Sunday, 27 August 2017

Woncky

It was that fairly rare thing in Belgium - a really beautiful day. Having missed out on spring to a large extent and quite a lot of summer, I decided I must go into the country immediately and breathe fresh air and lie on grass. 

And so I went to Wonck. Not because the Wonck Tourist Board has been promoting the Grottes of Wonck and I have fallen for them:

but just because Wonck is there.

When I arrived, I went for a wander and got all nostalgic about being a child, when my main focus was the nature table in my classroom at school. In those days my weekends were taken up with foraging for exhibits to present to the nature table, (it still rankles that Miss Pickard insisted on throwing away my beautiful dead mole after only a couple of days on exhibit in a rather superior shoe box).

In those days, I knew the names of flowers like this:




I don't know any of those sorts of things any more, and I don't think I've replaced those bits of information with anything that sustains my soul better. I began to feel rather dismal pondering this state of affairs. My camera, sensing this, decided to make my photographs take on a slightly apocalyptic colouring, to reflect the way I had begun to feel:


Spooky is a favourite word of Edna Everidge's, and one I try to avoid; however, it has its place and this, I thought, was one of them:


I was surprised when I came to this wooden tower, which didn't seem to serve a purpose, beyond being slightly scary - those tattered things hanging off the roof are creepy fingers and most of the perforations on the body are the shapes of elfin creatures, I think. The sign beside it declares with great cheerfulness, (provided you believe in miracles):  "We need a miracle, if our planet is to be saved":

And what is it with Wonck and towers, anyway? Is it a competitive sport down there I wondered, when I came to a second one within a five minute walk of the other. If so, that first one is left for dead by this amazing structure:

which is, it turns out, the life work of one Robert Bercet, a stone mason and soi-disant philosopher:
Bercet believed in love, thought, creativity, liberty, equality and fraternity. He was also keen on fossils. The tower is, I think, an expression of all these concerns.

Among the amazing features of the tower is that although it is just near Wonck, it is actually quite difficult to see from Wonck. You can in fact wander around Wonck, completely unaware that just nearby there is a tower with a winged cow, a winged lion and various other rather badly sculpted winged creatures on its roof - as well as gargoyles of a bishop, a soldier or policeman, some other figure of authority and a crocodile, (people who tell lies and generally abandon their souls to worldly things become crocodiles in Bercet's world view)m sticking out the side.

I don't know whether these stones were already there when Bercet moved in. The site was once a quarry, so possibly. Anyway, they made me think of Obelix and menhirs:

Behind the tower is a lovely grove:
Sadly, it is filled with the most frightful bits of sculpture, (I thought once of starting an Instagram dedicated to bad modern sculpture but then I realised I'd never have any time for anything else, as there is so much of it in the world that it would take up most of each day to document it).

This particular collection is dedicated to pacifism; naturally, its effect was to make me want to go and belt the living daylights out of the people responsible; I do realise this probably says more about me than about the works involved:
This one's by Eva Devaux and is called the Voice of Hope. Isn't it frightful? The caption beside it tells us that it seems impossible to unify our hopes without communicating them, without sharing them and without exchanging our ideas. It points out that there are many of ways of delivering and cultivating such ideas and that the symbol of the megaphone seems appropriate as a vehicle of cohesion and broadening of the sharing, while the woman's face, sheltered at the heart of the speaker makes one think of the words of Aragon (???), another symbol in the shape of a human. It ends with the rousing statement, "Woman is the future of man". So there. 

This unpleasant and enormous piece hurtled me forward from primary school memories to the dying days of provincial Yugoslavia. It has just the level of dreary symbolism to have been very much at home in Skopje, circa 1985. It was made by a collective, and I hardly need to tell you that the hands are raised in supplication to all the divinities in the universe, begging that all the crimes and atrocities committed in their names should cease. There is a lot of guff about hope on the sculpture's label, plus a quote from Mahmoud Darwich, (according to my diligent research i.e. one internet search, his name is usually spelt Darwish and he is a Palestinian poet who, in one photograph from a long time ago looked like Yves Saint Laurent in his heyday), which is this: "We suffer from an incurable disease: hope". My teeth are grinding at the sheer wishy washy wetness of it all, because I am a horrible, horrible person.

This piece is by Nadine Devreux and is called "Looking towards a better world". Apparently just as a tree hides in the forest, man surrounds him or herself in the protective cocoon of stereotype. Instead, we should accept our inequalities and culpabilities, without racial, sexual, religious or any other kind of discrimination, in order to overcome our fears and frustrations together and live in tolerance and respect for others, unified by our hope of making a world of love, liberty and fraternity, tomorrow. You will note she doesn't mention anything about making things of beauty, today, tomorrow or yesterday, presumably because she knows that is well outside her ability, judging by this nasty piece of work.

But if I thought that was unpleasant to look at, this took the cake. It actually made me feel sick, (I think you have to be there to absorb the full flesh crawling quality of the texture of the hanging objects). I didn't find out who it is by. I assumed it was some kind of reference to Strange Fruit, the song by the woman who isn't Billie Holiday but whose name escapes me. It turns out that it is something to do with willow leaves and the Chinese Buddha and the positive life force. I don't think any sculpture before has made me feel nauseous but this one did. Nevertheless it is called Spreading Hope. 

