The boy dreams of Arjen Boerstra
Frank van der Ploeg
Published in magazine Ons Erfdeel and the book Arjen Boerstra – Propositions
The earth reduced to its essence: a sphere of water and land. Around it blue sky with some white clouds. But it is not a recording from the edge of the atmosphere, where everything is in proportion – read: very small. Because here, in the middle of the image a huge rowing boat floats with a paddling man in it. The camera moves due to its activity. That camera is attached to a long wooden bar that rises high above the boat and is not directed downwards – as would be the case with a kite or a drone – but rather upwards to a mirror ball. This sphere reflects the image that slides beneath it. The globe image appears to be a ditch, the paddler is artist Arjen Boerstra (Heerenveen, 1967). The image above is the subjective representation in words of the video Matsloot (2013).
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He shares his world vision in one of his latest projects a bit more directly and publicly. The Camera Batavia is a tower in which visitors can flatter themselves at the top on cushions – once again via a mirror ball – to view their own reflection and the distant surroundings at a glance. A helicopter perspective from a facet eye. On the website dedicated to this project, Boerstra calls it “a confusing and new experience from a unique perspective”. The first research tower was built during the Oerolfestival on Terschelling in 2015. Ultimately, a permanent Camera Batavia is to be erected on the site of Leeuwarden Cultural Capital of Europe in 2018.
The mirror ball has become a recurring element in Boerstra’s work. That originated from the wish to take pictures of himself with the widest possible image. For example, Boerstra cycles with a bicycle cart behind him with a camera with wide-angle lenses on a mast (Fietsen in Landschap, 2002). That picture is not yet complete. Looking beyond what camera lenses have to offer and inspired by the globe mirror image in a print from M.C. Escher (1898-1972), the mirror ball becomes the egg of Columbus. The ball enables Boerstra to “compress the space of the landscape into a circle with a classical composition of earth and air ”, as he describes it himself. Or as described earlier with the Matsloot video, when water is also used.
If Camera Batavia aims for a self-viewing experience for the public, then the viewing research from the spectacular predecessor Batavier is a solo enterprise – Boerstra does make the start-up and the research results public. Here he is the one who watches, studies, selects and shares. De Batavier starts as a project at Museum Nieuw Land. In 2012, in his temporary studio – Boerstra has a handful of settling down for a project – he is building a capsule with which he can float on the water. The capsule can also be lifted to higher spheres, when the giant Cody kite connected with it, picks up enough wind. The capsule and kite are created in view of the visitors of the museum and the tests to actually test the airscraft are announced in advance (or canceled due to lack of wind). There is even a (printable) building plate of a scale model available for the youngest visitors.
In 2013 the project enters a new phase: ‘From Nieuw Land to Nieuwland’. With the Batavier he roams from the air and from the water along the coastline between the mainland and the Wadden islands. He creates visual documentation, makes the influence of adjustments on the environment visible and goes one step further. He presents a proposal for new land reclamation: ‘Plan Boerstra’ aims to reclaim the Wadden Sea at Terschelling and Ameland. The reactions in the booklet that he puts down for comment will be part of the project. In extremes: “VERY BIG MISTAKE" [with a symbol of the Wadden Sea added], “SHAME ON YOU", “completely crazy, killing even more nature …!", “If you dare !!!!!", but also “I say, YES DO", “beautiful plan. Whats the point of the Waddensea”. Most of them, proponents and opponents, are impressed by the presentation itself: “Nice representation of an unreality."
Flying around in a Leonardo-da-Vinci-like device is the realization of a boy's dream, the adage on which Boerstra's artistry is based. The actual implementation of the Boerstra Plan will also be an intended utopia for himself. Not?
