Düsseldorf, Winter 2006

It’s an odd, but cherished, collection: those highly personal memories of moments of harmony with the world. Memories of uneventful moments, neither boisterously happy nor deeply introspective. But rather meditative moments, with the self temporarily released from the selfish burdens of living and worrying. Memories of moments (1), or of places (2), which permitted some sort of reconciliation with the world and with the self.
These moments and their consolations are fugitive alas, but at least they yield the kind of soothing images to which a restive mind can cling, when for instance seeking rescue from the travails of a wakeful night.

Lately this collection has thrown up memories of a wintertrip to Duesseldorf. And how consoling they are, how strangely sheltering they feel, these images of wet, foggy streets and of myself wandering about them.

It was during those dark & drizzly days adrift between Xmas and New Year, and Duesseldorf seemed to have lost its wealthy arrogance. One could nearly believe that its much publicized Winter “Art Quadriennale” had been set up out of a genuine, melancholy need rather than to merely spur the art-tourist-trade.

It was raining when I got out of the station, and despite the late morning hour the streets looked almost nocturnally desolate. The wet pavements glistened with the reflections of flickering red and yellow signs, which pointed to at least some human activity in the Döner-Kebab restaurants, Wurst-stalls and sex-cinemas. (3)

My hotel was located on an empty, shabby square not far from the station. The curtains of the windows of the neighboring Balkan restaurant were closed and no red lights were flashing on the façade of the sex-shop opposite the hotel.

I mounted the narrow staircase to the reception and was greeted only by the twinkling lights of a small Xmas tree. The reception desk itself was empty, but from the open door behind it came the shifting sounds and luminosity of a TV-set. The cramped semi-dark reception-area, the dimly blaring TV, the worn wooden desk, the gaudy Xmas-decorations: they were all of a pathos that moved me profoundly.

I rung the bell, and the receptionist came out, gauging me warily before extending a cautious welcome. But her initial suspicion soon turned into a more amiable curiosity about the motivations of a lone winter traveler. She seemed reassured both by my ’Art-Quadriennale’ travel-motive and by my city of residence, Brussels.
She had been there, she said, and enthusiastically launched into a brief comparative lecture about the Brussels shopping streets versus their Duesseldorf equivalents. But then, taking in my sober winter outfit and battered bag, she checked herself and apologetically said: ‘but you’re here for art, not for shopping’. She gave me my room’s key, and pointed out the corridor with the old, iron cage elevator.
While I stood there waiting, I felt her absentmindedly gazing at me. Then she smiled wistfully, looking suddenly so very lonely and vulnerable, and went back into the TV room.

When I left the hotel again, the heavy rain had turned into a foggy drizzle. Walking along one of the main thoroughfares, I got in thrall to the urban romance of neon signs shimmering in a suggestive haze, of cars swooshing by with sweeping lights. And somehow, in this wintry cityscape, my solitude wasn’t disagreeable to me. (4) Especially since I had not to mingle with the fur-coated ladies in the profusely lit shopping streets, which were full to bursting with silly luxury goods on shiny display.

Skirting the shopping district, I could walk through dark & wet streets, to find a harsh sort of cover in the austerely neon-lit Kunsthalle. With its unadorned concrete and its stark oversized rooms, this building would not obviously please nor give any kind of sentimental shelter.

In this indifferent setting, one was fully exposed to the extreme poignancy of Berlinde De Bruyckere’s sculptures , some occupying the full height of a nine meter high room : “figures in which human and creature-like forms nestle up to and melt into [high] columns, as well as horse torsos, which stretch upward from a wrought iron pedestal”.

These creatures, suffering alone atop pillars and pedestals, show all the deformations of vulnerable flesh, of “flesh through which a conscience of pain has torn and which thus has also suffered in the untraceable soul”. One gasps, one suppresses tears, one falls silent. And feels profoundly for these creatures, who represent a suffering that has been or can be or shall be others' and our lot one day too. “When utterly powerless and helpless, humans resort to reflection and meditation upon what has been suffered”.
While not being able to bring material relief, one thus can at least give suffering a place in the world, give it some human significance through our empathy. (5) (6)

