Michaël Aerts – Axis Mundi (2011)


The subject matter of Michaël Aerts’s art embraces our entire cultural heritage. That is, our material heritage: constructions that were built by previous generations and which have gained the status of monuments. These monuments symbolise the power, faith and culture of a specific place at a specific time. However, the twenty-first-century human being who travels around the world and comes into contact with the symbolism of other ages and cultures often doesn’t understand it all that well. One example is the Buddha statues that can be found on windowsills and in gardens everywhere and which are associated with a spiritual attitude to life. This interpretation, however, has little to do with the original function of the statue.


Michaël Aerts (Dendermonde, Belgium, 1979, lives and works in Dendermonde and Ghent) is fascinated by this phenomenon: when symbols change their location, their significance changes too. He uses familiar, archetypal forms in his work and investigates the iconic values they have in a contemporary context. The obelisk plays a prominent role in his objects, sculptures, installations and related drawings. He chose this form for a reason: the obelisk was the first mobile monument. The Romans took the obelisk from Egypt and brought it to Rome. Everyone is familiar with the shape of these tall constructions that adorn central positions in cities in Europe and beyond. However, no one knows what the exact significance of this monument was for the Egyptians. Other forms that Aerts chooses to employ include the bust and the temple. He often produces his three-dimensional work in flight-case material, which is usually used to transport musical instruments, and sometimes places his work on top of handmade versions of similar flight cases, as, for example, in his work Louis Tunes (2008), a traditional bust of Louis XIV, into which he has incorporated two speakers. By doing so, Aerts lends a mobile and contemporary character to a sculptural form that has existed for centuries, emphasising both the physical relocation of a monument and the shift in its meaning.


Aerts’s detailed drawings, in gesso, acrylics, pencil, ink, chalk and varnish, predominantly in shades of black and grey, incorporate and combine familiar elements from art history and everyday life. They have been removed from their context and so have an alienating effect. This places them in the tradition of Belgian surrealist art, from Magritte to Delvoye. At the same, their theatrical character gives them a Baroque appearance, like Aerts’s objects and installations. Elements that recur in his drawings include black-and-white checked surfaces, rocky landscapes, antique medallions, eyeballs and mushrooms, often in the shape of a phallus. This phallic symbolism, which also features in Aerts’s three-dimensional work, is a reference to our patriarchal society and the show of force by male rulers that is often expressed in old monuments and statues.


For Lustwarande ‘11, Aerts has made Axis Mundi (2011): a landscape of objects made in his familiar materials: wood, chrome-plated silver, silver leaf and high-gloss enamel. Three sculptural elements are equally spaced along an axis: a platform in the shape of a trapezium, a distorted and corroded needle and, finally, three columns arranged in a semi-circle. Aerts has based this work around patterns. The trapezium features a check design – frequently used in painting. A black and silver checked pattern is applied to the three-dimensional object as a two-dimensional perspective view, creating a disorienting image. The obelisk-like needle and the columns have been given another ancient, archetypal pattern: the stripe. This is applied in a similar way: becoming narrower and narrower to suggest perspective on a two-dimensional surface. Axis Mundi is, in short, an extraordinary composition of iconic objects with the appearance of a painter’s study of perspective and, in the words of the artist himself, ‘futuristic archaeology’.


Manon Braat / translation Laura Watkinson