12 April, 2015

Small columns I wrote about art in the public space (ONGOING POST)

Since around 2006 I write a small, 2 monthly column about art in the public space for a homeless magazine in the north of my country. It is made by (semi)professionals and sold by homeless people, who can keep the profits themselves. We all work on a volunteer basis. The idea is that the magazine revolves around the homeless in the north of the Netherlands, but this topic is taken very broadly and there is for instance a lawyer who writes columns about remarkable cases he has, and a university teacher. I volunteered to start writing about art in the public space in my hometown, which is free to see for everyone and we call it Art on the Street. It links to the name of the magazine, the Street Paper, freely translated. It's aimed at every day people buying this magazine and I think some columns turned out a bit better than others, but the aim is to make people look a second time at the art they pass every day on their way to work or whereever they go. And to give them some suggestions about what can be meant with it, or what the maker intended with it, or sometimes just what I see in it.

I tried to translate a few of them in English. I only translated a few at the moment but will soon add some others.

I wrote a magazine column about our pride, the big tower in the city center, the local historic archives and regional art center picked up on it and published it too. She is dubbed the Old Gray Lady. Groningen is one of the leading student cities here, every year fresh kids from all over the country arrive to make their home, for a year or 4 or 5 perhaps. Then they usually leave again to live and work in the west. The tower overlooks the central square and the bars. 

She was the first I saw
Initially just as a glimpse
A reflection in the window
from my train compartment, 3rd class

This is where the train stopped
until this city
until Groningen
My new home

I came here to study and without knowing a soul,
she showed me the way, from the station to the center
But at the Gedempte Zuiderdiep
I already lost sight of her
I wandered around until reaching the Grote Markt
where I found her again
There she had stood all that time
waiting for me, I still thought

Although she was older than me
I was captivated by her beauty
She was what they called
a classical beauty
Her whole posture was robust
You couldn't help looking up to her
Nevertheless she was well loved
People cherished her

She was she shining center
of this bright town
And from that moment onwards
she was for me as well

I was eighteen years old
so instantly in love
Drunkenloyalty I promised her
which occasionally happened back then
I regularly saw her
Usually around closing time
I watched her looking at me
And knew again what time it was*

But with the years came habit
And the habit created distance
Wasn't she perhaps prettier
in Pisa or in Paris

I no longer looked back at her
And she looked down on me
I mocked her with Old Gray one
And she stole the heart of yet another Freshman

When I left the town in darkness
Wiser about how to live
I turned around to her one last time
and struggled to distinguish her between many

My partners have since changed
Many times my home was elsewhere
Several cities were renewed
Time makes even jealousy familiar

But often my thoughts go back to her
And to youthful audacity and beauty and such
but above all all to what makes for loyal love
Carved as if out of stone

* Is a Dutch saying; to know what time it is, means something like; knowing what's in store. The marking on the wall perhaps. 

Whomever walks through the Noorderplantsoen park, and distinguishes an airy, modest fountain in the pond near the Nieuwe Ebbingestraat, might initially shrug his shoulders at the sight of its somewhat shapeless frame of steel. The aquamarine colored design sooner resembles a busted water supply pipe than an aesthetic and refined fountain. We are dealing however, for whom wants to look further, with a contemporary Rorschachtest. A three dimensional version of the controversial inkblot test, used by psychiatrists in the 1920's and onwards to have their patients project their feelings and interpretations on. Or more appropriate, the fountain brings to mind the optical illusion drawings, in which you can distinguish both a (Rubin's) vase and two faces. Or a young female versus an old woman. Your brain separates both in figure and background. You see one or the other, possibly alternating but never simultaneously.

With these practices its usually the case that whatever shape you see first, will determine your perception. You usually need to make some extra effort to see the alternating image. The contra image is retrievable, but it will often remain the submissive figure. Ergo: every person has his own view on matters, and might be rather determined in it. So far for psychology, now back to the sculpture.

