Vincent Halflants, Sculptor from Flanders
Sculptor of the Condition humaine in the Era
|Among the works of Vincent Halflants whose striking intensity
touches me deeply are such works as 'Duchamp Villon' (1962) and 'Geleerte
voet' (1968). But also, among the later works, the terra cotta model (60
x 150 x 20 cm) made for 'face à face I' in 2000. Often, Vincent
Halflants' titles in themselves are telling. The first one hints at an
(emotional and/or intellectual) affinity to these two provocateurs, Duchamp,
the visual artist close both to surrealism and to concept art, but at any
rate prone to shock, and Villon, the bard who rebelled in his own sensuous
way, betraying a closeness to those of low rank that even Bertolt Brecht
admired in him. 'Learned feet' is a work which reveals already in its title
a certain surrealist humor.
It is no secret that the COBRA group, and before them
surrealism, left their imprint on the artistic consciousness of several
contemporary Belgian artists, among them Vincent Halflants, especially
in the earlier phase of his work.
A work like 'Hammer'
(which is shown here) is apparently a tongue-in-cheek, contemporary hommage
to the spirit of pre-war dadaists and surrealists. Robert Filliou, in the
early 1970s, would create an image of the Place d'Etoile in Paris, replacing
the Arc de Triomphe by a bowler hat. The idea, the concept underlying the
'Hammer' drawing, obviously a sketch for a weird sculpture, is informed
by a very similar humor.
|In 2003, Vincent Halflants created a figure made in plaster,
entitled 'De Man en zijn sokkel II' (The Man and his Plinth [or
pedestal]II) which is not shown here. Its dimensions are very nearly those
of the sculpture he envisioned at the time, the height being 123 cm, the
width 15 cm and the depth also 15 cm. He added the note:
"uit te voeren in plaaster of brons op 140 cm h"
"execute in plaster or bronze, with a height of 140 cm."
The title chosen reminds us of that of another work,
Man en zijn schaduw' (The Man and his Shadow).
Why the change of the title? Obviously because at one
point in the work process, the artist discovered the shadow thrown by the
sculpture he was creating, or had already created, as an essential and
integral part of the work.
For some artist, such a realization may have exclusively
aesthetic implications. But for Vincent Halflants? An almost existentialist
exploration of the condition of man in our time seems to give a second,
non-aesthetic, yet very essential meaning to the 'shadow' thrown by our
life, our very existence, our thoughts and our words and our physical praxis.
Perhaps, this shadow thrown, a shadow in fact physically
visible in one of the photographs of this work, metaphorically implies
the way others see us, and the impact this creates. Or the historic trace
left by us. Or the dialectic interplay between both us and the Others,
the trace we leave and the trace which the look of the Others has left.
At any rate, we should perhaps refrain from negating the
possibility to ascribe any other than an aesthetic meaning to the project
to make a work that incorporates its shadow as an integral part of it.
Next to a photograph of 'The Man and his Shadow',
Vincent Halflants wrote:
"beschouwing over een existentiële tegenwoordigheid
een person, geplaats op de sokkel van zijn leven,
stabiel of niet stabil, en vergezeld van zijn schaduw
die zijn geheugen is"
"view [perception, sight, (Ansicht)] of an existential
presence of a person, placed on the pedestal of his life, be it stable
or not stable. and joined by his shadow that is his memory"
to see larger image
Interestingly, the term for 'presence' used by the artist,
'tegenwoordigheid' (or, in German, Gegenwaertigkeit) is a much stronger
word than its English equivalent, implying a greater sensuality, a less
abstract concept of "being 'there' (vorhanden), spatially, physically,
bodily, in the present moment."
The artist's brief and, indeed, concise reflection seems
to confirm the initital intuition that his approach is deeply existential,
dialectically joining matter and spirit, social circumstances (OUR history,
our material conditions, situated historically) and consciousness: the
consciousness of an individual, first of all - his condition, his memory,
his history, his afflictions and his práxis. If the intuition is
in a way 'confirmed' that for this artist, the 'shadow' has a second, not
simply aesthetic meaning and indeed points to, and 'implies,' something
(memory, the 'history' of an individual situated in time and space, in
the social world), than I may also be courageous enough to speculate that
the 'sokkel', the support of the sculptured figure also has, above all
its aesthetic implications, a 'second meaning' and alludes to the (safe
and stable or risky and unstable or perhaps ambiguous, both stable and
unstable) social foundation of the man sculptured, a man who may be this
one individual thought of by the artist or, more generally, the 'man of
our time,' contemporary man - perhaps in Flanders, in Belgium, in Western
Europe. Perhaps in today's human universe.
