Week one report: Three thoughts
The opening of Into Nature had just begun; we were all invited to take a walk around the neighbouring artworks. Adrien Vescovi hanging textiles immediately struck me. I’m still stuck with it, I close my eyes and I see those fading sheets. It was the way they were sagging. The weight of them: dried and stiff from age. Burdened down with time. Persistence.
Around two in the afternoon on Sunday two men came up to me. Father and son I’d say. On holiday staying in the Hunehuis I reckon, because I saw them pull up last night in their van. They came and asked what I was up to? I tell them about Into nature, about my mobile studio, that we’ll be working here on the Holtingerveld over the summer conducting various artistic experiments and analyses. I showed some of the block printing tests we’d made using pigments extracted from nearby plants. They asked if I was an amateur artist and whether all the artists in the show were amateurs? I explained that actually all the artists involved are professionals and from all over the world. (Sounds really pompous now that I write that). Thinking back this question sticks with me. If you’ve seen my setup you’d indeed imagine it to be the home of a hobbyist. Something I chose for, indeed something I deliberately wanted to evoke. A provocation to myself perhaps? There was something in his question I enjoyed; it opened a space. He said it with a smile, with a moment of hope, wanting it to be all amateurs. Perhaps the thought of a bunch of hobbyists roaming the fields over the summer appealed to him. It certainly does to me.
Back home in Rotterdam I look around, streetlamps, pavement slabs, dark water, the quayside, boats, bricks, beech trees, a windmill. Silence: not a drop of wind. A couple of the neighbouring bench drink white wine and talk in hushed tones. After my first week working at Into nature I’m struck by the silence of the city, not just sound but also what you see. A reduced complexity? Or maybe not, the complexity is different. Comparing the two I find weirdly relaxing.
Week two report: like a sandcastle caught in the tides flow
There’s a pile of dusty gravel near the car park where we’ve been stationed this last week. They’re fixing the cycle path that goes out into the heath. Dusty white, the mounds luminescence has been calling me like a moth to the moon. Around three thirty on Saturday I couldn’t hold off any longer and I drove a wooden pole into the tallest mound. The poles sharp shadow fell in perfect distinction. It was now clear to me: this pile of gravel had been waiting to host a sundial.
I’ve been trying to talk with all the visitors that come past our studio. A woman and her father arrived just as we were finishing hanging a piece of dried horseshit from a long heavy chain attached to the lamppost. She asked won’t the shit dissolve as it rains. I told her not to worry, all the things we’re making here are only temporary, and they will come and go. Like the sandcastles people build on the beach she continued. Exactly I thought to myself. That’s exactly it.
Wim, one of the volunteers helping Into nature as a tour guide and himself an expert on the Holtingerveld came past. In preparation of our project Wim had given us a walking tour of the area informing us about its cultural and geological history. He’s amazing: passionate about the area and driven to share his knowledge he has written a book about it that I’ve been reading. He came with a present for me, a palm shaped piece of flint. It fitted perfectly in the hand ready to be carved into some tool. A symbol of this site’s long history. I placed it next to the other two smaller pieces of flint we’d found. Wim asked what aspects of the locations history we’d come across? I suddenly felt I’d disappointed him; I’d not been focusing on its history, rather on what you see now. I tried to come up with something, but the truth is that at the location we’re at now it’s the current activity that stands out the most. It’s a car park of course so there’s lots of coming and going. It’s also at a crossroads, which makes it even buzzier. It’s really a junction, with movement almost all the time. The sheep pass by, the visitors to the Hunehuis arrive and leave. The horse riders trample past, as do the runners and the mountain bikers. There’s a steady stream of wonderers roaming the Into nature route. The flint was a welcome reminder of a deeper history. But also a reminder about making choices: to chose focus or to chose to become lost the in the flow of sensations?
