Though Patrick Van Caeckenbergh is an essential figure in the currently lively Belgian art scene, he is less known outside his own country than artists like Patrick Corillon and Wim Delvoye. Perhaps this is because he works slowly and produces little. It might also have something to do with the fact that his art is less accessible than theirs, more complex in its self-mocking ironies and carefully maintained contradictions. Van Caeckenbergh's elusive genealogical investigations, based on language and literature--not on the object, or even on language as post-Modern object (i.e., quotation and appropriation)--not only butt up against literal language barriers (texts in Flemish, a language unintelligible to most viewers, frequently accompany his works), they clash with the persistent antiliterary bias of contemporary art.
All of Van Caeckenbergh's collages and constructions are animated by allegorical or autobiographical narratives. Like a turn-of-the-century naturalist, he inventories animals, plants, and fruits; but he also devises quasi-scientific nomenclatures to order commonplace objects, not to mention anthropological, cultural, and literary data. Yet each ironic attempt to classify the world is not only destabilized by the heterogeneity of the elements categorized, it is perverted from the start by the subjective nature of the ordering principles imposed.
Like the writing of Jorge Luis Borges or Georges Perec (Penser, Classer), Van Caeckenbergh's fictive inventories constitute a subversive language, one that defies the universal claims of scientific discourse; they work to decompartmentalize our own ways of perceiving reality, and so to liberate them. This kind of information distortion links Van Caeckenbergh's work with the tradition of Belgian Surrealism, which arose in the breach that Marcel Broodthaers audaciously opened between words and things, between literature and Conceptual art, between the imaginary and the real. But while Broodthaers' strategy depended on metaphor, Van Caeckenbergh's work is all about metamorphosis.
To conduct his experiments, the artist builds customized "incubators," like the one he presented at "Aperto" in the last Venice Biennale. A labyrinthian assemblage of fragile glass containers, Incubator, 1993, contained dead insects meant to nurture the little bearded and bespectacled "animals"--actually miniature photographic silhouettes of the artist dressed in a mousy brown bathrobe--scattered about the structure. …