“If I was an artist and I was in the studio, then whatever I was doing in the studio must be art. At this point art became more of an activity and less of a product.” (Bruce Nauman)
To paraphrase Bruce Nauman, what is an artist? Someone sitting in his studio, just sitting around, drinking some coffee and spilling some coffee. I don’t know whether Henk is a heavy coffee drinker (or maybe more of a tea drinker?), but the studio seems to be a special place for Henk Delabie. The studio is always bigger than the physical space. One’s head, too, is a studio, a mental space. And as a teacher at an academy, the physical and mental educational space is also a studio for the artist. By extension, one can consider the landscape and the world around it to be the ultimate studio. But when we zoom in instead of out, then we find ourselves on the drawing board of the studio, the models and the sketchbook. These are studios as well.
Richard Serra, the American sculptor famous for his monumental sculptures in Corten steel, experienced an artist’s block at the beginning of his career, and wondered ‘what to do?’ He took a few sheets of A4 paper and wrote down all the actions that can possibly be performed: rolling, folding, connecting, stacking, shortening, rotating, dropping, circling, stretching, burning, erasing, systematising, … 107 verbs that, like a Bible or road book, prefigured his oeuvre. It is ironic that this ‘Verblist’ (1967-68), which is now in the collection of MoMA New York, weighs only a few grams, in contrast to his sculptures that weigh tons.
In the beginning was the Word.
It seems to me that Henk Delabie’s work has developed in a similar way. I like to call him a classical sculptor, classical in relation to the evolution of modern sculpture since Henry Moore, via Land Art and the minimalists, to installation makers and architecture-influenced builders.
His spatial work always relates to the basic principles of what sculpture is or can be. Take for instance his recent work ‘Blind Spot Lokeren’ in the Park Ter Beuken in Lokeren (2020). A monumental structure made of wood sits on a lawn in the beautiful park. As a spectator, you can only ever see part of the metres-high walls that are set up according to a (triangular) ground plan. You have to walk around it in order to reconstruct the whole thing in your mind. That is a fundamental characteristic of sculpture. Circling is an action of looking. Then you notice that they are two pairs of wooden walls set up at an angle and that they “fit together” through a small displacement. On the one hand, this displacement creates a small opening that provides a view of a wedge-shaped interior space that you cannot enter and in which the grass will grow wildly while the grass around the sculpture will remain beautifully mowed. The work can also be circumscribed by means of simple oppositions: nature-culture, organic-tectonic, vertical-horizontal, growth-inertia, open-closed, public-private.
The wooden planks used to build the work were once trees, like the ones in the park that are watching from close by. The inaccessible inner space, where nature thrives, is like a piece of land that has been cut out of the public space of the park and returned to nature; a blind spot.
The monumentality of the Delabie’s sculptures in the public space is just as pronounced in his dozens of models (‘Units’) which are made, a hundred times smaller and lighter, out of ordinary corrugated cardboard or thin MDF board. Monumentality has nothing to do with size or weight. The Latin word Monumentum means “to remember”. Models are forms of thinking, of remembering. They are experiments in how to capture space, how to enclose, include, exclude, conceal and reveal three-dimensional volumes. How is a place, a locus, created?
Sculpture adds something to the space around us, manifests itself, occasionally imposes itself, and sometimes hides itself (in a corner). Like the series “Corner Element I”, a tubular volume that connects two walls that form a corner. The (lost) emptiness of a corner suddenly becomes meaningful. What is striking about these sculptures is their human scale and anthropomorphic character. Just as a plumber speaks of an ‘elbow’ (or in French: a ‘coude’) to indicate a bend in a pipe system, we recognise similar forms in Delabie’s ‘elements’: an elbow, a knee, a phallus, an arm, a leg, a neck. This is even more evident when he presents these sculptures on a simple (kitchen) chair or stool (‘Furniture and Elements Blue I & II’). The forms occupy the seating place of a body and mutate into figures, extras. It reminds me of the walls covered with fragments of arms, legs and hands in nineteenth-century sculptors’ studios or classical academies. The sculptures vacillate between being autonomous and being a model (example), between a life-size body and a prototype. Yet this does not make him a realist sculptor or a sculptor of realism. Striking is his choice of colours for these sculptures. They range from chemical green and blue over poppy yellow and orange to something close to the patented Ferrari red.
