God’s buttocks


Soft, pale pink, and firm. God’s buttocks are glorious. How could they not be, this is God we’re talking about! They were revealed to me in Verborgen musea – Erotische kunst by Peter Woditsch (2008), a documentary about secret erotic art collections. In the film, professor Charles Méla speaks of the divine behind painted by Michelangelo in the fifteenth century in the Sistine Chapel. Approximately four million people view this behind every year. How did Michelangelo dare? Did the patron Pope Sixtus IV simply not notice it, did he tolerate it in the name of artistic freedom, or was he well aware and appreciated it as a gag? In all nonchalance, Michelangelo casually reveals the creator’s butt. It’s almost as though they wound up on the painting by accident, like in a snapshot taken where God, after creating the sun and the moon and the elements, spins around abruptly so that a flash of buttocks is seen through the fluttering of his robes.

It’s almost unbelievable to think that in the heart of Vatican City, Michelangelo’s God has been floating in this compromising position above the heads of robed clergymen and the tourists who are required by the pope to cover their shoulders and knees. Funnily enough, I noticed nothing when standing under Michelangelo’s fresco as a schoolgirl years ago. If a tour guide had pointed and said, ‘Look, God’s butt!’ I would probably have found this a very extraordinary view, but on my own and without the help of language, I completely overlooked it. I saw what I expected to see: pious art.

Thanks to Peter Wotisch’s documentary, I now know that the Vatican possesses one of the largest collections of pornography in the world. When the invention of the printing press spurred an influx of sinful and blasphemous texts and illustrations, the Catholic Church began the Index Librorium Prohibitorium: a list of forbidden books, in an attempt to temper these abominable publications. In order to know what to forbid, the Church carefully kept track of what arrived on the market. The Index-collection is unfortunately not open to the public, but artist and collector Jean-Jacques Lebel was once allowed a peak into it. He saw shelves full of male genitals, taken from classical sculptures bought by art-loving popes. Before being placed in the halls of the Vatican, the penises were removed, neatly labeled and stored away. The castration wounds were covered with marble fig leaves. At first, the thought of these genitals stored away made me giddy, but now that the forced castration of Henk Heithuis has been revealed, it seems there’s not that much to laugh about.

Other museums manage their pagan erotic art in a different manner. In Villa Borghese in Rome, for example, there’s a sculpture of a hermaphrodite sleeping on his or her side. The side on which both breasts and penis are visible is faced towards the wall. The unknowing visitor sees only the back, and remains impervious to its dual gender. If I think back to my youthful disinterest, I’d almost think that Villa Borghese could have saved itself the effort of rotating the sculpture.

Jean Michel Traimond, guide at the Louvre and at the Musée d’Orsay in Parijs, often notices that people seem oblivious to what they’re really looking at. If it were up to him, it would stay that way, because young women, children, and prudes should not be confronted with sex in the museum. One of his examples of such a sinful work is a centaur embracing Bacchante by the Swedish sculptor, Sergel. On one side, the centaur holds the arm of a priestess, but you’ll see that the other hand is laid on her behind with one finger stroking her anus, the other one touching her vagina. According to Jean Michel Traimond, most museum visitors never notice this, because they perceive the museum as a venerable institution with no room for primitive urges.

‘Art is for the bourgeoisie, a delight for the elite. It’s unthinkable to the greater public that something as ‘low’ as erotica could also be considered art.’

The longer you think about it, the stranger it becomes: the only ones who behave in the museum are the visitors, the sculptures themselves are stiff with sex and violence. I think I’ll go to the Rijksmuseum and the Allard Piersson soon, I’m curious what I’ll see now that my eyes are finally open.

With thanks to Lucy, roaming art platform.


How We Experience Reality

12.04,2015 –by GIJS FRIELING

It is quite a recent thought that there is an objective distinction between the visible and the invisible. Whether one were to assert either that invisible things do not exist or that there is more between heaven and earth than can be perceived with the senses, in both cases it is presupposed that the visible has a certain objective limit behind which there either is or isn’t something.

Like in so many other areas, when it comes to the boundaries of sense perception most people seem content to hold several contrary beliefs. The general conviction that the world “behind our senses” consists of electromagnetic waves and the smallest of particles (ask around to convince yourself of this) does not prevent them from claiming with emphasis that we should only believe in “that which we can see with our eyes and touch with our hands.”

