It takes a moment for my eyes to adjust. It’s dim and dank in here, despite the warmth of the Venetian summer. A long, gnarled mass lies sprawled across the length of the floor; in the gloom of the pavilion its flesh seems luminous. In places, its limbs are bound with rags. Sometimes they rest on threadbare cushions. It’s a fallen tree, but it seems like a body.
Berlinde de Bruyckere’s Cripplewood (2012–13) occupies the Belgian Pavillion of the Venice Biennale like a dead weight. For much of her career, the artist has used wax to form misshapen, tortured bodies that are the antithesis of the heroic bodies of classical art. These cadaverous, tragic figures are at once hyperrealistic and impossibly contrived; composed of absences, often lacking heads, they also appear to have been deprived of innards and bones. They are marked by the touch of real bodies; De Bruyckere makes casts of body parts that she reworks and combines in assemblages that connote the presence of a real body whilst presenting incontrovertible evidence of its absence.
De Bruyckere robs monumental sculpture of its grandeur through the unsettling material of wax, a gummy, fleshy substitute for the traditional materials of sculpture—bronze and marble—and the inglorious, recycled furnishings that her figures squat upon or drape across. The uncanny effect of De Bruyckere’s waxes is considerable; they inspire horror and pity in the viewer, who is confronted by an object that suggests the disquieting presence of a corpse. This waxen residue appears to be the substance of a history of atrocity, a monument to a mute, traumatic past that trespasses on the present, unsummoned.
The sprawling elm of Cripplewood references the martyred body of Saint Sebastian, historically associated with the city of Venice and its devastating outbreaks of plague between the fourteenth and eighteenth centuries. Its naked branches, bruised in places, resemble the tender flesh of the inner arm. The bulk of the trunk is covered in rougher bark, which falls away, revealing an exposed core. De Bruyckere has succeeded in investing a leviathan form with heartrending vulnerability. That this work developed through a series of written exchanges with the South African novelist J. M. Coetzee speaks of their shared devotion to mining extremes of the human condition, in all of its beauty and horror.
Cripplewood is on view at the Belgium Pavilion of the Venice Biennale through November 24, 2013.