241 Things

1000 Things is a subjective encyclopedia of inspirational ideas, things, people, and events.

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Studium Generale 1000things lectures, The Hague

241 Things

“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.

In 2001, at the invitation of the Bergen School of Architecture in Norway, I visited the coastal island of Utsira. Just getting to the island turned out to be quite an ordeal. This great broken-off piece of rock could only be reached with a small ferry boat, which had a tough time negotiating the spectacular waves here.

The small island, 2 km across, had two harbours. Whilst, due to the wind and the rough water caused by it, the ferry boat was unable to enter the harbour on the one side of the island, it was luckily able to do so on the other. The wind also played a dominant role in the planning and development of the island, or rather, their prevention. There was, for example, hardly a tree to be found; every attempt by a tree to take root here had been thwarted by the cruel wind. Except for one tree, which had made its courageous bid behind the local church. The small building had kept the tree out of the wind, making it possible for it to grow in freedom. When the tree had become so tall that its branches began to rise above the roof of the little church, the wind got its grip on the tree, thus preventing further growth. Because no leaves could grow beyond the edge of the roof, in the course of time, the tree gradually took on the shape of the church, as though nothing could be more normal.

The spectacular result of a tree with a ‘gable roof’ looks at first glance like a somewhat large, artistically trimmed box hedge in a baroque garden, attractive examples of which, created by inventive gardeners, can be found everywhere in the world. With one big difference: this Norwegian house-tree was designed by no one. No one decided how the tree would look. Nor did anyone give the tree its shape out of spite.

The tree’s shape is a result of the specific character of the natural conditions in which it has grown. And in this way, it is a pre-eminent representative of the identity of the island where it stands. Not because a local artist came up with an idea, leading to its promotion by the island’s tourist office, nor because there is a typically Norwegian tradition of creating pointy trees, but purely because of the specific characteristics of the place where it is located.

In 2003, Mels van Zutphen made a film about St. Kilda that he unfortunately is no longer permitted to show due to the archive material’s rights.

St. Kilda, just off the west coast of Scotland, is Britain’s most remote cluster of islands, and moreover has the highest cliffs. The archipelago is still known for its large population of puffins and northern gannets. For centuries, a small community inhabited this small area of a few square kilometres, almost completely isolated from the outside world. The last inhabitant was evacuated in 1930. The only two survivors from this era are now elderly and difficult to contact. 'St Kilda' is a film about rituals, birds, bachelor exploits and being easily offended.

Some archive material can be found online:

Play
St. Kilda, Its People and Birds (1908) - extract

Some other material can be found from the EYE archive

Ladies and gentlemen,

I’d like to say something about the Volcano. The ultimate authorities of the Earth. Tsunami machines. Monstrous pustules of Techtonics. An elegy of worship, humility, devotion, and awe. A puny man, swallowed by a radical landscape.

I apologise, but I have no answer to these gas and fire spewing, regurgitating mountains strewn over the globe with seemingly no other purpose other than to remind us that our planet is a smouldering ball of magma, and that we are just little temporary inhabitants... and not much more than that.

A nonsensical, softly glowing dot in a universe filled with searing, cold, and raging heavenly bodies. Just as we have no answer for death, this rant will be devoid of critique, flattery, rhetoric, or debate.

We cannot own the volcano, cannot control it, expunge, there is no coaxing it, no, we cannot even theorize it...

No, this is not a declaration of love to the volcano, but one of a lover that would not, by God, know what to do if the object of his desire was his.

The perfect conical summits on the island of Hokkaido in North Japan, Iceland’s glacier covered sleepers, Java’s sulphur spewing, the ice lake of Puy de Dome, Singu’s flanks in Myanmar.

And the hundreds of hills on the Korean island in the Chinese sea...

One of the series is a bit longer and follows the sulphur mine worker, Mohammed, who I accompanied for two days on the Ijen Vulcano in East Java. Twice a day, Mohammed makes the lengthy journey to the rim of the volcano where he lowers himself into its putrid interior, where liquid sulphur and gas are emanated in great quantities. The sulphur solidifies almost immediately and Mohammed carries the 80 kilos on his back out of the volcano and makes his descent, all for a meagre starvation wage. This is the most beautiful and likewise most gruesome tableau I have ever seen.

