A short talk given at the opening of the exhibition of the works of Cora Jongsma and Arjen Boerstra at the Nieuwland Erfgoedcentrum in Lelystad.
Walking, Swimming, Wading Flevoland
Thank you for inviting me to give an introduction to the work of Arjen and Cora. Although I cannot say that I know the work of both artists particularly well I do sense an affinity with what at first glance may seem incongruous and strange activities; the making of maps with the wool of sheep on the one hand (the work of an alchemist) and on the other obtaining an overview of the landscape through making oneself lightweight with the help of mechanical air craft (the work of the pioneer). Both are, in their own way, very particular ways of perceiving the landscape.
My subject is the perception of landscape. It shall be not so much a direct reflection of the
work of the two artists here on show, but more an abstract reflection giving some insights
into ways in which various means are employed to investigate our surroundings, paying
particular attention to the polder landscape of Flevoland. The subject of ways in which we
perceive the landscape has been covered and reflected upon by many artists through
many hundreds of years, if we take for example the tradition of landscape painting, and
thousands of years, if we take the tradition of cave painting and primitive stone sculpture
making. There are of course many ways to look at things. Swimming also can be a way of
perceiving landscape. Roger Deakin explored the waters of the British Isles undertaking
many swims and cold dips, with and without a wet suit, sensing the landscape through his
skin from within the body of water, eye to eye with waterfowl, reed and mud.
Indeed much inspiration of landscape comes from simply being in and of the landscape.
For me this most often is done by walking. Making walks, paths, traces and tracks. This I
share with many nature writers one of whom is Robert Macfarlane. In his book ‘The Old
Ways’ he writes of a poem written by another nature writer and walker, Edward Thomas.
Thomas is remembered as a pastoralist or rural dreamer but he was much more than this,
a nature writer and profoundly modern one. Thomas was obsessed by how we are
‘affirmed and scattered by’ ‘how we are consoled and troubled by’ the landscape through
which we move and the places in which we live.
The hidden subject of both Thomas’s and Macfarlane’s writings is the relation between
movement and place. The subject is unmistakeable to experience, but very difficult to
articulate and describe. The relation is best illustrated by story and example rather than by
analysis. Macfarlane is writing about no less than the relation between landscape and the
human heart. In writing about Thomas he is also sharing his own interests in the ways in
which, as he says ‘our minds and moods, our imaginations, our identities are influenced by
the textures and the weathers and the forms of the slopes and the curves of creatures
remembered and actual of the places we inhabit.’ He is interested in ‘the way in which our
feel of the world influences our feeling for the world’. Sensing the landscape by walking it
shapes the way we feel for the world.
This is all in stark contrast to an older, one could say, colonial language often associated
with describing our, the human, relationship to landscape. We talk of ‘framing’ the
landscape as is done when making a painting of the landscape, when building a window
into the wall of a house to ‘capture’ a view; to look out and ‘capture’ the landscape with our
eye, or in the great act of making polders or land ‘reclamation’ and cutting into the former
bed of the lake to make ditches, where land is ‘claimed’ . When framing, there is a
tendency to talk in terms of claiming and ownership and possession.
These are terms that I try not to use when describing my own perception of landscape. As
the musician John Cage puts it ‘There is poetry as soon as we realize we possess
nothing’. I do not mean to say that it is wrong to frame landscapes nor that when we make
and use maps, we somehow confuse tracing on the map with our finger the path taken,
with the actual experience of walking in and of the landscape. It is more that if we put to
one side the ‘claiming’ instinct then other heartfelt relations with landscape may emerge.
Macfarlane describes how Thomas began to see his own feelings, his inner landscape if
you like, in topographic terms. He talked about possessing paths, corners and junctions,
valleys and woods, and his poems and prose are filled with landscapes, psychological
landscapes. So he internalized the features of the landscapes that he lived in and loved
and he used this to map out his feelings, his emotions and his hopes. We might say that
Thomas didn’t think about landscapes, he didn’t think only on landscape, he thought in it
and he thought with it.
Have we not all been significantly shaped by landscape when our moods, feelings and
emotions are configured by our surroundings in ways that are hard to speak about but
powerful to experience? Have these not also been more often when in motion, when
passing through landscape?
Carry van Bruggen puts it beautifully when she describes in a poem ‘En heb je dat ook,
plekken waar je langs kwam, je gedachten voor je bewaren?’
It is ideas like these that inspire me to walk and to study landscapes. It is in these words of
Carry that both the ‘langs gaan’ the passage and movement are married with the ‘plekken’,
the places which we pass.
When thinking of Flevoland, the first thoughts that spring to mind for me are the deer that
swam across from the Veluwe to leave their first footprints on the newly reclaimed land.
What did the deer see and apprehend when encountering a very young and no doubt
somewhat muddy ground? There is something very essential about a landscape that has
been born by the hand of engineering, the controlling human hand when it is crossed with
the unintended and unexpected. When, in the beginning years of the birth of Flevoland
when the trees were planted, could the planners have anticipated that the trees would be
sensed and found by the deer in their great risky trek across the Randmeer?
