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Arts, parks and nature

Opening speech at ‘Park’, Tilburg, November 30th 2013.

Frans Ellenbroek

 

Ladies and Gentlemen,

The organizers of this exhibition asked me to speak about my biologist’s view on the theme of it, parks,  landscapes and nature, and their relationship with the arts. Now you must know, that I am the sort of biologist who likes to think that every subject of reflection in this world is basically a biological subject, so you understand, I always say yes to this sort of requests. Another reason to say yes is that I felt honoured.

In taking the word ‘Park’ as a name for this place and a  theme for this exhibition, the people responsible for this wonderful gallery and exhibition have chosen very well. Not only that is because of the location next to a very nice park, but I found other reasons as well. These reasons have to do with the special relationship that we Dutch people have with our landscape and its elements.

In preparing this speech I found out rather soon that I needed some help from archaeology and philosophy, in order to make the desired connections between parks, nature and arts. So what I will do in the next few minutes is treat you on a mixture of all three disciplines. If this will confuse you, my mission will be accomplished.

Let me start nearby, in Tilburg.

The central square of this wonderful city has the curious name ‘Heuvel’, the Dutch word for ‘hill’. Why is that curious? It is curious, because the square is anything but a hill. It is – actually – as flat as flat can be, just like the rest of this beautiful country. More nearby you must have seen the Wilhelminapark, the creation of one of our great landscape architects, Leonard Springer.  By the way, in any other country a park of this size would have been called a ‘square’.

Parks, squares, hills and nature. The Netherlands and its inhabitants have a unique relationship with them in particular and with space in general. The basic reason for this uniqueness is, that this country is not a country at all. It is, actually, a swamp. But not only our relationship with space is unique. The same goes for our relationship with the visual arts, because, in spite of our modest size, as you might know, the low countries have produced a couple of not so bad painters. Between these two I suspected a connection. I found one in our Dutch prehistory and in philosophy.

To explain this connection, I go back a couple of millennia, back to the prehistoric residents of this area.

In those early days our country was not only a swamp, it also looked like one. Man’s relationship with nature was complicated, problematic and ambiguous. Mother nature was both a friend and an ally, like mothers are supposed to according to biological theory, but this mother was also a vicious enemy, in which one could drown or get lost and starve. To grow up and become independent of this mother, was – and still is – a difficult and dangerous task. In order to survive in the swamp, which flooded irregularly and unpredictably, our ancestors made little hills in the swamp where they could be dry and safe. The Dutch word for these old artificial hills is ‘terpen’. These safe and dry places, ‘terpen’, were essential for the survival of our ancestors and the development of our civilisation. The whole setting – according to me – had a distinctive impact on the peculiarities of culture in the low countries.

Now, a Dutch humanistic philosopher, Harry Kunneman, writing about the poetry of the Dutch poet and psychologist Rutger Kopland, used the swamp as well as the little hills called ‘terpen’ as a metaphor for the significance of poetry in particular, but also for the significance of the arts in general.

Human existence – says Kunneman – is essentially a swamp, a swamp full of dangers and threats, full of chances to perish, to drown or to starve. Human beings constitute the first animal species that is aware of this position. As we all know it is almost impossible to deal with this awareness. What the arts mean to us, according to Kunneman – is actually the very same as what the little hills called ‘terpen’ meant for prehistoric man.

The arts are the little dry hills in the swamp. The swamp still exists, unmistakably it does, but we do have our little hills. Standing on one of these hills, we are able to look at the swamp, observe it, accept the fundamental swampiness of human existence, deal with it, cope with it, but without denying it or – let alone – beating it. So this is why we have the arts: they make us recognize all aspects of our presence, here and now, its lightness as well as its darkness, they deliver us tools to live and survive in it, but above all they make us aware of its presence, its unreliable and unpredictable nature, and yes, also its beauty.

This all is fundamentally different from the solution offered us by religion, says Kunneman, not surprisingly, as he is a humanist. Religion promises us an eternal life after the swamp, in the shape of paradise, a word with the same etymological root as the word ‘park’. By this promise, which is a false promise, religion keeps us from dealing with life itself, here and now, our life in the swamp.

I go back now from Kunneman’s metaphor to here, now and me again.

At this point it is good to realize, that the Dutch word for villages is ‘dorpen’ and that this word is derived from ‘terpen’, the little hills. Also that the driest part of the hill is the middle of it, the safest place to be. That is why a central square in Tilburg, as flat as it may be, is called a hill.

Now for me it is a tempting view, that Kunneman’s metaphor, which I like very much, can also be taken literally in the case of the Dutch and their visual arts. We have always been able to look at our own swamp, in all its vastness and elusiveness, and reflect on it. The appreciation for this position forms an essential condition for the artist’s soul to be born.

When industrial 19th century man lost his connection to mother nature, but thereby also to his own – human – nature, he needed parks as replacement for it. But there is an essential difference between parks and nature. The park is a confined area, nothing more than a three-dimensional image of nature. The image is in fact nature’s opposite, It has neither threats nor dangers. No ambushes, no sudden disasters. It fulfils our wishes and gives us an illusion of safety. Parks are a pleasant temporary refuge from hectic city life. But still they are an illusion, just like paradise, just like a prostitute.

For this reason it was a very good decision of the Tilburg City Council – made in the nineties of the last century – to restore the Wilhelminapark into its original transparent state and remove bushes that stood in the way of our view through it. A park is not nature, a park is not a landscape, it is a romantic picture of it, painted not with paint but with cultivated trees and shrubs.

Natural landscapes themselves are able to confront us with the true essence of our existence. But so is art.

Admittedly – works of art can be pictures of things, they can be illusions that – like parks -keep us away from reality. But works of art can also be little hills that we can climb to get a good view on the swamp of existence. The works of art we can see today in this exhibition have this same essential meaning for us.

Bad works of art are like religion, drugs, parks or a non-existing paradise: they pretend to give us answers to the unanswerable questions, they make us the false promise that it will all be better later or elsewhere. They distract our minds from what we really should do: cope with life and its fundamental swampiness.

Good art on the other hand is the opposite: it does not give us answers, because there simply are no answers. It provides us with riddles and questions, old questions and new questions, new ways of looking at the swamp. Good art enables us to do the only right thing and make this life bearable of even joyful: live our life.

As a finale for my short introduction I have looked for a poem by Rutger Kopland, whose vision on poetry and art is very close to Kunneman’s, and modestly, also to mine, and I found this next one that illustrates perfectly what it is all about in the arts (in a translation by James Brockway):

Belvedere

I know those are woods, rivers,
meadows, villages, and that
I love them, I know it.

But more and more as now, as
a bird loves its nest:

not for ever. I see your withered
fingers on the rail, the small, grey
feathers fluttering at your temples,
the crowsfeet near your eyes,

dear one, do you see how still and far
that world is now, how only
the shadows of the clouds are moving,

do you feel how the wind is all
you feel. A time is coming – when we’ll
be birds again, as once we were,

in the days before we were.