Interview with Jan Fabre: a “dwarf among giants”

Artist shares his thoughts on “Spiritual Guards” exhibition

Mary Gray
May 9, 2016 - 10:10
jan-fabre-florence-1 Ph. Mary Gray

Since its installation on April 15, Jan Fabre’s titan-like turtle in piazza della Signoria has left many a tourist scratching his head. Depicting the artist atop its back in a peculiar self-portrait, this statue subverts one of Florence’s signature spaces, prompting local reactions ranging from confusion to delight. Standing inside the Palazzo Vecchio’s Hall of Justice, a few feet from another controversial piece currently on display,  the provocative yet mild-mannered Fabre shared his thoughts on the show—and the city that inspired some of its key works.

Mary Gray: Where does the exhibition title “Spiritual Guards” come from?
Jan Fabre: This is a concept that the two curators came up with, but the basic idea is that the scarabaeus {beetle} is at Forte Belvedere, spread everywhere around the fortress. The concept is of the scarabaeus as a spiritual god. The scarabaeus is one of the oldest memories in the world, the oldest warrior in the world. It’s a symbol in Italian and Belgian Vanitas paintings {a type of allegorical still life}: it’s the bridge between life and death, and that is a positive energy field. Here, at the Palazzo Vecchio, you have a “white angel”: you’re surrounded by all essential spiritual gods, angels and warriors, all descending.


MG: What’s the main difference between this portion of the show at Palazzo Vecchio and in piazza della Signoria and the part out at Forte di Belvedere, which opens May 14?
JF: I just saw the portion at Forte di Belvedere. There are more sculptures over there and also a lot of movies and wax sculptures, but there’s a tall consilience among the three spaces—the square, the Palazzo Vecchio, Forte di Belvedere: it’s all links and lines.

Ph. Andrea Paoletti Ph. Andrea Paoletti


"As a young artist I always came here to study the big masters. I’m a dwarf among giants."

MG: Searching for Utopia, the bronze turtle in piazza della Signoria, juxtaposed with Giambologna’s statue of Cosimo I de’ Medici,
has received a lot of attention. Can you talk more about its meaning and its play on the model of the equestrian statue?
JF: It’s a sculpture I made in the year 2000. Its permanent home is on the Belgian coast {in Nieuwpoort, where the Yser River flows into the North Sea}. The turtle is female and, as a male artist, I’m driving the back of a female turtle to look for a utopia, to look for the unknown, for the other side.
And it’s a beautiful reference to the symbol of the {noble} family years, because on weapon shields, you also see turtles. There are famous paintings and sculptures here with this fat guy sitting on the turtle, so it’s a dialogue with the history.


MG: Jeff Koons was recently the talk of the town with his work on display in piazza della Signoria and Palazzo Vecchio. Do you think that exhibiting just after him has impacted the local response to your work?
JF: Jeff Koons is a very good colleague of mine, but he’s an American artist and there’s a very big difference. I am a Belgian artist…I’m Flemish, so I think Flemish and Italians have a much deeper connection in the work, and in the content.


MG: How does it feel to be in Florence? How does this experience differ from exhibiting in other European cultural capitals?
JF: For me, it’s personal. It’s a nice story because I came here in 1978 for my first international show when I was a young artist with three other Belgian artists. I was here for a week and I visited Palazzo Vecchio and the Uffizi to study the Caravaggio paintings. Then I came back at the beginning of the ‘90s for four days. I was inside Palazzo Vecchio because the globe you see here {a 2.5-metre diameter beetle shell-covered artwork in the Hall of Justice} was inspired by that globe {points to Ignazio Danti’s celebrated 16th-century globe in the Gallery of Maps}, and its dimensions. I walked around here for two or three days with my assistant, secretly taking pictures and measurements. So, there is an ongoing story in my life with Florence.


MG: It’s kind of a homecoming for you, in a way?
JF: It’s very inspirational. The big masters of Europe hang in the Uffizi museum and in the Palazzo Vecchio, so as a young artist I always came here to study the big masters. I’m a dwarf among giants.

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