Bern

Jan Vercruysse

Kunsthalle Bern

For this exhibition, Jan Vercruysse installed a self-contained array of works, which emanate both allure and genteel rejection. The overall composition and the meticulously polished refinement of the individual pieces casts a seductive spell; the perfect surfaces simultaneously keep us at arm’s length and leave us to ourselves.

This multivalent game of attraction and repulsion is a concrete theme in one of the artist’s relatively early works, Lucrèce (Lucretia, 1983), which deals with the story of the beautiful Roman matron who, after being raped, took her own life for the sake of her honor. In 26 photographic compositions, some of which are clustered in groups, we find variations on this well-known artistic motif: the woman, the nude, the dagger, the curtain, and the mirror. Vercruysse employs these iconographic elements as rhetorical figures that convey a content separate from their original meaning and, therefore, that allude to art per se. The artist multiplies the image, making it operate on many different levels. In its repetition, reproduction, and reflection, the image cryptically eludes any conceptual grasp, throwing the viewer back on his own devices.

In Vercruysse’s works, the serial procedure—the multiplication or reiteration of a motif or a type of work—strikes me as a kind of differentiation, which characterizes not so much the object itself as the space between the objects. The artist may say: “Take two steps to the side and say the same thing. Since it is two steps to the side, it is different.” But then, upon finding himself alone in front of a different sculpture, the viewer once again has no handle on the situation, at least none that would help him explain the next piece. The degree of readable objectness—say, the “chimney structure” in Atopies (Atopias, 1986), or the inkling of “furniture design” in Tombeaux (Tombs, 1988–89)—does nothing but give us access to a kind of Möbius strip that leads the interpretation back to its origin: the smooth surface of the figuration. Yet this point is no longer quite the same. The viewer, too, stands virtually next to himself, slightly shifted; in escaping from the Möbius strip, he has landed on the other side.

We might also say that the matter has become more enigmatic because we have crossed the border between here and there without actually experiencing a space of transition; the sculpture has made our journey hermetic. Yet during this excursion into the unknown, the picture becomes encrusted with associations and connotations that, at least emotionally, produce a context for weaving a conceptual carpet: the relentlessness of Flemish painting, as well as statements by René Magritte and Marcel Broodthaers regarding linguistics and perceptual philosophy, can be used as a reference point. Thus, Vercruysse’s sculptural constructions, which—given their precise craftsmanship—could scarcely be more real, are transported to an initially unreal, spiritual level, to the arena of intellectual speculation. In a sense, sculpture becomes an un-place or non-place, a place of free knowledge, existing apart from society’s obsession with univocality and transparency. Paradoxically, the hermetic closure of these pieces offers us access to their secret.

Max Wechsler

Translated from the German by Joachim Neugroschel.