Andrew Osborn








Insect-obsessed artist covers Belgian palace ceiling

The Guardian, 11th November 2002 13:37

by Andrew Osborn in Brussels

Belgium's 19th century royal palace has been given an unconventional makeover by one of the country's most innovative artists, who has taken the unusual step of glueing 1.6m iridescent green beetles to its ceiling.

Curiosity is growing in the days leading up to November 15, when the ceiling - in the palace's spectacular Hall of Mirrors - will be unveiled to the public for one day only.

The insect-obsessed Flemish artist responsible, Jan Fabre, was once the enfant terrible of the Belgian art world and although he rejects any comparisons with Damien Hirst, his work is equally controversial.

In the past, the artist has drawn using his own blood and sperm, raw steak and his girlfriend's menstrual blood.

It took four months for 29 of Fabre's assistants to glue the gleaming shells of 1.6m jewel scarabs to the ceiling and four years to prepare the installation which is permanent and expected to be left in place for hundreds of years.

It is the first new permanent artistic addition to the central Brussels palace since the 19th-century French sculptor Auguste Rodin produced some bas-reliefs for the building.

The new work was commissioned by the Italian-born wife of King Albert, Queen Paola, who wanted to brighten up the predominantly grey structure.

The beetles were culled for Fabre by a team of entomologists who scoured the restaurants of Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand where the creatures are regarded as a delicacy.

Fabre has named the un usual work Heaven of Delight in homage to one of his greatest inspirations - the 15th century gothic fantasy artist Hieronymous Bosch who produced a work called The Garden of Earthly Delights.

The beetles are not just glued randomly but are based on a detailed sketch by Fabre.

Birds' wings, giraffes' legs and salamanders' eyes can all be discerned in the creation as can the letter 'P' for Queen Paola who succumbed to years of lobbying and gave Fabre carte blanche .

"It looks like a kind of greenish, bluish, violet, yellow golden sea of light that moves around constantly, creating drawings using the light," Fabre, 44, told the Guardian yesterday.

"It will never go away, the colour will never fade and it will stay there for hundreds of years. I am quite satisfied."

It is already being hailed in Belgian art circles as one of the most important works of the new century.

Fabre says that the use of beetles is no coincidence but strongly connected to Belgium's controversial colonial history.

The Hall of Mirrors was commissioned by King Leopold II, the man who claimed the Congo as his own.

But he died before the room could be finished, and the ceiling has been unfinished ever since.

It was therefore fitting, says Fabre, to use jewel scarabs to decorate the ceiling since they can also be found in the Congo.

Fabre's personal obsession with insects also played a role.

In the past, he has dressed up in elaborate beetle costumes and held artistic dialogues with a fellow artist in a fly suit.

Fabre andthe flies

· In 2000, Fabre caused a massive stink by wrapping 8,000 slices of ham around eight neo-classical pillars in Ghent. His idea was to leave it for three months so that the meat would attract swarms of flies

· Fabre is based in Antwerp and styles himself on the 15th century Flemish artists Jan Van Eyck and Hieronymous Bosch

· His artistic career began in his parents' back garden where he created a tent-like sculpture in which he experimented on insects and spiders

· As a 19-year-old, he renamed the street he lived in as 'Jan Fabre street' and fixed a commemorative plaque to his parents' home