So What's the Bic Idea?
Johnson, Phil, The Independent (London, England)
Even if the Flemish artist Jan Fabre did not exist, it would probably be necessary to invent him, if only to goad popular prejudices about contemporary art even further. After all, how could you choose to miss out on so much fun? As an artist famous for working with the chemical blue ink of Bic biros, the bodies of beetles, and installations involving teabags and rashers of smokey bacon, Fabre could, from a cynical perspective, be said to stand in relation to the world of art as Spinal Tap does to the world of heavy metal, and then some. For compared to what Fabre does, the business of cutting farmyard animals in half begins to look decidedly cosy.
Consider the evidence: in the installation entitled The Bic Art Room, of 1981, in Leiden, inthe Netherlands, Fabre locked himself up in a room for days and proceeded to draw on every available surface - walls, bed, clothes, floor, and his own body - until everything was covered in a cross- hatched biro scrawl. Earlier, in 1978, he had exhibited drawings made with his own blood. In 1991, he covered Tivoli castle in Belgium in biro drawings, wrapping the entire building in paper which was then obsessively blued in Bic and left there for three months, its image mirrored in the castle's lake so perfectly that Fabre was able to exhibit photographs of the building the wrong way up. For next month's Venice Biennale, he will create an enormous globe fabricated entirely from the bodies of beetles, which will represent - as his assistant Tijs Visser says proudly, and with no trace of humour - the largest beetle-construction ever made.
Fabre's visual art is paralleled by performance-works in dance, opera and his own staged texts, in which he has collaborated with composers such as Gorecki and Wim Mertens at venues throughout Europe. Under his direction, dancers imitate the movements of beetles, dressed - when they are not naked - in armour-plated costumes modelled on the carapaces of insects. For his current showing, as the featured artist of this year's Bath Festival, Fabre has surpassed himself. The series of site-specific installations for Bath, Seven Rooms, is wonderfully inventive, placing his work in new, non-gallery settings of abandoned rooms and odd semi-public places where their strangeness resonates with extraordinary energy. Accordingly, a specially commissioned essay for the festival by Pavel Buchler meditates on the significance in Fabre's work of the number seven, bringing the seven seals of the apocalypse, the seven dwarfs, the seven samurai, the Magnificent Seven, and everything but the seven kitchen sinks into its orbit. The one thing it doesn't mention is perhaps the only seven- reference of real relevance: the Hollywood film Seven, where the murderer arranges the sites of his kills in a series of carefully wrought, macabre installations. The hanging form of a beetle-encrusted carcass (which recalls Rembrandt and Soutine), the drawing-pinned and bacon-wrapped figure of Me Dreaming and the subterranean-flooded cavern of The Tea-Bags Cellar, where the ceiling is hung with multiple Tetley's, each containing an image of the artist, are all stunningly accomplished examples of mise-en-scene, and so weird and discomforting that they could easily serve as sets from the film. Seven, Fabre has said, "is the number of impossible perfection". The final, seventh, room of the Bath series forms an appropriately climactic coup de theatre: in the majestic empty space of the disused Walcot chapel, a row of Bic-painted bathtubs covers the floor, looked down upon by the sentinel figures of glass owls mounted high on the walls, their forms blued - naturally - with Bic-ink. The owls, the insects, and the blue of the biro drawings all relate to Fabre's great influence and inspiration, his ancestor Jean Henri Fabre, a late-19th-century entomologist and writer who coined the phrase "the hour blue" to refer to the magical period that occurs when night melts into day. …