Those who look longer at the fountain and find the right angle, will suddenly detect a new image, that was seemingly there from the start. However, in contrast with the earlier mentioned psychological tests, this new image will dispel ánd replace the first image permanently. Who discovered the bathing female face of artist Bas Lugthart, will recognize her profile for all times to come. Even when she has a Bad Hairday as a result of frost or technical failure. As this work of art consists of two (contrasting) element: steel and water. Technique versus organic. And the wind will also play a modest part in it all. The completion of the fountain is literally and figuratively arising from the head. From the artist who had the idea, from the work of art that is completed by the spurts of water which come from the metal and form the long streaming tresses of hair, and from the viewers, who's mind manages to reform the two elements back to one. Its dynamics are reinforced by the slanting back of the profile, through which our now activated brain effortlessly can imagine a giant body underneath the surface, that stretches itself to erupt from its bathing tub. The suspense of imagination..

While I move on, I hear a man with a hat, sitting at the embankment, mumble:

Like the water well 's affected
by the gold'n light of grace
enlive'ning it with marv'lous splendour
shimmers now this graceful face

Like the trail of misty morning
dandling without seeming weight
now two gray green vision bearers
confiscate my glorious sight

While I see fick'l-ness and squalor
in this world, a rough'ly mess
looms this image full of glamour
disintegrates in loveliness

Swiftly coming from the darkness
Proud defiant of the time
even though she stays but shortly
she lightens dark into divine.

Those who pass the Emma Bridge, while being part of the busy traffic there, will usually not notice a highly valued sculpture. Traffic lights, road regulations and speeding cyclist preclude your chances normally. But there is a paradox. Propelled by 'the stream of always hurried to going nowhere', you might pass the bronze statue unawarely, but the sculpture doesn't pass you. Because those who participate in traffic are automatically part of it.

This statue is "Traffic". Or rather: it symbolizes traffic. And that is what it's artist, Willem L. Rijers (1910-1958), envisioned and what we see in front of us now: condensed movement, which pulsates onwards like a trembling snake. Rijers was a pupil of Léger in Paris of the 1930's. Not only Léger's art was of influence on him, but more so his ideas. Léger wanted to use the shapes and forms of Cubism to create an art which stood in contact again with the realities of industrialized society. He integrated abstract forms in his paintings, together with objects which were derived from machines. But Reijers wanted to become a sculpture, not a painter, and he found his way -like so many young artists with him- to Ossip Zadkine. The influence of this progressive sculptor is clear to see in Rijers sculpture Traffic.
''A creature of Traffic', Professor Dr. H. Schulte Nordholt named it during its exposé. Rijers himself had expressed a careful but prophetic prediction with this sculpture on the expanding traffic situation around the Emma Bridge. “Traffic” seemed to foresee it also himself. In pain and despair it turns it's head towards the sky and wonders: “Where should this go?”

This is exactly what the local government wondered too, as soon as the Emma Viaduct was erected and it's placement and that of the KPN building forced this statue to a nearby field. After a long debate and a short wandering, “Traffic” in the end returned to it's spot on the bridge.
Perhaps there had been a slight flirtation in the 50's with the wonders of -by then- modern technology, and the spine and tail of this “Traffic Creature” could be seen as part of a graceful courtship dance, reflecting the ongoing traffic. In this day and age we perceive this creature as a fossil from the past however. One that has lost its fight with computer controlled cars.

-[…] Here I am
there is no other image from death
than a living image -

These words were spoken by the Dutch poet Lucebert in his in memoriam Willem Rijers for his friend. Rijers died 8 months before the unveiling of “Traffic”. The task of the completion was given to the artist Wessel Couzijn. He also overlooked its placement on the Emma Bridge in 1959. Rijers' widow would complete the unveiling, but a gust of wind was faster than her. The traffic couldn't wait...