I combined the photos as an essay in which the black of the lava and the intense yellow of the sulphur are combined in a musing on these colours, but also about the significance of these materials. The display refers to the economic and social factors, and yet it is also presented as a depiction—a scene from a film. It became an exercise in ruminating on the hopelessness of the injustice in the world, that at the same time portrays perception as an intense experience. And an experience always proves itself more potent than an image.

‘We were mesmerised by the volcano’s jaw, yes, a mouth, and a tongue of lava,’ Susan Sontag wrote in her novel, ‘The Volcano Lover’. ‘A body. A monstrous living body, masculine and feminine at once. It thrusts, it ejaculates. But it is also an interior, an abyss. A living thing that can likewise die. An inert being, occasionally in movement, existing only in intervals. An ever-present threat. If predictable, still never predicted. Capricious, untameable, malodorous’.

Is this what one refers to as the primitive?

Nevado del Ruiz, Mount Saint Hellens, La Soufriere, Mont Peleé, Krakatao, Tambora, Katla, Newer Shield

Poignant names for eternally slumbering giants that might awaken at any give movement. A thundering giant whose attentions will turn to you. King Kong and Godzilla in one. Spewing, destroying all, only to fall back into sleep.

Religion and ideology often assume that there is a significant meaning to the universe, humanity, and history. The arts and philosophy have been questioning these assumption for ages. Many centuries ago, even Shakespeare said that ‘Life is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing’.

Albert Camus, too, deemed human existence ultimately futile, and thus, absurd. But it was precisely in that acceptance that man’s ability and freedom lay to give his own meaning to life. In other words, futility is the primal source of human creativity, the art of living, and art.

Hoewever, it’s also the source that clings itself excessively to art and threatens, time and time again, to swallow her whole, as Mr. Ormeling once suggested. Perhaps this is why many people feel a strong aversion to art: it reminds them too much of the futility of life.

Mountains and volcanoes can have the same effect. People fear their massive, purposeless presence; they stir within every fibre of our being the realisation of our complete meaninglessness.

I enjoy immersing myself in this feeling. Perhaps I’m somewhat megolomanic, not without audacity or ostentation. I should probably put this into perspective. I’ve been presented here as Volcano Hunter, as though I travel the pyroclastic ash clouds carrying a leaden bag, but I have to disappoint you: I’m merely a tourist who enjoys visiting non-touristic destinations.

Seven centimetres of volcanic ash is enough to collapse the roof of a building. And I’m not talking about Chinese Tofu architecture, but about a solidly built North American home.

The English philosopher Francis Bacon once described the goal of man and progress as attaining ‘complete mastery over nature’. Not by revealing the laws of nature, but by seducing her to a creative collaboration of sorts.

The forces of natures usually have the last word, like in the above mentioned example. One in ten people on this planet live in the direct vicinity of an active volcano... these areas, are after all, extremely fertile.

Even though were are the initiators of art, it becomes ever more clear that nature is the true creator. Whatever the human undertakes, each art work, each action, begins and ends with nature. Natura Artis Magistra.

The Ancient Greek philosopher Empedocles threw himself into the Etna to prove his spiritual divinity. Dissolved into the Nothing. His followers did, however, find his sandal which the fickle and uncooperative mountain had regurgitated; and they knew what this sly fox had wanted to do; to disappear for eternity.

Horatius told the disappointed students that poets have the right to destroy themselves.

When I’m 92, I’d like to do the same. Although, I might no longer be physically capable, so I might just call on you when the time comes.

Many thanks in advance, and I’ll see you on the flanks of the Etna!

(We listen to some pleasant volcanic energy, I’m going to the mountain with The Fire Spirit, a song by the Gun Club, performed by 16 Horsepower...)

