Removing Jan Fabre’s monumental work is not easy

In early April, a bullet bag was suddenly put on the picture The man who measures the clouds, which adorns the roof of the Ghent Museum SMAK. It is one of the most famous works by the recently convicted Belgian artist Jan Fabre (1958) for cross-border behavior; a nearly four-meter-high image of Fabre himself reaching out to the clouds with outstretched arms and a ruler. Activists aimed to express the artist’s imagination and turned the bar into a flashy phallus symbol.

In Belgium, there are widely differing opinions on how to deal with the work of the leading but now controversial Fabre of decades. In late April, the visual artist and leader of the dance and theater company Troubleyn was sentenced to 18 months in prison for bullying, sexual harassment in the workplace and sexual assault on a woman.

TASTE director Philippe Van Cauteren deliberately chose to leave the statue. He hopes debates on difficult topics such as cross-border behavior in public space will take place, and sees images like Fabres as witnessing a complex past or a vision of artistic character from a few decades ago: they can stimulate discussion.

Empty room

The man who measures the clouds was placed on the roof more than 25 years ago. “If you remove it, there’s only one empty space left and the conversation is muted,” Van Cauteren says. He welcomes “the pair of balls” added to the picture as “a sign that we are talking like a community.” Van Cauter also knows who the activists are, he says. “Something like this has happened before.”

Also read: Jan Fabre’s art was about real pain and real sex

Not everyone shares Van Cauteren’s vision. Kunstencentrum De Singel in Antwerp got their copy of. during a renovation in 2021 The man who measures the clouds from the roof, among other things because they found the work out of place on a building where art education takes place. The first public charges against Fabre date from 2018. Twenty ex-employees and former trainees then complained in an open letter about sexism, abuse of power and border crossings in his company.

For the Museum of Contemporary Art Antwerp (M HKA), Fabre’s conviction was the reason me, dreaming (1978), known as ‘de Spijkerman’, from the museum’s galleries. The picture shows a nail-clad artist bending over a table with a microscope. It was made into a gallery opposite a bar on the right.

Director Bart de Baere mentions me, dreaming an important work ‘by a young artist who takes a stand against the outside world’. But he stresses that the court ruling is important. De Baere believes that Fabre’s condemnation ‘holds true to the work’, which ‘is not fruitful for either side’.

Add interpretation

Fabre’s works will nevertheless be exhibited again in the future permanent collection of M HKA. De Baere wonders if there could not be better ways to handle judgments like this. “It seems that in the artistic world you can only react very binary at the moment if you do not want to put into perspective an important problem; to exhibit or not to exhibit. While there are ‘scaled reactions’ in the judiciary; there are conditional and effective penalties and they have a certain duration. “

The places where Fabre’s work has been removed, temporarily or otherwise, appear to be a minority in Belgium. His sculptures and other art can not only be seen in museums, but also, for example, in the Flemish parliament, the cathedral of Antwerp or the royal palace, where in 2002 Fabre covered a ceiling with almost one and a half million shining jewel paintings. Some institutions have already announced that they will add explanations to the works. Although at the Royal Palace, for example, it is not yet clear what it will consist of.

Also read: The dancers Troubleyn have been talking about Fabre .s behavior for several months

Elsewhere, the verdict does not lead to any adjustments. Geert Vanden Broucke, mayor of the seaside resort of Nieuwpoort, says Fabre’s work is still popular in his town. Searching for Utopia (2003) is a giant statue of the artist on the back of a turtle and is still eagerly photographed and shared online, according to the mayor.

Vanden Broucke: “I have not had any negative reactions to it so far. Not even on social media. ” For him, the work is completely separate from the artist, even though it is a self-portrait – like many of Fabre’s works. He also does not think about adjusting anything, among other things for practical reasons. “If you start with that, you have to remove a lot of art. In addition, it is a work that weighs a few tons, so we leave it tidy. ”

SMAK director Philippe van Cauteren will soon have to consider the more practical side of removing a Fabre work. In the autumn, he will hold meetings with a number of other institutions, such as the Cathedral of Antwerp, on topics such as abuse of power and cross-border behavior. During those conversations, he symbolically and temporarily wants to remove ‘The Man Who Measures the Clouds’ from the museum’s roof. Van Cauteren: “Unless it costs too much. If the crane needed costs 6,000 euros, I’d rather invest it in something else.” The fact that Fabre liked monumental works could work in his favor.

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