July 2008, Jan Fabre @ the Louvre

 Jan Fabre, Sanguis sum, courtesy musée du Louvre

Jan Fabre
musée du Louvre
Through July 7, 2008

A subtle sense of disjuncture between the Louvre's claims of fundamentally changing its exhibition approach, and its actual practices, pervades contemporary Belgian artist Jan Fabre's exhibition The Angel of Metamorphosis. Hosted as part of the museum's 'Counterpoints' contemporary art program—which has welcomed an array of artists including Candida Höfer, Mike Kelley, Sarkis, and Anish Kapoor since 2003—Fabre has taken up residence in the Louvre's less-visited Northern School galleries.

The positioning of contemporary art in the Louvre is meant, of course, to provide new ways of apprehending the existing collection—and in some sense, it's impossible not to have a changed experience of the museum when the artworks themselves are different. The real question is whether or not this 'update' for the 21st century is more than skin deep. Does the mere presence of contemporary art in the Louvre radically alter the fundamental make-up of this venerable microcosm (enabling it to attract a truly different audience for truly different reasons, as the museum hopes)? Do Jan Fabre's installations really challenge the Louvre's established viewing standards to provoke new 'ways of looking'?

For now, the answer to both of these questions is no. Fabre's theatrical works are strictly in line with the aesthetic mood and macabre thematics of Van Eyck, Rembrandt, Rubens, Van der Weyden, and Bosch—sometimes to the point of simply acting as three-dimensional 'transliterations' of surrounding paintings. Not unlike the audio-tours provided for visitors as substitutes for more traditional wall-texts, this is an old lesson in a new form.

Fabre's own visual vocabulary combines a whiff of religious kitsch with the mustiness of the natural history museum, a fantastical mélange whose rich textures and hues and heavy iconography echo neighboring 15th and 16th-century works. The here-and-now visual pleasure of scaly coffins covered in emerald scarabs, gilded lambs in glass cases, tumbled heaps of tombstones, and entomological sketches draws viewers back for a second look at the related, yet perhaps less immediately arresting, paintings. In some pieces, Fabre gets carried away with the mystical weirdness of it all. Works like Votive Offering to the God Of Insomnia (2008)—where bulbous, unidentifiable objects are covered in false eyeballs—seem designed to counter their decorous installation behind velvet ropes or on sculptural bases, but one wishes Fabre would simply take them out of their cases and let them be as strange as they are.

In fact, Fabre is at his best when he quietly slips his own work into the Louvre's existing exhibition format. In Falsification of the Secret Celebration (2005) four post-card sized drawings done in blue ball-point pen are hung in baroque gold and red velvet frames. The documentary scenes feel distantly familiar, like clippings from a newspaper read several months ago. In front of the London skyline, firemen surrounded by smoke spray water at an off-site blaze; a priest bows his head as a wind blows his hair and whips up a cloud of smoke around him; a man smokes a cigarette under a calendar which reads "MKZ Gdansk 1980." The vagueness surrounding these invented images' provenance is echoed in the smokescreen which obscures them visually—a theme as mystical as those symbolized in the highly coded objects and gestures in the surrounding paintings.

By no means must contemporary art at the Louvre function to the detriment of aesthetic effect, or even be highly conceptual, in order to act as a foil to existing brands of interpretation. Yet even Fabre—whose works sometimes feel trapped in the Louvre—cursorily acknowledges that something more irreverent will have be done in order to really shake up the museum's management of our ways of looking. In I Let Myself Drain (Dwarf) (2007), a life-sized figure stands inches away from the gallery wall, its nose literally pressed against a copy of a 15th century Roger van der Weyden painting. Blood drips from the man's nose, signaling the force of this man's "crash into the wall of history," as the accompanying text puts it.

The piece is, admittedly, a facile resort to humor of the first degree and the wax museum's crowd-pleasing approach to trompe l'oeil. Yet when we imagine this man to be a visitor lured to the Northern School galleries by promises of something fundamentally different, the figure's struggle to get as much out of the artwork as possible takes on a new light. His efforts seem to stem from the insistent question: are they really just giving us more of the same?

Sarah Neel Smith

Sarah Neel Smith is a writer in Paris.

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