Call of the Wild/ A Desire for Nature

An interview with Walter van Broekhuizen

by Arie Altena

Over a two-day period in April 2011, I interviewed Walter van Broekhuizen in the building where he lives and works. We spoke about the spatial installations that he makes, about the questions and themes that he raises with them, his motives, and his methods of working. The text below is an edited version of the interview.

AA: You've just completed a residency at Kunsthuis SYB, in northern Holland. You made a film there together with Arjen de Leeuw. What's it about?

WvB: Une Condition Naturelle (2011) is a film about two men who are in search of wilderness. They go into a forest to see if wilderness still exists. It's based on the romantic idea of nature that city boys have: to build a hut in the forest, to stoke a fire, to do things that are exciting because you can't do them in a city. They think they're going to discover wilderness. The film asks what nature is. What kind of a relationship do we have with nature? What is wilderness? Is there any wilderness left? The filming was done near Beetsterzwaag, a village in Friesland with country estates and forests. Arjen de Leeuw and I constructed and filmed the situations in the forest ourselves. We play the two lead roles. Dutch forests are not natural, they're manufactured. There are all sorts of rules that you have to obey if you go walking in them. I find the regulations and the artificiality interesting. In the film we cut a tree down. Because you aren't allowed to do that in the forest, we transported one to SYB from somewhere else, installed it in the exhibition space, secured it with straps and chopped it down there. The film shows the constructedness of nature, and our experience of it. The nature in the film looks real so long as you believe in it, but the film undermines that belief. As the camera zooms out, you realize that the house in the woods is a cardboard set.
We develop nature, and in doing so, introduce a kind of constructed wilderness. I find that construction highly interesting, partly because it makes the boundaries so clear. If you let nature go her own way, most people are ok with that until "wild" animals die during an exceptionally cold winter. That's sad, and shouldn't happen. We want a wild nature, but we put a fence around it and then make rules about how to behave in that "wild" nature. Real wildness should mean that deer can cross the highway - let that lead to an accident. That's wildness. As humans can't let that happen, so we think up all of these rules to prevent it. It's a strange contradiction.

AA: You have a personal fascination with nature and wilderness - do you long for a more wild state for people?

WvB: For me it's not about getting back to nature, or about surviving in the wilderness, like in Into the Wild, by John Krakauer. It's a book about a young man who tries to survive on his own in a very remote part of Alaska. I look at nature in a very Dutch way. I think of nature as dikes, the idea that humans can get nature under control. We influence and construct nature. I find that interesting. That begs the question: does nature influence us? Is there a wildness in ourselves? Do we still have instinct? I don't need to know if we do; I just think about it and make a piece that asks questions like that.

AA: But doesn't a desire for an authentic kind of nature play a role?

WvB: The Call of the Wild, the novel by Jack London, discusses the idea that you can find an authenticity in nature that city life does without. But why should you only be able to find an authencity while standing in a forest, and not in a city? The idea of returning to nature to rediscover an authenticity that we've lost is very strange to me. But wildness means something else. Here on my belt, I have a quote - "In wildness is the preservation of the world" - by the American writer Henry David Thoreau. I branded it onto this leather belt so I can carry it around with me every day. I think the quote means that we need to return to the uncivilized world. If we're uncivilized, then we are who we're supposed to be. Rules are good for the functioning of society, but if the rules are the death of a reasonably 'natural' way of living that makes you happy, then something's wrong. Then you have to throw the rules overboard. Philosophically, it works, but it practice, it doesn't. Certainly in a place like the Netherlands, rules are necessary, but in the woods of Canada maybe not.

AA: Thoreau often influences your work - specifically his book Walden. You've made several pieces that were inspired by it...

WvB: The questions I have about nature definitely come from Walden; or, Life in the Woods (published in 1854). The most interesting thing about that book for me is the idea that a simple life is the best life. Thoreau tried to show that by living in a cabin, and by living off the land. He built his cabin from material that was either given to him or which he found. Very 'cradle-to-cradle'. Everything in Walden is minimalist: Thoreau figures out - down to the cent - how little he can live on. It's a life without a single luxury. At the same time, he was living only an hour from the city of Concord, his cabin stood on the poet Ralph Waldo Emerson's land, and he had a lot of visitors. So it's not like he removed himself from social life; he wasn't a hermit. I'm fascinated by those sorts of experimentations with minimal living. Not because I want to live like that - I need the city. Just like Thoreau, it seems.
Walden has stayed with me. The first piece I did was for Waldkunst, an exhibition in a forest near Darmstadt in Germany. The first time I saw the place I knew immediately that I wanted to do something involving Thoreau's cabin. In the book he describes the measurements of the cabin, and you can find blueprints for models of it on the Internet. I made a life-sized version of it, out of wood. Thoreau built his cabin in order to be able to sit in the woods and live simply. I wanted to turn that around. The cabin had to be a podium from which to observe the woods. That's why I left the roof and one wall out. The romantic idea of building your own house was also there as a foundation for me: to build a shelter from local material. It's really simple. The cabin is still there and is used by people for picnicking, and to look at the woods that surround them. It also functions in another way: if you approach the cabin and there are people there picnicking, it looks like a sort of theatre set.