It is relatively simple to ascertain that all our knowledge of the world, including the most advanced natural scientific knowledge, is a product of both our perceptions and actions. The enormous conceptual step that we take in the cradle when we realise that some of the things floating in sight are our own hands, is retaken every time we understand something for the first time- albeit at a much smaller and less awe-inspiring scale. Our belief that the existence of our hands is an objective fact is the product of a very precise fine-tuning between several perceptions and the combining force of the mind. For those who then consider their hands as the ultimate instrument to verify the world’s reality (to the extent that it is tangible), it might well be advisable to realise that there has been a moment when their minds composed their own hands from a confusing multitude of impressions.

When my daughter Julia was four years old she found a small compass in a desk drawer; she attached a string to it, wore it like a necklace and looked at it all the time. My father came to visit and complimented her on the beautiful compass. With a dignified air she said: “No grandfather, that is my alarm clock. How silly, this afternoon the shopkeeper also thought it was a compass.” I realised that for a four-year-old, for whom hours and cardinal directions are hardly well known quantities, the difference between a compass and an alarm clock is not relevant. They are both round objects with a little clocklike face behind glass. The adult who corrects such a ‘mistake’ without being willing to explain the concepts of time, the four directions of the wind, magnetism, elasticity etc., has been led astray from the path of pedagogy. (In fact, it is not a correction but instead an innocent compliment.)

For a child, concepts and words are set apart by immeasurably vast blanks in the universe of impressions. On the best television show I know, Achterwerk in de Kast (Buttocks in the Closet), once a boy appeared who explained gloomily: “I find that life becomes increasingly complex: I used to think that the wind just blows, but now it turns out that the wind always blows from a high-pressure area to a low-pressure area.” This boy is one among many individuals whose personal and adventurous relation to knowledge ends in school. The tragedy consists in the teacher’s inability to convey the immensity of he high-pressure to the student, probably because he doesn’t sense it either. The term ‘high-pressure area’ is not introduced at this point to open the door to an endless amount of new observations, but to erect a wall that effectively renders inaccessible the mysterious cause of the wind, of which every child naturally feels the global might.

Air pressure is a phenomenon for which we can educate and refine our observations. Semiconsciously, we perceive the way in which air pressure (and its connectedness to the temperature and humidity of the air) affects our bodily sensations and our general mood. If at school we would be taught, using a combination of theory and practice, how there is a direct correlation between these subtle air pressure differences on the one hand, and the pressure in the higher atmosphere causing wind to gather there amounting to hurricane force, on the other- well, this knowledge would not make us glum or disillusioned.

Our concepts form a network that, in proportion to the intricacy of its meshwork, is able to capture impressions in our consciousness; the rest slips through. But just as much as it is impossible to maintain an impression in the conscious mind without a certain degree of understanding, it is likewise impossible for a word or concept to be remembered if it does not become perceptible in one way or another. If this simple axiom of knowledge is overlooked, it leads to the erratic and depressing notion that our capacity for sense perception, or our thought, or both, are bound by an external limit. Our conceptual network has a horizon, just like our sense perceptions, and the two are interconnected. New impressions can only cling on to the fringe of our already-understood experiences; new concepts can only start off where existing ones had left off. To assert that behind these horizons, there is nothing, is about as short-sighted as the claim that what exists beyond them is the only true reality.

There is a vital connection between the fineness of our conceptual mesh and the precision of our observations. A good car mechanic can tell by the sound of a running engine what the matter is. That is not because he has better ears that the rest of us, but because his profession has provided him with a most distinguished insight in the parts, materials, movements, frictions and potential defects of a car engine. A chef is able to taste which ingredients are used in a certain dish, his “educated taste” consists of the amount of terms that during his career, he has learnt to employ to distinguish between all the nuances picked up by his nose and taste buds. Concepts cut up experience, which had at first instance seemed like a unity. Concepts bring to the surface what had been hidden in the depths of perception. Coarse concepts keep perception imprisoned in dark, dough-like creases, whereas real knowledge unfolds perception to form a great, illuminated plane.

