The horse as human

Steve Baker, author of the seminal text Picturing the Beast, claims that representations of animals are merely depictions of human beings in another form. This seems to be true, at least in the case in the horse sculptures of Belgian artist Berlinde de Bruyckere.

I recently saw one of de Bruyckere’s pieces ‘in the flesh’ (so to speak), at the Art Gallery of South Australia.

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Titled “We Are All Flesh” (2011-12), the label accompanying the work claims that the body of the horse is used ‘to ponder what it is to be human, to explore where the human condition is located.’

It was particularly interesting to stand by the sculpture and listen to the comments of passers-by: “That’s not art!” “How gross” “Wow!” While I didn’t hear anyone pondering the human condition, many many people stopped to photograph the work, so it seemed to have captured their interest in one way or another.

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The sculpture seems to be two horses twisted together, though without any visible head and only five (!) hooves, it is hard to convince the mind of the second horse’s existence. According to the label again, the piece references Christian martyrs, but – perhaps because of my PhD topic – I just couldn’t get past the HORSENESS of it.

These works of De Bruyckere are created from casts of dead horses, made at the Ghent University Vet Clinic. The label mentions this process, though doesn’t specify that the horses are dead at the time. She then creates a mould, from which a cast is made as a mount for the horse skins, themselves obtained from a tannery.

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While the works are generally regarded as a reference for humanity, a 2012 news article intimates that de Bruyckere does at least consider the beauty of the horse, in and of itself, in her work. “The body of the horse, it is close to us – but not too close. We like it, we see it everywhere. It is one of the best friends of human beings. And it has such a beauty and such a mind.”[1] Elsewhere, deBruyckere was quoted as saying of the horses, “Once the veterinary students are finished with these bodies they go to the incinerator; it’s as though I could not accept this, couldn’t let it happen, so I took them with me and made something beautiful from them. That is how people should view them, not as dead flesh or meat, but as something living.”[2]

De Bruyckere grew up in Ghent, where her father was a butcher, a fact that she acknowledges has influenced her work. While this may at first seem a vague connection, it is worth remembering that horse meat is part of the culinary tradition of Belgium, so it would have been sure to feature in the family butcher shop. This fact adds an additional layer of complexity to de Bruyckere’s work, which may not be easily comprehensible within a culture where the eating of horses is largely taboo. The linking of the horse with the human in that context, then, takes on a much more nuanced, and even difficult, meaning.

Where the horse skins come from also seems to matter to visitors, as evidenced by the issue being addressed by the label in the AGSA exhibit – in fact one journalist overheard a gallery attendant at de Bruckyere’s Australian Centre for Contemporary Art 2012 show telling a visitor that the artists acquaints herself with the still-living horses, and waits for them to die of natural causes before collecting their hides.[3] Whether this fallacy was invented by the attendant or the gallery, and for what reasons, we are not told, but clearly, people consider more than just the human when looking at these works. 

Lots of people, better qualified than I, have written about de Bruyckere’s art. While it makes me ponder the equine condition more than the human one, she herself has said that “certainty gives you nothing to say” [4], and so perhaps that is okay.

 

REFERENCES:

[1] Andrew Stephens, “Works born of bloodied memory”, The Age, June 2 2012, http://www.theage.com.au/entertainment/art-and-design/works-born-of-bloodied-memory-20120601-1zmd6.html 

[2] Alexandra Coghlan, “In the flesh”, The Monthly no. 80, July 2012.

[3] Christopher Allan, “Meat matters at Berlinde de Bruychere’s We Are All Flesh exhibition”, The Australian, June 23 2012, http://www.theaustralian.com.au/arts/review/meat-matters-at-berlinde-de-bruyckeres-we-are-all-flesh-exhibition/story-fn9n8gph-1226403237108

[4] Andrew Stephens, “Works born of bloodied memory”, The Age, June 2 2012, http://www.theage.com.au/entertainment/art-and-design/works-born-of-bloodied-memory-20120601-1zmd6.html

 

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