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Jan Fabre: Pietas. 54th Venice Biennale

“I already had my theme of the Pietas in mind, and had been working on it in rough for some time, and when I saw Santa Maria della Misericordia, a deconsecrated church of the XVI century transformed into an academy of thinking, I knew this was the right place to exhibit my work! Here, art, science and spirituality meet and blend”. Jan Fabre

Imagery of human anatomy permeates Jan Fabre’s artistic practice and the brain, in particular, is a symbol of empathy for the artist whose leitmotif is the cyclical nature of life, death and rebirth. His exhibition, Pietas, in the Nouva Scuola Grande Di Santa Maria Della Misericordia comprises five large scale sculptures – Tools of poetical terrorism (Pietà I); Living gravetomb (Pietà II); Fountain of life mimicking the shape and style of miniature (Pietà III); Ascending oracle stones (Pietà IV); Merciful dream (Pietà V) – carved from Carrara marble installed on a gold-leaf podium. Four marble sculptures are large-scale anatomical renditions of brains, from which emerge crucifixes coiled in vine-like branches and tree-like structures. The columns surrounding the works have been made from the metallic-green shells of beetles.

Fabre’s principal piece, Merciful Dream (Pieta V), is the artists reinterpretation of Michelangelo’s iconic Pietà. Fabre has placed himself as Jesus with a butterfly perched on the side of his mouth. He wears a crumpled torn suit with insects clinging to his corpse-like body. Upon closer inspection a scarab – half visible – appears to be slyly journeying from the artist’s sleeve toward his lifeless hand, which is tenuously grasping another orb-like brain. Under the Virgin Mary’s veil her face has been replaced with that of a skull, a reference to Vanitas and universal symbol of death. Although the work has created some controversy for its perceived blasphemous content, Fabre insists that Pietas should be interpreted as a ‘performance sculpture’ that encapsulates maternal bereavement and captures the futile longing of a mother to take the place of her dying son.

Visitors can interact with the works by wearing felt slippers to access the podium. This preciosity suggests that Fabre employs a theatrical element to imbue a sense of reverence and sanctity, where the podium transforms into a golden stage and the viewers became actors coinciding with the sculpture and creating a colloquy between the physical and the metaphysical, the rational and the spiritual.

The preoccupation with insects and the carved scarabs links Fabre’s work to his great grandfather, Henri Fabre, the 19thcentury entomologist. Scarabs and insects have also featured in Fabre’s past work, notably in Heaven of Delight (2002) which displayed 1,600.000 buprestids (jewel-scarab wing cases) on the ceiling of the Hall of Mirrors, in the Royal Palace in Brussels. Scarabs are also the Egyptian symbol of metamorphosis and the Christian belief in resurrection.

Pietas will be on show in The Nouva Scuola Grande Di Santa Maria Della Misericordia until 16th October 2011 organised within ‘Illuminations’, the 54th Venice Biennale. The exhibition is curated by Giacinto de Pietrantonio and Katerina Koskina, with the promotional support of three cultural institutions, the GAMeC – Gallery of Modern and Contemporary Art, Bergamo; the State Museum of Contemporary Art, Thessaloniki; and the Kunsthistorisches Museum of Vienna.


Images courtesy:  Angelos – Jan Fabre, Photo: Pat Verbruggen, Copyright: Angelos. Images from Top: Merciful dream (Pietà V);  Merciful dream (Detail) (Pietà V); Tools of poetical terrorism (Pietà I);  Living gravetomb (Pietà II.

Text: Nadine Talalla


Visual Artist based in London, U.K. whose artistic practise is explores identity issues through visual media. Nadine Talalla works working predominantly in video and painting.


One thought on “Jan Fabre: Pietas. 54th Venice Biennale

  1. INCREDIBLE!!!!!!

    Posted by Kiko Bustamante | August 8, 2011, 2:16 pm

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