apparently seized by a crowd of wrathful locals, hurled from the ramparts over a precipice and, as if some hitherto unidentified Christian species of golem, destroyed.

By this time, however, de Cordier had installed himself, his wife, and their two young sons in the flat Flemish countryside where, on a property defined by three low hillocks, he had begun to cultivate his own hortus conclusus. Schorisse (only the artist favors the archaic spelling with its second “o”) would indeed be de Cordier’s finite yet infinite domain for the next ten years, his metaphoric garden (or womb) of the Virgin, and a landscape directly incarnated in his body of work—for instance, in the triple-mound Landscape with the Fat Belly, 1992 whose materials include wood, iron, polyester, plaster, textile, earth, ashes, pigment, egg white, oil, ink, grass, and, significantly, a pear. Often posed somewhere within an installation of the sculptures, pictured in a subsequent photodocument, or depicted in half-section in tenderly detailed drawings, the pear is more than just the familiar analogue for a woman’s body in this artist’s iconography. In fact, its primary role appears to be as a surrogate for the artist himself: De Cordier, it seems, may have been what used to be called a “forceps baby,” his cranium (temporarily) distended into a pearlike shape during delivery. The pear is thus an image of the artist as a very young man, perhaps, and only secondarily of the seeded belly of the mother.

This kind of symbolic surrogacy and graphic hermaphroditism is projected by de Cordier onto forms other than pears. Schorisse itself seems gradually to have become an extension of his own body, as well as a symbol for the dual psyche. In the 1996 drawing Pneumatic Landscape, for instance, the three hillocks that define his property are thrice transformed: once, at bottom, as a series of three labial ridges; then again in the figural grotesque that looms above, which may be read alternately as a pair of buttocks and a scrotum seen from the rear; or as the tip of a penis atop a set of violently truncated, split upper thighs giving issue to the mystic pear. Pneumatic Landscape, which would seem at home in the cabinet de dessin of the most rarefied Edwardian connoisseur, seems to be a fairly direct stylistic appropriation and homage to the eighteenth-century French visionary architect Jean-Jacques Lequeu, best remembered today for his erotic drawings. Marcel Duchamp was also an admirer of Lequeu, whose deranged anatomical drawings quite likely figured at the inspirational root of Duchamp’s great landscape-with-figure summation, the deep and deeply impenetrable Etant donnés. De Cordier’s Pneumatic Landscape, along with other drawings, such as Memento Pirum, with its halved pear on a mound of scruffy landscape, appear in turn to have something of Etant donnés about them.

Yet de Cordier clearly belongs to a distinctly Belgian modem tradition—one marked by flamboyantly saturnine expressions of melancholia and profound quizzicality rivaled only by that of the artistic centers of fin-de-siècle Vienna and Prague. There is the precedent of that great nineteenth-century kook and megalomaniac Antoine Wiertz, whose Brussels atelier (now a museum) remains full of his sometimes gargantuan, often wildly morbid allegorical paintings and sculptures. Then there’s Félicien Rops, the mid-nineteenth-century poet-pornographer and proto-Symbolist—a key influence on Baudelaire, as well as on de Cordier, it would seem: Works such as Pneumatic Landscape, and Still Life, 1995, a similar drawing whose phallo-vulvic configuration, above an echt-Flemish landscape with a base featuring the words fontaine d’encre (“inkwell”), are nothing if not Ropsian, in humorous content and obscene form alike. And there is the turn-of-the-century solipsist and misanthrope James Ensor, whose “Schorisse” was the more cosmopolitan port city of Ostend, and whose ecstatically macabre masterworks, most famously The Entry of Christ into Brussels, 1888, seem to speak more directly to the edgy young painters of this fin de siècle than do the more intellectualized formal achievements of his great French contemporaries. Above all there’s the adman-turned-artist René Magritte. Although many of de Cordier’s works on paper—in particular the eponymously captioned Self-Portrait as Earthworm, 1991, in which a preposterous worm figure leaves its track against a glowering, perspectivally shaded ground—may recall the Austrian Symbolist Alfred Kubin (not to mention Franz Kafka’s “Metamorphosis”), it is to Magritte’s definitive deadpan that they are most immediately indebted. (De Cordier, however, may be more like a snail than an earthworm, in that he carries his house with him, so to speak, in a way that also reminds me of his Dutch contemporary Joop van Lieshout.)

