Painting loves to lavish attention on the flesh, whether the plump, pearly perfection of an Ingres hand, the rouged dimple of a Rubens buttock, or the flaccid folds of a Jenny Saville nude. The September 2014 issue of Apollo included an interview with Saville by Martin Gayford, entitled ‘Living in Flesh’. A new exhibition of works by the Belgian artist Berlinde de Bruyckere (b. 1964) at Hauser & Wirth London, ‘Of Tender Skin’ (until 10 January 2015), suggests that the treatment of flesh in sculpture may be rather different: that it can only aspire to a condition of deadness.
For the 19th-century critic Walter Pater, any sculptural approximation of the human form was stumped by the nature of sculptors’ materials. Skilfully sculpted fingers may seem to press into pliable flesh, but they only expose the cold touch of stone. For sculpture to succeed in representing humanity it must be bloodless, sucked dry to reveal an idealised form purged of emotion and composed from the faceless ratios of perfection: in short, the Greek sculptural paradigm.
If we accept Pater’s theory, it seems that all other attempts to render the flesh in three dimensions must be resigned to expressing their very lifelessness. Indeed, the sculptures of Berlinde de Bruyckere have been described as ‘emphatically dead’. The phrase may be faintly ridiculous, but De Bruyckere’s decomposing forms in wax, leather, rope and resin can hardly be described as passive in their deadness. While the bound, broken limbs of works such as After Cripplewood I (2013–14) may appear static, they remind us that flesh is at its most active in the process of decay: feeding, writhing, rotting, our bodies become a hub of activity, undergoing something akin to an afterlife. We’ve seen it in Damien Hirst’s A Thousand Years (1990), and in Marc Quinn’s Self (1991), the bust made from frozen blood that allegedly started to ooze and stink when Charles Saatchi’s builders switched off the power. De Bruyckere’s sculptures achieve a greater complexity, suspended between states of decomposition and preservation. Tellingly, smaller works are displayed in bell jars as though to starve them of oxygen, appearing as a series of relics.
De Bruyckere returns relentlessly to the same themes, applying the rigorous curiosity of an anatomist. All too often, sculptural evocations of the flesh tend to collapse into kitsch: take the polychrome wooden martyrs of 17th-century Spain, with their sweaty sheen of varnished paint, glass eyes and what looks like coagulating blood. These works were created for the purpose of spiritual devotion, but contemporary sculpture has no such point of gravitation. More often than not, hyperrealistic techniques are used for the sake of a gratuitous gross-out; the result is no more gripping than an episode of EmbarrassingBodies. Arguably, the work of artists such as John Isaacs and Jonathan Payne slips into this category; and the sculptor Andrea Halser recently installed a giant lump of resin-and-wax flesh on the Verbier mountainside, symbolically trussed in gold chains and entitled Perishable Goods. Yes, flesh sells. But there is nothing more dull than fetishistic obsession, endlessly overreaching its object.
Adjoining the De Bruyckere show, Pipilotti Rist (b. 1962) presents her video work Mercy Garden (2014) as part of the exhibition ‘Stay Stamina Stay’ (until 22 February 2015). Here we see life in technicolour: the camera ripples through peachy pink viscera, breasts wobble and flowers burst into bloom. Next door, De Bruyckere’s sculptures are stern and static, etherised upon tables or propped on brittle wooden crutches. To survive, sculpture of the flesh must either expose the lifelessness of its medium, slip into kitsch, or somehow transcend its form altogether. Sculpture cannot step from the pedestal like Pygmalion’s muse, but it can still strive to achieve the type of purged purity Pater saw in Greek statues. While works such as Allen Jones’ airbrushed dolls or Don Brown’s pallid representations of the female form come freighted with their own emotional cargo, perhaps the nearest approximation is the ‘uncanny valley’ effect generated by the most lifelike androids – in particular, the variations on the Actroid designed by Hiroshi Ishiguro. Though undeniably human in form, their wipe-clean skins bear no relation to flesh either living or dead. Ideal form has a long way to go; meanwhile, we go the way of all flesh.
‘Berlinde de Bruyckere: Of Tender Skin’ is at Hauser & Wirth, London, until 10 January 2015.
‘Berlinde de Bruyckere: Sculptures & Drawings. 2000-2014’ is at S.M.A.K., Ghent, until 15 February 2015.