Review of the project Une Condition Naturelle in Kunsthuis SYB, Beetsterzwaag (The Netherlands)

Backstage with Walter van Broekhuizen en Arjen de Leeuw
by: Aafke Weller

The landscape painter uses the figures of men to mark a road. He would not make that use of my figure. I walk out into a nature such as the old prophets and poets Menu, Moses, Homer, Chaucer, walked in. – Henry David Thoreau, Walking (1862).

Walking is Thoreau’s glorification of the art of cross-country walking, but it’s more than a glorification; the essay is a lament of man’s ever-increasing appropriation of nature: “[…] when fences shall be multiplied, and man traps and other engines invented to confine men to the public road; and walking over the surface of God’s earth, shall be construed to mean trespassing on some gentleman’s grounds. […] Let us improve our opportunities then before the evil days come.”

In Beetsterzwaag, those “evil days” were upon us long before Thoreau bushwacked his way through the untamed wilderness around Boston, Massachusetts. The Friesian forests were completely harvested by the 17th century. A century later, the Friesian aristocracy planted new forests in order to flâneur in the majestic shade of the American oak.

In their movie Une Condition Naturelle, Arjen de Leeuw and Walter van Broekhuizen consider the difficult relationship between the modern, urbanized man and nature. The film is a playful piece on the romantic desire for a sublime experience in the wilderness. Through clever camera work and with the help of nature itself, the artists construct an enormous and dramatic forest out of the tight and trimmed woods of Beetsterzwaag. Nature’s help comes in the form of fog, setting the scene upon which a small, dry-humoured drama unfolds, an expression of the tragic condition of man. Tragic, because we keep longing for nature, which we feel a part of, but from which we have paradoxically and irrevocably extracted ourselves. Despite an abundance of survivor-type reality-television, a modern man just can’t cope with being alone in the woods.

Une Condition Naturelle begins idyllically: behind a fogged up window a man reads a book. Outside, the last drops of rain from a heavy storm drip down the glass, and one can hear the sounds a wet forest makes. The window opens, a cup of coffee in a hand emerges, and as the pleasant scent of a wet forest takes root in the mind of the viewer, the image is interrupted by a plant-sprayer spraying, generating the raindrops on the glass. The camera zooms out and shows a hut made out of cardboard: a set in a studio, not a house in the woods. The viewer is immediately put at a distance, and made to assume the role of observer.

Walter van Broekhuizen has played with the contrast between isolation and exhibition before. A House in the Woods (2008) was a life-sized copy of Thoreau’s wooden cabin at Walden Pond (Walden, 1854), but where Thoreau built his house for seclusion, to reflect on society, van Broekhuizen built his replica largely to reflect - from society - on seclusion; one of the four walls and the roof of the cabin were left missing while the only window was boarded shut. Those who entered A House in the Woods, walked onto a podium on which it was impossible to be secluded. Thoreau's backstage is van Broekhuizen’s frontstage. The Canadian sociologist Erving Goffman uses these exact terms to refer to the manner in which we present ourselves to one another. In The Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life, Goffman uses an analogy from theater to describe our daily lives. If we’re on the frontstage (i.e. in society), Goffman claims, we play a specific role dictated by our daily lives. When we go backstage (i.e. if we’re alone in the woods) we can abandon those roles. However, this doesn’t mean that we’ll become at one with ourselves in seclusion. According to Goffman, the self is formed by playing these roles. When we don’t need roles any more, we actually lose ourselves a little bit, and that’s often more uncomfortable than appealing. It appears to be necessary to find a new role for ourselves as soon as possible, even if we’re alone in the woods.

In Une Condition Naturelle we see both of the artists walking aimlessly through the woods. They go out alone, but can’t seem to decide what to do with their time. We see them throwing stones into a pond out of boredom, but this is not the deep, existential boredom that Thoreau and his reclusive predecessors seek out in isolation; it’s more the uncertainty of what to do with oneself when nobody is watching. This uncertainty is overcome by doing something for the hell of it. In a later scene, one of the men comes up with the idea to chop down a tree. The tree is brought into the same studio where the cabin stands, and where a print of a mountainous landscape covers an entire wall. Despite the artificial landscape of the studio, we understand the appeal of assuming (however briefly) the role of a heroic lumber-jack; the macho guy who chops down a real pine tree to warm his rosy-cheeked girlfriend by a fire. When we’re alone we can play whatever role we want. After an initial period of adjustment, we’re able to take on a new role; a role in which we’re as free as we’ve ever been.

Thoreau hoped to shake off society’s restrictions and conventions, but in his book he’s unable to address anything but the same society that allows him the framework within which his actions and thoughts have meaning. When this social framework disappears, a great danger looms on the horizon: madness. In Une Condition Naturelle both men characters pass a critical boundary unnoticed. In the middle of the film we see them with binoculars, watching the same bird. The stance of the birdwatcher is so recognizable that we don’t even notice at first that the two men aren’t holding binoculars, but pine cones in front of their eyes. At this point in the film, all is lost: one character binds the paws of a fox to his ankles, while the other howls like a wolf. In the final scene both men run gleefully through the woods, and the movie ends with a quote from the German social-psychologist Erich Fromm: ‘Man is born as a freak of nature …’.

Bio: Aafke Weller is a visual artist and writer. She is a reviewer for Kunsthuis SYB and Metropolis M. She’s currently studying the restoration and conservation of contemporary and modern art at the University of Amsterdam.