AA: Is Thoreau's cabin a symbol for a certain interpretation of nature?

WvB: I don't see House in the Woods as a symbol for our relationship with nature. For me, it's a reference, nothing more. A lot of people that see it don't recognize it as Thoreau's cabin. I think that a strange house that's missing a wall and roof should speak for itself, and the image should stir curiosity.

AA: In China, you used Thoreau's cabin again, as a starting point for another piece. How did it work there? On first impression, China and Thoreau seem to be a strange combination.

WvB: In China I made a model of Thoreau's cabin on a scale of 1:4, in concrete. Because of where it stands and the scale, your perspective is altered when you approach it. From a distance you don't see that the cabin is much smaller than the original. The piece was built in a UNESCO World Heritage Site on Mount Lushan, west of Shanghai. It stands next to an old path near the summit. The path is composed of old stones inscribed with quotes from Chinese philosophers. It's a very touristy area for the Chinese. Chinese landscape art originated there - it's a landscape with dramatic, forested peaks and patches of mist, complete with a temple. In the late 19th century, British businessman and missionary leased the land around Mount Lushan from the Chinese government and then sold parcels of it to Western missionaries who built huge villas there. It was a refuge for the rich. In that spot, the wealthy Westerners did exactly what Thoreau was advocating against. I used concrete as a nod to the mass expansion of contemporary China, where everything is made very fast, with that same concrete. Concrete is available everywhere; all you need is cement, sand, gravel and a bit of water, which you mix together. It always dries, it lasts a long time, and if you do nothing to it, it gets taken over by nature. Mount Lushan is a perfect location for the cabin because of all of these references: the literature (the quotes on stones), the history, the Chinese landscape art, the economy.

AA: Can you say more about how you work? How important is it to you that a piece is conceptually accurate, and that it suits a certain space?

WvB: I studied at the Rijksakademie in Amsterdam. While I was there I was advised by Michel François and Peter Struycken. Michel François has a unique visual language - I like that. Peter Struycken taught me to think of my work in a completely conceptual way - to analyze it at every stage in the process to make sure that the concept was right. These last few years I've moved away from that because you really can analyze something to death. You're in danger of working against your original idea then. It's not about observing anymore - it's only about the concept. That can work, but it can also lead to some really boring art. Anything can happen during the process - the skill is to use that process. I do try to think the concept of my work through, though. It has to 'fit' the location, and the situation that I'm creating it for. But I also want to be lead by what happens during the making of it, and what the situation offers, what can be thrown into your lap. I think ahead of time what it is that I want to do; I make sketches and precise drawings, and use the techniques I'm capable of using. At the same time I hope that things will get out of control, because that makes the image more real than just executing a well-thought-out concept. I take a gamble that unexpected things will happen, and I try to manipulate the situation so that they will.
The last few years I've mostly worked on location. There, a lot of things have already been decided for you. The situation provides a context that prevents certain things from happening, but which gives other aspects more shape. But my working process starts in my studio; that's where I experiment, that's where the thinking goes on. I try everything out first. There are a lot of failures, because things don't come together. Before I create something on location, I need to know if it's technically possible or not.

AA: Do you hope that the viewer understands the references you use in your work?

WvB: It's up to the viewer to make something of the piece. My work makes a thought process possible. I don't want to be pedantic. Of course I want to say something with my work, but the viewer won't find it in the form of an unambiguous statement.

AA: Is it important to you that your work be classified in a specific discipline?

WvB: I see my work as spatial installations. Or interventions of situations. But you could also say that it's a summons to an experience. I want to tell stories, too. A cabin in the woods can also be a theatrical set. Then it becomes a theatre, or a literary experience. I don't actually want to think in disciplines anymore - if something's a drawing or a sculpture, or an installation or something else, that doesn't matter to me.

AA: You started your career as an artist with spatial drawings: in 1998 you were a finalist for the Prix de Rome in drawing. How did you come to do location-specific work?

