Patrick Van Caeckenbergh

By turns magician, anthropologist, teller of folktales, taxonomist of heteroclite bodies of knowledge, and brain specialist, Patrick van Caeckenbergh is a polymorphous figure, who, by radicalizing his own subjective position, inoculates contemporary art with the vitriol of his personal fictions, dissolving not only our received ideas and certitudes but the very habits of mind that produce them.

Although one could cite the tradition of Belgian Surrealism, along with Aesop’s fables and Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Marcel Broodthaers’ symbolism, the classificatory obsessions of Georges Pérec, and Flaubert’s Bouvard and Pécuchet, the fact remains that van Caeckenbergh is—as he defines himself—a “virgin artist.” Therein lies the freshness of this artist, who looks no further than himself—in the exacerbation of his disconcerting persona—for a way to make art outside formalist confines.

For this retrospective, titled “ABRACADABRA,” Patrick van Caeckenbergh or P. V. C. has chosen to use the space to represent the sites of production of the works themselves, namely his family home, then his studio (the living box, 1980–84), and finally his present residence in Ghent. All of P. V. C.’s art can be defined as a process of building and furnishing his home (logis)—of inhabiting and defining his personal microcosm in the midst of a profusion of words, things, and natural phenomena of all kinds that constantly bombard us. He consequently orders, even at the price of proposing some fantastical, even monstrous vision of the world.

If one had to come up with some concept with which to label these collages, one could say that each of P. V. C.’s pieces is a refrain, in the sense used by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari: a little song with which art harks back to its primary, almost animal function, of marking a territory. P. V. C.’s refrains thus draft existential mappings that weave a protective cocoon around the intimate self at the same time they de- and recompose our fields of knowledge.

P. V. C. speaks of “natural histories” to evoke his personal mythology and the way it imposes its own taxonomic mechanisms and subjective visions on the orders of History and Nature, in the midst of fantastic systems of classification. It is both impossible and useless to describe these refrains; one might just as well bring out some of the analogies that punctuate them.

The first analogy involves metaphors of the house: the originating egg, and the cocoon of birth, ranging from the snail shell or tortoise shell to the mouse hole, where the artist seeks refuge. This can take on more elaborate forms, as in the “living box,” a studio within the studio, where the artist both lived on a daily basis and put together and stockpiled his productions.

The other aspect of these “life cells,” their outer face, can be discerned in the figure of the hill, an elevated site from which the artist, coming out of his shell, can play at being the purveyor of his bric-à-brac knowledge, whether at the top of a mountain (called Kakenberg, for example), or bent over on a footstool, in the position of Rodin’s Thinker (in Podium d’Archives. [The podium of archives]). One also finds the figure of the hill in the “teats” that the artist collects (cutting them out of porn magazines) and that symbolize the fecundity of the artistic imagination.

Another analogy for the refrain is the brain, the taxonomic and labyrinthine mode of functioning of which P. V. C. attempts to grasp and convey—whence his obsession with inventories, catalogues and genealogies of all kinds. The brain is also a metaphor for his work, which is endlessly done and undone according to various other meaning-systems and mappings.

This exhibition reveals an artist whose work provides an antidote for today’s dreary artistic condition, a kind of physiological stimulant, in Balzac’s sense. At least this is the meaning he attaches to the etymology of his [own] name: ‘I do nothing more than pillory.’ (Kaak means “pillory” in Flemish.) Crackenbergh sees art as an accusation of life, as an indicator of the imaginary, of humor, and of wit. This is why he cuts out images of breasts—to set his heart in our mechanized brains.

Olivier Zahm

Translated from the French by Warren Niesluchowski.