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En-Corps 17 - Vers le Congrès de l'AMP / Towards the WAP Congress 2016


The Body in the Artwork of Jan Fabre

On Pain, Blood and Endurance

Joost Demuynck*



To speak about art always involves a trap, whose name is psychobiography. There is, however, always a subject at work, and present in the work. So we have to refine our approach to this and to include the subject in our analysis. The analysis of art is not about deciphering a hidden truth, it is about the real.

According to Jacques-Alain Miller[1] the later Lacan emphasizes that “de-sublimation” does not save our practice and theory. Therefore, as Miller puts it, the end of an analysis doesn’t have anything to do with the ideal of becoming an artist or writer, which was sublimation. In Seminar XXIII on the Sinthome, Lacan says that “art has his roots in the real,” and that “it is in the order of a sinthome”. A sinthome emphasizes an event of the body, whereas a symptom emphasizes the truth. In art the issue is no longer the universal values of beauty, goodness and truth. A body-event is an experience of the body that is imprinted by a signifier, a word. There is a kind of inscription in/on the body of a letter.

We have to treat the artwork starting with the drive. An artwork has to do with the autoerotism of the speaking being – the parlêtre. If we want to consider the work of Jan Fabre, then our starting point has to be his auto-jouissance.

When Lacan speaks about Joyce, he points out that Joyce is capable of elevating his sinthome to the escabeau – SK beau – of an artwork. Beauty is a last defense against the real, said Jacques-Alain Miller in his presentation of the theme of the Congress of the WAP “The Unconscious and the Speaking Body”. Miller returns to Joyce, who converged his symptom and the escabeau: Joyce turned the symptom itself – in so far as it lies outside meaning, in so far as it is unintelligible – into the escabeau of his art. He created a literature whose jouissance is just as opaque as that of the symptom, and which none the less remains an art object, raised by the escabeau to the dignity of the Thing.”

Is Fabre capable of elevating his art, his performances, or theatre, to the escabeau of a work of art, or is he stuck in ‘The Beauty’? About beauty Fabre says different things, such as “beauty will be subversive or it will not be beauty at all”. Here he paraphrases Breton: “beauty will be convulsive or will not be at all”. Convulsive has to be understood as the sensually fleshy love. Is the “fleshy” the issue in Fabre’s work? Well, see this quote: “There is nothing that is more beautiful than the liquid wisdom of the body”. This latter is translated in his blood drawings: “I want to write the biography of my blood (my blood drawings are underlining my oath of faith to the beauty).”

A final remark from the latest Lacan: “Le moment de conclure”. In this, his latest teaching, Lacan returns to his beginnings – the imaginary. In the preceding seminar, “L’une-bévue”, the accent is placed on the body, the accident, and the end of an analysis, is waiting for a new signifier. But the answer in his “Moment de conclure” is very surprising since it is no more [longer] a signifier but a new image that is awaited.


The Body and Pain

First we want to say something about the body and pain in psychoanalysis before entering the writings of Fabre.

At first, Lacan developed the image of the body in his mirror stage. Beside that there was the body as battlefield where a struggle is going on between the ego-drives and sexual drives. This struggle can end in paralysis, or in suspending the function of part of the body. Finally, there is the body as an enjoying substance, enjoying itself.

Jacques-Alain Miller distinguishes between the imaginary, symbolic and real body and is giving it different names. He proposes to reserve the body for the imaginary. The body of jouissance is named “the flesh”. It is not even necessary for it to have a shape; it is the enjoying substance of the body. Third, he calls the symbolic body “the Cadaver”.


A Few Words on Pain and Suffering in Psychoanalysis

Pain is not a concept in psychoanalysis, nor, even, is suffering, unless we understand this as “douleur d’exister”. For this latter I refer to the article of Geert Hoornaert: “Hamlet, the tragedy of desire. Le douleur d’exister.”

Jacques Lacan speaks about pain in his fifth seminar “Formations de l’inconscient”. In a case of Freud, Elizabeth von R, there is a pain in her right femur. Lacan insists on the identity between pain and desire. The pain evokes her desire for her father and her brother in law.

But there are other functions that pain can have and that must be approached each time in a singular way.

We have already treated the image of the body. Pierre Ebtinger states that when there is no consistent body image, a generalized pain can supply this lack. It can unite the body and seal the permanence of its presence. On this body are inscribed the marks that are characterizing the identity of everybody. A certain posture can suffice to identify oneself with another person. But these marks can also be the tensions that have their reflection on the muscles, tendons and articulations.

Besides there is the pain that is provoked by a not wanting to know, where the subject is a victim of an imperative, a slavery that one has to keep up at the cost of one’s health.

Thirdly, Ebtinger poses that pain can be an obstacle to sexual enjoyment.

But pain can also establish a social bond, because a lot of people take care of this pain and this can support someone in his existence.

Pain is also real, it returns to the same place over and again, which is a definition of the real. One cannot speak about it; there is a lack of words to name the pain.

