There is a town square in the city of Leuven – a city within the province of Flemish Brabant in the Region of Flanders, part of the country of Belgium on the continent of Europe, all aboard a planet named Earth somewhere in space – where there stands a stylised grey-bronze statue of a Lilliputian man.
Poised astride a step, his left hand steadies a hardback book in front of his gaze. His right hand grips a tumbler, hovered above his head to decant an endless stream of liquid into his skull. Known locally as Fonske, diminutive of the Latin title Fons Sapientiae (the source of wisdom), the objet d’art was created by Jef Claehout in 1975, in commemoration of the 550th anniversary of the University of Leuven.
Although fountains have usually struck me as a colossal waste of water and energy, the Fonske is a notable exception. Most often, jets of fluid shot up in the air to impress onlookers are no different to competitions between young boys or dogs to see who can urinate the highest up a wall. As with much public art, the fountain is an attempt by whatever notables who commissioned the display to try to project their power, wealth and counterbalancing innocence of sophistication. Just as the Medici of Florence commissioned Leonardo da Vinci, in part, to paint The Last Supper to whitewash their crimes with art, it is no surprise that one finds grandiose sculptures and murals in all corridors of wealth.
Young boys may indeed be stupid, selfish and insecure enough to have tinkle tournaments, but they are also innocent. This psyche of the fountain is embodied in the Manneken Pis in Brussels, where a little boy surrounded by marble urinates down on us from above. The difference with Fonske is that the water is an integral part not only of the aesthetic, but inspires mystery and humour – qualities intrinsic to the joy of learning. The flow is not ostentatious, but subtle enough that the display could still work, albeit with less impact, without the water. The projection is of playfulness, not power; and true to the function of a fountain celebrating academia, the Fonske has sparked a great debate: Is what flows from the cup and into the mind wisdom or beer, or both?