WvB: I made spatial drawings because I wanted to create a physical experience for the viewer. I wanted to create a spatial drawing that you could walk through, that you could walk into, collide with. I also wanted to force the viewer to take a position, a viewing position. That came through in Streetlevel, a pit that I dug in Dresden in 1999. That work was a breakthrough for me. In Streetlevel, I forced the viewer to literally experience the world with their eyes at the level of the street. I thought of the piece that Jan Dibbets made for the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam in the early 1970s, in which he exposed the foundations of the museum's building. Dresden is a city that has a heavy history attached to it: the bombing raids and firestorms of the Second World War completely levelled and destroyed the city. The craters created by the bombs were filled with the rubble of buildings. An old man helped me dig the pit for Streetlevel with a small excavator. 50 cm below the surface we came across black stone. The man spent the whole afternoon crying: a wound had been reopened for him. It was striking, and gave the work a weight that I hadn't anticipated. Of course I'd expected to expose history - if you dig a pit, you dig through history - but the piece was more about things happening at street level. The rest was a gift. The pit was made for a person of average height, and I didn't provide any sort of explanation, but everyone understood it immediately. It was a simple intervention, and that was enough. Since that moment I've done many more interventions, and have stopped asking myself what discipline my work fits into, if it was just a drawing, for example, or more than that.

AA: You've also worked with sound...

WvB: Two Birds Singing a Love Song is a recording of two birds flirting with each other. I recorded it in the jungle of Guatemala, almost by coincidence. I was walking there in complete silence with a small recorder when all of the sudden a bird began to sing on one side of me, and another answered on the other. It was immediately clear what the song was about. I hung on to the recording for a long time without doing anything with it, until a friend gave me two loudspeakers from Czechoslovakia. It all fell into place. The speakers were used to address crowds at political rallies. I'm using them for a love song. I find the combination beautiful. The speakers are very close together; it is inimate, and a nice visual image. Both Streetlevel and Two Birds Singing a Love Song are characteristic of how I incorporate history into my work. I exhibited it later in Bergen, Norway, under a highway with very busy traffic. What was striking was that the residents complained about it. The daily drone of trucks and traffic was accepted as a natural given - they never complained about that - but bird sounds were not.

AA: You implied earler that you can find authenticity equally in the middle of concrete as you can in 'wild' nature. Just as your work is created in some very 'beautiful' places - Mount Lushan, Waldkunst - as well as some quite 'ugly' ones - a highway in Bergen...

WvB: The most terrible place I've ever had a residency was in the MeetFactory in Prague. The studio was sandwiched between a railway track and an unbelievably busy highway. The idea was that eight artists, one after the other, would make a work and leave it in the studio. The next artist would react to it. I was number three, and I wanted to deny the existence of the previous artist's work. I put it in the store room - which itself was a piece by Laurent Malherbe - so that I wouldn't have to look at it. Then I made an enormous piece that would be a nuisance for the following artist. I recreated the view from the studio. It was a reflection of a contemporary urban no man's land, and was inspired by a famous 3D model of Prague from 1820 (the Langwell model). In the studio you see the exact same thing as if you would look out the window of the studio: railway tracks and highways.

AA: One of your pieces that I've always found fascinating is the photo in which you and another man are posing as hunters. How did that piece come about?

WvB: The photo for A Natural History of the Dead was made by an artist friend of mine who lives in a remote forest in Norway. I helped her chop her winter wood one summer. A great deal of my fascination with 'nature' is thanks to the time I spent there. I wound up there because I had an exhibition in Norway, met some artists there and began organizing things with them. In the houses there, there are always photos of people posing proudly with wild animals that they've killed: their hunting trophies. The idea that there's a connection between hunting and the need to eat is more alive there than in The Netherlands. Hunting is seen as a natural way to survive there. I wouldn't want to hunt myself, but it seems to me a beautiful manner of existence. My friend's house was full of animal hides. I'm allergic to that, and I asked her if I could beat the dust out of them outside. There was also a trunk full of uniforms from the German cavalry. That's how the photo came about. We posed as hunters by the hides, dressed in the uniforms. Years later I used the photo in an exhibition in a fort near Willemstad, in southeastern Holland. The photo was hung in the air like a set piece. It fit perfectly with the landscape. The photo and landscape absorbed each other. My motivation for the photo was to relate to the idea of hunting; my movitivation for exhibiting it in Willemstad was that it fit there perfectly. Some forts have long since lost their military function and are half nature reserve - a mixture of nature, culture and military power. The title of the piece is the title of one of Hemingway's short stories. In it, he describes life in the trenches in a very detached way, from the point of view of a naturalist and how one becomes dulled by the horrors of war - until it doesn't affect you if you shoot someone. That work also poses the question of wildness in ourselves.

AA: Do you think there's a wildness in humans?

