14. Bob Verschueren
"Le clan des voltigeurs"
Bob Verschueren uses natural elements as his means of expression. Basing his work on plant life from the sites involved, he transforms trees, branches, leaves and so on into spectacular sculptures evocative both of the splendour and deliquescence of all living things. Each piece continues a reflection on human beings, their lives and deaths, and on the connection they maintain with their natural environment. “Each has the value of metaphor rather than symbol. I don’t want to encapsulate my installations in obligatory unequivocal interpretations. I prefer to leave them open to different interpretations by their beholders, each with their own sensibilities and experience. I seek to provide them with something of the character of an event. When an installation resonates with its host site, it seems self-evident, creating tension between is timelessness and its ephemeral character,” the artist states.
In the midst of the undergrowth, a sort of serpent emerges from a tree stump, undulating its way between the surrounding tree and ending its journey by burrowing into the ground with a final thrust: a path of life evoking the destiny of all trees, which come from the earth and return to the earth. Bob Verschueren has been working his magic at the Domain of Chaumont-sur-Loire since 2010, when he superimposed two uprooted trees in the footbath in the Farmyard (Réflexions) while a giant throne composed of wood and leaves was exhibited in the Bee Barn (Le règne végétal) and an installation in the Le Fenil Gallery (L’Enjeu), invited its beholders to reflect upon humanity’s propensity for destruction. “My installations don’t contain messages. They evoke my questions on the contradictory relationships between life and death, creation and destruction, on humankind’s place in nature and relationships between ethics and aesthetics”.
Bob Verschueren gathers, harvests, sorts and assembles elements that he finds in the surrounding area, working exclusively with plant life and creating installations in situ that take account of the site’s history and the architecture that acts as host to them. The fragility and perishability of the materials he uses obliges him to conduct continuous negotiations with nature. Their properties require experimental work processes, which the artist is much in favour of, often calling the initial project into question. “I need a measure of uncertainty, a chance of being surprised. Working with natural elements excludes any risk of controlling everything, of getting bored.”
Carrying out research on the notion of impermanence, Bob Verschueren is especially interested in the metamorphosis and degradation of plant life. His works are not always meant to last, but often simply to live for the duration of an exhibition before disappearing. An intention that he shares with visitors right from the outset, by encouraging them to turn their attention to what is here today but gone tomorrow: “A sweep of the broom like / a gust of wind. / Everything disappears / forever / but lives on in our memories”. A eulogy, if ever there was one, to the here and now. “In the great majority of cases, the materials used are basically waste. The transition from being “nature” to being “garbage” is one of the central points in my reflections. I regard all the work involved as a sort of initiatory journey, where nature gives me real lessons in philosophy, lessons about life”.
This new installation at the Domain brings together 250 parallelepipeds, most of which are nesting boxes for swifts, a rare species in danger of extinction, at the “top” of three branches, positioned vertically like a bouquet.
A Belgian artist known and exhibited across the world, a creator of countless exhibitions whose body of work is the subject of numerous catalogues, Bob Verschueren belongs to the environmental art movement, which includes such artists as Nils-Udo and Andy Goldsworthy and follows on from Land Art. Indoor and outdoor installations, wind painting, light painting, phytogravure, sequential works in which time acts on perishable materials – the artists maintains a very close relationship with nature and matter, time and space. His artistic practice goes hand-in-hand with ecological and philosophical reflection that gives it remarkable consistency. His interventions on a wide range of sites (railway stations, churches, museums, brownfields, art galleries and out in the countryside) feature branches, tree stumps, mosses, vegetables, mushrooms, coffee grounds, ears of wheat, terracotta pots, flour, natural pigments, stones and pebbles, and tell stories as fascinating as they are ephemeral, filled with strange beauty and power.
Bob Verschueren is a self-taught visual artist born in Etterbeek in Belgium in 1945. He began his artistic career in the late 1960s, starting out as a painter. In 1978, he turned to Land Art, creating wind paintings, natural pigments spread across the landscape by the wind, and light paintings, a photographic technique that fixes light by placing a light source in front of the lens. In the 1980s, he decided that he would no longer use anything but natural materials, plant life in particular. Since then, he has created over 300 installations in Europe and the rest of the world.
For each of his works, Bob Verschueren ensures that the site’s architecture, nature, and the selected materials are in perfect harmony. Removed from their natural settings, most of the components gathered are bound to decay. Hence, he persistently questions the unbreakable link between life and death. He also explores other areas, including sound (Catalogue de plantes, begun in 1995), engraving (Phytogravures, begun in 1999), photography and frottage. For him, a piece of wasteland, a forest or an exhibition venue all become areas for experimentation.
Several of his most recent works are perennial. For example, in Brussels, at the Erasmus House and the Jardin des Visitandines, two installations have been designed as calls to meditation within the city walls. Invited more than once by France’s Annecy Paysages art festival, Bob Verschueren has created several pieces for the event, three of which are on show all year round and bear witness to recent developments in his work. Composed of 10 trees assembled two by two and planted in the earth with their roots in the air, La Haie d’honneur straddles a path in the city’s Jardins de l’Europe. The work is a tribute to dead trees as well as an encouragement to city dwellers to celebrate nature. L’Arbre pourfendu, on the other hand, alludes to the depth of the philosophical tales by Italo Calvino (Le Vicomte pourfendu), an author dear to Bob Verschueren’s heart. A bare trunk is speared by a flimsy young tree. Is this a renewed quarrel between ancient and modern? To the surrealism of the scene, the artist adds the epic tale of mythological battles in which trees, like human beings, measure themselves against each other. The third, Implantations, is an extraordinary piece of architecture, a kind of treetop village for birds: a tree whose branches support miniature houses huddled against one another. The artist treats birds like a human community and provides them with a magical utopian city.
Bob Verschueren is a member of the Royal Academy of Belgium, in the Fine Arts division.