Art can make the experimental treatment of knowledge as practised by children urgent once more. When it comes to art, the aim is not to make something that is ‘true’ but rather something that looks convincing, which means that we play a cunning game with the regularities of the perceptible that has a twofold effect on the viewer: on the one hand he must be taken in by what he sees; on the other, he must remain continuously aware of the artificiality of the situation. The tension between the surrender to the senses and the feeling of complicity in the game is the liberating and consoling power of art.

In the human consciousness, a rift emerges between the world and ourselves. In our thought, we then mend this split in an ongoing process in which new observations and new names are woven together more and more closely. The liveliness of thought is of importance. Perception and thought, or the process of truth, provide independence and liberty.

Under the Rug (everything as it should be)

24.08,2014 –by HANAE WILKE

Helene Kröller-Müller, born into a prosperous industrialist family and Anton Kröller, a shipping and mining tycoon, were one of the wealthiest couples of their era in The Netherlands. Not only was Helene Kröller-Müller one of the first European women to amass a major art collection, she was also one of the first to recognise Vincent van Gogh’s talent, ultimately purchasing 90 of his paintings. Spearheaded by Helene Kröller-Müller, the couple set out to build a hunting lodge, the Jachthuis Sint-Hubertus— an enormous villa jutting out from the centre of the vast Dutch national park, the Veluwe.

Mrs. Kröller-Müller herself, as depicted in her study room.

Between 1914 and 1920, the build of the Jachthuis became one of Helene’s main attentions. She recruited the immensely successful architect now considered one of the fathers of Dutch modern architecture, H.P. Berlage, in an exclusive contract that bound him to the Jachthuis as his sole project. It proved an unparalleled endeavour for Berlage and he was set to design both building and interior, furnishings included, to the utmost detail.

Berlage’s motto, ‘unity in diversity’, was materialised through the Jachthuis: floors, ceilings, and walls were covered in triple glazed brick in red, yellow, blue, white, crème, green, and black. True to Berlage, many of the steel I-beams were left bare, although swathed in colour. The Jachthuis, its floor plan shaped like the antlers of a deer, exemplified a world of modern splendour.

Staircase at the entry

The lodge was spared no luxury, and many of its features were a rarity in its days: electricity, a central heating system, warm water (although not in the servants’ quarters), and even a central vacuum system were installed. The tower overlooking the forests and heaths was fitted with an especially spectacular feature, the country’s first elevator. Once again, the servants were exempted from such luxury, and instead, climbed the many stairs to serve their patrons their tea.

The I-beams, visible and painted red.

Helene, being accustomed to a world of affluence, was not familiar with being denied her wishes. Inevitably, the design and build of the Jachthuis became a perpetual tug of war between Helene and Berlage. Once the foundations had been dug, she changed her mind and demanded to start over in a more favourable location on the plot. Although Berlage was presented with the extraordinary opportunity of a seemingly endless source of funds to create what was, in essence, a great gesamtkunstwerk, the strain of Helene’s fickle nature proved too much, and he walked away before the build was complete.

From each lamp, to each door made from rich, dark tropical hardwood nowadays too precious to consider, to every chair (those in the ladies room lowered to fit Helene’s petite frame) to the clocks, and even to the cigar humidifying cabinet—all were built in the vision of Berlage. Many of these objects in the Jachthuis attest to Berlage’s meticulous design, from the bronze sculptures bolted in place never to be relocated, to the legs of the furniture that fit perfectly over the square geometric floor tiles.

The legs of the cabinet fit perfectly over the tiles.

But nothing is as indicative as what one finds when lifting a corner of the dining room carpet. There, on top of the deep jade coloured glass floor tiles lies a thick red rug underneath which nothing but bare concrete is exposed. A bid to reduce costs? No, money was never an issue. The decision to keep the naked concrete, its banality dully contrasting with the luxury of its surroundings, was of a purely functional nature, a small gesture to ensure that everything stayed precisely as it should be, never straying from what Berlage envisioned. After all, you can’t quite move the rug if that’s where the tiles stop.

Lift the rug to reveal the concrete!

