Montaigne

In our day and age it would be impossible to physically transport yourself to the 16th century, unlike in the Middle Ages when bilocation was still deemed possible. You may have found professor Barabas’ time machine quite useful. Otherwise a word of advice from Negro Kaballo, the horse from Erich Kästner’s De 35ste mei might be of use. I’ve also considered Hendrik Willem van Loon. As a boy I read his book, Pioniers der Vrijheid, where he receives visits from countless long dead historical figures at his home in Veere. But ultimately, I must to my dismay admit there is but one way— through the mind. This is how I first met Montaigne through his Essais, and it’s how I later found myself in conversation with him.

Portet van Michel de Montaigne

Michel de Montaigne’s library

Mister Montaigne, it is a great honour to be here in your extraordinary library and be granted the opportunity to exchange thoughts with you. My first question, if I may, concerns how you write. Do you have a method, and if so, could you describe this?

Dear sir! My arguments arrange themselves to but one order: coincidence. I record my thoughts just as they enter my mind. At times they appear in such great masses that they crowd one another, at other moments they siphon in one by one. I would like to show how it is in my nature to proceed, however unorganised it may seem. I express my thoughts in the same manner as they manifest. Luckily, the subjects I describe are of such a nature that it would not be unacceptable to speak of them while being essentially ignorant, or by speaking of them in superficial terms. There are certain things I’d like to understand better, but I’m not prepared to pay the price for such insight. I’ve decided to live my life on a pleasant note, avoiding exertion as much as possible. I wouldn’t break my head for the world, not even for science, however worthy it may be. All I expect from a book is for it to entertain me; and when it comes to studying, my sole desire is to know and understand myself and to how to live and die. This is the finish line for which I’ll allow my horse to break a sweat.

You write associatively, do you also read in that way?

When I’ve had enough of one book, I pick up another. I only start reading when doing absolutely nothing begins to bore me. Because I find the classics most rich and exciting, I hardly bother with modern works. I likewise avoid the Greeks because during my youth I learned too little of them to properly understand their literature. There are modern books that I find simply entertaining, like Boccaccio’s Decamerone, Rabelais and The Basia by Janus Secundus. If they belong to that category, they’re certainly worth the attention. The Amadis and similar writings couldn’t interest me, not even in my youth. It may sound audacious or arrogant, but I must admit that my old, slow mind is no longer stimulated by Ariosto, not even by the good Ovidius: his nonchalant, imaginative style that used to spellbind me can now hardly keep my attention.

But you quote many classics in your work. For example, Cicero comes up quite often.

Cicero! Now there’s somebody. I find his way of writing, and for that matter all similar styles, to be irritating. His forewords, explanations, planned formats, and idiomatic discourse take up the grander part of his work. The lively and essential is smothered under his endlessly fabricated sentences. When I’ve read him for an hour, which is a long time for me, I ask myself what I truly gleaned from it. I usually come to the conclusion that he’s merely blasted wind, and that he has yet to come to the arguments that support his plea, and hasn’t even touched upon the core of what interests me. Because I only hope to grow wiser, and not more eloquent or smart, his Aristotelian tricks of reasoning are not my interest.

I prefer for an author to begin with the essence. I’m perfectly acquainted with definitions of death and lust; there’s no need to dissect these terms for me. I long for a plea that immediately cuts into the core of the issue, but his constantly circumvents the essence. I’m not waiting for someone to grab me by the hair and, like a herald, declare “Listen carefully!’ fifty times over.

During their religious ceremonies the Romans said: Hoc age (pay attention), just as we say ‘Sursum cord’ (lift up your hearts) during mass. These words are absolutely redundant for me. Generally speaking, I long for books that supply knowledge, not those that blow air into knowledge. Seneca, Plutarch, Pilinius and their contemporaries do not make use of Hoc age; they want their readers to be on their qui-vive all by themselves.

So you actually find Cicero to be a bit of a nag.

Well. When it comes to Cicero, I share the common opinion that he did not have many exceptional qualities besides his knowledge: he was a good citizen, and kind-hearted like most fat and boisterous folk. But frankly, he was quite a big wimp and his ambition was an exercise in vanity. I can’t forgive him for believing his poetry decent enough for publishing. It’s one thing to write bad verse, but to be ignorant of the blemish that his poetry places upon his glorious name shows an utter lack of insight. But his eloquence is unparalleled. I doubt anyone will ever equal him in that respect.