The earlier comparison with the plumber is not that far-fetched. He also exhibited a larger tubular structure in Ter Beuken Park. The reference here rather hints at industry, or, better perhaps, industrial archaeology. His components look like elements taken from complex pipe systems in refineries or blast furnaces: oversized. But they are not ready-mades. Like a real sculptor, Delabie creates his sculptures in the traditional way: first in clay, then a plaster mould, then a cast and then a transfer to polyester. This manual approach has everything to do with the tactility of the work. Even the finish – which, at first glance, seems industrial – reveals traces of handicraft, emphasising the uniqueness of the work.
The artist’s reflection on the degree of finishing is also reflected in some of his presentations. ‘Flow’ (Lokeren) was set up on a couple of trestles. Handmade, self-welded trestles that support a tubular, balustrade-like shape. The trestles evoke the working process and liberate the work from the paralysis of having to be a sculpture. The sculpture exudes the temporariness of the studio, it resembles a test set-up. A similar approach is also evident in the ‘Units’ that have visible traces of tape or filler.
These actions suggest the artist’s stretching of the concept of sculpture. In the work ‘The Access’, Delabie engages with the aspect of presentation in a very radical manner. In fact, he does the exact opposite: he hides the work in the beautiful private garden (Bastion 10). The concrete sculptural space was literally buried in the ground and could only be seen through a small protruding gap. Through the scant light one can discern an interior space, an underground miniature version of a bunker of sorts. More was suggested than actually shown. For Delabie, hiding is also a form of showing.
Different, but similar in sculptural strategy and equally ambiguous, was the work ‘Shutters’ in the Park ter Beuken. In an empty, somewhat dilapidated house of which the windows were bricked up with red bricks – without it being clear whether this was an existing situation or a recent intervention – Delabie added shutters to the windows. (‘Shutters for a closed house’) The shutters served no purpose and were also reduced to being a mere description of a shutter: a frame made of metal angle irons. Here too, the intervention generated an interplay of showing and hiding, making accessible (the shutters gave the dilapidated house a ‘human character’ again) and repelling (the house remained closed).
Similar approaches to what sculpture can be were also presented earlier in the ‘Cells’. Cube-like forms of which he showed both the concrete cast (a cube with geometric recesses inside) and the production process (the mould in concrete plywood with the Styrofoam forms that ultimately ‘shape’ the recesses). Both are presented as equally autonomous sculptures.
In ‘Lines’, too, we can observe the same process of making and showing. Small wooden beams cast in concrete are connected to the iron rebar that binds them together. The work is reminiscent of concrete residues from demolition work. Even the demolisher builds (Louis Paul Boon). These works can be read as floor drawings rather than sculptures.
The shift from the material to the immaterial is most visible in ‘Never-ending walk’, a proposal, or rather, invitation, to the visitor of his exhibition in the Park ter Beuken to take a 2.8-kilometre-long looped walk through the centre of Lokeren. The city literally became the pedestal onto which the sculpture ‘took place’. Not in in terms of volume, but in the dimension of time, more an action than product. What fascinated Delabie was the cadastral map of the city in which all the plots of land form a kind of cubic drawing. A walk through a city usually follows well-defined paths: footpaths, pedestrian streets, pedestrian crossings, waterways, quays. Yet how many spaces do not remain hidden from the wanderer? Alleys, courtyard gardens, fallow land. Through an enormous magnification of scale, Delabie transforms a walk into a sculptural event and reduces sculpture for the viewer to the essential dimension of ‘moving in space’. The ‘moving’ can actually be purely mental: you don’t have to do the actual walk in order to understand the concept.
And this brings us back (with the necessary irony) to Bruce Nauman: The true artist helps the world by revealing mystic truths.
Ghent, December 2020
Bruce Nauman, quoted in Art21.org, www.art21.org/artists/bruce-nauman
The text on Bruce Nauman’s neon work ‘Window or Wall Sign’ (1967) in the Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo (NL)