But it is risky to begin with such interpretative speculations,
necessary as they may be at some point. Let me therefore go back to the
essentials, to what I see, what is there for me to see.
Confronted with this work, I immediately note the simplicity,
the reduction to clear, elementary forms, the nakedness of this man sculptured
which strips him of all insignia of wealth or poverty, high, medium or
low status in society but not of his glance, his posture, his sex.
The traits of the face are only hinted at; they reveal
a reserved curiosity, perhaps an anxious aloofness, a skepticism, a double
movement of outward going (positive) and reserved if not withdrawing (and
thus negative) confrontation with reality: sharply awake, open, almost
smiling, and yet unable not to expect catastrophes.
The texture of the chest, the navel, slight belly, testicles
and sagging penis - everything testifies to the presence of an artistic
approach that lets us perceive the vital, the physical presence of man,
as the artist seems to be unable or unwilling to reduce the body to a much
too simple abstraction, a 'pure form.' And yet it is clear to us when we
confront the sculpture from another angle that a simplification, a certain
amount of abstraction has taken place.
Much attention has been paid by the artist to the support
of this sculptured figure of a man, a support which is itself an important
element of the sculpture - an element that appears as if composed of largely
geometric segments that have been placed on top of and next to each other
in a way that often jars, that produces twists, hard edges, 'incongruencies'
of a sort that contradict every imaginable effort to produce a single,
'smooth' form. The contrary is the case. We perceive elements. We
see their edges, outlines, surfaces. And still, the 'support' has a clarity
of its own, attributable exactly to its geometric planes, its often straight
lines, a small sphere and a certain number of clear curves (of minor wight,
perhaps, but still of importance).
Despite the perceptual clarity of this 'support,' it is
difficult to 'read' it.Why does the upper element rest in just this way
on the lower one? Why does the stabilizing element that seems to hold both
the upper and lower part of the support in place, rest on the small sphere,
and thus a most unstable foundation? Why does the sculptured man need such
a high support? In order to see better, to perceive more clearly, to look
into the distance rather than in myopic fashion at his feet or into no
more than a book?
Or does such a support add to his importance?
Or rather to a sense of insecurity, of being exposed
to the winds of time? To the looks of Others?
The material surface of the support, like that of the
sculptured figure, shows the traces of work, the traces of the time this
work took - in a way, the traces of history. The entire work is solid,
sturdy, infinitely structured when looked at closely. But seen from afar,
its clarity and stability are countered by an unmistakable sense of the
inherently provisional, inscribed into an existence that is exposed to
hazards, perhaps from without as much as from within? And from within no
less than from without...
It is remarkable and in fact 'telling' that this sculpture
was raised 'on a high pillar' (in fact, a pre-existent chimney, made of
brick) so that it came to stand high above the roofs of houses, confronting,
full of awake, perhaps even challenging self-assuredness, the spire of
I sense a loneliness, but also a lot of strength, a rebel
mood, a defiance both in the posture of this male figure, and in the position
in which it places itself (or is placed, by the artist).
Man, in the 20th as in this beginning 21st century, is
still a lonely creature, separated from others, at best a rebel, defiant,
resisting the powers that be (including, in Flanders, the age-old ideological
prowess of "the Church"). But he is also, consciously or intuitively, aware
of the "stable and unstable" material foundations of his existence. Any
reflection of this dual quality invoked by Vincent Halflant's work must
arrive at a worrisome list of concerns that haunt us, to a greater or lesser
extent, day by day. This list might well include: A society increasingly
polarized, characterized by the increase of centrifugal forces, close to
falling apart. An economy undergoing the deepest crisis ever of capitalism,
that is, of the still dominant mode of production that has contributed
to such an immense and shocking development of both its productive and
destructive potentials. A long post-World War II "peace" guaranteed by
circling bombers carrying nuclear arms, by missiles ready to be launched
any second, a make-believe peace, in fact, that has seen scores of "small"
wars erupt, including such terrible ones as the wars in Korea, in Vietnam,
in Iraq, in the Congo, in Afghanistan. And, last not least, while world
hunger continues to haunt us, we can no longer deny that we inhabit
a planet plagued by diminishing bio-diversity, polluted oceans and soils,
sick forests, desertification, global warming, the increasing destruction
of the delicate chemical balance of its atmospheric 'hull'...
