241 Things

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Studium Generale 1000things lectures, The Hague

241 Things

The Dutch term ambacht originates from the Latin words ambio for ‘around’ and the verb agere for ‘to lead, to bring’, meaning craft or craftsmanship. Originally, it carried the meaning of messenger, herald or servant. Much later, it was no longer used to mean the person who carries out the service, but the service or handwork itself. Craft thereby reveals itself to be primordially related to the execution of practical functions. That is why nowadays, craft is often given the label ‘applied art’, as opposed to free art.

What we can learn from other cultures is that a radical separation between art and craft does not exist everywhere. When a craftsman of the Dogon Tribe in Mali carves a mask out of wood, it is not about whether it turns out to be beautiful or ugly. More important is if the resulting image aligns itself to tradition.

Charioteer of Delphi

The correctness of a representation is thus superior to the aesthetic experience thereof. Finished masks are kept in places we find irreverent, in dark corners of houses or deserted caves. The masks are reserved for ceremonies and festivities, and are only art objects insofar they are used. Afterwards, they devolve into an insignificant object.

Craft, then, entails animation. An item that has cost hours of work to make becomes valuable by the function that is assigned to it. In the Western context, however, the beauty of craft lies in the many hours invested in the making. But what a man can make, can basically also be made by machine. It differs from the mechanically fabricated object in that the human hand bestows it with a soul. Islamic carpet weavers are most aware of this. They attach major importance to the small errors in their carpets – as only God does things perfectly.

‘God’ can here be read as the concept of perfection, as it is also manifest in mass production. Instead of the detachment caused by a lack of understanding as to the origin of a given object, a human glitch draws a thing closer to us. The reverence for products that are perfect in their sameness, makes way for the urge for proximity. We want to grasp objects in their uniqueness.

What I believe to be most important about craftsmanship is that it makes us aware of this animation. Like a mask receives a spirit during a dance, so does spiritedness form the basis of each craftwork. The idea of this primordial leading around is not far away here, namely circumventing the mass production and technical progress and being led to the spirited and more humane world that has slumbered for so long. Leaving aside specific crafts and techniques, understanding this fundamental idea is paramount.

In these simple, handmade objects lies a humanity that has been little visible for a long time. It is this humanity that has been transformed into an aesthetic. Opposed to that is the icy detachment of the machine-made.

I can understand the carpet weavers. Something entirely flawless, made with or without the help of computers and machines, is very hard for me to personally relate to. When I do things by hand and small mistakes occur, (because a colour does not turn out the way I had hoped, for instance) only then does something become real. It is the peculiar fact that something that you’ve made with your own hands can be more magical than something that shows inhuman perfection.

Even Nazis needed a vacation from time to time. True to the nature of their regime, they met this need with great grandeur. On the island of Rügen, one monstrous project erected for the ordinary man remains: Prora. The walls are covered in graffiti by young Germans practicing their English. Although thousands of its windows have been smashed, it seems that the structure of Nazi vacation fun is indestructible. Prora now resembles a mega jail, where people in bathing suits were herded together.

The resort was the world’s first mega project for affordable mass tourism. Kraft durch Freude (KdF,) the Nazi department for recreation, commissioned the resort to be built between 1936 to 1939.

Between Binz and Sastnitz, five kilometres of grey megalomania is wacked in the face of the visitor. Even the waves of the Baltic Sea are cast in a grey veil by the shadow of Prora. A thin edge of shore is covered by vacant apartment blocks, each half a kilometre in length: the remnants of an event hall, sporting facilities, a docking station for the KdF’s cruise ships. Prora offered 10,000 labourers a room here, each with of view of the sea.

The Nazi department of recreation was strikingly modern, being pioneers in both cheap mass tourism and marketing. Recreation was promoted as a ‘lifestyle’ beneficial to health by advertising scarcely dressed beautiful people to promote the products of the KdF. And they were successful. Just before the war, in its glory days, the KdF provided the vacations and cultural outings for 80 million civilians. Even the ‘Volkswagen’ was a KdF initiative to stimulate daytime recreation.

