A Seafaring Pineapple. On the work of Hiryczuk/ Van Oevelen
‘The notion of the “sacred place” or “place of power” has come down to us from indigenous cultures but for us it is usually somewhere distant. For land-based people such as the Navajo (…), sacred places are interwoven with daily life, land use, ceremonialism, and stories. One place cannot be isolated from its network of other places and meanings.’
– Lucy Lippard 
The artist duo Hiryczuk/ Van Oevelen has in recent years accomplished a fine oeuvre of completed and proposed works portraying our relationship with nature. Their studio photography, architectural designs and spatial installations impart a coded message about a new, more refined, role that twenty-first century mankind could play in the natural order. Nature appears in these works as a construction, as it does in many Western and Oriental traditions of garden and landscape design, as well as in architecture that transforms nature into a vista. In these works, however, something more is at hand. Nature here becomes a sacred place – a place that commands respect, a place about which we recount legends to one another.
Once upon a time there was a business district of Amsterdam (in fact a large-scale urban expansion area, Zuidas, that has now become Holland’s leading financial centre) where photographs of Surtsey, the world’s newest natural island off the southern coast of Iceland, suddenly appeared. That was in 2005, and the series of ten billboard landscapes titled Landfall remained on display in Zuidas for a further five years. By projecting amap of the island onto the urban area, the artists were able to place the panoramic landscape images at points corresponding to the photographed locations on Surtsey. The spectator might take a walk in the city while mentally absorbed in the natural wilderness of the island. This work illustrates the artists’ predilection for an ambiguity of spatial context, in which culture and nature are interwoven in surprising ways.
Landfall was a real eyecatcher. The intense natural colours of the billboard panoramas contrasted sharply with the backdrop of modern office blocks. Combined with the uncompromising frontality of the images, this gave a feeling that nature was heading straight at you in those unlikely manmade surroundings. The title 'Landfall' is somewhat cryptic in that these glimpses of an almost unreachable island do not beckon to us from the sea, but from amid the rumbling traffic and teeming midday crowds of Zuidas. But the title also hints at the volcanic rocks and ash which, first thrown into a column towering high above the sea, rained down to form much of the visible mass of Surtsey – not rainfall, but ‘landfall’.
The suggestion of the work was that we can contemplate Zuidas from a similar standpoint, as a landmass that looms up suddenly from its surroundings and which, we may at least imagine, is still untouched by human action. Surtsey arose spontaneously from the sea in 1963 through the eruption of a submarine volcano. Zuidas erupted with almost equal abruptness some thirty years later from relatively lush green meadows in the south of Amsterdam, although in this case it was a product of hard headed rationalism rather than of unstoppable natural forces.
Elodie Hiryczuk and Sjoerd van Oevelen have been collaborating since 2001; their output, a compact group of completed works and proposals, springs from an artistic dialogue about the landscape and the internalized nature experience of the West. We live not in natural landscapes but with our own images and intellectual constructs of nature. This has given rise to a paradox in which we see nature alternately as menacing and as idyllic. The ancient human urge to tame nature has gained an outlet in the way we conceive nature through an aesthetic filter that allows us to grasp it in thought and reproduce it in physical reality.
The longing for nature is a motif that impels these artists. Their library contains numerous books that take them to distant times and cultures, where they can gather new insights into nature and conceive new approaches to it. Physical travel, too, takes them to places where nature goes its way untrammelled by human intervention. Among these places is Surtsey, which the artists visited in 2003 in order to photograph the wilderness. But the island exemplifies the same dichotomy, for the Icelandic authorities have protected it as a nature reserve almost since its inception. It is not a place where people live at one with nature, but which, except for a select group of scientists, is normally accessible only for remote observation.
A passage in the logbook Hiryczuk/ Van Oevelen kept during their journey and their visit to Surtsey illustrates a paradigm shift in our relation towards nature. The wish not to manipulate virgin nature but to conserve it proves to raise new and often unexpected problems. When the artists arrived at the island, located in the Atlantic Ocean just below the Arctic Circle, they were shocked to observe a highly disturbing anomaly: a pineapple bobbing in the water alongside the boat. Had this errant tropical fruit floated to Surtsey of its own accord, all the way from tropical climes? Was it some freak of nature that brought it here, or was it the result of careless or even deliberate human action? In the latter case, was it the artists’ moral duty to yank it from the water? This is a conundrum – let’s call it ‘the pineapple dilemma’ – which is, of course, a dilemma of humanity.