Jan Fabre and the Body

In an interview during “Je suis sang” Fabre is distinguishing three kinds of body: “my work is always speaking about the body, the social body, the political one and the erotic one. I have been manipulating that body; I have deconstructed it to reassemble it. And blood was an element that I didn’t analyze yet.” Hendrik Tratsaert evokes a different, earlier classification of Fabre: “Already in the eighties Fabre was making a study of the body and its appearances before this was ‘fashionable’ within a certain avant-garde. In the nineties he elaborated a trilogy that he divided into the physical (Sweet Temptations), the spiritual (Universal Copyrights) and the erotic body (Glowing Icons). In his theatre the platonic division between spirit and body doesn’t exist. One can see spiritual bodies or bodiless spirits, or the body as pure flesh. His theatre examines the living body of the actor or dancer as an instrument, as a direct support of ideas. So the body becomes also a direct political medium.”

So here we have to deal with the body as flesh, as pure enjoying substance. But also the bodily event where there is an impact of the word, the signifier on the body: this body as a spiritual body, that Miller called the cadaver.

In 2004 Fabre gives a more accurate definition of the body and adds another level to it:

“But for me the body is never simple. The body contains multiple forms and possibilities. I distinguish four basic types:

1.     The physical body, which shows the power of the body by tiredness and exhaustion. The investigation points to the outside of the body and through the blood, the tears and the sweat it unveils also the inner side of the body.

2.     The erotic body: this is the body as a costume and the costume as body. It is a powerful body that isn’t giving any sign of fear or panic but is taking a lot of physical risks. The armoured knights or naked kings are such erotic bodies.

3.     The nocturnal body: the body that is surrendering itself to the obscure and obscene feast of the night. Sex, drugs and rock-n-roll commanding the feast celebrating body. It’s a body that is functioning in a state of drunkenness.

4.     The spiritual body. The body of the future. The empty body. The body without organs or blood. The body as envelope of nothing. Phantoms, mummies, angels and scarecrows are potential spiritual carriers. The body with its external skeleton. The body that is penetrated of non-contemporary seriousness and depth, sublimity and glory.


What Jan Fabre is searching for is metamorphosis: “I’m looking for people who I find beautiful. This means that they have a beautiful body, a radiation, something sexual or erotic, a strong personality. And precisely I expect them to become abnormal. That they deform their body or metamorphose into something else: an older person, a woman, an animal, a fish, a monster… this means that you change yourself in a way that you can forget yourself and disappear in that cloud.”

Fabre conceives his actors as experimental rabbits for all kinds of investigations and research. Therefore, he gives them a lot of improvisation workshops. A few of them are coming back in all the work processes: “Sisyphus” (physical acts that are exposed to duration and the wear of time). What is the exhaustion doing with the muscles, tendons, skin and concentration? What does the ritual of repetition mean? Another instruction is to play “the ill body”. Actors imagine themselves an organ affected by illness, a virus disease, and a body in decline. They provoke this illness by coughing or vomiting. Doing this repeatedly changes the body. The issue is here to investigate a physical dysfunction, deterioration. What does the pain do to the body? How to manage to find a balance again? Are you rejecting functions of the body? How is the inside of the sick body reacting? What is the sound of a disease? “This is the metamorphosis of the imaginary body to the real body.”

His theatre also shows intoxication. His theatre goes back to tragedy. The public is confronted with the darkest passages in the history of mankind. For Fabre it’s about the “boning of the tragedy. I want the public and the actors to learn by suffering. I want to set going a process of change. Not only the metamorphosis of the actor but also of the spectator. My staging of “Prometheus Bound”, by Aeschylus was one such trip in a forgotten landscape. I reworked this piece totally so that language was exhausted. Speaking in it was already very difficult, it was hurting. Prometheus’ singing (played by six men) was stuttered, as if each word was a wound. In this way speaking became a physical action. Language was materialized in the relaxation of the muscles, in the vomiting of sounds. Speaking happened in the shape of throes, pushing, gasping, under extreme pressure. The words were undergoing a physical deformation; everything was submitted to change, to metamorphosis.


Following Jan Fabre, then, he is taking the body down from its escabeau, where it was shining in its beauty, [in order] to metamorphose it into flesh, to muscles and tendons. But, also, language is undone from speaking, from truth, in order to reduce it to the object: the voice – pure enunciation. Here he is making a link to the body: “In the free and impulsive filling-up by the actors and dancers, I have noticed that the physical ecstasy can affect the register of the language. Language becomes a piece of the body.”

But he goes on and approaches the dead body, the symbolic body: “The frame of the body and the build of the articulations are getting form from the lime of the bones. The structure of the bones is the support of the body. Those bones, the lime, are for me the basic materials of the body. They cannot lie, they cannot conceal.”

But in the performance – Fabre is linking ‘to perform’ with ‘to perforate’ – there is a crossing of real and unreal, due to the bringing in of the rude reality of the body, such as blood, excrements, vomit, pain, injuries or real danger of life. Every successful performance succeeds in abolishing the distance between reality and representation, life and art…and what is more real than a suffering body?