Boerstra about the gap between his youth and his life as a trained (sculpture and painting at the Minerva Academy) adult artist: “My life was filled with adventure and consisted largely of building model boats, planes, kites, huts and all sorts of other boy things. As I grew older, I lost the open-minded constructing and experiencing. […] I started working with kites again, but now to lift a camera. I discovered myself on the aerial photos and films, my physical presence was always in the centre. I started to use this as a starting point for new adventures, first as myself, but later with alter egos. They look like me and are what I might have become. Because of the distance to them, they allow me to look further and make choices that are unusual for me or that I otherwise would not dare. " The alter egos take illustrious forms: Young Explorer 1 and 2 (2002 and 2003),
Potato Eater (2004), Hunter (2006), Treeman (2007), Aeronaut, Seafarer and Painter (2008), Gallery Owner and Galerist (2009 and 2011). He builds a wooden catamaran for Seafarer in a sailor sweater and carefully selects an earring. In between, he is also a Scout and goes on a survival trip in his own garden (project The Adventure Store, movie Garden of Hommes, 2011). Recently he appropriates the identity of an engineer.
In 2015, he carried out soil research as a Peat Pioneer from the Boerstra Engineering company near Tweede Exloërmond in the Veenkoloniën in Drenthe. The research takes place in the context of the celebration of the 250-year existence of the Stadskanaal between Veendam, Stadskanaal and Ter Apel for the drainage of peat, and the 400-year existence of the Semslinie between Groningen and Drenthe. Boerstra is planning a self-built wooden derrick and will come across “artifacts that originate from the “stratendrek" supplied at the beginning of the 20th century. There were already fragments of a Buddha that wasn’t immediately to beexpected in this environment, “it says in the press release" Boerstra Engineering makes a remarkable discovery in the Peat colonies “. Like every press release on this project, it concludes with “Looking beyond the problem is one of the pillars of the Boerstra Engineering company. In places where adhesive forces have long traditions, people look for history on the location, for the map of the landscape and to experience its dynamics. With a view to a broad horizon, various means are used for (in) vision and imagination. ”
In 2015 Boerstra also presented himself as a Magnician during DordtYart 2015, where he designed and executed a mechanism from Boerstra Engineering as an artist to measure time and space, to experience the infinite in the small. His fascination for the timepiece and with slowness as his starting point, he builds an installation around an axle that is driven by lead weights on ropes on pulleys and (bicycle) chains, with a water bowl with paddle wheel (as an emergency brake). A striking part is the turntable with magnetic chunks. Where the fleeting spectator will not notice the whole mechanism actually moving, it is best to be observed here. Above the rocks at the table hangs a needle pointing to the closest/strongest magnetic field. By turning the plateau very slowly, the needle is pulled until it loses its connection with a rock and goes dancing in search of a new force.
It is just like Arjen Boerstra himself. He connects heart and soul to a project and at a good moment switches to the next. Arjen Boerstra is a cross over between Leonardo da Vinci and Panamarenko, taken in account that what Boerstra builds, also really works. And with that his humorous, sometimes downright ridiculous artist's practice can certainly be taken seriously. Wink or not.
TRAVELLING WITH THE INTENTION TO RETURN
About the arrival in the work of Arjen Boerstra
Published in the book Arjen Boerstra: Observations and Events
Is there any greater romantic cliché than the image of the lonely sailor who stands out to sea in a far too small boat? Is this the symbol of the urge for freedom and adventure and, consequently, the risk of danger; in short: of the sublime experience? Not everyone is cursed with this romantic impulse, but it has great attraction for those who wish to distinguish themselves from the ‘well-cared for, wine drinking bourgeois tormented by little trouble’ as the anonymous poet of The Seafarer from the mediaeval Exeter Book described the relationship between citizens and adventurers. The message expressed here is that the latter denies any comfort, is trying to break free from fixed boxes and expectations and instead tries to find happiness in the great unknown.
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The fascination of Groningen artist Arjen Boerstra for ships and aircraft, travellers and exploratory expeditions is partly vested in adventures as incited by The Seafarer: the individual’s freedom, trust in one’s own eyes and being at the mercy of unprecedented forces. Boerstra reluctantly discovered the charm of travelling. The title of a work of art from 1997, Mijn eerste treinreis was op mijn achttiende (I took my first train journey when I was 18) refers to the relatively limited range he, in his own opinion, experienced during his childhood. He did not see much of the outside world before he did his military service. From the Frisian city of Heerenveen, he took the train to the Amersfoort station where he reported at the commander-in-chief. The long journey to the barracks in the platform of an army truck made him realise even more just how far he was drifting apart from his familiar surroundings; he observed the road closely to make sure he could find his way back.
