2 Stories

Jan Fabre

A Post-Mortem State of Life


“I was always doomed to become an artist,” Jan Fabre says, a cigarette between his lips and the brooding London sky serving as the background. Fabre, however, is a particular breed of artist, since he is as prolific a playwright as he is a visual maker, performance artist, choreographer, stage director, and designer, making the title of ‘Renaissance man’ more than fitting. With countless work comprising his repertoire (including dozens of plays, sculptures, and drawings), and his first solo exhibition in the U.K., Knight of the Night, which runs until March 12, 2016 at the Ronchini Gallery, Fabre is an exemplary creative spirit. The Belgian artist sat down with us to discuss the inspiration of Christ and the body, the typology of tears, and creating work in a post-mortem state of life.


NeueJournal: A great deal of your work revolves around human anatomy, particularly the brain. Where did this interest come from and what fascinates you so much about it?


Jan Fabre: The body was always a subject and object to research. I made my first blood drawings in ’77 while watching an important exhibition in Bruges. I committed my own body to compete with the Flemish painting, so the research started there, by making incisions in my body. I made a lot of projects over the years with my own blood, tears, and sperm, I made scriptures about the human body. I used different materials and slowly, over seven years, I made a lot of works about the brain because some scientists became a fan of my work; neurologists and I started working with them and that influenced my work.




NJ: So the work fed the research and the research fed the work. Religion is a recurring motif in your work. How would you describe your relationship to religion, and what role does art play in it?


JF: I’m an atheist thanks to Christ and of course I was born in the Flemish side of Belgium, which is a Catholic country. My mother was very Catholic and my father was a Communist, so I heard all the stories from the Bible and my father took me to churches and to museums to make drawings. My big inspirations were the Flemish classical masters, and of course Christ is very important in my work because we accept the model of Christ.


NJ: Your new exhibit explores the meaning of beauty – a question which has haunted humans for years. What is beauty, to you?


JF: For me beauty is not only aesthetic, because then it would be makeup. So for me beauty is almost always a kind of conciliation between ethical values and aesthetic principles.


NJ: What is your greatest extravagance?


JF: Why, the mediocrity of my genius.




NJ: What do you think was the biggest impact your childhood had on your career/creative work?


JF: To be in a coma. As a young boy I was in a coma twice, and this influenced my work a lot – my writings, my drawings. I think all my work is almost in a post-mortem state of life.


NJ: How did you end up in a coma?


JF: One time a street fight and one time diving in a canal. We had this sport when we were young teenagers, where we would dive into the the canal and swim to the boats. One day, one of the guys on the boats hit me on the head and I lost consciousness in the water. One of my friends saved me, but I was in a coma for nine days, and the first time for six days.


NJ: Do you remember anything from it?


JF: No. But I remember afterwards, particularly the second time, the feeling of living in borrowed time. I was a lucky bastard.


NJ: How would you describe the color red to a blind person?


JF: Ha, good question. I would put their finger in a wound.


NJ: What is your first memory of art?


JF: Before I wanted to become an artist I wanted to become a postman because the son of my godmother and godfather was a mailman. I was five years old and he was walking on the streets of Antwerp ringing the door, bringing the checks, and I thought, “Wow, that’s the job I want, because it’s free and it is contact with people.” Then as a young boy I got this chemistry box for my birthday and I made my first laboratory in the basement. So the two professions I wanted to become were a chemist and a postman, and that’s what I do; I’m still choosing experiments and I bring my work around the world like a mailman.




NJ: Was there ever a point in your life when you were about to make a different career choice?


JF: No, I was always doomed to become an artist.


NJ: Where do you think you would be had you not chosen the art world?


JF: I think science, because my inspiration is always scientists. My heroes are scientists.


NJ: More than the painters?


JF: It’s a combination of the Flemish classical masters and the contemporary scientists like Edward Wilson or Giacomo Rizzolatti in Italy who invented the mirror neurons. These kind of guys inspire me a lot.


NJ: What is the last film or play you watched that made you cry?


