Berlinde de Bruyckere
We are all flesh

Gallery 13

Berlinde de Bruyckere, Belgium, born 1964, We are all flesh, 2011-12, Ghent, Belgium, epoxy, iron, horse skin, steel, 750.0 x 175.0 x 150.0 cm; Gift of John and Jane Ayers, Candy Bennett, Jim and Helen Carreker, Cherise Conrick, James Darling AM and Lesley Forwood, Scott and Zoë Elvish, Rick and Jan Frolich, Andrew and Hiroko Gwinnett, Dr Michael Hayes and Janet Hayes, Klein Family Foundation, Ian Little and Jane Yuile, Dr Peter McEvoy, David and Pam McKee, Hugo and Brooke Michell, Jane Michell, Peter and Jane Newland, John Phillips, Dr Dick Quan, Paul and Thelma Taliangis, Tracey and Michael Whiting, GP Securities, UBS and anonymous donors through the Art Gallery of South Australia Contemporary Collectors Director's Project 2012, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, © Berlinde De Bruyckere Image commissioned by the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, photo: Andrew Curtis.

About this work of art

De Bruyckere is celebrated for her life-like, yet contorted and fragmented figurative sculptures made from materials such as wax, wood, iron, wool, hair and the hides of horses. Themes of suffering, birth, death, metamorphosis  and remembrance are central to her confronting works. Yet there is also beauty and tenderness in the poignancy of her forms.

We are all flesh is a sculpture comprising two life-sized conjoined horses, faceless and disfigured, suspended from a 7.5 meter high pole. Some visitors are initially confronted by the sculpture, but the work has been created in a spirit of compassion, and its process is entirely humane. De Bruyckere works closely with the veterinary clinic at Ghent University. When a horse dies, the veterinarians contact her so that she can make plaster moulds of the horse’s body. She then casts reconfigured sections of these moulds in epoxy resin to create abstract sculptural forms, which she covers with horse skins acquired from a tanner in Brussels (who otherwise prepares them for the leather industry).

We are all flesh connects to de Bruckyere’s research and commission for the Flanders Fields Museum in Ghent in 1999. The artist was struck by photographs in the archives of dead horses strewn on the desolate streets of Ypres in the aftermath of the First World War.

De Bruyckere hopes that once the initial association with the image of ‘real’ horses has passed, viewers will begin to see or understand her sculpture in relation to human emotions and confronting moral contexts. De Bruyckere uses the horse as symbol of our humanity, which she deliberately abstracts in order to lay bare our vulnerabilities, afflictions and fears.

The monumentality of We are all flesh and its portrayal of suffering references altarpieces depicting Christian martyrdom. The iconography of its composition relates to that associated with St Sebastian as a beautiful youth bound to a tree or column and pierced by arrows. De Bruyckere is interested in how the portrayal of torment and death in a religious context in previous eras imparted spiritual meaning and enlightenment. This work also serves to remind us of the suffering of refugees and martyrs of contemporary traumas.

Audio description of the work of art

The artist took 2 years to complete this commission. It is 7.4m high, and 1.75m at its widest point. It is made from epoxy, iron, horse hides and steel.

The arresting sculpture comprises the skins of two life-sized brown horses, that are intertwined and stitched together - suspended by a long loop of dark hose from a tall industrial metal pipe. A vertical T-bar approximately 5cm in diameter protrudes 7m above the ground, and from this, a loop of oil-stained canvas hose is slung and attached to one hoof belonging to the lighter coloured of the two horses. The conjoined bodies hang vertically to the floor stretching approximately 3.5m.

15cms in diameter at the base, the iron pipe is attached to a square bracket bolted to the gallery floor. At the top, the pipe is narrower than at its base. A metal bracket with a hole through it protrudes, welded to a pipe 2.5m from the top, at the point where the pipe narrows. The rough, silvery-grey pipe is weathered and worn. There are scratches, black marks and spots of rust and wear around its surface.

The focus is the horses, life expelled. The horses are stitched into one form along belly and flanks. Their hides bear flaws, wounds, holes and scratches.

Two steel hooks connect the suspension hose on the hanging forms to a sash, knotted around one of the upward pointing legs. The sash is taut, under strain from the merged horses.

One horse has its rear legs and hooves pointed towards the ceiling and the hair on the back of its legs fluffs outwards. Whorls are patches of hair growing in opposite directions in horsehair, and both hides bear these. Both horses are brown, this being the lighter of the two, with its warm, chestnut-coloured rump and hips. It is the remnants of a male, its puckered and lifeless, black genitals between its upturned legs.

Its tail is cropped short, its rump, back and mane hang downward, a muzzle-less shape stitched and blended with the lower body of its dark counterpart.

One foreleg of the second horse skin reaches skyward, connecting its hoof to a furry ankle of the other. A line of dark hair tufts from fetlock (ankle) to knee on the second body. Forearm, chest and shoulder-to-throat latch are covered liberally in rich and glossy, well cared-for, dark-chocolate-coloured hair.

Lower down, a mane begins, where a muzzle isn’t. A clean, leather cavity, brushed and empty within, except for creases in the gathered hide. Inside, the leather is dust-coloured and greyish, fawn-coloured in the creases.

The joined forms end in splayed hind legs and a rump suspended just above the floor, hooves touching the ground. The gender of this second horse is indiscernible, its groin hidden where the bodies meld, marred by stitching and scratch marks. Lengths of coarse dark tail hair curl onto the floor.