During his visual art training he became even more aware of the fact that there is a world out there in which you can get lost time and time again. Whether it is the wealth of experiences in the wooded areas from where you grew up, people’s entirely other philosophies of life or the unlimited visual and conceptual options of visual art, there are fantastic discoveries to be made time and time again. The thing is to determine your own position. Despite the fact that Arjen became familiar with the necessity and the freedom of a broad view, some of the concern of that first journey always remained: how do I find my way back?
Boerstra’s work is thus between two physical as well as mental extremities: home and inside on the one hand and the endless external world on the other. Since 1996, the attic room of his youth has become an important point of departure for his work and artistry. This was the year in which he first created an installation which included elements from his boys’ room, which he entirely reconstructed later. High up in the house, home yet separate from the rest of the family, this is the pre-eminent place where young adults dream of their great plans. The skylight in this attic room may be small, but across the roof has a magnificent view of the world. It is a protected, safe and limited room which allows for the outside world to be experienced in all its immensity; a place of ´intimate immensity´ as Gaston Bachelard formulated in 1958. A comparison with the studio as the ultimate place for intimate immensity may be rash, but it is a fact that, as a teenager, Boerstra made his first attempts to paint in his attic room where he completely lost himself in the landscapes he created.
The work of Boerstra displays the simultaneous openness and privacy of small rooms in numerous variants: an attic room, hunting cabin, watchtower, pilothouse or tent: the artist creates a place for himself from where he can observe or take expeditions. Despite initial hesitation, eventually the actual outside world has to be explored and investigated. As far as these explorations are concerned, Boerstra regularly takes alter egos, each with their own particular manner of observing and acting. As the Young Researcher (2003), he explored an area at the outskirts of a wooded area from a tent and boat and searched ponds to find interesting spectacles under the water. It is a playful way of watching; a manner of watching that does not search but instead finds things. His Hunter in the Jachttaferelen (Hunting Scenes) from 2006 was much more purposive: he wanted to get something, focused his view finder and was aimed to hit.
Another intriguing character is the Miner he directed into the cellars of the Prinsenhof historical building in Groningen in 2006. Armed with a torch and a cane with a mirror ball on top and camera on the underside, the miner crawled through the caves of the building. The shots of the man in the mirror ball resulted in a slightly oppressive series of images of a man moving forward in a somewhat hasty and uncomfortable manner. The miner’s anxious situation was emphasised by the mirror ball: a doubly confined miner. The cellar formed a small spherical universe from which no escape seems possible.
The interaction between the inside and outside world also takes shape in the various positions Boerstra’s alter egos take. In 2004, Boerstra impersonated the potato eater in a fish and chips stand he built himself – after a Belgian example from the 1950s – in a potato field near Veendam. The farmers harvested their potatoes and during their break came to the artist alias cafeteria employee for a bag of chips and a chat. During the 2007 Oerol Theatre Festival, Boerstra put the stand at Paal 3 on the beach of the island of Terschelling, where he had a chat with the occasional festival visitor. Similar to the Belgian artist Guillaume Bijl, who considers his perfect imitations of driving schools, telephone shops and hairdresser’s salons to be the backdrops of his age, Boerstra presents his works of art and personages on the interface of the world of the work of art and that outside it. The fish and chips stand was undoubtedly alienating at these venues, but the artist stays very close to reality.
In a 2007 performance called House, it became immediately apparent that the audience did not see a house fit for human habitation, but Boerstra nevertheless succeeded in balancing on the threshold between reality and fiction. The artist lay sleeping on the bed in the attic in an open construction, a kind of house model, set up in a pasture. A camera captured the sleeping artist in his confined universe via a mirror ball. Through the open construction, the audience had a view of everything he did: getting up, looking out of the attic window, going down the stairs and making a fire in the stove. He came out of the house now and then to go fishing in the ditch that separated the audience from the plot where the house was standing. At those times, the artist did not mind having a chat about whether the fish bit.
