It was an intensely luminous day, flickering with translucent greens and yellows.  20° C in the shade and a lazy languor in the air with people in shirtsleeves loitering on the street.  

But I wasn’t fooled of course. This was the 1st of November, the quintessential autumn day supposed to bring us “tidings of nature’s decay” in faded yellows and greys.

And there I sat, in the afternoon sun, on a terrace outside the contemporary art museum of Ghent – sipping tea, avidly inhaling – not the autumnal smells of the nearby park, but the cigarette smoke drifting my way. How tempting …. I did love smoking … (but wisely quit 10 years ago). 

I was reading an autumnal text – about aging brain cells, touched with the colours of autumn
“The desires conceived by autumnal brain cells are autumnal desires, nostalgic, layered in memory”.

It’s a quote from J.M Coetzee, selected by Berlinde De Bruyckere  – an artist who knows everything about layers -  frayed layers of memories, battered layers of matter, soothing layers of comfort. 

Are they cruel, her drawings and sculptures of suffering beings, of tortured flesh?  The vulnerability of flesh rendered by layers of wax, craggy wax with red and blue veins running through it. The vulnerability of bodies, in twisted, tortured poses – clinging to a pole, folding into themselves – a defensive, lonely inwardness.

Is a painting of a crucifixion cruel? Is a pieta cruel? It’s a universal subject of art – from 14th century worn wooden sculptures of “the man of sorrows” (with their fading polychrome traces not unlike that veined wax) to Bacon’s 20th century twisting & screaming figures. 

There are also  the bandages, the rough pieces of cloth to bind and cover things up. And then there are the blankets, the many layers of blankets, to rest upon, or to mercifully hide under …  Blankets, also a universal and at the same time very contemporary imagery (refugees huddling in blankets, their few possessions bundled up in blanket) 

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