Jan Fabre, or The Big Belgian Blowout. An Interview
In the last few weeks, a breeze of eroticism and festivity has been blowing through number 28 Rue du Grenier Saint-Lazare, where Daniel Templon recently set up his latest Parisian quarters. To launch his new address, the gallerist is presenting an artist as Belgian as he is inspired: Jan Fabre.
Who better than this protean, corrosive artist to celebrate this new birth, his beguiling and subversively inclined art here tinged with folklore and gaudiness? Yet behind this glitzy burlesque show hides deep reflection on Belgian identity, which the artist, Flemish in origin, continually defends against all extremist stances.
An interview accompanied with chocolates (Belgian of course), hovering between religious kitsch and mirthful sacrilege.
AMA: How did you design this exhibition “Folklore Sexuel Belge, Mer du Nord Sexuelle Belge”, which rings out like a celebration of life?
Jan Fabre: You know, Daniel Templon and I met at least 20 years ago. Daniel gave me carte blanche to inaugurate his new Parisian space on Rue du Grenier Saint-Lazare. So I wanted to celebrate the birth my own way! I visited and studied the premises, then partly designed this exhibition in response to the environment.
AMA: So you produced some works specifically for the site?
Jan Fabre: I’m showing some big sculptures produced for the occasion, but also some of my drawings produced between 2017 and 2018, which are small reinvented chromos.
AMA: Can you explain what is meant by “chromos”?
Jan Fabre: In fact, my exhibition is titled Folklore Sexuel Belge (2017-2018), Mer du Nord Sexuelle Belge (2018), Édité et Offert par Jan Fabre, le Bon Artiste Belge (Belgian Sexual Folklore (2017-2018), Belgian Sexual North Sea (2018), Edited and Donated by Jan Fabre, the Good Belgian Artist). Part of my inspiration came from our national folklore, but also from those small vignettes found on chocolate bars produced by the Côte d’Or brand, the famous “good Belgian chocolate” of my childhood…
I hijacked these chromos by touching them up with irony and humour, bringing some changes that are a little bit suggestive! Framed in a very bourgeois style with red-velvet mounts and gilded cartels marked with “Edited and Donated by Jan Fabre, the Good Belgian Artist”, they contain – if you look carefully – a few subversive bombs.
The Nonne au béguinage (Nun from the Beguine convent) waters pots of flowers where phalluses grow; the woman farmer feeding her hens swears like a trooper…
AMA: So you play with incongruencies. Is there also, in your work, a desire to combine the popular arts with major arts to allude to the flaws of your country?
Jan Fabre: Yes, my sculptures on the ground floor – as on the basement floor where the Mer du Nord Sexuelle Belge series is displayed – are works inspired by my country’s popular traditions, its very festive processions and carnivals. But if you look closely, all the sacred objects are distorted.
The sculpture La Vierge Marie belge sexy jouant avec le mal shows a dolled-up Madonna with a type of bible bearing an inscription that reads “Je suis Belge” (I am Belgian) in reverse while her left hand pulls the strings of a devil marionette whose outfit is in the colours of our flag.
You know, Belgian is a Catholic country with different communities [editorial note: French-speaking Walloons, German-speakers and Dutch-speaking Flemish] and increasingly exacerbated nationalist positions. There are far-right movements that wish to divide our country. Carnival figures like Gilles of Binche or the Blancs-Moussis of Stavelot help rally these identities.
AMA: You also referred to this idea of rallying in your last creation for the stage, “Belgian Rules/Belgium Rules”…
Jan Fabre: Exactly! This exhibition at the gallery was designed along the same lines. It’s a subversive, surrealist, burlesque and carnival-like criticism of Belgium.
AMA: Going back to “L’Arbre de vie du carnaval belge” displayed under the glass roof, what can you tell us about it?
Jan Fabre: My allusions to sexuality are subversive, granted, but handled in a blithe and lively manner! In these procession pieces, there is constant toing-and-froing between the sacred and the profane.
The accessories I use are like metamorphoses somewhere between male organs and carnival masks, pointed hats and female organs. I play on the phenomenon of appearance-disappearance. At the carnival of Alost, all men dress up as women and vice-versa.
More generally, when you wear a mask, you hide behind it, and so you can do anything. Ordinary people thus become kings and may engage in subversive behaviour.
There are no more limits, borders…
AMA: So this is about transgression?
Jan Fabre: Yes, I transgress codes by referring to the popular and folkloric universe… All in such a way as to celebrate life in all its aspects.
AMA: How did you go about creating these elegant, impressive sculptures?
Jan Fabre: All these works were created from wooden objects that I picked up from second-hand markets, antique stores, carnival associations. I then covered them with glitter in different colours, which gives them this burlesque and kitsch aspect.
AMA: Had you already used this medium? Their shininess brings to mind the elytra of beetles…
Jan Fabre: Yes, that’s true. This sparkling aspect was already present in my previous work on beetle wings. Here was the first time I used this fun, popular, very festive material which I applied on old toys as well as a barrel organ… which is still in working order!
AMA: In the gallery’s basement, you show your series on the sea. We see strange shellfish… What does the marine universe mean to you?
Jan Fabre: The sea – which we can also understand as the nurturing mother [editorial note: in French, mer, “sea”, is a homophone of mere, “mother”] – is the place of birth of all life on Earth. My work is generally on metamorphosis, transmutation.
I’m also very interested in the relationship between the arts and science. Every crustacean here reflects the colours of the different communities in Belgium. These shells that I collected have phalluses sprouting from them…
This erotic allusion can also be understood in an organic sense. On this note, did you know that Marvin Gaye composed his biggest hit, Sexual Healing, beside the North Sea in Ostend?
AMA: You’re an artist, illustrator, performer who uses marble, blood, ink pens, insect elytra… How do you define yourself?
Jan Fabre: I’m first and foremost a Belgian visual artist, a man of the stage and a writer. In Antwerp, I set up a company in which dance plays an important role.
AMA: After Paris what mischief will you be up to next?
Jan Fabre: My next French exhibition will be at the Fondation Maeght and be called Ma nation: l’imagination. I’m showing my Carrera marble works from a more spiritual and fictional perspective…
Folklore Sexuel Belge (2017-2018), Mer du Nord Sexuelle Belge (2018), Édité et Offert par Jan Fabre, le Bon Artiste Belge, until 21 July. Galerie Templon, Paris.
Ma nation: l’imagination, from 30 June to 11 November. Fondation Maeght, Saint-Paul-de-Vence.
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Featured image: Jan Fabre – Sexy Orgue de Barbarie Belge, 2017. Wood, pigment, paper, polymer, metal, electronics, 146 x 145,2 x 42,1 cm, 57 3/4 x 57 1/8 x 16 5/8 in. Courtesy Galerie Daniel Templon.