“The Little Thinker”

When you follow the Paterswoldseweg in the direction of the Central Park, you can see her sit in front of the school of the Verzetsstrijderslaan: a sullen, nude girl in a cramped posture. It’s not her nudity which makes her appearance uncomfortable. The average onlooker these days is accustomed to it, and this sculpture has such a smooth and flowing style that it leaves little to be shocked about. The model itself seems blasé about her posing and the discomfort stems neither from her sullen look, which focus lies past the passing onlookers. The problem stems more from the sitting itself.. Only her rump and left hand and heel touch the pedestal. All the rest of her body floats in an almost supernatural state. Gravity asserts itself in a very uncomfortable manner here. Frontally she resembles a dewinged angel who fell from the sky. We see her as her behind touches the earth. Or perhaps she reminds us more of a modern Icarus, who flew to the heavens with wings made of wax. Vanity precedes the fall, as they say. But perhaps all this is sought too high up and we are dealing with a northern female thinker, or a ‘penseuse’.
The image is built by the Groninger sculptor Wladimir de Vries (1917-2001), who received the assignment in 1960 from the local Groninger authority. Initially he intended to make the sculpture over 3 meters high, but the government objected to the unnatural proportions of the female figure. The end product now measures 1,15 meters. Young, flourishing female figures have been a recurring theme in De Vries’ work. And even though this sculpture falls within this category, its limbs still look disproportionally elongated. The work reminds me of some nudes of the French artist Matisse (1869- 1954), an exceptionally gifted painter whose models are depicted with rounder and more voluptuous curves than nature blessed them with. Both artists represented an important step in the evolution of modern art, where nature became subordinate to the (form)vision of the artist, and where the model became separated from background and space.
The city people gave this sculpture a name, where her maker had renounced: “The thinkster” (or female thinker as you might call it in English?) Although she seems less absorbed in thought than her French counterpart, The Thinker (Le Penseur) from the sculptor Rodin (1840-1917) –her hand just fails to touch her chin and she lacks the look of erudition and contemplation; her eyes express some surliness to mask any hidden deeper thoughts –, both figures nevertheless possess a strong introspection which warrants their names. 

I think of you and don’t dare to say that I miss you, because you will find me ridiculous. But nevertheless… when will I finally meet you?”

Rodins thinker is a classical heavy weight: his hand actually supports his chin. His eyes stare glazingly but decisive in the distance. Every moment this body can come into action. What is he thinking of? Is he only overlooking the megalomanic (because much bigger planned) project of a driven artist? Rodin neither gave his sculpture its name, “The Thinker”. It came from the people, who naturally prefers unambiguity when it comes to form and title. Meanwhile he looks from all corners of the world down on the demise of a decadent world, for which he is even chosen as a symbol by some. We can only guess about his thoughts, and see our own ponderings reflected in it.

My love,
Did I write you to find it ridiculous that you miss me? I can not remember that. Perhaps I meant to say that you don’t have to explain to me that you miss me, as a beloved has to sense and see that for himself. Perhaps I felt anguished, because I don’t want that loving also brings sadness. Or maybe I just didn’t dare to answer that I also miss you. Perhaps it was that last reason. But that you think of me, is more than I dare to ask. And as long as I also think of you, there is no need for you to miss me.
Your Thinker” 


Second Thought 
Whoever enters the underground bicycle parking at the Central Station in Groningen, is for a moment drawn back into childhoodness. With its many vistas in the ceiling and it’s diffused light from above, the shielded parking reminds somewhat of the large shoebox where you used to pinch holes in and which you covered with cotton wool and crepe paper on the inside. Thereby you created your own fantasy world in a shoebox diorama. The bicycle parking at the central station however is a diorama with a false bottom, or rather with a false ceiling. There, the visitor can namely see a new and remarkable work of art hanging. Above the gray and red roundabout hangs a globe of glass, like a large drop of water stuck to the ceiling. Seeing its thick, black base and oval rounding it is immediately clear that this object refers to the kitschy "snow house" that one can find in souvenir shops. Miniature landscapes, caught in their own atmosphere of plastic and filled with a lobed, clear liquid. When a child's hand shakes them, it spontaneously starts to snow, from the little house on the moor to the Eiffel Tower in Paris. Power over the seasons and the world in a nutshell, you can easily dream away with it.

