‘To want to make something complete,
to need to bring things back together,
you have to know what separation feels like,
Edmund de Waal, ‘Letters to Camondo’, 2021
It might be on a beach in northern France, near Cap Gris-Nez, or in a bend of De Schelde in Kruibeke that Babs Decruyenaere finds the objects for her work: pebbles, cobbles, small and large stones, sometimes remnants of construction waste or a ceramic shard.
Babs Decruyenaere strolls, searches, and observes. She bends over, picks something up, examines and touches it, selects, decides, keeps it, or throws it away. Call it a ritual, this constantly repeated sequence of searching, looking, bending over, and feeling. It is a minimalist pantomime that she performs solitarily and that brings her rest time and again.
This ritual of searching and gathering – this performance without spectators – is an inseparable part of her work. Invisible to the spectator, essential to the artist.
Amazement is her driving force. She gathers pebbles and speaks to them, calling them ‘my stones’. But a stone is only accepted when it fits into her hand and can be embraced – by her hand and her fingers. The hand is the measure of things. In the hand, in the heart.
The search for stones is a ‘recherche du temps perdu’ for Babs. The quest takes her back to her childhood. Due to her frail health, she spent four years in the Zeepreventorium of Middelkerke: from the age of three to seven. Even then, her coat pockets were filled with pebbles after a walk on the beach. Pebbles are memories – not just of one’s own childhood. A pebble is history and memory of the earth. Tens of thousands of years old. Made and shaped by natural forces, carried away by water. Rough or burnished, polished or battered, injured or crumbled, each stone bears the marks of that thousand-year geological journey.
In her studio, Babs cherishes her finds. Stones are carefully stored in old cigar boxes. They too bear the patina of a past, a different past. Babs collects her stones like others collect butterflies or stamps. In the cigar boxes, the stones are placed in compartments that Babs has made especially for them, but the arrangement that Babs makes is purely instinctive.
She then selects different stones and brings them together in a modest composition: a subtle structure, consistently a tense balance of different types, colours and shapes. Brick and gravel, straight and round, hard and brittle, rough and polished, veined and plain, shiny, and matt. They are fragile stacks: various kinds of stones lie and stand, touch and support one another, complement one another. One stone is a wedge, the other provides an embrace.
Babs Decruyenaere creates a new unity with these very diverse ‘objets trouvés’: seemingly simple but wonderful structures with a rough, unruly beauty. In her compositions, the contrasts between all the elements remain visible. There is a constant tension within the composition and the balance achieved is ever precarious and fragile, but to Babs, assembling and connecting remains key. She heals that which would otherwise remain broken.
The title of this little book ‘putting up walls’ reminds me of the stacked walls that have separated fields in Ireland and Scotland for centuries. Those walls are built of dry-stacked stones, with no cement or mortar used. The ‘walls’ that Babs Decruyenaere piles up are small jewels, not sturdy, immovable dividing walls. Her hand seeks, gathers, and stacks. The artist leaves a subtle trail of eternal wonder and fragile beauty.
Antwerp, august 2021