The Fabrian Body: “I’m blood” (Je suis sang)

His “blood drawings” started after he saw the paintings of the Flemish primitives in Bruges. Especially the representations of Christ, his suffering body, all his wounds and stigmata opened him to the “body art” and the performances: “My body had become an instrument to create. The sacrifice is not a spectacular effect, for me it is an experiment of the body, its limits, its reactions, as well as external (sweat, tears, urine, sperm…) as internally. The blood has many significations: symbolically, scientifically, historically, and politically… In my work and, in particular, in “I’m blood” I have tried to realize a certain alchemy with these signifiers. On the other hand, the Flemish primitives also used blood in their pigments to obtain a certain quality of red. “I’m blood” is also referring to the Lamb of God by the brothers Van Eyck: “But my lamb is double: Life and Death. But the two of them are feasting. They are reflecting in the mirror their future: you are still alive but you will die.”

His fascination with blood and his reflection on a new idea of mankind, thanks to the animals, was brought together, literally, in a work he realized in Sonsbeek. In a room he was constructing a Brooklet of blood between two gilded sculptures of lambs. The one symbolized life, the other death. The Brooklet was comprised half of human blood, and half of animal blood. Death didn’t emerge here as a threat, but as a promise, a new form of life, the literal imagination of “new blood”.

What is this new idea of mankind? This also has to be taken literally: “The body of the future is in me/ an alchemistic vehicle/ a complex engine endowed with the memory of primeval oceans and the intelligence of galaxies.” In this way, says Dominique Frétard, Jan Fabre is evoking a body that is only blood. Man of flesh and blood has become totally liquid.

“We have existed for years and years in the same shape. This liquid body is a metaphor that reflects a body that is in accordance with the blood of all and everybody, the blood of Gods and animals.”

One of the performances of Jan Fabre, “Sanguis/Mantis,” lasted five and a half hours. He was wearing a metal cuirass with a helmet in the form of a grasshopper. Every hour blood is tapped off with which he makes his drawings. In these drawings expressions are written on the position of the artist and social taboos.

In his theatre, “I’m blood (Medieval fairy tales),” the idea is that the Middle Ages are still continuing. There is no progress because the people are still ruled by instincts and impulsions. The human being is still testifying to a “thirst for blood”. The script of this piece is written in Latin and French – Latin because this is the language of science. Els Deceukelier is one of the voices and describes the load of the body that is subjected to obsessions, fixations, suffering and diseases. The body is the source of impulsions and taboos that have precisely to do with blood: injuries, menstruation, stigmata, and bloodshed. In this respect nothing has changed since the Middle Ages. Human beings are addicted to blood in all of its meanings. The voices in this piece wish to become only blood. Blood has its internal household, a self-organization, by which it cleans itself all the time. Through exorcism, there can be a systematic way for the body, as well as for the bones and the flesh, to end, to disappear into something else, another form, one that is not embarrassed by suffering and taboos, something liquid that is pervading matter: a body of the future that only exists out of blood.


Nothing has been said until now of the sexualized body. Fabre is creating some confusion. When he writes in French he makes some mistakes concerning the female ending of an adjective of a masculine substantive. But also in interviews he points out that in his ‘Etant donnés’ there is a variegation between a masculine and female archetype: “Els (De Ceuckelier) is fighting with the man in herself, she speaks as a man, she is transforming into a man with female properties or to a woman with masculine properties. One can hear and see her breathing, her voice, the bones and muscles changing. She’s a cannibal who is eating herself, and spits herself out. Sometimes she becomes the two sexes, and then she changes into another being, something of an animal that can change into something old and young in no time. In this performance Els shows, and is, a biological body that by a long process sharpens her intensity, her instinct and intuition and causes chemical reactions in her body. The whole dialogue with her male vagina becomes a beautiful exercise in raising the profane to the sacred.”

He tries to express the sexual non-rapport physiologically, by the bodily temperature. He remarks that the bodily temperature and hormone production is at its highest at 7 p.m. while for men, this is two or three hours later. He takes this into account when he composes a chemical marriage of a new ensemble for a new creation.  He believes that the warmth of a woman is completely different because she is carrying the mother’s lap in herself. He feels, then, the desire and energy of the male actors towards the woman. And he notices that women are reacting with another bodily temperature. The non-rapport is also expressed in the following way: we are looking for a temperature that we don’t have. I think that every man wants to become a woman once in a while. And a woman wants to be, once in a while, a man, because she wants to discover the other side.


Fabre is trying to resolve the sexual non-rapport in a physiological way and to elaborate this in his operas, theatre pieces and art works. This is his little private delusion. But with psychoanalysis we know that this non-rapport is fundamental. This is giving to each subject the possibility to find out something new, one is finding out love again, another person, a work of art, and a third person is hiding himself in the debility of “it’s possible”. Fabre knows that it is impossible and this is the engine for his further examination.


*Member of the Kring psychoanalyse-NLS and the NLS


[1] Miller J.-A., “ L’être et l’Un” cours du 25.05.2011, unpublished

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