WvB: I was once invited to shoot a gun in Norway, at the firing range of a shooting club. I had never wanted to shoot a gun, never wanted to be in the army, but someone offered me a pistol and I took it without thinking. I can still remember very clearly the feeling of power that overcame me. I shot until the gun was empty. I went nuts and it didn't scare me. It's interesting to see what's released inside of you when you use a gun. It's in your nature - if you're forced to shoot, you just shoot, it overcomes you. That's what dulled Hemingway in the trenches. It happens. I just shot into cardboard boxes, of course. You could also say that the feeling of power that a gun releases in people demonstrates how important it is that there are rules for human behaviour. Otherwise we'd go through life with guns blazing. The expression "In wildness is the preservation of the world" is about, as I said, learning to live in a less civilized way. It's nice to think that all could be well in the world again if we were only less civilized. I made A Natural History of the Dead in 2003, and didn't think about it in that way then. But to me now it's about whether humans still have instinct, or should have instinct. It's not about whether life with rules is better or worse - I'm interested in how our instincts (if we have them) and societal rules influence our well-being.

AA: What about your piece Fair Game, with the miniature soldiers on LPs? What's it about?

WvB: I made Fair Game for an exhibition called Battlefield in P/////AKT. I'd had some water damage in my studio, and all the covers of my LPs were damaged. I wasn't attached to them - I just threw them away. But I used the records in Fair Game. I wanted to make a landscape, and incorporated the records into it. I painted the labels of the records black, and glued miniature soldiers onto them. The viewer can play the records and, in doing so, create their own battlefield. There's a lot of country music in there - Johnny Cash - but also Dylan, Clapton, blues, Madonna. When the music plays, a sort of blissfulness drifts over the battlefield, like it doesn't matter. That's the power of music. It's exploited in the film Apocalypse Now. The piece functions on different levels, from life-size to miniature. I find the piece a bit too constructed - there are too many levels that don't speak to each other. On the other hand, that makes it quite rich. I exhibited it once with just the turntable and one loudspeaker, without the landscape, but I still don't know if that made it stronger.

AA: The Chief articulates a very different relationship with nature - at first I thought he was a shaman.

WvB: I made The Chief during an artist residency on Toronto Island, a place that's completely taken over by Canada geese in the spring. They lose their winter feathers and the island is covered in them, but no one does anything with them.
The Chief is a sort of alter ego for me, but also a man made out of feathers. It came out of a natural way of working, the result of what I saw and experienced - the feathers were just lying there. I also drew on the walls of the studio with some charcoal leftover from a fire. There was a native Canadian artist in the studio next to mine who was very interested in how I was using the feathers. According to her I'd made a shaman, a doctor - someone with access to the world of the dead. A shaman puts a coat of feathers on in order to travel between worlds. That's how an image gathers different meanings. In the European tradition, it would be seen as just a scarecrow.

AA: What are you working on now?

WvB: I recently found a dead grapevine that had been placed next to a garbage bin - a kind of abandoned nature. It's in a plastic bucket and I've attached all kinds of coloured balloons to it. The balloons slowly deteriorate as the air leaks out. I'm not quite sure what it is yet. It's at a bronze caster at the moment. I had to make it out of a new material because it was too fragile the way it was. The balloons need to be replaced every once in a while, because they deflate. I've done pieces before with the discarded Christmas trees that you find on the street during the first week of every year - Sans Papier (2000) and A Reality of Convenience (2007). I burned the Christmas trees until they were more or less charcoal, but still held their tree shape. Actually, that's the last piece of work that I've done that can be seen in the context of drawing. It was also abandoned nature. I'd rather present the tree in a nonchalant kind of way, so that it doesn't look like art, but what it was - garbage; an abandoned tree that once had a better life on someone's balcony. Now it's dead; the balloons scoff at nature. When it was on the balcony it represented a kind of nature that we like to believe in, but nature is merely a utensil in this case, and it was carelessly discarded. Cast in bronze.

Arie Altena (1966) studied literary theory and writes about art and new media. He works for the V2_Institute for the Unstable Media in Rotterdam and since 2004 is a member of the editorial team of Sonic Acts, which organizes the Sonic Acts and Kontraste festivals in Amsterdam and Austria, respectively. In the past he has been associated with Perdu, Mediamatic, Metropolis M and the MA program in Interactive Media & Environments at the Frank Mohr Institute. His work has been published in Mediamatic Magazine, Metropolis M, De Gids, Open, among others. He also edited the publication Ubiscribe (Jan van Eyck Academie, 2006). He was the co-editor of the publications Unsorted (2004), The Anthology of Computer Art (2006), The Cinematic Experience (2008) and The Poetics of Space (2010).