Boy’s adventures take a prominent place in Boerstra’s projects. Striking is the fact that Boerstra presents the journey as well as the arrival. On 11 August 2005, his most theatrical alter ego, Cody, set foot ashore after crossing the IJ River in a small kite boat. The original American Samuel Franklin Cowdery assumed the appearance and the name of the famous Buffalo Bill Cody and presented shows and theatre performances in Europe as s Colonel S.F. Cody. Around 1900, he became interested in constructing kites and other aircraft. A couple of years later, he crossed the Channel with a kite pulled by a boat. In turn, Arjen Boerstra assumed Cody’s identity for a number of projects. He presented himself to the audience wearing a wig of wavy hair, goatee and moustache, a long overcoat and cowboy hat. In 2005, he filmed his crossing of the IJ River with a camera attached to the kite. During the opening, the arrival at the quay, getting the boat on shore and Cody’s unmasking played a prominent role.
Even if the traveller is not present, the arrival forms an important part of the projects by Boerstra. On 17 June 2003, he landed a wooden UFO in a corn field near Hoogezand. A helicopter dragged the anachronistic spaceship above the field and landed it in a pattern of corn circles which was created beforehand. This time, it was not an adventurer – alien or otherwise – that got out and drank in the amazement and admiration of the audience. The flocking public followed the spectacle from watchtowers and see the spaceship with room for three from up close afterwards.
The objects Boerstra creates for his projects are more than just vessels for a film or performance. Boerstra often exhibits them in combination with footage: travellers to Oerol 2007 could see the UFO suspended from the ceiling in the passenger terminal of the ferry service to Terschelling. The beauty of the object is in the contrast with the heavy wood and light parachutes, the poetic associations with the impossibility of this flying object, a poetry that is reminiscent of Panamarenko. But in the case of Boerstra, they are certainly a remnant and memory of a journey fulfilled, and the process of its creation. The extensive work in his studio to create the vessels and aircraft is an essential part of the journey: during the designing, calculating and preparing, the adventure with the vessel already commences. Preparing the journey constitutes making the journey mentally.
In 2008, Boerstra will be executing two projects in which the journey as well as the arrival take centre stage. Within the framework of the Land of Water, Zuiderzeemuseum 60 jaar jubilee manifestation, he is to spend some time in the museum during the summer in order to finish the construction of his Aeronef 2008; a wooden spaceship that is a mixture of a capsule of the Apollo, a UFO and a steamboat. The capsule’s interior will be furnished with delft blue tiles and an old-fashioned boat stove. The remarkable vessel – with the only crewmember and aeronaut being the new alter ego Aerjn Boersthra – adjusts perfectly in the reconstruction the museum itself is. In this historical museum, history has been constructed in a special plaiting: authentic old buildings from various eras and various locations from the Zuiderzee area tell their story about art, culture and heritage on the border of land and water. After a fictitious space flight, the Aeronef lands in the waters surrounding the museum and washes ashore in the fringes of reeds where curious visitors can take a look at the past or the future.
In June, the artist crossed the water again: a kite dragged his Seafarer catamaran across the Wadden Sea to the island of Terschelling, where he arrived during the Oerol festival. Work on his catamaran took months. He constructed accommodations for his journey on the two floats: a sleeping cabin on one, and a pilothouse on the other. Two functionally and mentally completely different rooms are each given their individual yet equal place. The alternating convergence of moving to and fro between the world of the work of art and the outside world, between the inner and outer space is beautifully represented in the Seafarer: the traveller is forced to make the crossing from sleeping cabin to pilothouse and back during his journey.
