Fabrice Samyn, From Matter, 2010, egg tempera and oil on canvas, 11 3/4 x 9 1/2".

Fabrice Samyn, From Matter, 2010, egg tempera and oil on canvas, 11 3/4 x 9 1/2".

Fabrice Samyn

Fabrice Samyn, From Matter, 2010, egg tempera and oil on canvas, 11 3/4 x 9 1/2".

The objects we identify as art are supposed to be eternal, or at least timeless and present. After all, how could something that isn’t even there be defined as art? This is the question posed by young Belgian artist Fabrice Samyn in his recent show in Düsseldorf. How can absence—and along with it the ephemeral—be captured pictorially? To do this, it must be extracted from its ephemerality and given over to permanence. Take, for instance, a breath, which leaves behind traces on the surface of a mirror. A mirror held to the lips of someone who has just died, lacking the trace of their breath, is incontrovertible evidence of death and so also a vanitas. Samyn immortalizes the image of breath on a mirror by scattering dust between the glass and its reflective backing in Dust of Breath, 2010. Also evoking the ephemeral are the motifs in his pictures, which are painted in a traditional style using egg tempera. Narcissus?, 2010, based on a detail (flipped from horizontal to vertical) of Caravaggio’s celebrated depiction of the beautiful Greek boy, shows the image of the boy’s hand mirrored in the water—were he to reach out to touch it, the reflection would be dispersed. From Matter, 2010, is a portrait dissolving into motion.

In Fate for River (to be thrown in the river), 2010, Samyn emphatically makes the ephemeral, the transient, a principle of the artwork. A round stone lies on a white cloth as if on an altar. The lines from the artist’s palm have been engraved on the stone. An inscription embroidered in gold on the cloth proclaims that this stone is to be thrown into a river on August 31, 2011—Samyn’s thirtieth birthday. The stone itself isn’t for sale; the concept is: The buyer is to find a stone that sits well in his hand, and the lines from his palm will be engraved on it. Then the date on which the stone is to be cast into a river will be determined. A temporary work of art? Or just an action that will be inscribed in memory?

Samyn works with memory and above all with absence in a series of photographs, “Untitled (Sinaï),” 2007–10. Mount Sinai, of course, is the mountain on which, according to the Bible, the Ten Commandments were given to Moses. Among them is the admonition “You shall not make for yourself an idol.” Of all the commandments, this has been the most variously interpreted. Wars have been fought over it. There have been movements in Christianity that were committed to this prohibition to the point of rejecting not only images of the Biblical God but also the images of gods produced in earlier times, particularly in antiquity. Ancient representations of gods were mercilessly beheaded; in these images, Samyn has photographed the missing heads immortalized in museums. The resulting pictures show the shoulders in the lower part of the image against a black background. At first they look like rocky landscapes. Only after a moment do we recall the heads that should have been there and the recurring question: How can something ungraspable be captured in a picture?

Noemi Smolik

Translated from German by Oliver E. Dryfuss.