However , the souvenir that’s trapped in the globe of the bicycle parking is a special one. It depicts namely the station building itself. We just saw that attraction greater and in real life above the ground. Could this be a mockery of our memory or does the artist want to tell us something else? If you look closely, you see that not only the contours of the building are highlighted in it, but also the many details, that together make up a three-dimensional shape. It's like someone cut the building up with a large knife and divided it into slices. Its essence is reduced to a black, jagged surface. Its unmistakably the mirror image of the original Gosschalk design above ground. It lights up alternately through a grid of neon tubes, followed by a very modest rain of star light patches. Afterwards it sinks back into its ghostly, rudimentary form. Until the neon lights highlight the 'station' again, bringing the little world beneath the bell back to life for a brief moment.
The work 'Second Thought' is thus a modern translation of the fairy tale snow house. By using it as a reference, artist Giny Fox plays with elements as transformation, visibility and invisibility. Whoever has the house at his disposal, has the self-determination over the usually unaffected seasons and the physical appearance of things. Fox has responded to this with "Second Thought". The work seems to refer to the recent changes that have taken place on the old station building. Although the newly build bicycle parking has been placed under the ground, its roof however is build as a concrete sloping hill, that rises in front of the station building above, hiding the late 19th century building of Gosschalk Isaac (1838-1907) partly from view. Because of the sloping shape of this 'City Balcony', the view on the train station changes constantly while passing. Fox has translated this into an alternating visibility and darkness of the miniature building, trapped in the globe. Like the viewer can decide whether he will shake the snow house or not, in order to change the image, he can also determine himself from what position he wants to see the station

The title 'Second Thought' refers to a thought process, where questions and doubt arise or a new conclusion is made after further consideration and reflection. Perhaps Fox has chosen this title to underline the dark side of the placement of the 'City Balcony'. The dichotomy that the term implies is also represented by the ever changing face of the station into the crystal ball. The title may also be understood as a request to the viewer to not be too quick to judge the new look of the station and to embrace multiple perspectives. Whether you find this ‘City Balcony’ beautiful or ugly, it raises at least a new light on the old station building and creates a tension around it that’s worth the effort of the experience. “Second Thought” responds to this process.
A French homeless that passes puts it this way: "In the middle of the ordinariness of the hectic commuter traffic is there suddenly the dream world. You can still change your mind now. The sense that you're under the ground and you look at a beautiful colorful reminder of the real world, deprives you spontaneous of the fear of death."

In 2007 twelve artworks were placed along the waterway Lemmer-Delfzijl, as part of the art project Word Stream. Writers and artists made a covenant for it, and combined typography and authorship with art.
One of these art pieces can be found just outside Dorkwerd. Anyone who cycles past the Platvoet bridge, under which the Reitdiep and the Van Starkenborghkanaal intersect, can see a red letter tree on the bank of a nearby strip of land along the water. Its base is made from brown steel, and consists of a long vertical pole and thirteen smaller horizontal 'branches', on which jagged letters balance. It reads:

No land
But water
No water
But land
Land that floats on
Flat land, therefore
Two channels
That intersect
Lie in the same field
Land in which is cut
Water in which is cut

The verses are from the author Gerrit Krol and the design of artist Regina Verhagen. Regina Verhagen (1965) studied at the Academy St. Joost in Breda and the School of the Arts in Amsterdam. Her oeuvre includes murals and spatial objects. In the '90s she made already several murals with text and images