Boerstra filmed this journey also, but mainly looks forward to the arrival on the beach of the island he used to visit often when he was young. Should the reception be somewhat disappointing, he has the opportunity to do it again: the projects provides in a theatrical repetition of the heroic reception of the traveller. Where the poem from the Exeter Book takes a clear religious turn halfway – where the journey leads to the ultimate destination: arrival in heaven – the journeys of Boerstra have a more earthly objective: returning time and time again to tell of the world to be discovered.
I A modern English translation of the mediaeval text I found on the Internet goes as follows: ‘Indeed he credits it little/the one who has the joys of life/dwells in the city/far from terrible journey/proud and wanton with wine.’
II (http://www.anglo-saxons.net, 30 May 2008). Arjen Boerstra included a Dutch translation of the poem in his 2008 Seafarer project proposal, the source of which is unknown to me.
III Lucette ter Borg, ‘De allesvernietigende drift van de romantiek in de kunst’ (The devastating urge of romance in art), in: NRC Handelsblad, 10 March 2008
IV The French philosopher elaborates this concept in The Poetics of Space, Boston: Beacon Press, 1969, 183-210. (Original edition: La poètique de l’espace, Presses Universitaires de France, 1958.)
V A video registration was on display in one of the cellars and in an adjoining space, the symmetrical Prinsentuin patio – produced with a camera and mirror ball hanging from a kite.
The crossing took place during the opening of the North 2 exhibition at the NSDM harbour in Amsterdam. During the exhibition, the boat, Cody’s costume and a video registration of the crossing and arrival were on display.
A SELF WILLED ARTISTRY INDEED
Published in the book Arjen Boerstra: Observations and Events
I was introduced to Arjen Boerstra’s work over ten years ago, when he was a nominee for the Sybren Hellinga art award in Beetsterzwaag; an incentive prize for young artists. Arjen showed a video made of aerial photographs of the landscape around the village of Tijnje and I was immediately impressed. I just had to return again and again to his projection room with these alienating film images. An artist that ‘painted’ a landscape using a video camera from a kite; I found it surprising, innovative and confusing, all at the same time. It struck me later that this work already included the stratification that would prove to be typical for his later work.
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Arjen created more work with the use of video technology and photography, often using the countryside as his playing field. With this film and video art, the contours of what those in the art world refer to as a ‘personal handwriting’ seemed to become visible. Until, and I could have known this, like a bolt from the blue, Arjen Boerstra introduced ‘old-fashioned’ paintings of landscapes at exhibitions. All of a sudden, there were paintings by him with skilfully painted super romantic moments. This proved just to be the beginning of the confusion. As part of another exhibition, he showed a series of perfectly polished bullets he had found on the island of Terschelling. He manifested himself as a gallery owner in a photograph, and repeatedly put his spectators on the wrong track. He effortlessly needled the petty-mindedness of hypocrites and image scientists: ‘What do we do with this artist!?’
Just maybe we should elevate ourselves above Arjen’s work, as he does with the camera in his kites, in order to gain better insight into what his work is actually about. For starters: we will have to get used to the fact that the world that is typical for the subject matter of Arjen’s work appears to us in extremely varied shapes, not just as regards the subject, but regarding the mode of expression also. This varying shape within his chameleonic artistry not only concerns the art form he uses, but particularly the combination of art forms he deploys.
It is as if, for each new project, Arjen composes a unique blend of painting, sculpture, photography, film, performance, literature, design, architecture, and more. He mixes, transforms and alienates these art forms into an intended combination, where the contours of the original art forms still remain recognisable. The final result is fruity and multimedia collage art, composed of a combination of varying ingredients, all of which unmistakably come from Arjen’s kitchen.
But this is not all: his work also entails a very specific place he works from, a place that might generally be defined as a space with an indeterminable meaning. In other words, a place where you can safely let go of socially defined orderliness. This is a kind of no man’s land where fantasy is not crossed by any parochialism. This no man’s land can take the shape of an exterior-oriented space which allows a wide view, such as on an empty beach at the seaside, a cornfield or potato field, extensive waters or the pastures surrounding the village of Tijnje. But also the interior-oriented no man’s land as found in a somewhat draughty cottage, dense bushes, a cellar or tomb, a boat, lodge, space capsule, a dodecagonal, spinning giant top, a UFO or an attic that can function as such. They are all spaces where the artist can detach himself or herself from the (human) world; spaces where anything is allowed and where basically anything is possible. In one of his books, author Bruno-Paul De Roeck introduces the image of the ‘Loernoot’; a fictitious, safe space where one can crawl into and for a short while be free of the powers that come up to us from the adult world, and to drill holes in the loernoot from inside in order to be able to reread the adult world through one’s own subjective eyes and ears and to appreciate it at its true value.
