Exhibitions combining a collection’s older material with contemporary art have been in vogue for some time now. At Kunstmuseum Bern, ‘The Mystery of the Body’ brought together the film director Pier Paolo Pasolini and the Renaissance painter Lucas Cranach the Elder with the sculptor Berlinde De Bruyckere. Did the show have something to offer beyond one of those fashionable arranged marriages between the dead and the living, whose liaison inevitably remains distanced?
The exhibition in Bern actually did made sense in light of De Bruyckere’s anthropologically ahistorical image of humanity. According to the catalogue interview, she was strongly influenced by her Catholic upbringing. Her epoxy resin sculptures show naked, faceless, fragmented, mutilated or deformed bodies whose pallid flesh tones (including the series ‘Into One-Another’, 2011) recall maltreated martyrs, corpses on the verge of decay or skinned animal carcases. Also included was a work cast from a deer cadaver (Romeu ‘my deer’, 2011). In the interview, De Bruyckere underscores that even her portrayals of animals represent human experiences. The careful workmanship that goes into her sculptures, watercolours and drawings, also included in the show, can be understood as an appeal to nuture an emphatic vision of humanity. De Bruyckere’s work was flanked by Cranach’s Christ with the Crown of Thorns (c. 1515 or 1535) and Pasolini’s Il Vangelo secondo Matteo (The Gospel According to St. Matthew, 1964), which was screened in full at the museum along with Teorema (Theorem, 1968). In this combination, her work points to the classic dualisms of existence: suffering and the body, spirit and flesh, life and death, Eros and Thanatos and so on.
The show’s ultimately static vision of humanity remains open to dispute. Although De Bruyckere has cited influences which include the Gulf Wars and the Rwandan genocide, these events never manifest themselves in detail. The specific, time-bound, culturally constructed and standardized body is left out. When she speaks of flesh, she means, not the flesh now shaped by plastic surgery, but rather ‘the body’ in both a religious and a phenomenological sense: the animated mediator between the sensory and the extrasensory. Whereas Pasolini related religious myths and questions directly to the immanence of the present, De Bruyckere pulls them back into a timeless domain. In Bern, the catalogue essays – especially Cornelia Wieg’s contribution – reinforced this view. In general, the essayists bemoaned the triumphant progress of the culture industry and consumerism, and contrasted them with a nebulous, lost and seemingly more desirable culture. Pasolini may have been a critic of consumerism and technology, but Cranach was a proponent of the culture industry avant la lettre, who practiced mass production avant la masse – without considering his approach at odds with mystery or metaphysics. Perhaps another book would have been worth reading before seeing the show: Gianni Vattimo’s
La fine della modernità (1985; The End of Modernity, 1991). Vattimo suggests that a culture of technology and consumerism can actually be a fulfilment of metaphysics.
Translated by Nicholas Grindell