In September 2016, three years after this career-spanning survey of Jan Fabre’s performance oeuvre first opened in Rome, the Belgian artist and theater maker donned a business suit, mounted a white racing bicycle, and pedaled around a velodrome in Lyon. The action marked the local opening of curator Germano Celant’s engrossing deep dive into Fabre’s maverick performance work, and was attended by a coterie of cycling legends, including Eddy Merckx, whose former world record Fabre set out not to beat. Celant’s updated exhibition is bookended with this performance, An attempt not to beat the record time achieved in Mexico City in 1972 (or how to remain a dwarf in the land of giants), 2016, and two other new works including Love is the Power Supreme, 2016, for which Fabre wore plate armor and walked through St. Petersburg’s Winter Palace, kissing its architectural features and art.
Fabre’s interest in performance stemmed from a 1976 encounter, in Bruges, with an exhibition of Flemish paintings about flagellation and stigmata. Celant’s chronological display explores the influence of art history on Fabre’s practice, as well as his absorption with the sociology of the commercial art world. It juxtaposes substantial video documentation—including Fabre’s 2004 collaboration with Marina Abramović, Virgin/Warrior, at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris—with displays of material artifacts like costumes, drawings, exhibition posters, and biographical objects presented on glass-top trestle tables. The earliest work, Long Street of Images: Jan Fabre Street, 1977, records Fabre’s chutzpah in switching a local street sign with one bearing the artist’s name. He has since graduated into a respected elder, one who, to quote Fabre from one of the illuminating diary notes excerpted on the walls, remains an “artist-worm” committed to trying “to keep the soil of art healthy.”