Jan Vercruysse is a Belgian artist who for periods has lived and worked in other countries, notably Italy and Spain. Although he acknowledges the relationship of his work to a specifically Belgian identity and experience, he feels that he is very much within the broad traditions of Western European culture, and would like to be known officially as an artist who was ‘born in Ostend and lives and works in Western Europe’ (conversation, 15 December 2004).
Throughout his career Vercruysse has worked predominantly in series, developing variants on a central idea over periods of several years. Among his earliest works was a series of self-portrait photographs that examined the principles involved in viewing and representing within the tradition of self-portraiture. This was followed by series that explored the relationship of objects and place. The eighteen Atopies (‘no places’), for example, made in 1985-6 took as their starting point the archetypal image of home, the hearth, and developed this theme through wood veneer objects suggestive of interiors or furniture, including picture frames and mirrors.
For all their references to actual objects, Vercruysse does not intend his works to function on a literal plane. He has contrasted his own ‘ontological’ approach with what he sees as the ‘sociological’ approach of the American artist Richard Artschwager, with whose ‘furniture-like objects’ his own work has sometimes been compared. ‘Art has to create something “else”, has to “be else”, for me, with archetypal images’, he has said. ‘I want to feel in a work of art the strong wish of “distancing”.’ (Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, ‘Jan Vercruysse’, Flash Art, no.148, October 1980, p.105.)
Vercruysse does not discuss in any detail the sources or personal significance of his images. Regarding the origins of the ideas for the M series of plaster pianos, from which Tate’s work M (M10) comes, the artist spoke only of having one day a strong mental image of a legless piano. If the idea of the piano resting on beams – rafters under missing floorboards - was secondary, it came to Vercruysse only a few moments later (conversation). At the time the artist was not particularly aware of having already used a piano form in an earlier work in the Tombeaux series. This 1988 work consisted of a miniature grand piano set on a tall plinth, cast in bronze in an edition of twenty-three (reproduced Jan Vercruysse, exhibition catalogue, Haus Esters, Haus Lange, Krefeld 1995, pp.19, 32). The piano, the artist said, was simply a ‘motif that had meaning’ for him, and was to be seen as an invitation to reflect on the conditions of remembering music. Sound and silence, solidity and fragility, gravity and suspension, presence and absence, functionality and non-functionality were among the more obvious and essentially complementary contrasts embodied and developed in the M series.
As the artist explained, the title of the series, M, stood for Memory, Monument and Momentum. The first two elements suggest a close relationship between the M works and the preceding series Tombeaux, a title that signified not ‘tombs’ but rather a text or a piece of music written for someone who is absent, without emotional implications of mourning or loss. This untranslatable use of the French word was exemplified by the tombeaux written by the French symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé for figures he had never met, including the poet Rimbaud and the American writer Poe. The title’s reference to monuments also suggests a relationship to the subsequent series Les Paroles, which took as its central motif the seat on which philosophers and thinkers were conventionally portrayed in statues of great figures of the past. Of ‘momentum’ the artist commented that it was ‘richer than “moment”’, and signified the coming together of energy. It may perhaps be related to the strange ‘loss’ of supports for the piano – the legs and the floorboards – and the revelation of unorthodox and patchy arrangements of under-floor rafters as new and unlikely supports
From 1992 to 1998 Vercruysse made fourteen works in the series. In all, he used three different prototypes of the piano form. Based on measurements taken from a book about pianos, the first (172 cm long) was the largest (M (M10) is one of this type). The second was smaller (135 cm long) and squarer in proportions, giving the piece a more domestic feel. For the last three of the series, the quite different shape of a clavier seen in a museum of musical instruments in Rome served as a model. Following the artist’s technical drawings, a craftsman made wooden prototypes of each from which a mould and then hollow plaster ‘positive’ forms were made by a model maker based in Paris.
In M (M1) the piano form has a cover of deep blue glass, a material that Vercruysse used for glass musical instruments in an earlier work of the Tombeaux series. In conversation Vercruysse described this blue as having a ‘transcending’ quality. M (M4), 1992, also incorporated blue glass but as rectangular panes set into a shaped table-like frame above the piano form; light passing through the glass creates the illusion of the piano lid itself being blue. M (M5), 1992, has a narrow wedge of blue glass cut into and across the top of the piano; M (M3) has a copper wedge. M (M6), 1992, is suspended on a wall in front of an altar-like metal frame structure with blue glass, while M (M12), 1994-5, has the piano suspended on a wall behind stacked sheets of blue glass. Precisely determined by the artist, the arrangement and colouration of the beams, which are present in ten of the fourteen works in the series, also vary from piece to piece. The first work in the series rests on six white beams, while the second, for example, sits on five purple and three green beams. In M (M9) the piano rests on two deep L-section beams, with a pile of smaller, coloured struts grouped uselessly underneath the centre of the piano. M (M10) has beams of natural varnished wood with small bands of colour painted at or near their ends: yellow, blue, red, green and purple. The placement and colouration of the beams were not intended, the artist said, to suggest reference to abstract or constructivist traditions in modern art.
The artist sees the pristine surfaces of the plaster pianos as an essential quality of the M series. The original piano form of M (M10) was slightly damaged when exhibited at the Miami Basel Art Fair in December 2004. In its place the artist has supplied an identical piano form, taken from M (M7), 1992, still in the artist’s collection. In the past Vercruysse has recast two examples from the original moulds to replace damaged piano elements.
Jan Vercruysse, exhibition catalogue, Société des Expositions au Palais des Beaux-Arts de Bruxelles, 1988.
Jan Vercruysse, exhibition catalogue, Stedelijk Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, 1990.
Jan Vercruysse, exhibition catalogue, The Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery at Harbourfront Centre, Toronto, 1993.