The Flayed Tree : Rethinking The Ethics of Care And Responsibility In Berlinde de Bruyckere’s Cripplewood
Neither dead nor alive, Flemish artist Berlinde De Bruyckere’s Cripplewood (2012–13), an enormous uprooted elm, lies defeated in the Belgian Pavilion at the 55th Venice Biennale. A welcome interlude from Venice’s chaotic brightness, the experience of entering the tenebrous and meditative pavilion, an austere building of elegant purity, is comparable to the experience of entering a mausoleum. The quiet darkness of the space and the lingering smell of melted wax demand silent contemplation and respect. Bandaged by large swatches of rough black cloth, the walls have been covered with layers of paint and plaster. Soft Venetian light barely penetrates the sombre space through a large skylight that has been veiled by dark tattered fabric, creating an otherworldly glow.
Cripplewood is sprawled across the pavilion’s central nave. De Bruyckere’s sculpture, which commands the viewer’s attention through its scale and materiality, sculpts how we navigate the space, thereby inscribing temporality in the viewing experience. Unsettlingly fragile, the tree’s knotted limbs entangle and reach horizontally like arms, reminding us of the delicate nature of human bones. Monumental and threatening, the suffering trunk’s tenacious vitality illuminates the darkened space, exuding the vulnerability and triumph of life in the face of death. The large tree is cast in wax, an unstable and perishable material. The tree’s wax bark has been peeled off, revealing tender delicate skin and exposing wounds that have become scars. Evoking the pulsating physicality of a lived body, the tree’s pink marbled skin has been painted in a palette that may remind us of the vitalism and luminous transparency of human flesh. Soft cushions support the tree’s exposed and damaged body. Inspired by red fabrics depicted in the paintings of Venetian masters, De Bruyckere has carefully bandaged the tree’s wounded limbs with deep red cloths that seem soaked in blood. The gnarled, wounded martyr seems to be calling for our care.