ESSAYS, INTERVIEWS & REVIEWS
Marianne Berenhaut - 2013 - Tonend de eitjes ongebroken [NL, essay]
One Showing the Eggs Unbroken
On Marianne Berenhaut’s work
This text has been written for a sculpture show entitled La robe est ailleurs (The Dress is Elsewhere). But before I describe some of the works, I suggest we meet the artist. Imagine a lively person, radiant with good humour, who constantly sees the relativity of things, especially the things she makes herself. She obviously loves her work, but it doesn’t feed an egocentric lifestyle. She is very open and eager to learn. Confronted with stupidity, she is confused and firm rather than angry. The first time I went to see her, she had just received a visit from a museum director. The artist gave me a guided tour of the house and showed me some of the sculptures which had been unpacked for the director’s visit. “She didn’t seem to like my work. ‘There are a lot of chairs and clothes in your work,’ she said. And then: ‘As a museum we prefer to concentrate on established artists and on young, emerging talent.’ I wonder if I should write her a letter asking if she thinks that famous artists were born that way. Or does she think you can only become famous if you receive support when you’re young? I think she confuses the private function of a gallery with the public function of a museum. Museums should inform the public. And not only about famous and young artists, but about all good artists, known or unknown.”
Later on she says: “Sometimes I’m so conscious of passing time that I think we should constantly have a mirror in front of us. It’s a pity, but things deteriorate. Anyone who believes that wisdom comes with old age is mistaken. Ideas and principles evolve much more slowly than bodies. But there are two things I know. Firstly, I think it’s wrong to believe that the most painful memories stay with us longer than happy ones. Life comes and goes. Secondly, when I work, there is no pre-established plan. When I make sculptures, it’s as if I use a different kind of intelligence. I seem to lose consciousness, even though I know perfectly well what I’m doing. It’s a kind of stupidity really, beyond logic. It’s not social intelligence, that’s why it’s so difficult to talk about it. To put it succinctly: I think dyslectic people are the ones in their right mind. (Laughs.) Anyway, when the sculptures are finished, I don’t judge them, they are left open to interpretation. That’s also reflected in the title of the show La robe est ailleurs: The objects are there in front of us, but the show is not just about them; it’s an invitation to let your mind and heart wander. I’m always astonished by what people see in my work.”
I’m sitting next to the artist and we are leafing through two big folders containing photographs of her work. She comments, I take notes.
The first works she made were called Maisons-Sculptures (Sculpture Houses): shelters for characters. Though they were too small to accommodate a real person, they were not architectural models. The sculptures were made out of building iron, sackcloth and plaster and were full of holes and crevasses. Some had a rough surface, others were smoother. One was cast in aluminium. Unfortunately they were all destroyed. All that remains is a set of photographs.
The artist tells me that she has always had a dual tendency to create either rigorous, minimal works or works that looked looser and seemed to spill over. She doesn’t know why there should be this distinction.
Looking at the photograph of a plasterwork covered with lead made at the end of the sixties, she says: “I love Brancusi. The day I saw The Kiss for the first time I was overwhelmed. I think I tried to make a kiss here.”
In 1969 Berenhaut fell through a glass roof and was unable to walk for about a year. During that time the world changed, she says. “For instance, I used to be a nurse. In those days medical doctors were regarded as masters of life and death. Suddenly the social order shifted. Things in my work shifted too. I started making the so-called Poupées-Poubelles (Dustbin Dolls).”
These dolls consist of nylon stockings stuffed with hay, straw, flowers and all sorts of objects such as watches, a piece of squeeze box, frying pans or other kitchen paraphernalia. Most of the dolls are propped up against a wall or seated in a chair to prevent them falling over. In 2009 49 of them were shown in the baroque Church of Saint Loup in Namur. “They were less provocative in that church, sitting in silence, all together again after forty years of separation. In general, women empathize with these sculptures,” the artist tells us, “but men are horrified by them.”
