As soon as you cross the threshold of the MAXXI gallery hosting the large Jan Fabre exhibition curated by Germano Celant you feel you are entering the vast expanse of the unconscious.
Ninety-two glass panels resting on wooden trestles cadence the exhibition space, protecting but also revealing to visitors – via 800 documents left after performances – the eclectic research conducted by the Belgian artist since 1976. His is research in the most literal sense of the word; crazy research, study and exploration that always tread the fine lines separating the disciplines and employing the most varied techniques, materials and expressive languages.
Constantly at its core is the artist himself, from body to mind and both examined, scoured and indeed tormented inch by inch. Although already clear from the videos of his performances – initially body-art experiments but then complex theatre performances – the full realisation comes from observation of the expanse of drawings, notes, objects and thinking models that fill the exhibition space.
Drawing is the leading player in the exhibition. It, as nothing else, speaks to us of the artist and it, too, is performance. Fabre sees drawing as an action that closely involves the body, an action repeated obsessively to express his creative universe.
Fabre draws with ink but also with blood, sperm and urine. He records the sound of the pen passing over the paper and listens to it as if the product of a music score.
Suffice to readhis Giornale notturno (1978-1984) published for the exhibition by Cronopio and edited by Franco Paris. It is a basic compendium that offers a comprehensive understanding of Fabre’s spirit, and from it are drawn the quotes that accompany the material on show.
These excerpts tell us of the habits of the artist, then 20 years old, of the nights when his inventive skill caught fire, of his artistic references, sometimes scorned, sometimes celebrated and of his personal relations. Those were the years of the “ballpoint-pen-art” performances when Fabre shut himself inside a Dutch gallery for 72 hours and covered the walls, floor, bed and even his own clothes and body with drawings and writings in blue ink (Ilad of the Bic-Art, The Bic-Art Room, 1981).
Metamorphosis and transformation become core concepts gathered from the world of nature. Fabre collects and archives insects to study them and construct fragile compositions of small bodies dissected and transformed into new creatures, a passion inherited from his great-grandfather, the famous entomologist Jean-Henri Fabre.
His focus on science – often seen in relation to art – is well conveyed in the spare and therefore effective exhibition design, conceived by Celant in collaboration with the artist. The glass tables house the drawings like scientific plates and the cases containing the models offer visitors a chance to browse the scaled reproductions of his settings, with the approach of the scholar peering through a microscope.
Going totally against the grain of the exuberant stage-sets that have often hosted his theatre performances, this exhibition has the feel of an archive and this is where its strength and exceptionality lie. A few of the stage props are like apparitions, such as the surreal insect costumes worn by Fabre and Ilya Kabakov for a video filmed on a New York skyscraper as they discuss philosophy and links between the art world and that of insects.
Along with the other material on show, a mention must go to a small but precious glass case equipped with magnifying glasses, with which to examine miniatures of the armour worn by the Flemish artist and Marina Abramović for Virgin/Warrior, their 2008 performance at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris.
The Jan Fabre exhibition at the MAXXI has been organised in collaboration with the Fondazione Romaeuropa which, for the Festival, presented at the Teatro Eliseo two historic works in the artist’s performance repertoire 30 years after they were created: The power of theatrical madness (1984) and This is theatre like it was expected and foreseen (1982). Here, the artist is creator, director, choreographer and stage designer, dealing with all the aspects that inform this total performance. The theatre is the medium through which to ceaselessly explore life in all its permutations, test the boundaries of art and challenge the body, stimulating reactions in public and performers alike.
To further explore Jan Fabre’s e production, we await the publication of the 500-page catalogue edited by Celant for Skira, featuring a long interview with the artist and substantial artwork.
Until 16 February 2014
Jan Fabre. Stigmata. Actions & Performances 1976- 2013
curated by Germano Celant
via Guido Reni 4A, Rome