Thank you for your answers. The future reader will surely have an understanding of how you read and write. Now I’d like to ask you a question concerning a wholly different matter, namely your thoughts on death. One of your statements on death is ‘philosophising is learning how to die’. Could you clarify this for me?

My apologies, but to answer you I must continue on the subject of Cicero. Cicero says that philosophising is nothing more than preparation for death. Study and contemplation, in a sense, detach the mind from one’s self and situates it outside of the carnal. This is a condition that is similar to death and within it embeds a lesson; all wisdom and human reasoning eventually teach us to not fear death. Death is inevitable. But, if we fear it, it becomes an on-going source of suffering for which no relief exists. We cannot escape it, regardless if we keep a constant watchful eye as though in enemy territory. Death perpetually hangs over us like the boulder of Tantalus.

So, the final destination is death. We must remain aware of this. But how can we, if we fear death, take one step without falling into a nervous stupor? Any man who hasn’t reached the age of Methusalem will believe he’ll survive another twenty years.

Horatius writes: ‘Take every day as your last. Then, each surplus hour will be a happy one.”

Yes, that’s true. We don’t know where death awaits us, let us expect him at every moment. Awareness of death is awareness of freedom. If you’ve learned to die, you’ve unlearned to be a slave. If you’re prepared for death, you’ve freed yourself from subjection and constraint.

I found Nothing when I was not looking for it

When I was a child, my father used to ask me “What are you thinking about?” . And when there was just a rush of thoughts, or nothing special, or something too embarrassing, I just said, “nothing”. To this he would also reply in a very sarcastic tone: “Nothing? How is that possible? Is your head totally empty? Is there a vacuum inside?” Of course that was not the case, and although I replied “Yes, kind of”, my head was always full of thoughts, but it was an easy way to end this awkward conversation.

Void particles

Then, when I became a teenager, my head got filled with too many thoughts, so I started to think about cleaning it up, and I came across the Buddhist philosophies. According to these, the goal of life is to get rid of these thoughts, get rid of the Ego, and be one with the “nothing”. This would be the key to end the suffering of daily life. This is called “Nirvana”. In fact, I tried very hard, but apparently this was the key to not succeed, because the more you want the nothing, the less you get there. And actually I never experienced or saw nothing until I reached the point when I didn’t want or expect it to happen. I did not even realise it was happening, it was just there. And it was there in several forms.

Last year I was working in fashion retail. Sometimes I had to watch the top floor of the store, and greet all the people coming up. As greeting is a starting point of the communication, I had to look into the face of every customer. I believe, when you look into someone’s face, you can normally see what is inside. And there it was: nothing. It is hard to describe, although I tried to explain it to myself so many times, that I could really see that emptiness, that vacuum, or not even that. Just nothing. No expressions, no real goals, no sign or inner processes, but also no sign of interpreting the information of the surroundings. It was there. At this time I always asked myself, what could have possibly happened on the floors under me that washed away the content of their cranium so efficiently. And I was also wondering if it could happen to me as well, me, who spends more hours in that building than any of them.

Dawn of the Dead, 1978

Zombies in the shopping mall

And yes. Afterwards I went home, and I was sitting on the couch, staring at the wall in front of me, and there was nothing inside. Nothing to say, nothing to feel, no urge to eat or do something, but no thoughts either. It was even more shocking that I often tried to think, and I could not. I just could not grab an idea and stick to it, because it floated away, like when someone tries to grasp the water in a river. So this was the state the Buddhists wanted to reach? This is annoying! Actually there was still something that is not perfectly nothing, namely the longing for something, the willingness to do, to think, to be. The last cry-for-helps of the ego, who was not ready to disappear, but not cared about enough to function in a meaningful way.