The first thing we did this week was to move the studio. The car park had been a good home but it was starting to feel a bit claustrophobic there. With such a nice spot just over the road, under the shad of some large oaks but with a view opening out onto the heath, it was too tempting. Lukas and I grabbed the tow bar and started to pull. We got about 50 cm before giving up and declaring it too difficult. A few moments later, now with two lorry tie-downs as harnesses we strapped ourselves in and gave it another shot. This time we were more successful, not turning too much but pulling straight seemed to be the key. We made it about half way up the car park slope before running slowly to a standstill. To our saviour came one of the guides by chance passing by. With her pushing from the back and us pulling up front we make it almost out the car park but ran a halt just as the slope gets steeper. She had a plan. She ran off to get her group to help pushing. Sure enough back she came with four young kids and their grandparents. We were now nine people in total and managed no problem to move the trailer out of the car park and down to our new home. This is just one example of how friendly and kind people have been to us here. Drenthe is an amazing place, why don’t they tell you that when you arrive in Holland, how come it took me more or less 12 years so long to get here.
Our new location is bounded by a small forest to the East and to the West. To the North is the heath and to the south the street. So I decided to draw the section of forest to the East looking from due East. Taking each tree one by one I plotted its location on a map I’d drawn, numbering each and noting the species. I then made a sketch of the tree focusing on the direction the branches were moving in. I’m not really sure why I decided to draw the trees. It was I suppose a way of getting to know our new location, of spending some time there. How to get to know a place is always an interesting question. Its not always easy, things get in the way, people get in the way, and you might get in your own way. I like to distract myself when trying to get to know somewhere. To keep busy, and somewhere, in those moments in between, or in spit of your activity somehow you arrive. You understand a place better. So what did I gain from drawing these trees. I certainly know more about the movement of branches in relation to the proximity of other trees. Most trees like us will spread themselves out if no one’s around to see it. But if they’re crowded they’ll stand tall and compact like I might stand on a busy metro train. Or you can see the way different species like to live tight beside each other in groupings, like the Bird cherries and Silver birches. I now know there are 90 trees in that small section of forest. Most of all though, it gave me time to breath.
Week four: care
We arrived on Wednesday morning to find some changes had happened while we were away. From a distance I could see the stair had broken over the weekend and someone had made a repair job. I later found out it was one of the concierges’ from the Hunehuis who’d spotted the problem and taken action. In fact, more and more I keep noticing slight changes, alterations, and additions to my studio. There was the small stick with ring notches carved into it placed neatly on the table. Or the two little slices of branch adorning the base of my newly constructed handrail. Or my favourite so far, the sprig of heather poking out of a woodworm hole in the section of Douglas bark I’d placed on the greenhouse floor. These miniature compositions, these additions: were they acts of ownership, did they imply their mysterious maker felt a part of what was going on? Were they pencil notes scribbled in the margins of this artwork? Perhaps, either way their practicality and lyricism certainly mirrors my own desire to engage with the site.
What’s becoming so clear now is how much the people passing by like to come and chat. This might not sound unusual, people like to talk, but lets not forget this is after all an art exhibition and I can say (as an artist having spent a lot of time hanging out in art exhibitions, my own or others,) that people generally don’t talk with you. In fact they might go out of their way not to talk to you. We all know that look, someone enters a space, and in that first flash of vision realises there’s something in there that’s either going to engage them in some sort of unwanted conversation or be excessively long. They turn away and hurry out being careful not to acknowledge they’d seen anything at all, as if they had just looked into a dead end. Not so here and that’s great. The audience is thirsty for conversation. Maybe it’s the sweltering heat and the length of their journey, or maybe its because there’s someone standing there saying hi to them. For sure this is rewarding to me though. Rewarding in that it feels like there’s an engagement with what I’m doing. Sometimes making art feels like shouting into a black hole, nothing comes back, no response, not even an echo and there’s nothing more frustrating. This summer has felt different.
