Jan Fabre

The work of Jan Fabre ranges from large environmental works like Kasteel Tivoli (Tivoli castle, 1991), an entire facade covered with blue ink marks made with a ballpoint pen, to extremely minute works of pseudogenetic concoctions, to insects that are transformed into cybernetic “monsters,” to theatrical works (since 1980) for which he has provided the text, the music, and the choreography. However this formal identification and diversification ends up being merely an external, superficial characteristic.

Fabre presents us with an obsession: the image of the insect—continually present in his work since the late ’70s—and of the artist as both insect and entomologist, which speaks of a desire to descend to the stage of pure instinct, to pure, unconscious repetition. Thus Kokonnen in de stilte van de storm (Cross in the silence of the storm, insects in the storm of the silence, 1992), exhibited at Massimo Minini, consisted of 152 square meters of silk, entirely covered by blue ink, and gave the impression of an insect’s continuous activity—an infinite, seemingly directionless activity.

It is that “world of insects” described by his grandfather, the 19th-century French entomologist Jean-Henri Fabre, that today excites Fabre’s imagination, and, as in the past, that world is a metaphor: a figure for perfection without a goal, for a multitude without a plan, for instinct without will. It is the opposite of the concept of a discrete art object intentionally created by the artist, and yet paradoxically it produces works of art: the artist mimicks that world to the point where he “partially enters” the different, the distant, the monster. The insect is a terrifying monster (think of all those schlock horror movies) not because of the distance (including the formal, morphological one) that separates us from it, but because of the similarities: the terror lies in the thought of sharing Gregor Samsa’s fate. Thus in Passage, 1994, exhibited in the retrospective show at the Museo Pecci, Fabre presented three objects/symbols: a cross, a microscope, and a urinal. These objects are constructed from a mass of jewel beetles, establishing an unsettling relationship between the “sublimity” of thought and the obscurity of instinctual life. What “passage” exists between one and the other? Why does one of the most ancient living forms, which repulses and frightens us, also appear sublime? The notion of passage is carried to an extreme: the two poles of vital experience coexist, the high and the infinitely low, but at the same time there is no fracture in the voyage from one philosophical category to another.

If, in Passage, Fabre risks being openly rhetorical, in another crucial recent piece, Mur de la Montée des Anges (Wall of ascending angels, 1993)—three versions of which were shown in Genoa and in Prato—he is even more concise. This piece is a garment of colored beetles suspended in midair and the title speaks of angels. Thus the voyage/passage is even broader, since, if on the one hand, we still find life in its primitive state—the insect—on the other hand, we go straight to the transcendent, the ineffable, the angelic.

Marco Meneguzzo

Translated from the Italian by Marguerite Shore.