The Value of Void, Navid Nuur

Luckily this period ended before any tragic consequences could have happened. Now, as a fresh art student, I was free to think again, and do, and create. And then it really happened. I was travelling across Europe in a bus. During all the days of the journey I was overwhelmed by impressions, I was realising how many opportunities there are, how many artists there are to learn about, how many ways exist to place letters on a sheet of paper, how many relationships… On the last day I was extremely tired. I was walking around an unknown city for days, I was drinking too much beer, smoking too many cigarettes, and had not really slept. Instead of sleeping this night we decided to travel back. I decided to lay down on the floor between the chairs and try to sleep. It failed. As it was useless to complain about it, I started to accept the situation, just as I accepted the dirt around myself, the chewing gum stuck into my stockings, the random objects falling on my head… As I was lying there, I realised that my feelings and memories were vanishing away, and I welcomed the open emptiness in their place. I stopped thinking. My motivations and intentions were no longer there. I did not want. I did not want to sleep or eat anymore, but I also did not want to not sleep or not eat.

The Neverending Story, The Nothing

Just the same was true for everything. I did not think, and I did not want to think, thoughts just “were”. My ego was gone. It stopped working. There was the “nothing”. The nothing inside me, lying on the bus floor, among the falling-down jackets, scarves, cigarettes and who knows what else, staring at the cloudy sky or a science fiction movie, feeling the waviness of the German highway in my whole body. There was an unexpected, inglorious moment of Nirvana.

Pietas

27.05.2015 BY EDITORIAL STAFF/ REDACTIE

A pieta (from the Italian word ‘pieta’, meaning ‘compassion’) is an image of Mary grieving the deceased Jesus Christ. A desperate mother cradling her murdered son. The image remains recurrant in art today. We made a selection of images that we found particularly striking:

South West Pieta (Arizona)
vroege 14e eeuwse Pieta uit Duitsland
Venetie, op straat
Joseph Beuys, Pieta, 1952, steel relief with black patina
Stephan Balkenhol
Matthew Day Jackson
Jacques Frenken
Erzsébet Baerveldt: Pietà, 1992.
Jan Fabre

Silent Witnesses

The Stasimuseum in Berlin is full of silent witnesses that give the viewer a glimpse of the doings of the former Ministerium für Staatssicherheit of the DDR. From the piece of cloth on which citizens were forced to record the scent of their sweaty hands, to the jacket button that doubled as the control switch for a hidden camera, to the rock containing listening devices to be placed behind park benches.

These are the familiar objects that testify to a bygone time, or like a crime scene, provide evidence for the true story of an unsolved riddle.

Initially, these veritable silent witnesses seem to be props for the permanent exhibition. For decades they’ve been quiet and unobtrusive and their secrets only gradually penetrate consciousness. But if they could talk, their stories would likely reveal more than many a speaking witness.

What intimate conversations did the mother-in-law’s tongues on Minister Erich Mielkes’ secretary’s desk listen in on? And how many silent reproaches have the sansevierias at the entrance to his office endured? The green ensemble in the boardroom, how many strategic decisions has it felt disgusted by? Approved by? And what do the three dracaenas make of their transfer from the once peaceful bedroom to the bustle of the exhibition space where guides and visitors create their own stories?

One can tell from their stature, species, and the vessels that hold them that they are, indeed, well into old age. Sometimes their leaves still rustle from everything they’ve seen and heard. But even now, in their new place within the museum, having moved from room to room many times, their testimony grows greater yet.

Disappearance Holes

“Squat down with both feet pressed together so that the current will not be able to travel up one leg and down the other,” Frank Lane, who I’ve just encountered within the vast terrain of Google, a landscape in which I often gladly immerse myself. He continues, “the deadliest lightning bolt enters through the head and finds its way to the ground via the heart.” I look at the image of a man holding flag a pole struck by lightning and see a star shaped scorch mark. The imprint on the grassy lawn looks like a jagged chalk drawing of veins branching out. Lane compiled the book, The Elements of Rage, and like me, is fascinated with nature’s violence. I read about cloud formations, turbulent dust storms, and whirlwinds: when a tornado is at the brink of settling down, it will often form a long, slender, thread-like cloud travelling horizontally, writhing onwards until it eventually dissipates.”

Was it W.G. Sebald who advised the budding writer to observe the weather and describe it in detail, preferably every day, as an exercise in perception? As a means to get a grip on the atmosphere of a narrative? I glide into the next page describing the processes that create lightning, “perhaps the most peculiar is ball lightning, a fiery sphere of light outlined by a hazy contour, that follows an erratic and slow path through the skies. It typically causes no damage, not by electric shock nor through heat. But it is typically unpredictable and can disappear as swiftly as it appears.”

