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The duality of humanity can be overwhelming. The need to flourish and grow whilst protecting ourselves has been inherent in human beings’ quest for power, safety, and freedom since the beginning of time. Not only is danger all around, the threat of violence and deceit ever near, but the danger is within as well – we grow old and die, we grow up and lose our innocence, we question or faith and spirituality that is considered the foundation of life’s compass.

How to best protect ourselves while still maintaining our tenuous hold on our earthly nature, with the call of the spiritually divine in our ears is what world-renowned, Belgian artist, Jan Fabre addresses in his most recent exhibition, “Jan Fabre: Spiritual Guards” at the Forte Belvedere in Florence, Italy, on view April 15 – October 2, 2016.

Images courtesy Muse Firenze © Angelos Bvba.

janfabre_beautifulbizarre_018Chapters I – XVIII (2010), Silicon bronze, Photo by Attilio Maranzano

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Since the 1970s, contemporary artist Jan Fabre has been pushing the boundaries of modern art, and his current multi-disciplinary exhibit is a fantastical culmination of that life’s work to date. With the perfect backdrop for his pieces, spread out across Florence at Forte Belvedere, Palazzo Vecchio, and Piazza della Signoria, Fabre is able to expound on the idea of juxtaposition of the creativity of the human soul against the onslaught of time and brutality. With approximately 100 works, spanning the beginning of his career from the late 1970s to present day, the exhibition showcases sculptures of bronze, wax, wing cases of the jewel scarab, as well as filmed performance pieces.

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The man who bears the cross (2015), Silicon bronze, Photo by Emiliano Cribari

“Spiritual Guards” started at the Piazza Signoria with two large, bronze sculptures aimed at representing the artist’s physical presence as well as his tireless journey between the earthbound and the divine. The first work,  “Searching for Utopia,” is juxtaposed to the equestrian monument of Grand Duke Cosimo I. The large sculpture portrays a man, a wanderer, sitting astride the back of a giant bronze turtle. The second work, “The Man Who Measures the Clouds,” stands at the Arengario outside of the Palazzo Vecchio, and is a straight-backed man, holding up a yardstick to the heavens. Both are surrounded by the marble works of Piazza della Signoria, and it is clear that these guardians have been sent to ensure safe passage for all on this journey to self-awareness and spiritual enlightenment.

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Jan Fabre in Florence photographed by Emiliano Cribari

In keeping with the theme of guardianship throughout the ages, Fabre’s pieces continue into the public rooms of Palazzo Vecchio. The modern works, more delicate and ethereal than their counterparts placed in the public square, merge with frescos and artifacts housed in the Palazzo. Rather than all gleaming bronze, many of these sculptures feature “angel hair” and frail scarab beetle wings that highlight the precariousness of life and art. For example, Fabre’s 2.5-meter work entitled “The Globe” is an orb ensconced in tiny jewel-like wing cases from the scarab beetle and echoes the globe in Ignazio Danti’s 16th century fresco, providing proof that the world has always been at odds and needing protection for those things that are artfully delicate yet can withstand the harsh battle of time.

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Searching for Utopia (2003), Silicon bronze, Photo by Emiliano Cribari

The center of “Jan Fabre: Spiritual Guards” is at the Forte Belvedere, with roughly sixty works in bronze, wax, and a series of films. The use of this setting as a backdrop for the heart and core of his exhibit indicates a clear correlation between the history of the location and the works it houses. The Forte Belvedere was built and used as a stronghold to protect and defend Florence and the powerful Medici Family, just as Fabre wishes to guard the divine spirit of creativity. The pieces in this space are strong and bold. Seven bronze scarabs are posted as lookouts while another set of statues – all self-portraits of Fabre – dot the inside, impressive in their craftsmanship and size. As these statues stand there, poised as if in mid-sentence – measuring the clouds, bearing the cross, conducting an orchestra of stars cast in glowing bronze, they are clearly heroic, an army of knights in their shining armors. Facing the historical beauty of Florence and surrounded by works made for kings and politicians, these masterpieces don’t seek to be held in the same awestruck reverence but are rather emblems of the metaphorical ascension of an artist’s soul. With these daring pieces outside the Forte Belvedere, we must conclude that what is inside the villa is just as delicate and unique. Inside, the villa houses exquisite wax sculptures and films of Fabre’s legendary performances. However, just as the exhibit location and subject matter are important to the theme, so are Fabre’s references to the long-forgotten stories and symbols that are recurrent in his work. Scarabs symbolize ancient religions and the tricky transition from life to afterlife. Bronze is tough and shining – what we put on as armors in battle –, glowing in its ability to protect. Wax looks solid but like human flesh is soft and moldable to the touch. In this light film depicts the movement of life as well as the ingenuity of humanity to capture that movement and preserve it for generations.

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Shall He Forever Stand with Feet Set Together? (1997), Armour, angel’s hair, jewel scarab wing-cases, mirror, leather, Photo by Emiliano Cribari

Through the constant pairing of opposing forces – old and new, delicate and strong, a historical treasure versus contemporary works – Fabre conveys the idea that humanity needs guardians. A guardian that will protect them by guiding them through the murky haze of creativity, spirituality, and the evolution of one’s self over time.

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One of the works created for the exhibition “Spiritual Guards,” 

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Salvator Mundi (1998), Scarabs, iron, angel’s hair, bones, Photo by Emiliano Cribari

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The man who gives a light (2002), Silicon bronze, Photo by Attilio Maranzano

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Fallen Angel (2000), Scarabs on iron wire, Photo by Emiliano Cribari

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