Abandoned Cities

abandoned settlements of Antarctica

There are few abandoned places in our crowded, fully designed and predetermined country. The Dutch, after all, are very fond of tidying up. Usually, a property will be torn down or repurposed before it even has the chance to fall into disrepair. But many large parts of The Netherlands are dealing with shrinking populations. As a result, the quality of life in many villages is under pressure because amenities such as schools, community centres, and supermarkets are disappearing.

Abandoned cities, Yangtze river

However, the emptying of villages hasn’t yet had the ultimate of extreme results: the total vacancy of villages and neighbourhoods. And although places like Delfzijl and Heerlen are dealing with a decline in population, it’s probably not an irreversible process as of yet.

Abandoned cities, Plymouth

For many places outside of The Netherlands it’s too late, they’ve been abandoned.

Like many other architects, we love to stroll around both new and familiar cities and villages, on the lookout for inspirational spots. Often, these places are deserted by people.A place that was once inhabited, but now left behind, is fascinating. You find yourself somewhere no one lives anymore, but where the presence of habitation is still to be sensed, and where the promise of what may come triggers the imagination. You’ll find yourself in the present, the past, and the future all at once.

Abandoned cities

Our interest in collecting abandoned places was sparked by seeing Spelling Dystopia, a video work by Nina Fischer and Maroan El Sani. Spelling Dystopia econmpassed that feeling of being in three time zones at once. Images of an island completely deserted, but at the same time full of buildings, are interjected with images from videogames: Hashima. This fascinating island that, surprisingly, actually exists has recently become well known as the Bond villain Roaul da Silva’s headquarters in the film Skyfall.

abandoned settlements of Antarctica

The abandoned places we collect are often photogenic, but their background stories are usually anything but pretty. At times the stories backing these desolate places are more intriguing than the visual image of their forsaken nature. For some places, human failure is why inhabitants have been forced to bid their homes farewell, for others it’s the uncontrollable hand of nature. Many times, greed and apathy are the cause. Man came, saw, used, and discarded.

Ghosts towns Eurasia

Among the abandoned cities and territories we’ve mapped are many regions where mineral resources were extracted. But after resources are spent, work opportunities decline, and inhabitants move away. Like in the Kolmanskop in the immense Namib Desert where there was an immense diamond rush in the previous century. According to the tales, those in search of fortune would scan the desert sands by moonlight. In this place the Germans built Kolmanskop, equipped with every possible comfort: luxury in the middle of the desert. But as fewer diamonds were found, fortune seekers went elsewhere to find their luck and Kolmansdorp was left behind. Those who visit the village now will find the old villas, covered in metres of sand.

While a forsaken, once inhabited place is interesting, an abandoned but never inhabited place might be even more fascinating. In China, hundreds of new cities are built to house migrants that make their way from the country to the city. The problem with this lies in the fact that these houses are usually too expensive for the migrants. The middle class buys these properties as investment pieces, without actually living in them. Everything is brand new here: new roads, buildings, a city park including a bright and shiny new museum. Traffic lights that jump colours while there’s no one to partake in traffic.

Abandoned cities, Plymouth

One of the abandoned places included in our publication is the Maunsell Forts. These forts are abandoned due to the lack of a threat of war. Not a village, not a city but a collection of platforms that housed enough troops to be considered a village. All but one of these platforms have been abandoned and delivered to the elements. To destroy them would be costly, and moreover, the platforms are part of history. It’s that one inhabited platform that, once again, fuels the imagination. Former radio pirate, the late Paddy Roy Bates and his wife, took residence on one of the platforms, declaring it the Principality of Sealand. His son, Prince Michael, now rules over the smallest, unrecognised European state presiding over no more than five souls but that nevertheless issues its own passports, stamps, coins, and even has its own football team. Adaptive reuse at its finest.

The Principality of Sealand

Abandoned Cities is the result of our archiving until now. We’ll continue by mapping the places we’ve encountered on the globe and by adding information to the places we’ve already marked. The next step is the actual research. Categorising the locations, finding similarities and differences, discerning possibilities and threats. Formulating the parameters for villages and cities full of vitality. Locating places where the tide could still turn through urban design or architectonic interventions. But also to see shrinkage and the accompanying vacancy as a serious but likewise valuable element to the constructed environment.

Chernobyl plant
San Zhi Abandoned cities