Jeroen van Westen
A Different Aesthetic:
I value the efforts to preserve Herbert Bayer’s Earthworks at Mill Creek Canyon immensely, and I am honored to be invited to contribute. Bayer’s Earthworks is one of the few pieces that is successful both as a functioning, thoughtful environmental design, as well as an autonomous work. Contributing to a new phase in ‘cultural history,’ the Earthworks has been an inspiration for my personal approach of designing readable landscape with a bias towards ecological design.
My first meeting with the work was in 1997, when I lived in Seattle for half a year. At that time, my practice had already moved away from galleries and museums to actually working in the landscape. During that transformation, I discovered it was necessary to move away from the individual artistic pursuit towards teamwork with specialists. The results of such intense and intricate collaborations is a diffuse authorship; yet authorship is often considered essential in the world of arts.
Here I was, standing in Kent, in an obvious earthwork, as autonomous as a Michael Heizer, and as functional as a corps of engineers’ structure. The word ‘aesthetics’ came up, and I realized I should reconsider this word. We tend to use this word to specify a higher ‘balanced’ level of beauty. The world of the senses is a very limited use; the classical roots of this word point at the world of ethics, meaning ‘of behavior/sense of responsibility.’ This very demanding connotation of the word is often neglected – yet here was a work that fluently connected the senses to understanding responsibility in the most fundamental way. As such, the work is literally a landmark: a demonstration of how building our environment is way more than accommodating functions – each step we make is building culture, our culture.
At the source of my own work lies the premise that landscape is legible; that a landscape reveals how a culture relates to the natural conditions. Nature and Culture are two mutually enriching concepts. My goal is to present the origins of a landscape in such a way that (re)interpretation of the environment becomes possible by taking the locally encountered relationship between Nature and Culture as subject. The landscape itself becomes material for a meaningful (re)design. Each work is site specific: inviting cultural self-reflection by uncovering cultural history and creating favorable conditions for nature to re-establish in a more readable landscape.
Jeroen van Westen lives and works in Enschede, the Netherlands. His work is presented in the form of temporary installations, performances, books, permanent structures, or a combination of these. Rather than placing a sculpture in the public space, the public space offers the material to construct a (visual) tale. His philosophy is that all landscape is readable – any landscape tells how the culture which created it was or is related to the land and to nature.
Van Westen often works with water. As an artist-in-residence in New Mexico, van Westen has explored the cultural differences between water in the Netherlands and the American desert. “Water is an ever present issue in The Netherlands for more than half of the country is below sea level. Dutch culture is based on the common sense of water being dangerous, a danger only to be countered by collaboration, by a communal effort in building and maintaining defensive landscape elements and dedicated organizations earlier on called polders, now the polders are united in organizations named waterscapes. In an arid country water is very precious in a totally different way and only from time to time a danger to the people living there. People in arid countries have to collaborate to retain and to divide water, for that they have united in irrigation communities, in New Mexico named Acequia’s (Spanish origin).” (Description of van Westen’s Converse on artistsbooks.com.)
Van Westen has made artists books since the 1980s. Also during the 1980s, for a period of 6-7 years, he and Thijs Veraart made transitory constructions. “These constructions were erected during trips taken together, most of them in the Netherlands. An ‘object’ was made with materials found at the spot or collected during the day. It was built (anonymously), based on something seen or experienced on that particular day. These works were meant to express uneasiness with our culture; with the way people act, live, build. The constructions are a kind of counter model of our culture. The works were then left behind, abandoned to the elements of time, nature, wayfarers. An end to these nomadic constructions came when the works were drawn more and more into the realm of art.”
In 1989, as he continued to make artist books, van Westen’s story-telling transformed into a large-scale installation, Val Door de Tijd (Fall through time) in an old drill tower in Enschede, Hengelo. In the early 90’s, he combined installation art with soundscapes, which he exhibited at the Hewlett Gallery in Pittsburg. This work was followed by the publication of 4 videos and CD-rom titled Suspensie (Suspension) in 1998. Also in 1998, van Westen was commissioned by City of Pijnacker to create De Watermachine (The Watermachine), proposing to make natural water purification visible and audible. Thus began a series of public commissions, artist-in-residencies and lectures that have taken van Westen throughout Europe and the United States.
1. A Green Wedge, 2006. Terra Incognita is part of a new park for a new residential area the city of Apeldoorn is building. The concept for the park is developed with the help of representatives of ecological, hydrological, traffic planning, and many other disciplines. There are three zones in the park, named Tabula Rasa (the clean slate where playgrounds and educational gardens are), Palimpsest (where the older landscape is leading), and Terra Incognita. Terra Incognita is the most ‘philosophical’ area as well as a highly functional part of the park. Here the retention of surface water of two neighborhoods will take place. In Terra Incognita, the invitation is leading, not a finished fixed image. The edges are defined, and within these limits/fringes the unknown can develop, based on dramatic, incidental changes of the water level. The new inhabitants of the houses at the edges can mingle with the new inhabitants that will find home in the developing landscape.
Each edge has its own sensorial bias, one of them is a 12.5 meter high sound barrier to block the noise from a busy highway. The stream traversing the green space leading up to the sound barrier must be able to flow through the dike while sound must be prevented from flowing the opposite direction. A curving ravine is created that cuts through the barrier, almost turning back on itself, such that there is no direct line of sight through the barrier. Seeing and hearing are re-tuned while following the stream through the barrier, by that the confusion of the senses may lead to intellectual challenging reflections on the relationship between park and motorway, each icons in themselves of (sublime) nature and (extreme) culture.
Commissioned by the city of Apeldoorn. Jeroen van Westen, artist, in collaboration with Linda Hooijer, the city landscape architect and Gerrit Vosselman, the city urban planner.
2. Fort voor het Water (Fortress for the Water), 2000
“Was getekend, the Runde” is a project that was meant to contribute imaginative force to a landscape that was ‘dead.’ Industrial agriculture wore out the soil within 25 years of use after digging of 6 meters of peat (over the last centuries). Only one remnant of 200 acres left of a swamp that used to be 100 km from North to south, varying in width between 5 – 40 km. This area became my source of inspiration and made me realize that the original powers creating that swamp are still going: an upward swell of high quality water and the natural relief are still there. I proposed a new watercourse fed by the upward swell and shaped by the memories of the people and their longings. Besides designing a new stream to channel, retain and ecologically ‘develop’ the potential of the pure water, a Fortress was build at the location where there used to be a earthen fort located at the border of the swamps. The new fortress is not defended by water, but brings water to the stream, thus celebrating a new alliance with nature.
Commissioned by Land Reclamation committee Emmer Veenkolonieën. Jeroen van Westen, artist, in collaboration with many locals, Maarten van Wesemael, eco-art-advisor/urban curator, Harry Berg, landscape architect, Piet Ziel, urban planner and Emile Galetzka, hydro-engineer.