Antwerp, May 2013-09-06

(Text spoken during an evening on the power of nature in Artis’s library in Amsterdam. Commissioned by Lost & Found)

Birds need space
Threatened 13
Birds

“Wilmering's favourite ornithological book is Check-list of Birds of the World by James Lee Peters (1889-1952). It consists of no fewer than 16 hefty volumes, the last of which appeared in 1987. After the author's death, fellow ornithologists completed his life's work. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this book is the fact that the checklist is no more than the title suggests: an endless list of bird names, systematically arranged according to class, order, genus, family and species. It is not the type of book one would expect to find in the bookcase of an artist, for the simple reason that there are no illustrations. It is a work by and for the scientist who has already done his field work. Identification is followed by ordination, classification and taxonomy. Observation by registration, tables, and diagrams. A bird is best 'read' in letters and numbers, a fact that was clear to Carolus Linnaeus back in the mid-18th century. In designing his Systema Natura, he gave both plants and animals double Latin names, again without benefit of illustrations. While the new system was a boon to scientists and collectors, the average fancier who had to rely on a Latin text would have been at pains to identify the bird that just landed on a nearby branch.

Check-list of Birds of the World by James Lee Peters

Few artists had mastered the true-to-life illustration of nature, and one wonders if people actually believed what they were seeing. Nature is of such overwhelming beauty that it is sometimes hard to believe that it is real. When in 1719 Louis Renard published his book on the fish, lobsters and crabs of Ambon, he came in for considerable criticism. No one believed in the existence of such "candy canes with fins": surely those shocking pink creatures were a figment of the artist's imagination! But by the time the second edition appeared in 1754, the publisher had rounded up several eyewitnesses who attested to the authenticity of the illustrations. One of them was Aernout Vosmaer, director of the menagerie and zoological cabinet of Stadholder William V. He assured the doubters that the astonishing shapes and colours of those tropical fish and crustaceans were indeed true to life. But the illustration of a mermaid no doubt led many readers to view the book with a critical eye. Such mythical creatures were ultimately discredited by the new classification system devised by Linnaeus. Henceforth encyclopaedic works devoted to natural history no longer included illustrations of griffins, eight-headed monsters, and fishtails sewn onto shaved monkey torsos. In the 17th century books were still being published which included the harpy, an unsavoury creature with the head of an old woman, sharp claws and a filthy torso. Until empirical research ultimately proved that no one had ever seen a harpy nest. For centuries, bats were also regarded as birds, since they had wings but no feet. Thanks to Linnaeus, they later winged their way into the world of mammals.

In the end, scientists could not do without serious artists. Between 1750 and 1850, thousands of illustrated volumes saw the light of day, in the belief that nature in its entirety could be committed to paper. This led to a host of megalomaniacal projects, which foundered due to their striving for completeness. By the time a register was completed, there were already hundreds of new sorts awaiting publication: the seas proved inexhaustible, the forests unfathomable. But then came the solution: specialization. The striving was no longer to include all the birds in the world, but only those found in India, say, in the southern foothills of the Himalayas, and preferably only the parakeets native to that area. Years ago, I purchased just such a book.

Luuk Wilmering, Bird needs shelter - Scientist Natural habitat of the stork - nr.2

One of the most beautiful bird books in the world comes very close to Wilmering's bird installation, in which the birds are served up by the hunter, the gastronomist, the scientist and the artist. It is The Birds of America (1827-1838) by John James Audubon: the authoritative five-volume bird book in which 443 North American species are described and portrayed life-size. Today it is the world's most expensive book. For days, Audubon would conceal himself in the undergrowth, observing the birds and taking meticulous notes on how they flew, how they mated, and how they fed their young. This was inevitably followed by the aiming of a gun and the pulling of a trigger. For Audubon the hunter, it was a unique experience to feel the body while it was still warm, to observe it at close quarters, and to add to his drawing the most minute details of beak, feet, toes and the inner side of the wings. He used wires to bend the birds into natural poses, while a grid served as the background, ensuring that the animal was drawn in the correct proportions. This method was later borrowed by the photographer Eadward Muybridge for his photo studies of people and animals in motion. Here we see the real Audubon at work. No doubt he lit a fire that same evening and, after grilling the plucked coot or wood stork, dined on his specimens. Many of these descriptions are accompanied by culinary tips: the yellow-billed cuckoo, for example, is at its most flavourful in the autumn, while the American scarlet rosefinch tastes like any other small bird. It is thanks to his direct contact with the dying animals that he is able to immerse himself in his models. He is the anatomist who dissects carcasses with his own teeth. Audubon was an empirical researcher who wound silver wire around a bird's leg, and a year later confirmed that some birds return to the spot where they emerged from the egg...”

Original source: Une Histoire Naturelle (Filigranes Éditions / Institut Néerlandais)