Vacationing in the healthy sea air was supposed to make the people stronger, for the sake of the economy and the regime. “To run a great political vision, I need a strong nerved people,’ said Hitler, as he lay Prora’s first stone. Thanks to the German invasion of Poland in 1939, little became of vacation plans to Prora, and it became a military hospital instead. Victims of the allied bombing of Hamburg in 1943 were given shelter there. And from 1945 until the fall of the Berlin wall, Prora served as headquarters to the Nationale Volks Armee, or the DDR army.

The local government has been stuck with the ruins of Prora since the German unification. Three of the half kilometre blocks were sold to project developers, to keep themselves from the expenses of upkeep. But these new owners, too, wrestle with Prora. The Nazi retreat is falling steadily into decline, and so the main inhabitants of these buildings are bats and colonies of swallows.

Ironically, its monumental status is partially the reason for its decline. Prora became a nationally protected memorial thanks to the lobbying of artists, historians and architect through Stichting Neue Kultuur. Thus, the Bundesrepublik is extremely critical of any large-scale refurbishments. Many of the developers also misjudged the amount of investment it would take to develop the colossus.

Because no one wants to touch Prora, the Nazi vacation colossus has assumed many temporary functions. Blocks of apartment buildings have been used by artists as studio and presentation spaces for years. In 2000, Neue Kultur founded Documentatiesctrum Prora in Block 3. This centre keeps the history of Prora and the KdF alive through exhibitions and historical research. The NVA-Museum, located next door, relives a bit of DDR-nostalgia in a Goodbye Lenin sort of atmosphere.
Grand Tour souvenir: painting of vulcano
Grand Tour souvenir, small items
Grand Tour souvenir: painting of vulcano

The Grand Tour, a journey to discover the classics, the arts, and social conduct, was exceptionally popular with the British upper class. When in the 18th century, Oxford and Cambridge lost much of their esteem many aristocrats decided to send their post-Eton sons off to explore the world instead. Their accrued knowledge and life experience would prepare young men – and from the 19th century onwards, women too – for key positions in society. Most travellers were younger than twenty, no more than boys for whom sowing their wild oats was implicit on their journey: the first lessons in love and gambling learnt.

Paris, and especially Italy, were the most important destinations on the Grand Tour. Travelling was time consuming and programmes were filled to the brim. Usually, the Grand Tourist’s voyage would last anywhere from six months to two years. The Venice carnival, Easter in Rome, an erupting Vesuvius had all to be seen and taken in.

To ensure the Tour’s success, the young traveller was assigned a bear leader (chaperone.) This would often be a man who knew their destination well and would show the little lord his way. Depending on the budget and the duration of the voyage, the Tourist might have been escorted by one or more chamberlains and a coachman. Many travellers hired a local to make sure that there would be at least one member of the party who could make himself understandable. The family’s foreign relations, local guides, or antiques dealers provided tours and introductions.

The Grand Tourist found himself in an endless stream of site seeing; too much, perhaps, to remember upon his return home. For this reason, most travellers wrote letters home or kept a travel log.

Of course, souvenirs that served as tangible memories of the trip were acquired along the way. Sometimes these would be original antiquities, other times the Grand Tourist would buy (scale) models of artworks, architectural structures, monuments, sculptures in bronze or marble, prints, drawings, paintings, and so-called dactyliothecae, made especially for this purpose.

The souvenirs gave status to their owners, acted as ‘conversation pieces’ during dinners with relations, friends, family members, and illustrated the Tourist’s gained knowledge and experience. Ultimately, they were used in art education and had a great deal of influence on the development of art and architecture. Every important art academy in the 19th century owned a collection of plaster sculptures, cast from famous sculptures from antiquity.

Grand Tour Souvenir: Hercules Farnese
Grand Tour Souvenir: sculpture
Grand Tour Souvenir: model of a temple
Souvenir erotique , detail
Souvenir erotique , detail

The dactyliotec is the equivalent of the modern day digital photo album. Dactylioteca were stacked boxes containing prints of gems bearing depictions of Roman emperors, philosophers or art works from for example Vatican museums. Most of the imprints, also called intaglios, were done in cast. Some of them were cast in a beautiful red sulphur paste.

The Grand Tourist started buying them from the beginning of the 19th century at specialized studios and could customize the content description to the latest scientific advances of his time.
Already during the 18th century P.H. Lippert gathered 13149 of these casts in three cabinets in the shape of books. He named the collection a dactylioteca, derived from the Greek word for depository for signet rings with gems. The Amsterdam drawing Academy bought one copy of Lippert in 1792 which is now part of the collection of the Rijksmuseum.

