2020 Sigrid Bosmans and Hannah Itterbeke – The Present-Absent Gaze in the sculptures of Maen Florin

The tumultuous tranquillity and glazed facial expressions in Maen Florin’s sculptures attract the viewer’s interest in a subtle, non-coercive manner. They lie, sit or stand in seemingly unanticipated and unusual sites. It is as they have quietly entered the city and taken up a place in between the other pieces. You encounter them in De Garage, in the Sint-Janskerk, in the courtyard of the Hof van Busleyden and among theworks on display in the museum. They look, they stare, they listen, they meditate, they suffer and they ponder.  Since the sculptures in the Hof van Busleyden are not arranged in the classical fashion one associates with a museum (in glass cases, against long walls or in the empty niches of galleries), they do not compete. They carry on a dialogue with the other art objects around them rather than engaging in a dialectical conversation. They are not in conflict, nor do they reduce each other to a shared concept. Classical and contemporary art do not form any synthesis here, but a balanced antithesis. They discover each other, they explore each other’s uniqueness, they display an understanding of that unique quality or else they create space for the new. In this way, Maen Florin’s work contributes to one’s sense of the silent plurality of voices that one finds both in De Garage, the Sint-Janskerk and in the museum. It provides a disruption that invites the viewer to look once more and to embrace new perspectives.

One of the dominant motifs in Maen Florin’s body of work is the head. This links it thematically with the Sint-Janskerk. An intense cult has developed around the executed head of John the Baptist on a platter – the caput Iohannis in disco. The Church of St. John in Mechelen is one of the defining sites of this cult. In the human body the head and the heart are regarded as the protagonists of the soul. The head is the hub of all our senses (we can see, hear, feel, taste and smell); furthermore, it is one of the most important signboards for ouremotions. The primary importance of the head means that its loss through decapitation remains one of the most hideous possible crimes. Today too this specific act of dehumanization – and the visual proofs of it continue to sow terror.  The biblical stories of Judith and Holofernes or of Salome and John the Baptist, similar to the myths of Perseus and Medusa or David and Goliath give an epic colour to this horrendous deed. Paradoxically, horror of this kind also always verges on morbid fascination. Gazing, averting one’s gaze and then looking again. The repulsive power of an image becomes exceptionally palpable here.  Although the form of the ceramic heads of Maen Florin and their platter-shaped plinths remind one of the platter that held the Baptist’s head, hers are not imbued with horror of this sort. They are disembodied rather than lifeless. These brittle heads gaze helplessly at the viewers; they are disheartened and compassionate at once. They feel with us; they confront us in silence about that which we would prefer to look away from.

This seemingly passive agony of the sculptures compels us to open our eyes and take a second look at the world that surrounds us. The biblical, mythical and contemporary heads of Maen Florin all provoke a sense of impotence in the viewer. Their averting and absent gaze confronts us with our inadequacies in the realm of humanity, security and justice. Although the same failing is also present in the head of John the Baptist, this suffering also gives consolation to those who gaze on him. Healing powers have traditionally always been attributed to the platter with the head of Saint John. It is not just a popular image; it is also a much-loved religious object that serves to cure headaches for the devout. 

In medieval times the world view was largely defined by religion. God’s will and wishes were the focus of human existence and the world order was shaped accordingly. Gradually a more individualistic mode of thought germinated in which humanity began to be foregrounded and to take on a self-defining role in the world. The new position that human beings allocated themselves in the cosmos is also reflected in the aesthetics and formal language of the Renaissance. The universal and idealized depiction of humans in medieval times assumed ever more individual facial expressions and other outward characteristics (wrinkles, skin infections, small imperfections).

Perhaps the faces of Florin’s figures that have infiltrated the Hof van Busleyden Museum go a step further. Donkey’s ears, protruding ears, weird noses, twisted lips, mutilations or odd-looking frowns highlight and even transcend the strange singularity of these figures. It is these distinguishing characteristics that make these figures into a sort of archetype. Individuality and primal model merge; they transcend the rudimentary opposition and embrace each other’s complexity. In the rooms of the museum too they form a present absence. They stand there autonomously, deliberately not partaking in the arrangement that they have just enriched. In all their silence they call our attention to the layered character of the human condition.

The question that remains is: who is the more human and who is pretending to be so? The work of sculpture or its viewer? 

Sigrid Bosmans and Hannah Iterbeke