No material relief? Ah, but some of those creatures do seem to find warmth and protection under rough woolen blankets … Yes, about vulnerability, about our yearning for shelter De Bruyckere is never wrong …

odd, but cherished, collection of correlations
(1) of moments and places - Albert Hourani – A History of the Arab Peoples – from the chapter “The language of poetry” (read on Jan 1st 2010)
“The poem tended to begin with the evocation of a place where the poet had once been, which could also be an evocation of a lost love; the mood was not erotic, so much as the commemoration of the transience of human life”
(2) of moments and places - Proust – A la recherche du temps perdu – read and reread since Xmas 1995)
“le souvenir d’une image n’est que le regret d’un instant"
(3) Orhan Pamuk – Snow ('In Frankfurt') – read in March 2007
“It was the middle of the day, but, looking into the dark, dense mist, I could still see the deathly yellow glow of streetlamps. Still, it cheered me to see – in the streets surrounding the central train station, along the pavements lined with döner-kebab restaurants and travel agencies and ice-cream parlours and sex shops – signs of the energy that sustains all big cities”

(4) John le Carré - diverse espionage novels – read somewhere between 1985 and 1988
Le Carré (especially in his cold war novels) surely is one of the most melancholy of thriller writers, bestowing dignity and a sense of gravitas on his often rather lonely and reflective characters. Somehow the following sentence of his has stayed with me over the years.
"She realized being quite alone in the world. But somehow in the wintry landscape her solitude wasn’t disagreeable to her. "
Trying to locate this quote, I leaf through my yellowing Le Carré pockets (compulsively read as a procrastinating student). But instead of yielding the searched for sentence, the thickly printed pages offered an unexpected memento senescere : I wince at the very small font which obviously didn’t pose yet any problem in younger days.
(5) paraphrasing Stefan Hertmans’ reflections about “Schmerzensmann V , Een sculptuur van Berlinde De Bruyckere” – essay read between 23 dec and 28 dec 2009
[…] De verfijning van verdriet […] behoort integraal tot wat de beschaving met de existentie van de mens heeft aangericht; de ingehoudenheid, de beheersing, de melancholie die op deze uiterts verfijnde gezichten te lezen is – zij behoort wel degelijk integraal tot de wereld die zijn zin sticht in het gedenken en de empathie
[…] Wat daar ontstaat is onze meditatieve afgezonderdheid, een hulpeloosheid die zich omzet in meditatie over het geleden leed. Verstilling is een essentieel element geweest in het oproepen van een mogelijke catharsis bij het afbeelden van lichamen die omkwamen door pijn.
[…] Het besef dat er bewustzijn van lijden door dat vlees is gegaan, maakt het definitief en categorisch tot spiritueel vlees: tot vlees dat bewustzijn heeft gedragen en dus ook geleden heeft in de onvindbare ziel

(6)Seeking cover under the weight of ponderous reflections(intersecting with afterthoughts about “The Sacred made Real”, a National Gallery exhibit, and with Erwin Panofsky’s “Peinture et devotion en Europe du Nord” , essays about the iconography of the “Man Of Sorrows” and “Ecce Homo”)

Trying to give a human significance to suffering, may have to be distinguished from the mystical or religious significance which many of the great Western rituals have tried to bestow on it.

Western religious iconography is full of images of suffering. Take all those crucifixions, with Christ writhing in agony on the cross, and with lamenting figures beneath. But these images of a suffering Christ offered (and still offer) quite another appeal to the empathic imagination than do De Bruyckere’s sculptures.

Religious images appeal to the transcendent beliefs of the faithful: Christians believe that Christ’ suffering was meant to eventually redeem all human sins and suffering. In the Passion-story, Christ did take upon him a genuinely human fate of suffering, but his divine nature of course meant that he was not trapped in the human fate of an agony ending in a mute death.

De Bruyckere’s suffering creatures cannot invoke this kind of redemption, cannot find release in a religious transcendence.
They are suffering quite alone on their pedestals and pillars or stakes. And yet, and yet....

The sheer fact that an artist has so carefully molded and assembled these creatures, has so meticulously given them this tangible material presence. The fact that we stand at the foot of these crucifixions: lamenting, mourning, meditating.

This human community in empathy and mourning, this shared human significance given by art, this shared commitment of ours to thus give shelter to suffering - isn’t it consolation enough?