Gerrit Krol (1934) comes from Groningen and is a writer, essayist and poet. He debuted in 1961 with poems in literary journals and in 1962 with his novel The skirts of Joy Scheepmaker. Abstractions in the form of drawings and formulas in his work show the influence of Krols studies of mathematics. Krol received the Constantijn Huygens Prize and the PC Hooft Prize. Gerrit Krol has a great love for the Van Starck Borgh Channel, "It was a clear channel, I thought, beautifully carved on the map. I did a lot with that channel. I cycled there, explored it, I was on the waterfront to watch the occasional  passing tanker; sometimes I swam in it. Usually during the day, but sometimes also in the evenings and at night. Usually in swimming trunks, but also without. I owned the New Channel, as poet / swimmer / engineer. Nobody painted the new channel. Only me. With a ruler." A bridge over the canal is named after Gerrit Krol.
What initially resembles a tree in the landscape looks, with knowledge of the mathematical background of Krol, more like a kind of three-dimensional diagram. This diagram attempts to show the balance that Krol also recognizes in the landscape and that he has transformed into his poem. This poem starts and ends with a repetition and reversal of sentences: No land but water, no water but land. Land in which is cut, water in which is cut. These sentences are in the same way in balance as the water and the land. The staggered branches on which the sentences are made reaffirm this again; staggering but in the end in balance. The land that floats on water refers to the peninsula on which this work is placed and to the bridge. They are numerically in balance with the two channels. And who looks at the landscape, sees that the water cuts through the landscape, but when
you change your point of view by looking at a map, you see that both the land and the bridge (land over water) in turn cut through the water. All these elements are man-made and in balance, like the eternal struggle between land and water. There are more forms of repetition and balance in the work; the words water and land are listed in equal amounts in the poem, namely five times. Krol used mathematical terms to refer to the landscape, like 'flat' and 'cut', and the word "therefore" does not only mean 'so' but also refers to the dichotomy (half). (The dutch terms are mathematical terms at the same time, this doesn’t work for the English versions I fear J). Krol not only searches balance and division in the landscape but also in the language itself. By reading the poem he forces you to look at the landscape with his eyes: with his mathematical eye and with his ruler.
The placement of the title of the artwork, Waterway, at the bottom of the poem surprised me somewhat. It even seemed to undermine the rhythm of the poem. Moreover, the title is generally placed on top. The pole is in balance, the "branches" are in balance, water and land are in balance and in the end the poem is in balance too, and you can also read it also from bottom to top.  Therefore you have not one but two poems. Or perhaps even four. Like you can sail a channel from two sides; from top to bottom and from bottom to top.

Those who walk through the Kijk in ’t Jatstraat in Groningen can view, when somewhat curious, a work of art that many city folks haven’t discovered yet. Whereas art is usually portrayed on walls at eye height or displayed in the open space, we now have to lift our eyes to the sky.
Originally, ceiling paintings were decorative and illustrative. They portrayed usually mythological or Biblical stories. Regard them as the high applied print books of those days and think about the paintings of Michelangelo in the Sixteenth chapel. Those who were craftsmen back then are called artists now, and in terms of their choice of topic they nowadays have a free hand. So it can easily happen that you come across a ceiling painting that resembles a heavenly see through at first glance, but that displays some unconventional elements when you look closer. Turning gear wheels for instance, that bring to mind the industrialization of the 18th century rather than the Renaissance.
Within nine identical panels, arranged three by three, we can see a pale blue sky with some drifting white clouds and flat lying gear wheels and radars. It are not just those gears that tell us that we are dealing with a relatively modern work of art here, but also the flat and dull way in which the scene is depicted. It resembles more the work of the surrealist Magritte than the refined and ingenious use of perspective by the masters of the Renaissance.
It is a strange space to stand in, this arcaded junction between the shopping street and the university compound. It is used by many students to make the cross from the old Academy buildings in the Broerstraat to the new Harmony Complex. But it marks also the boundary between city life in general and the Academic world. And yet most passers-by of this connective place are not aware of what is hanging above their heads. Most literally here. They simply don’t notice it and gaze straight in front of them, never blinking heavenly. Because that’s what’s on offer here: a glance into heaven.
Our eye is deceived of course. An old artistry trick is dusted off to give a flat surface the illusion of endless depth. Measureless is not exactly what the domed sky above us appears to us however, but that might also stem from the low height of the ceiling compared to those of massive basilicas and cathedrals. But there is more between heaven and earth. There is time. Depicted here as big, drifting gear wheels and radars that seem to have been launched from an exploded clockwork. Surrealistic elements in an unreal, flatly painted imagery, applied on a ceiling that’s too low. The result resembles an oversized shoebox diorama. Because also the passage itself is remarkable for Groninger standards: a classical vaulted passage that isn’t classical at all, but only a flat corridor with apparent columns and the illusion of antiquity. One row of columns would have been sufficient, but the architect seems to have chosen to create an unnecessary but very useful special vacuum, in which this ceiling painting could create her effect. Both portals act therefore as an accordion, that sucks time and space into its vacuum. Entrance and exit seem one, but an architectural power forced an interval, that allows us a deeper view. The space is transformed into a miniature time travel, provided that you are aware of the painting above your head.