The vulnerability of the natural equilibrium emerges in various guises in the work of Hiryczuk/ Van Oevelen. Nature is My Garden (commissioned by the Erasmus Medical Centre, Rotterdam, 2010) is an installation of nine successive panoramic photos that together form a 22.5 metre long landscape-scroll, enwrapping the spectator in a magnificent wilderness with a single, central focus. Although that centre is the exact spot where experts apparently started some intriguing biological field-experiments, the series as a whole seems to portray the implacability of nature. The images are saturated with colour in a way that recalls photorealistic painting, perhaps offering ‘proof’ that here nature has no need of our stewardship. At the same time, the landscapes may hold out a proposal on the refined role that twenty-first century mankind could occupy in the natural order .
Landfall too consisted of scenes of implacable nature. A stroll through the city with ones thoughts immersed in the wilderness was an ambivalent experience. Nature came up closer but still held back a little, as though the photographs embodied a critical distance from the object of desire. The artists were using a tactic to sharpen our perception of the relation between nature and culture. Consider in comparison the nineteenth-century landscapist Frederic Church and what he did for his contemporaries. Around a polar landscape of almost hallucinatory pale blue, he built a stage décor with red velvet curtains which had to be drawn aside to allow the public to view the painting. It was the painter’s way of competing with the photography of his day, whose verisimilitude was a subject of debate.
In their work, Hiryczuk/ Van Oevelen portray nature in a way that reawakens interest in its remoteness. Their visual contradictions are a reaction against the dominance of the photographic gaze and of the countless media images that celebrate nature as though it were something ubiquitous and within easy reach. Their oeuvre is an ongoing research into the complex negotiations that today’s culture conducts with nature. It builds on a recent artistic tradition in which nature generally takes precedence over art – for example in works by Beuys and Smithson – and so challenges the established pattern of the culture/ nature dichotomy .
The artists’ outlook on nature has gradually changed. Early work by Hiryczuk/ Van Oevelen takes a media-based stance. With a Detached Gaze (De Mariakapel, Hoorn, 2002) was an exhibition of three sculptures. One item was a lookout post entirely wrapped in green gauze, and another was a platform for spectators. These components led the eye towards the pièce de résistance: a large scale model of Surtsey built up with topographical precision from hundreds of layers of black felt. The title of the work relates to the contemplative attitude appropriate to a traditional Japanese garden, an attitude of receptiveness without preconception, of seeing the whole rather than the parts.
House for Two Solitary Mountains (Festival De Opkomst, Jaarbeurs, Utrecht 2002) was an installation which reproduced the ground plan of a house. An elevated floor was framed in a raised plinth that marked the positions of the invisible walls. The viewer was conducted along a passage leading to a ‘room’, from which two smaller chambers branched off. One of the small chambers contained a landscape as big as a bed, sunken into the floor; this scalemodel made of numerous layers of grey felt brought two famous mountains into conjunction: Mount Fuji (Japan) and Mont Ventoux (France). These are both isolated prominences which for centuries have been a source of inspiration to artists, authors and philosophers.
The introspective artistic gaze underwent a change during the expedition to Surtsey. They deliberately gave in to a personal craving: the urge to possess nature and to capture the experience of it for all time. In retrospect they mention the inspiration they found in Marcel Broodthaers’ work The Conquest of Space: Atlas for the use of Artists and the Military (1975), a miniature book the size of a matchbox. Each page shows the silhouette of a country, the same size in every case. It is as though each country were instantly available for appropriation, thereby implying a critique of the modern imperialist condition. The Surtsey photos raise the issue of the artists’ predilection in a similar way; in Landfall, nature looms up inexorably as though mankind were an irrelevance.
The period 2005–2007 saw the production of a series of five pieces on the relation between mankind and nature. These Sceneries are about the awareness that nature as we know it is disappearing, for instance through the transformation of productive farmland into consumer landscapes and the growing economy of green recreation and rural leisure parks. Hiryczuk/ Van Oevelen ask how we can justify this. In each image, a figure – a young man or woman, or in one case two children unfolding amap of the Atlantic Ocean – appears engrossed in some action whose substance is not always explicit but which invariably suggests a link between the individual concerned and nature.
Girl Making a Model of a Landscape (Bonnefanten Hedge House Foundation, Wijlre, 2005) is the starting point of this series. In this work, we see a red-haired girl making a miniature landscape; she has laid down her spatula and is staring absently, like a pensive figure in a Pre-Raphaelite painting, waiting for new ideas. The technical presentation of the photograph – a lambda print on cibachrome, mounted in a lightbox – yields a startlingly detailed image. They built a pseudo-perspective structure on axonometric principles as a decor for four of the scenes, resulting in images with parallel sight lines and hence without perspective vanishing points, reminiscent of Japanese woodblock prints. These works are like religious icons: the combination of self-absorbed figures and frontal presentation of nature produces dazzling images that are modern yet devotional.
