Jan Fabre (b. 1958, Antwerp) is regarded both in Belgium and abroad as one of the most innovative and versatile personalities in the contemporary international art scene. Over the past 40 years, he has made his mark as a visual artist, theatre artist and author. He describes himself as a consilience artist, someone who is constantly searching for bridges between different disciplines. Thanks to this undertaking, he gives fresh interpretations to the world of visual art, theatre and literature. Jan Fabre changed the idiom of theatre by bringing real action and real time onto the stage. Following his historic eight-hour production “This is theatre like it was to be expected and foreseen” (1982) and the four-hour “The Power of Theatrical Madness” (1984), he explored new territory with “Mount Olympus. To glorify the cult of tragedy, a 24-hour performance” (2015); a monumental marathon piece with which he rewrote international theatre history.
In his visual oeuvre, Jan Fabre has developed a unique and coherent world; a highly personal visual language with recurring symbols and motifs. Whilst studying in Antwerp at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts and the Municipal Institute for Decorative Arts and Crafts, he developed a profound love of beauty and its spiritual power. Curious by nature and influenced by the manuscripts of the entomologist Jean-Henri Fabre (1823-1915), Jan Fabre became fascinated by the world of insects at a young age. The interaction between human and animal, and between animal and human, is an important component of metamorphosis, and is thus a constant in Fabre’s body of thought. Research into the meaning of the body is essential in the oeuvre of Jan Fabre: the body is the entrance to every emotion, thought and higher contemplation. Fabre uses interventions on his own body to explore its fluid boundaries. This is an endless quest for the self, the shell which serves as the entrance to deeper contents. The artist’s enduring fascination with the body is also strongly apparent in the personal actions and performances, from 1976 to today.
Jan Fabre has been invited to integrate artworks into various public locations in Belgium and abroad, including: “The Man Who Measures the Clouds” (1998), which can be seen at various sites in Europa and Asia. In Brussels, you experience “The Gaze Within (The Hour Blue)” (2011-2013) in the stairwell of the Royal Museum of Fine Arts and “Heaven of Delight” (2002) at the Royal Palace. You can find “Totem” (2004), an installation depicting a jewel beetle on the Ladeuzeplein in Leuven which became a symbol of the city. In Antwerp, the artist’s hometown, you encounter “The Man who Bears the Cross” (2015) in the Cathedral of Our Lady. In the same city Fabre created three altarpieces in the footsteps of Rubens, Jordaens and Van Dyck in St. Augustine’s Church/AMUZ. Like “Heaven of Delight”, these altarpieces are made with the wing cases of jewel beetles. His latest addition to his public installations are four red coral sculptures in the chapel of Pio Monte della Misericordia in Naples (2019), in dialogue with a masterpiece of Caravaggio.
As well as being a visual artist and a theatre artist, Jan Fabre is also the author of a large oeuvre of theatre texts that are regarded as reference works by theatre directors, academics and performers alike. Over the years, Jan Fabre has created his own language of ‘physiological’ acting, summed up in his guidelines for a performer in the 21st century. Jan Fabre Teaching Group also passes on his theatre texts and specific language as an instrument to a new generations of artists all over the world. The imagination and physical awareness are gradually sharpened and the performer is challenged to build a bridge to a state of physical transformation. Fabre’s plays were written with the aim of producing them on stage. In the early Seventies, Jan Fabre wrote to give shape to his then already intense imaginative world. These are plays which only came into the public domain many years later, when they were staged by the author himself. Other plays were created in the course of rehearsals on the basis of improvisation with the actors. In some cases they are a combination of the author writings and improvised scripts. Several of these plays are monologues, often written for Fabre’s favourite actress Els Deceukelier. But the plays with several characters are striking for being like monologues too. One hardly ever finds realistic dialogues or anecdotes taken from life in Fabre’s theatre work. The plays are more conceptual in nature, and are poetic and materialise ancient rituals and themes that fascinate the author, as well as philosophical questions that obsess him. But we are just as likely to find the violence and pleasure of a life fully lived, the exuberant and sometimes dark experience of beauty, eroticism and festivity – elements in which Fabre may on one occasion be absorbed only to withdraw from it again on another.
Jan Fabre’s literary work at the same time illustrates his thinking on theatre: theatre as an all embracing work of art in which the word is given a well-considered functional place next to such parameters as dance, music, opera, performance elements and improvisation. The austerity with which Fabre uses the medium of the word forces him to make theatre in an innovative way. When other directors work on these plays, they too are unable to distil any kind of conventional theatre out of them. And in recent years Jan Fabre’s plays have indeed been regularly performed by other companies.
In the late 1970s, the still very young Jan Fabre caused a furore as a performance artist. His “Money” performances involved setting fire to bundles of money from the audience in order to make drawings with the ashes. In 1982, the work “This is theatre like it was to be expected and foreseen” placed a virtual bomb under the seat of the theatre establishment of the day. This was confirmed two years later with “The power of theatrical madness” commissioned for the Venice Biennale. Since then, Jan Fabre has grown to become one of the most versatile artists on the international stage. He makes a clean break with the conventions of contemporary theatre by introducing the concept of ‘real-time performance’ – sometimes called ‘living installations’ – and explores radical choreographic possibilities as a means of resurrecting classical dance. Fabre has been writing his own plays since 1975, although it was not until 1989 that they were first performed. His texts form an exceptional collection of miniatures, as it were, with a very open writing style and reflect Fabre’s concept of theatre as an all-encompassing form of art in which dialogue functions alongside other elements such as dance, music, opera, performance and improvisation. Chaos and discipline, repetition and madness, metamorphosis and the anonymous are all indispensible ingredients in Fabre’s theatre. The acuteness and reserve with which he employs language demand innovative solutions which have also appeared at the hand of other directors to have worked with his texts.