I think too of the flat-bottomed inflatable boats used by land surveyors to cross the vast
muddy stretches of seemingly endless mud, by a system of winches pulled by tractor
engine or other mobile power source of the day, across the still wet polder before the
drainage ditches had been dug. These temporary vessels highly adapted to their
circumstance were essential in the making of the later polders. They were half way
between vessels that floated and vessels that were dragged; between a thing that is held
in the grip of the mud and in need of pulling out and a thing that can slide and slip its way
across and on top of the ground. These too also left traces, the first markings like the deer
on the still wet muddy ground that was once the bed of a lake.
When thinking of these very light temporary markings and traces I begin to see not only
the first footprints but all the temporary phenomena that goes in describing a landscape
and how we perceive it. Think of the endless to-ing and fro-ing of cars and trains, bikes
and buses, tractors and so on, of all the endless often daily cyclical movements of things.
These are naturally not only movements caused by us humans. I see the growth of trees
also as lines, very slow moving lines. With this thought all living things and their lines of
growth are synonymous, equivalent to, the same as the lines of movement. They simply
happen more slowly and are not often perceivable.
When thinking of these traces and first markings on the surface of the newly born polder I
also think of the time long ago when glaciers were here, when the sea levels were lower
and the Netherlands were one with the British Isles, when mamouths roamed and humans
settled the grounds on which we now inhabit again and call by names such as Lelystad,
Such thoughts too I have when thinking of the work of Cora. There is something essential
and primitive to wool. It’s waxy smell, it’s soft earthy hues and feel. One afternoon Cora let
me into the world of felt making. We had a simple plan. Let us mix the work of a felt artist
with the work of a mud architect. So we began by laying out the wool in criss-cross
patterns, a neat bed upon which we then splashed mud and peat. Somehow the two
layers stayed together; the organized and planned with the spontaneous and accidental. In
some strange way it felt like the making of the polders, where the planned action was
never intended to be a controlling all determining logic placed on or cut into the earth, but
more a framework for the accidental, unexpected and welcome, woven and bound into
Of the walks I’ve made across the polders here in Flevoland I’ve encountered farmers who
have an intimate and deep knowledge of the ground which they work. After stepping down
from his tractor after a day’s ploughing of lines, back and forth, making straight two
kilometer long furrows in his fields, a farmer described the way in which the slugishness of
his plough and its tug would give to him a sense of the old streams and waters that once
flowed. If he did not name it he could nevertheless sense the ten thousand year ago
Pleistocene geology six metres or so below the ground; it’s slight wetness or dryness a
kind of reverberation of old time upwards and into the present from the past.
Making felt is a little like this too. A sensing of the past resonating into the present. Cora
has told me that she too is a walker. Together with her partner Robin she often walks the
island of Gotland off the Swedish coastline. It is here that her wool is sheared and
prepared for felt making.
The historian of art and architecture Gottfried Semper argued that the threading, twisting
and knotting of fibre were amongst the most ancient of human arts, from which all else
was derived, including both building and textiles (Semper 1989: 254). Even before they
were building houses with walls, Semper maintained, humans were weaving enclosures -
fence and pens - from sticks and branches; and even before they were weaving cloth they
were sewing and stitching nets and corselets (ibid.:218-19, 231). It is as if these knottings
and workings of threads and of wool has been a way to shape and work the landscape
directly. In so doing the maker shapes the landscape. But simply by being in and of the
landscape, the landscape shapes the maker. I like to think too that in the threads and
knottings, the act of making felt too is akin to walking and making paths in and of the
landscape. It is as if, through walking the landscape it is newly created just as felt, made
by the movement of the hands laying down the criss-cross layers and the movement of the
arms in rolling the felt. Tim Ingold describes how, in a book of essays on the perception of the environment, that we can see ourselves as wayfarers weaving paths, leaving threads and traces, at some moments fixed, at others on the move again.
Let me go back to the first two sightings, or visions one could say, of the traces left by deer
and the inflatable boat for surveying. The thoughts hold within them clues to ways in which
the future of Flevoland could unfold. The deer tracks tell of unintended but very welcome
wild animals, free to roam and find their way. The other tells of land surveyors’ attempts to
measure and get to grips with the land, leaving non too orthogonal markings behind them
as they slide across the mud in their inflatable.
The landscape of Flevoland moves me not because it looks like or doesn’t look like the
place where we come from, but because there is held within it a tension that spans across
these two perceptions of the landscape, the one that lends itself to the planned and
determined, the other towards sensing a wild and allowing for and giving room to things
and phenomena that are beyond the hand of man. These latter are essentially, I believe
perceived by moving through and crossing landscapes. Both are necessary because it is
through both perceptions, and the tension that exists between them, that allows a greater
sensing of the landscape to resonate, so that the way in which our ‘feel of the world
influences our feeling for the world’.
There is reciprocity in this sensing, evident too in both of the works we are about to see
shortly. The struggle of Cora to tame the old felt with the cartography of the polder
landscape, and the pioneering spirited flights of Arjen trying to gain an overview to survey
what is below.
Thank you for listening. Let us all look forward to getting up shortly and doing some
walking around this evening’s exhibition.
Cora Jongsma's blog https://mappingballooerveld.wordpress.com/offcours-mapping-landscape/
Arjen Boerstra's website http://www.arjenboerstra.nl