Man, a defiant thinker, but more than a pure consciousness,
and clearly situated, in a risky ("both stable and unstable") way, is left
with an awareness of his situation, is standing on (both solid and insecure)
ground. And he is left with his menory, the memory of his deeds and misdeeds,
his achievements and his guilt, his love and his lack of love. Is that
what 'The Man and his Shadow' is showing us? But as always, it needs, perhaps,
ears that hear, and certainly "eyes that see"... So look for yourself!
And try to find out what YOU see.
Man en zijn schaduw, placed outside the studio,
on a chimney
of De Man en zijn schaduw
vis-a-vis a church and its spire
|Another recent work of Vincent Halflants, a work that
perhaps is untitled and that I refer to as 'Man on a Stretcher', has also
occasioned a commentary by the artist. There exists a sketch of it, probably
predating the sculpture, and the artist added the words:
"Le 'linceul' de 3,60 m, semblable à un glacier,
étiré dans sa longeur, immobile,
porte dans son essence
ce qui peut étre sa memoire."
Man on A Stretcher:
|The sculpture is made of lead. Indeed, the feeling it
produces is that of a terrible coldness, the psychic coldness of a metaphorical
glacier and the bodily presence of a real glacier: of a body, a human body
thrown into such terrible, cold and above all, immense isolation. A Heideggerean
'Geworfenheit' - an existential loneliness as it is only experienced perhaps
when we are a fraction of an inch 'away' from death, when perhaps a fraction
of a second separates us from death. A death which may catch up with us,
or spare us this time, withdrawing his claim to our existence for the time
To be put there, on what I call a stretcher but what could
also be a bridge between life and death, is to be thrown into a situation
full of ultimate anguish. Not because death is so close, maybe. But because
the body is made immobile, immobile like a glacier, immobile like a large
solid piece of lead formed into a human shape under a blanket, under a
cloth, covered by cloth. It is as if we see everything, hear everything,
sense this and that - but the body, hidden under its cover, does not 'obey'
us, it does not move anymore. Immobilized, I said, like the glacier the
artist imagined, we confront ourselves in our loneliness. Is it the ultimate
separation, the ultimate distance, that opens the gulf between us and the
Other, us and 'life'? Is it the moment when, in almost unbearable clarity,
with an undesired rigor, we confront what the artist calls our "essence"
- that essence which may, in fact, be nothing but "our memory"?
Stretched out in full length, immobilized, imagine yourself,
lying there, covered by a thin white cloth that becomes unbearably heavy.
Imagine yourself, unable to rise, unable to move either hands or legs,
condemned to think and feel your utter loneliness, your ultimate way of
being thrown back upon yourself, encountering yourself, your essence, your
deeds and misdeeds, your loves, your guilt, in one word, your memory, the
memory of a life lived, a lived life that confronts you in its entirety
while death may only be an inch away.
Is that what the sculpture tells us...? Is it...?
When I first saw it, I remembered. I remembered the history
of mankind as I know it, as I have learned to 'know' it - from Sodom and
Gomorrha, from Lot's loneliness and his wife's isolation (as she turns
and dies, for what reason, what unspeakable, unacceptable reason?) way
into the presence: Guernica, Oradour, the burning synagogues full of crying
people in Fascist occupied White Russia and the equally occupied Ukraine,
devastated by war; and finally, Auschwitz, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, the refugees
killed under the bridge by American soldiers in the Korean war, the dead
grandmas and babies of My Lai... It was all present in my mind, and superimposed
on it, the image of an individual, a man on a stretcher, covered by a cloth,
his head hanging down from the stretcher like a piece of flesh, numb. It
might have been a slaughtered cow, as well. Or a dead horse, I thought.
But to be focused on "memory" implies something else.
Not the dead horse. The dead cow. The glacier, though seemingly still,
moves infinitesimally. And the sculpture aims at this, the presence of
immobility and subterranean, infinitesimal life. The living mind still
working. The moment between life and death. The loneliness when faced with
it. At its gates, looking back at a life lived.
© Copyright of all images
by Vincent Halflants.
|Vincent Halflants and
Lybeer will have a new exhibition at H8x12 Space for
in Tielt-Winge near Leuven (=Louvain), Belgium
from April 17th to May 2nd, 2010.
Click here in order to have a look at Leen