WHILE DE CORDIER LIVED IN SCHORISSE, his property there seems gradually to have evolved into a disheveled outdoor sculpture park strewn with the loamy mounds that the artist generically refers to as his jardinières. But de Cordier also imagines the mounds as being habitable. In refined and detailed drawings these signature forms appear in cross-section, with interiors rendered as cramped and rather womblike libraries or writing rooms that evoke such conventions as the Renaissance studiolo. And indeed this artist writes, with a rather affectedly humble sense of himself as a “kitchen” philosopher. (He has produced two chapbooks of his “little thoughts” and “scribblings,” which on the whole I found to be the least compelling, most “adolescent” aspects of this Gesamtkunstwerk of self-reference: Sean Landers without the infra dig or the jokes.)

Ultimately, nothing about de Cordier is clear-cut. He assumes the stance of a misanthrope and near hermit, but is very much the family man. He has identified himself closely with Flanders, yet he not only has a French name, but usually speaks and always writes in “la langue de ma mère” (though sometimes, as in his Belgian pavilion catalogue, with a footnote disclaimer addressed to his largely Flemish-speaking sponsors). Symbols have multiple meanings, and works may have multiple titles, or titles that change over time. The pieces themselves tend to evolve from one installation to the next, appearing close together or further apart, with and without drawings affixed, with pears and without, etc. Objects from daily life, along with props from the early actions and performances—baby shoes, megaphones, an assortment of écritoires (portable desks) that the artist first set up in his Schorisse kitchen—crop up in later installations, and then again as photo-documents that are themselves somehow transmogrified into works of art. His broadest, most defining concept—the notion of a sentient landscape—is ineffable, polymorphous, full of aliases and contradictions. He refers to the mounds as “backs,” or as jardinières, and sometimes as Après-paysages (After-landscapes). But a drawing of a boy striding off into the countryside with a rucksack is also an “After-landscape”—indeed “After-landscape” turns out to be a sort of rubric and generic theme for virtually his entire body of work.

But what is an after-landscape? The nearest thing to an answer, I suspect, may be found in a letter—reprinted in the Belgian pavilion catalogue and dated April 17, 1988—that the artist addressed to his mother, who had been dead a year. In it he “reminds” her of her nightly habit of staring out the window of their Brussels home, “always the same bit of gray street, always the same gray people passing, always on that same sad street, looking at others so as not to have to look at yourself.” This dispiriting evocation is the very substance of Hugo Claus’s epic novel of postwar Belgium The Sorrows of Belgium, published in that country in 1983. We get it also from Magritte, perhaps especially from his evasive proto-postmodem later works—those “after” Renoir, for instance. And we get it nonstop, of course, from Broodthaers.

De Cordier’s letter to his dead mother is at once sorrowful and angry—full of recriminations about what he perceives to have been her obduracy toward him, yet full of understanding for her bitterness, for what he intuits to have been her life manqué. De Cordier’s disheveled and anthropomorphic view of landscape as self and as womb, his projection of self (as earthworm, as potato) into the self’s very substance, his conflation of the sexes, of fecund mounds and silent graves—all suggest routes of expiation leading back to the only arcadia, the only “pure landscape,” he has known. “After-landscape” seems to be synonymous with “afterbirth” for this most novelistic of artists: Tristam Shandy comes to mind.

There is a final contradiction: De Cordier and family have left Schorisse and moved eastward to France. The body of work discussed here may thus turn out to be quite finite: One imagines that what emerges from the sunny Burgundian countryside will be quite different in spirit. “Je me prepare a sortir de ce siècle dans un éclat de rire!” (“I am preparing to leave this century in a burst of laughter!”) de Cordier wrote in a notebook in 1990. Perhaps therein lies a clue to what will come next.