One of the most striking things of this week though was the stink in the greenhouse when I arrived. You see I’d left an adder we’d found dead on the road over the weekend as part of a composition on the studio table. It’d been a hot weekend and the snake had started to rot. Its belly now split open, it pulsated with larvae, while flies frenzied around in a carcass. It was stunningly beautiful, but impossibly pungent. I picked up the paper upon which it laid and took it outside in the hope the smell would dissipate. It didn’t. After all the talk of burial in my plans leading up to this project this was to be my first burial on the Holtingerveld. It was rather un-ceremonial. I lifted the paper and snake to a nearby bomb crater surrounded by oaks. In the centre I dug a hole as best I could with a forked stick I’d grabbed on the way. The ground was soft; a dry matting of decomposing oak leaves. I placed the snake in the hole, covered over with soil and leaves and drove the forked stick vertically into the ground as some sort of marker. I decided not to photograph it.
This week and last I’ve been experimenting with laminating organic material from our surroundings: leaves in various states of growth and decay, moss, soil, sawdust etc. There’s a great pleasure in this device because of its speed. I’ve never been drawn to laminating something in the past but here it seemed only natural. Being outside we expected there would be a need to keep paper dry so in preparation for the project we bought a laminator. It’s like an instant fascination machine, everything it consumes is spat out in a rarefied and framed from. Slightly tacky or naive, because of their simplicity but here it’s precisely this quality that’s appealing to me.
I’d needed somewhere to display all of these lamented experiments so I created and exhibition architecture on the outside of the studio. A system to be able to hold them to the façade on a windy day. Constructed from fallen branches screwed to the window frames this new display system gives the studio a new, rather mystical, look.
Working outside I’m finding surprisingly rewarding, liberating even. Of course it’s not just working outside it is also the context. I’m given a freedom here, or perhaps to put it better, I’ve taken the freedom I was given. As an artist you’re always dealing with differing desires: your own ambitions of course, but also those of the organisers, the curators, the sponsors and not least the audience. I firmly believe it’s my role to sculpt the terms of this responsibility, to be a part of shaping the situation so to say. But you can’t make people listen, care or even take responsibility for their side of this bargain no matter how much you want to. So coming into this project I had no expectation of how this would unfold. Not having any expectation has liberated me from any form of anticipation and in so doing I feel its given me a new creative freedom. All projects should be like this.
There have not been many clouds in the sky this last month. It has not rained once. The grounds so dry the trees are shedding their leaves in an attempt to survive. Flowers and succulent plants have long since turned to straw. The sky is big here; a pulsating blue dome save for occasional wispy white cloud blowing by. The sky has been calling us; last week we built a simple diamond kite. It flew quite well; the kite reached up and expanded our realm above the branches. This week I decided to try to explore and inhabit this new space even further. I’d taken a tarpaulin with me in case it rained, but well it didn’t seem like that was going to happen any time soon, so I chose to repurpose it by sewing it into as large a box-kite as the fabric would allow. Which was well, quite large.
Repurposing things has become something of a thematic for me in this project and while taking a rest in my hammock the idea of creating a sort of hammock like sculpture came to me. Like with the tarpaulin I used for the kite I’d also brought a felt packing blanket with me. I’d been experimenting with this fabric all day you see. I’d made impromptu shelters and other collapsible structures; I was looking for a way of making something out of it. Following the form of the hammock I was resting in I began to sew this felt fabric into a similar shape. Now the sewing is complete I’m still in the process of figuring out what this object can become.
One of the reasons I think that I’ve felt so free working in the Holtingerveld so far has been that I’ve felt outside the circle of the professional art world. I know this isn’t strictly the case but somehow being out here between the branches and below the clouds I’ve felt secluded and protected. That illusion was shattered suddenly when two of the guides came and informed me that a art critic from a newspaper was going to be coming sometime over the next two days. Suddenly I started wondering when they would be coming? Would I be there at that moment? I’d better stick around just in case! What would I tell them? I wonder if they’ll write about me? Two days came and went with these questions circling in the sky above me; and still no sign of any journalist. I assumed they’d not come so far as to my work, and put these thoughts aside. Later I found out, when the article came out, that I’d actually met and spoken with the journalist at length a couple of days prior but she’d not told me she was writing an article. She didn’t mention my project in her text anyhow so I continue to pass under the radar. Still this whole episode suddenly brought the world of desire, ambition and expectation down on this landscape and made me realise that after all these worries are all in my head.