In 1981 Berenhaut started work on a series called Vie privée, which translates as ‘private life’ but also ‘bereft life’. It’s a beautiful title. Bereft of what? Can one be bereft of something one never had? This question is important because when you meet Marianne, you are struck by her vitality, her sense of humour and her enthusiasm. I look at her and I smile. She’s wearing bright red shoes with pink soles, brilliant green socks and yellow trousers. The beautiful house she lives in next to a park is stuffed with wondrous objects. Every corner of it seems to be alive. “It’s strange,” she says, “I dream of empty spaces but I always fill them with objects.”
The Vie privée series mainly consists of installations and assemblages. One of them, Il s’est passe quelque chose (Something has happened, 1987) contains a predominantly red carpet, the pale-blue, left front chassis of a car (the window half open) leaning against the wall, a pair of shoes, a purse, a pink satin gown lying on the carpet and four chairs of different sizes which seem to have been upholstered in chicken wire.
Sitting in a comfortable chair upholstered in yellow fabric sporting a vine print is the grandmother: an old black and white dress (also with a plant design), stuffed with a geranium in an invisible pot and shoes sitting on a mirror that continues under the chair. A blue scarf. On the back of the chair, a green child’s raincoat with white polka dots. On the floor, a big bunch of keys. In the grandmother’s lap, a set of knitting needles.
L’arbre de Noël aux enfants (Christmas Tree with Children, 2000) consists of knitted dolls in different colours (yellow, red, green, brown, pink, white and black) entangled in fairy lights, miraculously held up by a thin, pale yellow structure. The smallest doll sits comfortably on top, surveying the surrounding space from its vantage point. Not all the dolls look sad. In fact, one of them has a big smile and wears a pale yellow shawl and a bonnet to keep it warm.
The En rang (In a Row, 1992) installation consists of a row of black typewriters. The ones in front have been crushed. Hanging over the typewriters are bare light bulbs, which put one in mind of cellars, prison cells or poor housing. “The typewriters advance towards inevitable destruction,” says the artist.
Then we come to an aquarium with two lead water pipes resting on top of it. “At first I couldn’t see the relationship between the water pipes and the aquarium,” the artist says. “This shows how stupid I can be when I work. I just saw two things that looked unbalanced on top of another object.”
Ligoté sur table basse (Fettered to a Low Table, 1996): On a metal table is a leaden pipe held in place by a long strip of lead. “It’s a fettered male sex organ,” she says.
A similar piece, Table de jardin, (Garden Table, 1993), consists of a metal garden table, partly covered with a plaster dressing, which also holds a bent lead pipe in place. The feet of the table are dark green. The plaster is white. The pipe is grey.
A sewing machine covered with lead sews a mattress-like object.
In Le bureau (The Office, 1993) four wooden chairs with red leather seats surround a piece of green metal office furniture that leans against the wall.
In 2000 Berenhaut made Le lit (The Bed, 2000), an assemblage consisting of a green metal bed, seaweed and large glass bowls. “I made this work in a frenzy,” she says. “When it was finished, I was surprised. It didn’t seem to relate to anything I had made before. Up until then I often spoke about loss,” she continues, “about my deprived life and my childhood. But since making this sculpture, I’ve felt I’ve been talking about my own life and my own fantasies. This piece has overwhelmed me. I was disturbed by it, but I didn’t want to destroy it as if I knew it was very important.”
A jeter (For disposal, 2006) consists of a row of increasingly tilting, bright-green kraft paper bags. “I found them in front of a shoe shop. Lots of cellars in the area had flooded and everybody was taking the opportunity to have a good clear out. There were lots of good finds that day!”
“In those days I worked in a school. One day I saw the gardener burning a lot of little pink chairs. I begged him to stop and rescued some of them. I made an installation in which they support each other, because some of them have legs missing. I installed them on a floor I had made using tiles recovered from a derelict house.”
“In this piece you see a playpen with a set of suitcases that look as if they’re leaving.”
“This is my biggest installation. It’s called L’Inachevée (The Unfinished). I don’t know how it’s constructed. It contains gloves, brooms, suitcases and lots of other stuff. My assistant made a plan of it so we could reconstruct it. I try to make my titles less and less explicit. This one is subtitled: ‘The scattered tea goes with the leaves and every day a sunset dies.’ It’s a sentence from William Faulkner’s novel Intruder in the Dust. I don’t know what the sentence means. How can a sunset die?”
