I started my Biennale round-up with the Netherlands, and now I am moving to Belgium, the Netherlands’ neighbour, not just on the map, but in the microcosm of the world that is the Giardini – a small Low Countries coalition. And so I move from Mark Manders to Berlinde De Bruyckere. 

What links them for me, apart from the fact that they are of the same generation (and roughly the same age as I am) and that they both live and work in Belgium, is something to do with mood. For their respective installations, both artists are utilising found materials (there were a lot of found materials this year, as if artists are busily raiding junk shops and skips in the face of austerity), but these materials are transformed to represent something vast and wordless, a sense of failed promise, as we are presented with things that are broken, impossible to mend. 

De Bruyckere’s work often concentrates on the human – the body contorted, twisted into a shape which is not physically possible, but expresses the cry of suffering, like Francis Bacon in 3D. She is sometimes referencing the grim crucifixions of the Netherlandish Renaissance, or the Belgian battlefields of the first World War, but there is also something of the way we live now, often in terror and in fear. 


In De Bruyckere’s Biennale installation, there is a single massive felled elm tree that crowds the gallery floor, so huge it occupies the whole of the pavilion. Whereas the Scandinavian pavilions displayed trees that were standing, healthy and in growth, De Bruyckere’s tree appears dead, toppled to horizontal, with branches that look like broken and bleeding limbs, wrapped in hessian. The tree is ill, pale, it doesn’t feel solid; on closer inspection you realise it’s made of wax, as if it might melt into nothingness, its limbs are the colour of flesh. The pavilion is dark; De Bruyckere has blocked out the light with hessian sacks. No light can come in; this is a netherworld, a haunted forest. 

The first inspiration for the work came when the artist was driving through France after a storm and encountered a massive, uprooted tree in the road. De Bruyckere said that ‘the image came to mind of a collapsed cathedral, the roof vault thrown to the floor.’ 


The artist wrote to the South African novelist J.M. Coetzee about the tree. He in turn wrote the following piece for the show, a meditation on its name: 


Cripplewood is not deadwood. Deadwood: in the mythology of the American West, the town of failed hopes where all trails end. Cripplewood, by contrast, is alive. Like all trees, the cripplewood tree aspires towards the sun, but something in its genes, some bad inheritance, some poison, twists its bones. 

The lexical tangle around ‘kreupelhout’ – cripplewood – gnarlwood (gnarled, knurled, knarled are all the same words in variant forms):

  1. kreupel – kruipen – creep – crouch – crutch (kruk)
  2. gnarl: gnarled, snarled (knotted)
  3. snarl: 1. a snare (trap); 2. a tangle, knot (of hair)

The cripplewood tree that cannot straighten itself, that grows bent at a crouch; from whose limbs we get crutches for those who can only creep; a tree of knotted limbs, gnarled, snarled. 

Knots are of two kinds: the rational kind, creatures of human reason, that having been tied can be untied; and the kind that occur in nature, for which there is no loosening, no solution, no oplossing. 

‘Cripple / kreupel’: a word no longer in polite use. Rejected as unclean, it is dismissed back from the world in which it came and to which it belongs, a world of hovels and tenements, of open drains and coal cellars and horse-drawn carts and starving dogs in the streets. An unwanted word, pressed back, repressed, buried. The cripplewood tree grows out of the buried past into our clean present, pushing its knotted fingers up through the grate / gate behind which we have shut it. 


The whole pavilion becomes that coal cellar, a deep dark place where things are shut away and allowed to rot. Not out of place in the great city of decay, which has its dark corners and sad entanglements.

Coetzee says of De Bruyckere’s work, ‘her sculptures explore life and death – death in life, life in death, life before life, death before death – in the most intimate and most disturbing way. they bring illumination, but the illumination is as dark as it is profound.’