Bits of Bugs Glow, to Delight a Queen
By MARLISE SIMONS
RUSSELS At the invitation of most unlikely patrons, the king and queen of Belgium, an artist has produced his latest and perhaps most extravagant venture in the Royal Palace here, decorating the principal hall with the wing cases of almost a million Asian jewel beetles.
What seemed designed to shock is a work of art that has provoked admiration and above all astonishment at its beauty and originality. The artist, Jan Fabre, who sculptures, draws and produces theater, dance and opera, has here used the glowing beetle carapaces to create an enormous mosaic that covers the barrel vault and the ceiling niches of the 19th-century Hall of Mirrors. For a centerpiece he has made the beetle fragments crawl down to cover every inch of the main chandelier.
The effect is startling. Laid out in multiple patterns, the carapaces have turned the once classic and formal hall into an enchanted space, vibrating with colors and shapes that change with the movement of each viewer. Depending on the angle of the light, the myriad wing cases gleam in fluorescent green or turn blue and shift again to emerald green, then to ochre or to a deep, velvet moss color. The mosaic's texture also evolves. From some vantage points the carapaces seem soft as feathers, from other spots they resemble a daunting layer of scales. The overall impression is one of opulent splendor. The large hall has been endowed with a shimmering, organic canopy that for all its stillness seems to grow and teem with life.
Mr. Fabre, who is 44 and lives in Antwerp, concedes this is unlike anything he has ever done. Well known in Europe for his multifarious and original creations he once covered a series of pillars with slices of marbly raw ham he does not fit easily into any category. Critics have variously described this artist equally at ease with video art, stage design and choreography as an avant-garde artist or a Renaissance figure.
"I think of this as an elegant provocation, something to awaken the eye and the mind," said Mr. Fabre, offering a tour of the great hall and scanning the ceiling, which he said still took him by surprise. "In life we feel a constant conflict between standing still and being in motion. I feel that conflict here." It is fitting, he went on, that this should be represented by the scarab, which since ancient times has been a metaphor for mutation and represented the passage from life to death.
The idea came from his long fascination with animals, insects in particular. To explore nature's shapes, Mr. Fabre said, he spent three years as artist in residence at the Museum of Natural History in London. There he experimented with bones, with dung beetles, jewel beetles and other insects and began to use insects and their forms in his sculptures and theatrical works.
He was most intrigued by the scarabs, he said, because they carry "their armor like a skeleton" on the outside to protect their vulnerable interior. He started to use their carapaces to create "a new skin" for other objects, gluing them onto crosses, daggers, globes and mesh wire. "That gave me the idea to use scarabs as a new skin for the ceiling," he added.
He is convinced that this skin will last far longer than paint: "The wing cases of the jewel beetles are made of chitin, one of the hardest, most imperishable materials we know. They consist of wafer-thin platelets that capture, reflect and transform light. Oil paint fades; the carapace will keep its original colors."
The queen herself, the Italian-born Paola Ruffo di Calabria, brought the iconoclastic Mr. Fabre to the palace. She first saw his work at an exhibition of Belgian and Dutch work at the Palazzo Grassi in Venice and, intrigued, began a dialogue with Mr. Fabre. The queen wanted to bring contemporary Belgian art into the stark palace in the center of Brussels, where both she and her husband, Albert II, keep offices. Pierre-Emmanuel de Bauw, the palace spokesman, said the queen wanted to make the building accessible to the public. The last artist to do any work for the palace was Auguste Rodin more than a century ago.
"She visited me in my studio," Mr. Fabre said. "We had some great dialogues about art today, about Flemish and Dutch masters, about my work. Sometimes we deeply disagreed. She cares deeply about art."
The queen's target was the Hall of Mirrors, the palace's chief reception room, 83 feet long, 35 feet wide, whose decoration was never completed apart from the marble and gold patterns on the walls. It took an arts council to give advice, many raised eyebrows and finally the king's backing to approve Queen Paola's audacious idea to allow Mr. Fabre to create his work.
For more than three years, Mr. Fabre said, he collected Asian jewel beetles, mobilizing the entomology departments of universities, researchers in the fields and above all a network of people picking them up from restaurant kitchens in Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand. "People cook them and eat them there the way we Belgians eat mussels," he said. `'They are meant to be full of protein."
At first people were shocked, he went on. "Many people thought I was crushing thousands of creatures," said Mr. Fabre, who was now stomping his right foot on the palace parquet floor. "Truth is, restaurants throw these hard wing covers away."
He experimented with glues and designs, drawing basic nature patterns like fan shapes, fish bones, rainbows, wings and legs.
Last summer Mr. Fabre and a team of almost 30 young assistants worked for three months to apply the swirls of carapaces to the ceiling and the high niches. They honored Queen Paola with a large P.
There were some tense moments when it came to pasting thousands of the carapaces onto the chandelier in the center of the hall. "At first the queen was a bit afraid for her chandelier," Mr. Fabre said. "But it was essential. We tried, but without that, we only had a decorated ceiling that was flat." The beetle-clad chandelier, which now looks like a giant, rather unsettling insect itself, makes all the difference, Mr. Fabre said, because "it sucks the eye toward the ceiling and makes the entire work three-dimensional." He has named the work "Heaven of Delight," a nod to the "The Garden of Earthly Delights" by Hieronymus Bosch, whom he calls his master.
Bizarre as it is, the work has provoked awe and delight in Belgium. "Once the scaffolding was removed, a work of art was revealed that looked even more rich and magnificent than anyone could have imagined," said Jan Hoet, an art critic and director of a modern art museum in Ghent. In contrast to earlier muralists, Mr. Fabre "has used light instead of paint to adorn the ceiling," Mr. Hoet wrote. "He created a membrane of light."
Commentators and critics variously said it was grandiose enough to be compared with the Sistine Chapel or to a classical Byzantine mosaic. Calling the work pure beauty, Jan Van Hove, the art critic of the Belgian daily De Standaard, wrote: "The bastion of the establishment has become a showroom for the avant-garde. Who could have imagined this?"
The answer is Queen Paola. She has told friends that she loves it. Even the chandelier.