The forces of nature as the fierce creator of volatile, elusive sculptures that leave no one untouched. Her works disturb, seduce, are never vain, lazy, or frightened. When necessary she will destroy everything, including her own oeuvre, to make way for a rigorous transformation that will changes the status quo.

In the meantime, I move through unfamiliar territory. In the corner of my eye, I catch sight of a video titled Mother Earth Network, Mysterious Holes. When I open the fragment, I see a woman seated at a rickety kitchen table in Guatemala city. She introduces herself as Inocenta Hernandez. Two TV journalists lean against her refrigerator. They ask her what exactly happened that night, there, under her bed. And did she knew she was living on the brink of a precipice?

Inocenta begins to tell her story: ‘There was a loud bang that awoke the whole street. People were walking around in their pyjamas in shock. Street dogs were growling. A boy was crying, he was naked. We thought it was a gas explosion at my place. I looked around my entire house but could find nothing unusual. When it was almost morning, I fell asleep feeling exhausted. The sun had already passed over the living room when I woke up. I stood up and spotted a shadow I’d never seen before, creeping out from underneath the bed. When I pushed the dresser aside, I thought my heart would stop: there it was! Oh, mother, mother! You nearly had me, you nearly swallowed me whole!”

Slowly, the camera pans away from her, and I follow the reporter to the bedroom where he’s confronted by a hole of approximately one metre wide and twelve metres deep. The man casts an intense gaze towards me and assures me that the inhabitant is incredibly lucky to not have tumbled into the gash torn into the ground. The fathomless hole is filmed. I see nothing, he continues to speak. “The city is plagued by spontaneous depressions in the landscape. These geological phenomena, also known as sinkholes, black holes, and disappearance holes result from natural erosion, which can occur gradually but can also happen abruptly and out of nowhere. Guatemala City, built on volcanic deposits, suffers from leaking sewers and heavy rainfall, making it prone to ruptures. During a short period of time, three-story buildings, homes, trucks, flower stalls, and people have disappeared from our streets without warning swallowed by the shuddering earth.”

I now stumble upon sink hole stories everywhere and examine them:

Swallowing houses, cars and people

Drama as bus sinks into crater

America’s most notorious sinkholes

Seoul couple disappears in freak hole

Sinking fast

Horse vanished down under
Ticking time bomb under N.M. Town

Girls fall into sidewalk

The house just fell through

It’s a dangerous world out there, and I just can’t get enough. Another one, then. In the swamps of the Bayou Corne in Louisiana I’m witness to a number of scraggly old cypress trees being swallowed by an underground lake at Peigneur. I follow them until I see their tree tops slowly disappear into the water. These slowly falling trees move me. The destructive power of the sink hole elicits a surreal sense of delight. They remind me of the possibility of spontaneously falling into darkness. That the ground that I walk upon is of a capricious nature. ’There’s no solid ground’, artist Louwrien Wijers told me recently when I asked her about the importance of mobility: “We have to learn to live with groundlessness.” Stay dangerous, elements, keeping hitting your head and find your way to the ground via the heart

God’s buttocks

27.02,2014 BY RICHTJE REINSMA

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.

http://www.lucyindelucht.nl/andere-kijk/columns-van-richtje/de-billen-van-god

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

08.10,2013 –by LIEUWE VOS & WILLEMIEN VAN DUIJN
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

Monster In Your Closet

23.07,2014 –by Jeroen van der Hulst

I recently read a news article critical on the way social media is used by the public after disasters occur. It questioned whether sharing intimate tweets and photos originally posted by victims of a disaster on online social media platforms expresses genuine sympathy or is merely an act of voyeurism.

It was in response to the social media activity following disasters such as the Boston bombings of 2013 or the recent tragedy of flight MH17 in the Ukraine. In both cases graphic and intimate images and messages regarding victims emerged online and were shared en masse by the public without any accountability. Although the article’s main question seems to describe an activity that can be justifiably criticized, the piece ended with a disappointing conclusion, stating: “the line between sympathy and voyeurism appears to be wafer thin.”