After further inspection it appears that the gear wheels can’t turn, because there is a part missing. Some squares also appear to be out of place. Suddenly the panels start shifting before your eyes, like in the plastic games from your childhood, where you had to keep shifting fields until you produced a full image. A 2 dimensional Rubik’s Cube. It’s obvious which panels have to be shifted here, but how? The open spot, let’s call it the black hole, is absent. Why? Maybe the artists, the duo Yland/Metz, have sabotaged it all on purpose, to force time to a standstill. Who doesn’t want to be a Ti-ta-tovenaar [Wizzard from Dutch television] who can freeze time now and again, just to have the silence and quietness to solve some matters or work them out. Many a student would like to stop time in order to gain it.

Groninger resistance fighters

Those who visit the Noorderbegraafplaats (cemetery) in Selwerd, can find a touching grave monument. On a white, vertical stone the roots of a cut tree spread down. Engraved are the words Broken but not uprooted. One can also read the name of resistance fighter Harm Engbert Blaauw (1917-1945). A modest monument for a brave man, whose live was broken in the blossom (that's a Dutch saying, might make no sense translated like this though). 

The picture on his identity card displays a handsome, confident looking young man with his hair in a side parting. Blaauw lived in the Hamburgstraat in Groningen and worked as a superintendent, before he got entangled in the resistance. He became a member of Group Packard during the Second World War; a Dutch intelligence service that was connected with the Dutch government which had fled to London. They equipped themselves with information transmission and (meteorological) intelligence, but also helped to get and keep injured allied soldiers into hiding places. Blaauw sheltered a paratrooper who had escaped the infamous Scholtenshaus at the Grote Markt, but he was eventually betrayed and brought to the Scholtenshaus himself. 

At the end of the war, this statuesque villa was destroyed by bombardments, but at the time of the war the German Sicherheitsdienst instructed the (industrial) Scholten family to evacuate their home, and housed the SD head quarter of the north in it. It acquired a gruesome reputation, as many hundreds of people were interrogated, tortured and often killed here. Especially Robert Lehnhof ("The torturer of Groningen") and Ernst Knorr were renowned for being sadistic and fanatical. In Groningen only 20 percent of the Jews survived the war, against 30% nationally. The Dutch Schutzstaffel (SS; the paramilitary defense troops) committed 22 of the total of 50 Silbertanne-murders of 'anti German' Dutchmen in the north.  Atrocious murderings took place in 1945 in Anloo, where ten resistance fighters were first unspeakably tortured. Also at least 75 communist resistance fighters from Groningen were killed. In the province of Groningen a relative big number of resistance fighters were executed, but it also had an active resistance. 

Harm Engbert Blaauw survived his capturing in the Scholtenshaus, after which he was brought to the prison at the Hereweg. He might have sat out the war there, if it weren't for the killing of a German commander in the Frysian place of Valom on 19 januari 1945 by the resistance. In a merciless revenge attack, the Germans committed the biggest group execution the north has seen during the war, and on January the 22nd they shot twenty prisoners from Frysland and Groningen without any form of trial. Harm Engbert Blaauw was one of them.

The artist who made the grave monument for Harm Engbert Blaauw is Willem Valk. He also played an active role in the artist resistance. But this is not the only resistance fighters grave in the province. There are many more. Just at the Noorderbegraafplaats already alone there are 17 more.. Their professions ranged from accountant, grocer, silversmith and wine merchant to teacher. But also war criminals like Pieter Schaap and Abraham Kaper are buried here. In Bakkeveen lies the grave of famous artist Hendrik Werkman. During the war he was involved with forbidden publications and on April 10th 1945, after imprisonment at the Scholtenshaus, he was executed with nine others in a forest. And in Marum sixteen innocent man and boys were shot by a German patrol on May 3rd 1943, after they found some tree trunks obstructing the road. 

I would have liked to also write about the resistance work of my own grandparents, but they lived in Overrijsel and were no Stadjers (slang for people living in Groningen, our equivalent of Geordies for instance). There are countless stories about brave resistance people which haven't made it into the annals, but every story deserves to be remembered and passed on. 

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