The solo exhibition Perspective of Disappearance (De KunstKapel, Amsterdam, 2008) brought the relation between mankind and nature to a head. Vanishing-point perspective as used by artists is an invention of the Renaissance, usually attributed in its mature geometrical form to Filippo Brunelleschi. The artistic technique of depth representation was amplified by subsequent generations with the additional technique of sfumato, famously used by Leonardo da Vinci, in which dimension, colour and formall vanish to a point in the distance . Hiryczuk/ Van Oevelen employ a different kind of perspective, the axonometric projection, to address the concept of nature in the Netherlands, a country where substantial areas of cultivated landscape have been returned to nature in recent years (a breach in a dyke some years ago resulted suddenly in an unplanned wetland which has since become a paragon of Dutch natural ecology). They are conscious of the cosmetic character of Dutch nature.
The exhibition included a wooden footpath that followed the topographical contours of an imaginary landscape, inviting us to take an abstract walk in nature. The path ended at a plateau bearing a miniature polder landscape (titled Simulation 1), an idyll which was doused in mist every few minutes by a laboratory apparatus, so that the soil gradually crumbled away in the course of the exhibition. The path was flanked on one side by a large closeup of the glass curtain wall of a modern office block, mounted in a monumental light box and titled Perpective of Disappearance; amid the reflections of architecture and greenery, we see aman in a business suit reading a newspaper. Finally, there was an expedition tent containing a computer displaying the latest data on Landfall. The exhibition as a whole held out the suggestion that if we wish to feel the propinquity of nature in our day, we have no choice but to capture it ourselves. However, the fact that we are already surrounded by nature – more than we realize, even in the city – was emphasized by the large photograph in which the interpenetration of culture and nature materialized as a mirror maze of buildings and plants.
Jeff Wall wrote the essay Dan Graham’s Kammerspiel in 1982 . Graham’s pavilions of opaque and translucent glass, Wall holds, are miniature representations of aspects of the real world such as the social and power relationships in public life. The works hint at the glazed tower blocks of corporate business, yet they are intimate in scale. The spectator can see how the space of one realm penetrates into another; you look into a pane of glass and you see someone who is looking at you. The pavilions, which are often sited in public parks, form meeting points of the city with nature. An intriguing notion in Wall’s book is that a city that repels visible nature – trees, flowers, animals and birds – must expect its comeuppance. Nature, in all its implacability and cruelty, will return with all the more vigour to pervade the culture and order of the city, the mode in which people work and live together.
Hiryczuk/ Van Oevelen demonstrate in the above-mentioned photograph Perspective of Disappearance how enigmatically nature may reclaim its place in the city. A man reads a newspaper while surrounded by reflections of natural foliage, by urban mirages. Is the work an invocation of nature? The artists distance themselves wholly from the radical deference to nature of the romantic era, from the poets, authors and artists who hoped to lose themselves out in the wilderness or in the nooks and crannies of their inner selves. Hiryczuk/ Van Oevelen do not see nature as the equivalent of a world of feeling where man - kind will find liberation, unburdened by rationality. All the same, they cannot do without this submission to nature. It is as though they move to embrace the romantic notion while still keeping it at arm’s length – a typical modern artist’s response to the romantic heritage.
In their work, Hiryczuk/ Van Oevelen regularly recreate a certain type of natural environment. But, regardless whether it is a mountain, an island, a forest, a polder or a meadow that they depict, a human presence is always tangible; visible or not, there is always someone there, seeking rapprochement with nature. Their attitude is however a detached one, as though the eyes that observe the landscape can no longer take for granted what they see; as though the primal craving for nature is irredeemably repressed.
The internalized craving becomes tangible in two recent projects about the polders of the Netherlands. For the Poldergeist exhibition (Kunstfort bij Vijfhuizen, 2008), the artistsmade a peepshow model of a structure to be built on the fort where the exhibition took place. Their design, The Polder Viewing Folly, folds the polder landscape back on itself. In the folly conceived by the artists, the spectator enters through a system of narrow passages which lead himto aminiature landscape, only visible as a reflection in a mirror. Some important details within the model were the bonsai trees, plants and moss, all representing typical polder vegetation (the bonsais were made from native tree species) and creating a fresh, shimmering landscape. The work suggested that the Dutch polders might be thought of as existing in a hall of mirrors, an infinite self-reflecting space stretching in all directions.