This one at first looked approachable, with its vague visual likeness to a cabinet in a 19th century museum. It was made by Adria Ceen and is called Glass Thought. The objects within it speak of the first part of the recovery of the artist's husband  from an accident that left him with a cerebral wound which caused him to lose language. I don't think my husband would be terribly thrilled with the offerings in a similar situation - the most stomach turning was the lizard thing with its mouth wide open, exposing an enormous pair of dentures, set in a material the colour of vomit. 

It was with some relief that I turned to the tower itself, which is admirable in the sense that it is the most amazing feat of sheer labour on the part of Mr Bercet, (and,  knowing a little of Belgian bureaucracy, I suspect quite a feat of battle against planning authorities as well):

Bercet built it himself, between 1949 and 1963, while also working in a quarry as his day job. You cannot do anything but stand in admiration before his indefatigability, even if a tiny voice keeps asking, "But to what end?"

By the entrance there is this sign, written on what may be slate but may be a piece of inner tyre, I couldn't quite tell. It says: "The stones that are here are witnesses to life through the ages. Let them speak for themselves. Don't write anything on them, don't vandalise them, don't take any away. To respect work is to collaborate with it. Peace and poetry live here. Be worthy of them."

I don't agree with all the claims in that statement, but I do feel sorry that apparently people have stolen a lot of the fossils Mr Bercet embedded in the tower's walls.

Anyway, in I went, and found inside some pictures of Mr Bercet. Here he is with his mother, when he was a small boy:
Here he is with his wife; the expression on her face isn't entirely thrilled, but perhaps it was just the light at that moment:
Here he is later in his life, still with his wife, who still doesn't appear to be exactly jumping for joy:
Here he is very late in his life, making some point with what I suspect may have been his usual conviction, (dogmatism, even?):
The rest of the interior of the tower is given over mainly to a museum devoted to Mr Bercet's thoughts. By the time I'd finished reading and listening to what he had to say, I was feeling exceptionally glad I hadn't remained at the nature table stage of existence, for I fear that that might be exactly what happened to Mr Bercet. The whole enterprise of his tower and his pacifist sculpture garden and his long screeds of so-called philosophy - (upstairs in the tower is a room in which the portraits of various well-known scholars are hanging, beside one of Mr Bercet himself, which suggests he saw himself as part of a pantheon of great thinkers) - struck me in the end as an example of what happens when quite a lively mind is left to itself, rather than taken off by its owner to engage with other lively minds at a university. The energy and intensity of the man was enormous, but what he ended up formulating seems to me to be a bit of a muddle, with various pieces of religious tradition, some science, some history and a smattering of philosophy thrown together in what ends up as less than its parts.

On the other hand, would the world have ever seen any stone-walled rooms with dinosaurs busting right out of the structures, if Bercet had gone off to the Sorbonne:

Or rooms with rather bewildered looking angels holding up the roof:
Or indeed a tower in the Belgian countryside with a flying cow on its roof:
Or a flying lion:



Or a gun embedded in its parapet:
I have never been convinced by so-called outsider art, but I think that is what Mr Bercet's tower is an example of. It struck me as a rather lonely enterprise. I hope he had some happy moments on this earth, rather than just being a raging ball of slightly confused ideas. I hope his wife did too; she looks in those pictures rather as though she might not have had the jolliest of times imaginable.

Meanwhile, Mr Bercet, unaware that he was creating outsider art, came up with the idea of "flint art":

Flint art, he tells us, is the tacit message of the gods. Art is eternal and there are  examples that have been made for the intelligent to find for 60 or 70 million years.





I left cured of my nostalgia for innocence, convinced that innocence, unharnessed by education, all too easily curdles into dottiness. On the other hand, I also thought that someone might imagine a quite interesting novel about Bercet, unschooled genius nutter, alone in a world of Philistines who laughed at him and pinched his fossils. A bit of a sad novel though.

On the other side of the road, someone was growing apples:

They looked tantalisingly red and shiny and delicious. I wondered if that mightn't have been an easier and better way to lead his life, if Mr Bercet hadn't been so determined to make a mark, to be seen as a great individual. But then again, look what happened the last time someone started thinking about picking apples.

The world is full of strangeness - and most of all of strange people. Mr Bercet's tower is certainly quite an achievement and, in a certain sense, a sight to see. Whether it is, to use the Michelin phrase, "worth a detour", depends on how much time you have to spare. I'm not sorry I went. Although I wish I hadn't seen some of those sculptures. Too late now. Once seen, things cannot be unseen.

2 comments:

  1. And so you went to Wonck.

    At first I was going to say that what makes the sculpture so ghastly is the po-faced-ness of it all. But actually no. The main problem is that they're nauseously unattractive, and not just in a classical sense. They're made by people who have no idea of form.

    Bercet's follies are much better - I rather like the dinosaurs - and his wife looks amusing too.

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    1. I love the dinosaurs - and I just saw something about Alexander Pope's grotto on the television and saw some similarity, if only in building material and fondness for embedded fossils, in Bercet's tower. I'm not convinced by the wife looking fun theory though. I shall study the photographs more carefully

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