JF: About a year ago in Padova, Italy to see the Giotto Fresco. In the presence of immense beauty I really had tears on my face. Afterwards, I researched my own tears and I discovered different typologies of tears. For example irritation tears you get by peeling an onion, but listening to a beautiful piece of music or seeing a beautiful painting makes you cry spiritual tears – filled with soul.


NJ: What is the last film or play you watched that made you laugh?


JF: Little Britain. (laughs) It’s fantastic..


NJ: If heaven exists, what do you think it looks like?


JF: Like Antwerp.


Photography: Laurence Ellis for NeueJournal


That which is true, was once only imagined

Artwork by Brigitte Lacombe w/ guest photo editor Janet Johnson | NeueJournal Issue 1

In this rare collaboration with NeueJournal, Brigitte creates a series of portraits investigating the most nuanced and directional voices in contemporary art, film, music, and science. An ongoing personal series captured in her Lower East Side daylight studio, these images are underscored by a quiet intimacy unique to the space itself.



RICHARD AXEL: Cori and I met in 1981 when I was a professor at Columbia and I had to go up to MIT to give a seminar. There she was, a brilliant, thin, blonde, first-year graduate student in Professor Weinberg’s lab. I talked to her and was fascinated by her mind. And that began a scientific relationship, which ultimately led, twenty-three years later, to us falling in love and marrying.


CORI BARGMANN: I remember he’d talk and it was brilliant. He was legendary. My PhD advisor used to say that the biggest mistake you could make as a scientist was to always be trying to impress Richard Axel.


RA: We met and that aura was very quickly destroyed. She saw the true inadequacies of my mind, which became increasingly clear as we lived with one another.


CB: Well, I think we’re both struggling to understand questions about how the brain works. We might disagree on particular topics, but we might take the opposite sides in a conversation a month later. Such is the nature of science.


RA: Scientists want to understand the very same problems that people in the humanities do, like behavior, emotion, and perception, except science to me is far more dynamic and vibrant as it has the ability to generate ideas, to design experimental approaches to approve those ideas, and then it sees some of those ideas emerge as close to true, and other of those ideas be replaced by better thinking. It’s one of the most enjoyable endeavors I can conceive of, most of the time. The caveat is that you work with an intensity and a joy, and you believe that those efforts will afford you freedom, when in fact there are aspects that can be tedious.


CB: I agree completely. In order to be a scientist you have to be willing to delay gratification indefinitely. It takes so long to get things done, and it’s so tedious, as Richard says—things go wrong for reasons that are so uninteresting and frustrating. Trying to do the experiment for the seventh time after it failed six times is something that every scientist has to learn. But it doesn’t feel like failure in retrospect that it took you that many tries to get it right. Science is not something you just read in a book. In science you make progress with another person, through a discussion, through a correspondence, through an argument about different things that you think contradict each other. It’s the greatest, most stimulating process in the world.


RA: I think something William Blake said in Songs of Innocence and Experience really reflects our love of science: “That which is true, was once only imagined.”


CB: There’s another quote I like from Isaac Asimov that says, “The phrase in science that heralds new discoveries is not ‘Eureka!’ but ‘That’s funny . . . ’ “ If you knew what the answer was going to be before you got there, it would be engineering, not science. So, the essence of science is the surprising discovery. Do you agree, Richard?


RA: I don’t have any thoughts on that. My whole life is an accident.


Cori Bargmann is a biologist whose laboratory characterizes genes and neural pathways that allow the nervous system to generate flexible behaviors. The Bargmann lab is studying the relationships between genes, experience, the nervous system, and behavior in the nematode C. elegans. C. elegans’s most complex behaviors occur in response to smell, and these are at the heart of the Bargmann lab’s research.


Richard Axel is a molecular biologist and a winner of the Nobel Prize in physiology and medicine for his discovery of more than 1,000 different genes that encode olfactory receptors in the nose—a seminal breakthrough in our modern thinking about the sense of smell.


Photography: Brigitte Lacombe for NeueJournal
Guest Photo Editor: Janet Johnson