The Garden of Contested Meanings (commissioned by the Province of Flevoland and Museum De Paviljoens, 2009) is a proposal for the creation of a hortus conclusus in Nagele. The location, a village in Flevoland, was designed on modernist principles by architects from the group De 8 en Opbouw, including Cornelis van Eesteren, Aldo van Eyck, Gerrit Rietveld and the garden architect Mien Ruys . Hiryczuk and Van Oevelen set themselves the question of how one might provide an authentic nature experience in the exhaustively designed space landscape of a polder. Nagele has an internal green space which was intended as a communal garden, and which was intended to foster social contact between adults, and to give children somewhere to play. The greenery echoes the wide open landscape of the polder which is however physically shut out of the village. Surprisingly, the artists observed, the modern design of Nagele bears similarities to an ancient human ideal, that of the Arcadian hortus conclusus, a garden as verdant as the open landscape yet as closed as a building.
Hiryczuk/ Van Oevelen hope to establish a wilderness garden in Nagele which illustrates the natural cycles of growth and decay, but is designed to appeal to the collective idea and image of a true wilderness. This idealized wild garden is located in a pavilion which rises up out of the ground and has a shape inspired by the axonometric representation of space. The first axonometric architectural drawings (for a project called Maison d’Artiste) were presented in 1925 by the artist Theo van Doesburg and by Cornelis van Eesteren, a member of the architecture group De 8 and a codesigner of Nagele. The introduction of axonometry marked a turning point inmodern architecture.Without vanishing points, space becomes infinite. The facade became less important, and architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier began designing buildings from the ground plan up. The essence of Nagele, as a modernist utopia, was a direct outcome of this conception of space which was then still fresh. The same thinking on space plays a role in the futuristic-looking shape of the pavilion, with its suggestion of a prismatic spaceship.
Hiryczuk/ Van Oevelen are currently working on a new series called Field Experiments. They photograph scenes of nature in which strings are stretched to form geometrical figures, marking out a space within the landscape. The strings recall use of geometrical figures in photographic works of conceptual art, and they give the viewer’s gaze an anchor point in nature. But they symbolize something more: is it the same craving for nature, now internalized and encapsulated, seeking an avenue of escape? Interestingly, it is abstraction – nature forced into a specific form, our craving for nature confined within us – that reactivates our wish for nature and gives it new meaning. This new series of works relates to the landscapes of the photoconceptualists who, in the 1960s and 1970s, similarly charted their world.
In her book The Lure of the Local, Lucy Lippard sees places in our everyday experience as providing a gateway to our political principles and spiritual heritage. She believes that there is a future for art that focuses on the real context in which it is made, and which takes responsibility for that context. She writes: ‘The potential of an activist art practice that raises consciousness about land, history, culture, and place and is a catalyst for social change cannot be underestimated, even though this promise has yet to be fulfilled. Artists can make the connections visible. They can guide us through sensuous kinesthetic responses to topography, lead us from archaeology and landbased social history into alternative relationships to place’ .
Artists have of course long shown us the kind of bonds people can form with a place. The watercolour Opawa Station, Albury (approx. 1870) by James Preston, an Englishman who emigrated to New Zealand to start a new life and who earned his living successively as a gold prospector, preacher and painter, shows us two figures with rucksacks roaming in the countryside . They march stiffly onwards, ignoring the gazes of two other figures far off in a field. Are the latter scarecrows? Or are they locals peering curiously at the passing strangers? We live in a place or we pass it by: that’s a fact of life. Hiryczuk/ Van Oevelen are building an oeuvre about places we call nature. They pause at these places, and then pass by.
– Mark Kremer, 2011
[ Notes: ]
1. Lucy R. Lippard, The Lure of the Local: Senses of Place in a Multicentered Society (New York: The New Press, 1997), p. 18.
2. A similar attitude is visible with other artists of their generation such as Tamas Kaszas (www.kaapweb.nl) en Nikolaus Gansterer en Wietske Maas (www.wietskemaas.org)
3. Cf. Thomas McEvilley, ‘De wisselende rol van de kunst in de strijd tussen natuur en cultuur’ [The Changing Role of Art in the Struggle between Nature and Culture], in Allocaties: kunst voor een natuurlijke en kunstmatige omgeving (The Hague / Zoetermeer, Floriade, 1992), pp. 21 – 28. With specific reference to the Dutch context, see Jeroen Boomgaard, ‘Kunst gevangen tussen authenticiteit en constructie’ [Art caught between authenticity and construction], (www.skor.nl).
4. The Notebooks of Leonardo Da Vinci (Volume 1), Jean-Paul Richter (New York: Dover Publications, 1970), p. 125.
5. Jeff Wall, Dan Graham’s Kammerspiel (Toronto: Art Metropole, 1991).
6. Hiryczuk/ Van Oevelen, The Garden of Contested Meanings: proposal for a work of art in the public space of Nagele, Amsterdam, 2009.
7. Lippard (see note 1)
8. Image of Opawa Station, Albury: www.rootsweb.ancestry.com