Living sculptures


The entire oeuvre of Carina Diepens aims to represent the body. With - and this should be stressed first and foremost - undeniable plastic qualities, of space, of col­our, of volume, the artist sculpts images using various sorts of supple materials, such as textiles, butter, video, human beings... She works by way of assemblages, taking full advantage of the potential for incongruity, which this technique showed throughout the twentieth century; she then immobilizes the configurations and abandons them to the slow vital processes of prolifera­tion, or more often than not, degradation. A trope which can hardly be considered unique in the realm of today’s artistic creation... were it not that the living aspect of it stands out so much. Not that the temptation to present the living is new as such. It has been around from the mythical origins of sculpture and painting, and the interferences between art and life have plagued crea­tors ever since, even including the use of actual living beings.


However, it has chiefly involved enduing with (a semblance of) life a traditionally inert work of art. This held up even in the eighteenth century’s ‘tableaux vivants’, since actors in this genre were recreating famous painted scenes complete with costume, props and mimetic scenery, as in a see-saw motion between reality and painting. There is however a similarity with the living sculptures under discussion here, which is its tendency to immobilize gestures, to reduce the body to an image. And also the constraint exerted on the other, one of their chief divergences from the performance genre. With Carina Diepens, art tends to freeze the living. Visitors are unsettled from the outset by the uncanny inertia of characters in an odd position-action, at once absurd and played with such a lack of pathos as to appear quite serious.


The passivity and the deliberate refusal of all communication impede all changes in ap­pearance. And yet there is an action, and often a trying one: supporting for hours on one’s head or shoulders several kilos of butter, ramming one’s head into a heap of clothes, etc. The disquiet comes from the exertion, from the way in which witnesses become aware of it although the model shows no sign of effort. It also derives from the sculpted persons’ doggedly autistic attitude and from the spectators’ sense of exclusion, forced as they are to assume the uncomfortable posi­tion of a voyeur.

This impassibility is immediately contradicted by a clear impression, though not a visual one, that the works are alterable, indeed that inanimate matter para­doxically moves: the slow melting process of grease, the idea of a fabric’s rustle, a piece of red knitwear seemingly growing of its own accord, developing over several meters in a masterly display of spatiality (the knitter’s modest gestures, seen from behind, are al­most obliterated), a static video image on a TV screen turned towards the actor’s torso.


The movement resides entirely in suggestiveness, in the mere presence of a living being, in the choice of materials, both organic and sartorial, linked to the body. The entire scheme hinges on dialectical relations, on an almost harrowing ten­sion, a tension endured by the actors, one felt by the spectators, a tension arising between the gaze and the absence of all reaction to the fact of being gazed at. The works also prescribe an immediate awareness of duration. They appeal to the experience of limits, limits which however are endlessly deferred. They seem to crave to master the uncontrollable. Whereas the idea of travel features prominently in one section of the artist’s production, her living sculptures are linked to ­­stagnation and even to burying within, underneath matter, a condition which is suggested more conspicuously by the absorption in action and the immersion within oneself. Though they are seldom visible in the positions taken, the eyes are not home to any gaze; the human form that can be discerned through layer upon layer of clothing seems to fold back on to itself. In the submission she imposes, the artist leaves some room for the inalienable, or even for the unforeseen. The spectators’ reactions are obviously participants in the mise en scène, though they feel that they are being kept at arm’s length.


Often public spaces have been used as contexts (the social body is also at stake), which tends to alter the works. Carina Diepens at once questions man’s experience, the feelings that tend to be most repressed, violence and domination, solitude, incommunicability, but also the conditions under which art is staged. The exhibition spaces, the schemes for the presentation and interaction of artworks: these are part and parcel of her work. Her sculptures assimilate the pedestal as table or the pedestal as man. Some models can personify the silent attendant haunting museal spaces and even our attitudes to art are subjected to (self-)scrutiny. There are some references, more or less explicit ones, but the Living Sculptures, lasting in memory, remain oddly enigmatic. But then in the end it is the gazers who feel entirely foreign, out of place, as ill at ease they preserve a silent respect.


Catherine Mayeur  (Art-critic, Belgium) 2006