The problem with openly sharing photos, information, assumptions, etcetera on social media platforms isn’t necessarily that others will turn out to be misinformed – although this is still a legitimate point to make. Arguably, sharing the photo of a ‘Syrian boy’ in between his ‘dead parents’ as an illustration of the horrors resulting from the civil battle in Syria could have had a benefit. Though erroneous, when that image spread it got a reaction from the West that no longer could ignore the atrocities in Syria. The fact that the boy in question was neither Syrian nor actually orphaned (it was a Saudi boy posing for a photograph by Abdul Aziz al Otaibi) didn’t take away the fact that many Syrian children are suffering. What does this newly found awareness from Western citizens really mean? It doesn’t mean anything to the Syrians – the conflict is still raging – so does it mean anything to us?

This brings me to a different side of the story; the moment that the West is hit by catastophe. After the disastrous turn of events surrounding Malaysia Air flight MH17, social media outlets flooded with horrific images of clothing, airplane parts, and bodies strewn across a flowery field. Images of the contents of ripped open luggage. Images of stuffed animals. It appears that disasters do have the effect of luring many into the realm of voyeurism. This voyeurism isn’t a pleasurable gaze into the private space of another, but its fantasmatic, internalized counterpart.

I would like to argue that so many of us in the West live in relative safety, freedom, and prosperity that it becomes increasingly difficult to identify with people affected by disasters and suffering around the world. Let me take the example of stories of monsters told to children. The older children or adults tell stories of monsters and ghosts coming to haunt you in the night. As the stories pile up you have yet to encounter your first sighting. One evening you are in bed and the pile of clothes on the chair in your room appears as a silhouette of the monster you have created in your mind. This is the type of fantasy at play. Not a yearning for the monster to be real but knowing that it, in a sense, is real without knowing what it looks like and having the need to define the monster. Seeing the monster, acknowledging it, in this way becomes a subversive duty defying the reality that there is no monster for you to see.

Sharing graphic images and messages online can express a genuine (but perhaps misplaced) feeling of sympathy. However, more likely they express a need to free oneself from the burden of living in safety and not having a real idea of what disaster and collective suffering really are. We constantly hear ghost stories so our duty becomes to seek out what our nightmares look like. In order to try and grasp the feelings of those affected by the tragedy, onlookers share intimate tweets from victims, photos of the disaster area, speculate about culprits, etc.

This digging into the world around a disaster happens immediately after the first glimmers of the news are out there. The online presence of victims or possible culprits is excavated and spread (note the circulation of false accusations directed at innocent people regarding the Boston bombings). But all of this happens in the name of sympathy for those affected. In this way the wafer thin line between sympathy and voyeurism doesn’t need to exist; sympathy requires voyeurism.

Let’s be clear; this is not a polemic engaged in a struggle to dismiss genuine grief. It is to try and show the duality in trying to remedy those suffering by freely spreading images and accounts of suffering. The harmful aspect is that this act of sharing replaces the moment of reflection immediately with a moment of activity, or rather pseudo-activity, an act that merely serves the status quo, or as Theodor Adorno put it: (..) Pseudo-activity; action that overdoes and aggravates itself for the sake of its own publicity, without admitting to itself to what extent it serves as a substitute satisfaction, elevating itself into an end in itself.

The act of sharing horrific images means, “look at these atrocities! Share if you care! I care!” Implicitly leaving anybody who doesn’t share as though they don’t care. This is the pseudo-activity within burden of collective suffering; the act overdoes itself and aggravates its intention (that of offering support to victims and affected families by ‘raising awareness’). It doesn’t show support to grieving families of victims but a need to partake in their suffering – sympathy comes from the Greek words syn meaning “together” and pathos meaning “feeling”, and pity derives from piety, which comes from the Latin pietas meaning “dutifulness.”

The burden of our position of relative safety in comparison to those in grief requires us to define suffering the moment we encounter it. This implicitly makes collective suffering a duty. However, to “feel together” becomes an impossibility almost if you are not directly affected by such a tragedy. There is no line between voyeurism and sympathy. The latter depends on the former. Perhaps instead of relentlessly confirming and repeating the stories of monsters one should silently provide a flashlight for those hiding under duvet, petrified for what might happen during the night.