Famous makers of these 19th century collections of casts were Odelli, Liberotti and Paoletti. They all set up their studios in the same area in Rome between the Piazza del Popolo and the Spanish Steps. This was the area where most travellers found shelter upon arrival in Rome and was therefore called the 'English ghetto'.

daktyliotheek, detail

A remarkable copy is the shown here: a set of prints of erotic gems. Since the first half of the 18th century there was a 'gabinetto segreto' in Naples, a secret cabinet that contained the excavations from Pomeï with an erotic tone. The cabinet has known a long history of closings and opening and was even closed with a brick wall in 1849.
This collection of casts is an extraordinary souvenir of a traveller who might have had the luck to find the cabinet opened.
Souvenir erotique , detail

Papuans love to smoke. To make your stay among them as smooth as possible, it’s well advised to take with you a considerable amount of tobacco. I’ve never seen smokers make trouble. I offer Barnabas Betakam a pack of Lampion Lilin rolling tobacco for our shared peace pipe. To my surprise, he declines, stating that all he smokes are Surya or Gudang Garan filter cigarettes. I’m amazed at his ability to afford his expensive addiction, but he’s apparently willing to abstain from his favourite stimulant for the sake of pride. In his eyes, smoking filter cigarettes is a sign of upward mobility.

Betakam is witness to a booming economy. Among the Indonesians, who since the takeover in 1962 have been residing in areas traditionally exclusively inhabited by Papuans, the amount of motorboats owned per capita is increasing daily. These units are the best expression of the difference between the transmigrates from the overpopulated Indonesian archipelago and the Asmat, indigenous inhabitants of the tropical rainforest of the delta swamp in the former Dutch New Guinea. Yamaha outboard motors versus oars, generators and electric light versus wood-fuelled fires, half burned candles and darkness; colourful television programmes and song and dance to tunes played on home-made ukuleles and guitars strung with fishing line thread.

Batakam gives the impression that he’s never quite asked himself how the Indonesian immigrants and visitors from the West acquire their covetable wares. It’s widely accepted that the white men use their own magic; church services and the bible are seen as exponents of their magical practice. It’s not uncommon for Westerners to be taken for pastors. Pastors are loved in the Asmat for the good deeds they’ve done there, which is a good reason to not bring up the status of clergymen when visiting the peoples.

The Dutch pastor Gerard Zegward was the first white man to enter the region that was to be pacified in 1953. He arrived all alone and there's no doubt that he made quite an impression. It's probably because he wasn't part of their familiar societal systems of headhunters and tribal wars that the Asmat must assumed him to be invincible. In fact, they initially believed him to be immortal. In his unpublished memoirs, Gerard writes: “While I was in Sawa, I wanted to retreat to do a number two. But I was accompanied by a group of thirty men. They held my hand to keep me from falling into the blubber and shouted in unison: ‘Be careful, don’t slip.’ Sticks were laid out for me to stand on. A few men dug a small hole for me to expel my excrements into. In full view, I did my deed and was promptly offered a handful of leaves as a substitute for toilet paper. I didn’t turn to look back, but I’m quite sure that they studied my faeces profusely’. Having understood Zegwaard to be a reincarnation of their ancestors, the above study must have led to some confusion.

Betakam’s father – a prominent warlord from the Basim village on the Fayit River – most likely contacted Zegwaard during this period. He’d probably have told him, with the air of a man proud of his profession, that he’d scalped five heads during his lifetime. His trophies of war – jawbones or cervical bones decorated with white feathers – were worn by his wife on a necklace during village feasts. The skulls of the unfortunate were hung as Christmas decorations along the doorpost of his hut.
In the crucifix that Zegward left behind, Betakam saw an important ancestor and hero for the white man. This was because there are striking resemblances to the manner in which the Asmat portray important deceased members of the community. But no matter how much discussion ensued, he probably never understood that the crucified victim – unlike within his own culture – was not avenged by his family. On the other hand, the copious amount of glittering items Zegwaard brought with him would likely have been convincing enough to a person with any worldview.