As with the Venice Biennale, Cripplewood, is not deadwood, it is very much alive. In the in situ installation by Berlinde De Bruyckere fills the entire Belgian Pavilion with a commanding presence of time and space. This work is made from wax, epoxy, iron, textile, rope, paint, gypsum, roofing adhesives and is partially a real enormous, gnarled and knotted, uprooted elm tree, merging into a mass of trunks and limbs with an almost disturbing resemblance to the muscles, tendons and bones of the human form. Between the tree’s limbs, soft pillows, blankets and rags are used to soothe and support the exposed branches and underlying layers of darkness. This work is inspired by the artist’s dialogue with Venice, its history and the numerous paintings and sculptures of Saint Sebastian around the city. The knotted limbs and their embedded repression grows out of the buried past where he can only creep because one has become the tree. De Bruyckere understands that knots are of two kinds, those of the rational mind that can be untied… and the knots rooted by nature, which remain rooted by time.
At the Belgian pavilion after walking around the amazing Cripplewood tree installation, I walk through a doorway into an adjacent room and expect some kind of artistic experience, an encounter. But there is apparently nothing there in the murk. I have a feeling of dismay; I am disappointed. Then I am disappointed by my own disappointment. I have stepped into the abyss, taken the plunge, ready for adventure, with my Biennale maps and catalogs in hand, like so many travel brochures for far away places, but there is no destination in this room. I have merely stepped into an empty room. My anticipation that something interesting might be there turns into self-consciousness as I meet the bored gaze of the guard, whose eyes seem to say, “there is no here here.” This peripheral room is purgatory.
The Belgium Pavilion features Berlinde de Bruyckere’s Kreupelhout, or Cripplewood a Dutch/Belgian word that describes a natural phenomenon whereby trees, in order to get to the light or due to poison or genetics, will develop deformities. These trees were typically used to create crutches. The piece is a collaboration with writer J.M. Coetzee, the 2013 Nobel prize winner for literature, who provided inspirational text for both the artist and the audience. The piece is a response to the many St. Sebastian statues that populate Venice. The tree here no longer serves as the Saint’s support, but as a symbolic representation.