Peter De Cupere

Everybody has memories, and the older you get, the more selective you are about them. You forget the so-called important events of your life and for one reason or another cherish the details: a brief encounter in the subway, a certain compliment your father gave you when you were five, the first time you ever heard a particular song. The songs, books, and paintings you like the most have some connection with this strange selective memory of yours. As for me, I still remember the Wednesday smell of my grandmother’s homemade fries, and that is exactly the reason why I’m so affected by Peter De Cupere’s work.

Before you enter an exhibition by De Cupere, the first thing you notice is the pungent odor—a mixture of sweet, acid, and penetrating scents that evoke the sensory experience of walking through a Turkish bazaar. From the whiff of bird droppings to the fragrance of peppermint balls, smell has been intrinsic to De Cupere’s provocative art, functioning as both a formal and a conceptual component.

His recent show offered forty-six pieces whose technique is described in the small accompanying catalogue as “mixed smell media.” In the aptly titled Smell Objects, 1996–97, one sees what appears to be a matching ivory mirror-and-brush set nestled inside an antique wooden box. The ivory is actually carved of soap, however. Here De Cupere sets into motion a process in which the tangible will eventually disappear, while suggesting, perhaps, that its scent will linger on.

This does not mean that the object itself isn’t important to De Cupere. It is precisely the combination of the visual “thing” with a process—the perception of how it smells now and what it will smell like in the future—that interests him. Composed of thirty eggs, Egg Painting, 1998, formally recalls the work of that other Belgian alchemist, Marcel Broodthaers. Where Broodthaers used eggs and mussels as archetypal objects of his region and tried to save them by transforming the worthless empty shells into (art) history, De Cupere strives to reinvigorate his objects with new life. The eggs in his paintings have been dried, removed from their shells, and displayed in an egg carton. These dried sacs will, over the years, slowly change. It’s easy to see this transformation as merely a form of decay, but it is also a form of growth—as the painting continually evolves into something else.

Another work, Eggs, 1996–97, is searing in its simplicity. A small basket is filled with twenty-three eggs. In shape these look “normal,” but each one is covered with chicken skin held together by black, Frankenstein-like stitches—a morbid take on the eternal question: Which came first?

During the opening the artist held a mysterious, lidless suitcase in his hand. Inside it one could see a collection of odd indefinable objects dangling from pieces of string. The case became a sort of bizarre, miniature theater. As revealed by its title, The Visitor as View Object, 1997–98, that was precisely the point: the world captured in a trunk, the viewer suddenly a participant in a strange and magnificent play.

Jos Van den Bergh