“My first Dustbin Dolls looked like big potatoes. I filled nylon stockings with stuffing from mattresses. My friends were horrified.”
“It’s true there’s tragedy in my work, but there’s also a lot of humour. I like to think of it as poetic. Like my sculpture that consists of a meeting between bicycle parts and porcelain electric switches. It’s poetic, it’s not tragic.”
“I’m glad you told me last time that I suffer from prosopagnosia. I now know why I never recognise people when I meet them out of context. May I take a picture of you with my phone? It would help me remember your face.”
Everyone is entitled to some degree of grace: the right to be who you are, where you are. Free of guilt. I believe that the main occupation of artists is to try to earn that right, to claim it through a series of actions that confront the viewer with a different outlook on things. It is their vocation to defend that difference. What their works say is: ‘This is who I am, this is what I do.’ Not for us – who reap the fruits of this as well of course –, but for themselves. To me the most powerful demonstration of this is to be found in the writings and sayings of Louise Bourgeois, who takes the liberty of constantly contradicting herself. Depending on her mood, her work can be all about form one day, and the next day it can be all about content. One finds grace through being accepted. To be accepted is to be loved.
What strikes me most about Berenhaut’s work is its liveliness. The colours and the motifs of plants. Everything explodes with life. A lead pipe, described as a male sex organ, is something that can be bent. It still seems to be alive. Textiles change colour. Wood goes on breathing and moving.
Sometimes the metal objects or pieces of furniture appear rigid, but then humour brings them to life.
It seems to me that Berenhaut’s work expresses freedom. The artist confirms this, telling me that she has had a great deal of artistic freedom because she has always had a job. She doesn’t quote the Belgian surrealists, who had to have a regular job to qualify as members of the movement.
Sculpturally, I like the way the artist leans objects up against the wall. I like their momentary stability. I also like the flat pedestals she makes, be it with a carpet, a mirror, a drawn red rectangle or real tiles rescued from a derelict house. In one piece (Le départ – The Departure) the pedestal, if it is one, consists of a ladder. This piece was described in detail by Thierry de Duve, who compared four different versions of the same sculpture. Mainly, it consists of a baby’s buggy sprinkled with fake snow, placed at the end of a ladder lying on the ground, which is broader on one side. On the wall you see a photograph and a poster from a railway station (twice announcing the arrivals, twice the departures).
The artist allows herself to change the direction of the ladder and the position of the buggy. She allows herself to use different railway posters. In the early versions she allowed herself to put a doll covered with Christmas decorations in the buggy and to remove it in the last two versions. What is essential to me is this claim to freedom, which certainly keeps the work alive, but which also underlines the sovereignty of the artist, who might even seem not to know what she is doing.
Thierry de Duve asks himself whether it is necessary to create a special category of artworks, alongside informal and process art, to describe this specific oeuvre, which seems to be a means to a necessary and imminent reconciliation with being a survivor. But all artists are survivors of a world that was not waiting for them. Every artist has to create a place for himself. In its newness, the oeuvre deviates from everything that existed before. It shows us the old stuff in a new way or just new stuff that is unlike anything that has preceded it, unlike itself, its creator and the viewer. This strangeness gives it its raison d’être. As Susan Sontag wrote, it is naïve, because it’s new. But once it has been recognized, its newness makes the old things look naïve.
In this sense, we all have the right to be naïve, not to know, to forget, to live. Not in an anti-cultural way which, as the older Thomas Mann wrote, inevitably leads to barbarism. Because nothing is as weak as our civilization and only a thin thread separates us from bestiality.
Let’s celebrate Primo Levi’s The Periodic Table, a book that shows how one can start anew, cooking chicken faeces, hoping, loving science, loving the wonders of chemistry and life.
And let us think of that beautiful poem by Philip Larkin, in which the wives, mothers, fathers, sons and daughters of miners who were killed in an explosion, listening to the priest, see their lost ones appear, as in a golden light, one showing the lark’s eggs he found the morning before the explosion, lodged in his open hands, unbroken.
Montagne de Miel, October 30th 2013