Stiletto brings a new element to Herck’s cow symbolism as known from the exhibitions Holy Cow Project and Missing: gilded and bronze cow skulls. A tribute to the highly respected creature, treated by many cultures as a source of life, cow skulls were hung on walls and brought to sacred ceremonies. The Aztecs excelled in skull and bone design. Although it’s carved in our minds when we see a skull it recalls death, in many traditions it promises new beginning; resurrection. With cross-references to Christianity as well as his own playful symbolism his works Holy cow, Capitibus and Stiletto revive this ancient tradition.
The cow skulls tell us to not take things for granted as life eventually ends. It says ‘Et in Arcadia ego’ or simply ‘Vanitas’. The vanitas genre – a genre that flourished in the Netherlands in the late 16th, early 17th century as a metaphor for meaningless earthly life and transience of earthly goods and pursuits – found a clear revival in modern and contemporary art. Animal corpses seem to add a modern twist to the ‘memento mori’ iconography. Contemporary Vanitas ( ‘emptiness’ in Latin) serves as a commentary on the vainglory and self-admiration dominating our celebrity-obsessed society.
A contemporary Vanitas symbol used by Herck in this series is the stiletto. Shoes are associated with wealth, freedom as well as vanity and arrogance. The Stiletto, as the prime symbol of erotic femininity, inspires simultaneous fantasies of vulnerability and power.
Stiletto consists a gilded skull. The artist carefully selected the materials based on their characteristics. Tom literally uses the skull as material and starting point to examine destruction and vanity. Placing them on a granite surface, favoured for its mirroring effect. Inspired by ancient and native skull and bone engravings, Tom incorporates a symbolism inherent in Christianity. Construction and deconstruction are an important factor in Toms work. Often ‘slaughtering’ his own works -followed by a process of re-embellishment- he makes conscious use of randomness. His goal is not to manipulate the process and to get rid of his own vanity and control.
In The Holy Trinity we see God as three entities: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit typified by a pigeon, Lamb, and hand of God placed on a granite surface modelled in the shape of a church façade, favoured for its mirroring effect. For his latest Stilettos (2018) - equally featuring a Holy Trinity- Herck studiously opts for red copper. In the Bible the coulour red represents blood as well as purification through fire.
Faber Birren, one of the most prominent scolars in the theory of colour, wrote this striking description: “At once, red is the passionate and ardent hue of the spectrum, marking the saint and the sinner, patriotism and anarchy, love and hatred, compassion and war.”
The blood of Christ in Christian theology refers to the physical blood actually shed by Jesus Christ primarily on the Cross, and the salvation which Christianity teaches was accomplished thereby. The Catholic Church teaches that the bread and wine, through transubstantiation, become the body, blood, soul and divinity of Christ —in other words, the whole Christ— when consecrated.
Devotion to the Precious Blood was a phenomenon of Flemish piety in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, that gave rise to the iconic image of Grace as the Fountain of Life, filled with blood, pouring from the wounded Lamb of God or the Holy Wounds of Christ. The blood of Christ is a compelling artistic symbol of His incarnation and sacrifice. Red has a more personal association then any other colour, so it may be said that red the the colour of (divine) love. The early Christian theologist and philosopher St.Augustine of Hippo found that the Holy Trinity consists of the lover, the beloved, and the love.
Herck`s Holy Trinity consists of the following symbols: on the lower left Christ, God in the centre, placed higher, and to the right the Holy Spirit. The three skulls indicate the blessing movement (signum crucis in Latin), tracing the shape of a cross in the air or on one's own body, echoing the Christian crucifixion narrative.
While the Trinity is `One`, the divine persons are really distinct from one another and often placed in hierarchical order. Tom therefore chose to create a larger skull to represent God, the other two skulls to the left and right are smaller in size, and show more traces of destruction.
A new phase in the Stiletto series will be marked by an exploration of the human skull and bone -as a universal theme of war and death-, interacting with the cow skull. The Totenkopf, German skull-and-crossbones, was the perfect sigil for the SS. National Socialism took it as a dark, foreboding symbol of courage and self sacrifice, built upon two centuries of traditional use in the German military, dating to the reign of Friedrich the Great himself.
Destruction plays an immense role in contemporary art as rebellion or protest, as spectacle and release, or as an essential component of re-creation and restoration. Nietzsche's announcement in the 19th century that God is dead was significant in art's 'Big Bang'. In recent years, art often reflects life in the age of terrorism and destructive images shoot across the Internet at such incredible speeds that we see so much of this every day. Extreme examples of artists destroying their own work are John Baldessari’s Cremation project (1970), burning 13 years’ worth of 'boring art' he’d made and of course Ai Weiwei’s Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn (1995).
© Text by Lara van Oudenaarde.
© Photos by Tom Herck.