There is a reason why the concept of conversion, meaning change or transformation, is a core concept within Arjen Boerstra’s work, where the official construction of an image, thought or expectation receives a new form of expression through the unrestrained and uncaptured artist. The artist thus creates conversion in conversation with himself. In his ‘Manual of the Art of Living for the Young Generations’ from 1967, Belgian philosopher Raoul Vaneigem discusses the reversal of perspective. This is the reversal whereby people no longer see themselves through the eyes of others. It entails getting a fixed hold of oneself and complying with the personal subjective will. It means having complete control over ‘the’ world. A matter of appropriation by distorting a frozen reality.
Conversion is the mode of expression that takes on Arjen’s game with ‘certainties’ and ‘reality’. Every artist who has something to say plays this game. It is hardly possible to play a meaningful role in the world of art without playing the game with this art world. Arjen Boerstra plays this game with great dedication, across the entire line, both in his forms of expression and in the way in which he gives content to the role of being an artist. He is both a participant and spectator of the game. From his own no man’s land, he creates his personal idea for a new playground and then constructs it: the dreamer and doer go around together in perfect balance and reinforce one another.
It is important in the game with reality to (dare to) let go of the utility principle: the delusion that a work of art must be aimed at the future utility it is to have for others prior to its creation. Assuming the utility principle, the work of art reduces itself to another consumable, subject to the most perverse demands of demand and supply.
You will find nothing of this is Arjen Boerstra’s work. His approach has more of what the Greek philosopher Aristotle referred to as ‘autotelic activities’; activities executed because they are satisfying in itself. They are not done with the expectation that they will provide any future use of profit. In other words, they are activities where an individual, in this case an artist, coincides with the stream of his own acting presence.
If you are sensitive to this monistic instead of dualistic condition, you will surely be devoted to Arjen Boerstra’s work. It will be wonderful to see how, in a video of a piece of urban (again) no man’s land, he replaces part of a footpath with weathered paving stones by new ones; and then decides to replace the new paving stones by the old and trusted ones. This is an ultimate manifestation of ‘life as an idle game’, as composer, visual artist and author John Cage once said. It provides a confusing pleasure to look at Arjen’s (con)version of a toy train that goes round and round endlessly and whose engine driver cannot manage to steer the train up via the ready trajectory, as a Railway to heaven. It frees a pleasant feeling of nostalgia when looking at the artist who has put himself in the shoes of the hunter, the gallery owner, the ‘house’ resident, chip shop owner and the young researcher. These are individuals who agreed to have their photo taken without any apparent pretensions, and who are therefore free of a blaring ego. Arjen cloaks himself in roles, the sight of which brings the statement of Marcel Duchamp to my mind that, eventually, life is nothing more than a ‘melancholy joke’. Arjen’s personages are also reminiscent of the anti-hero Monsieur Hulot, who was made a mirror image for many by film director, actor and artist Jacques Tati. Jacques Tati excelled in his rich fantasy and the perfectionist realisation of these fantasies. I see the same intensity in the way in which Arjen Boerstra realises his attic room fantasies so very convincingly, that one might think that the magnificent space capsule he built crashed in the Zuyder Zee near Enkhuizen in the late 19th century.
If you are receptive to his art, his worlds will encourage the temptation to allow more loose and whimsical ends in your own life, and let Arjen’s fantasies come to life function as mirrors for our playful part of ourselves, a part we had not heard from in a long time but which is certainly still there!
Arjen Boerstra is someone who plays an unending game with the concept of ‘reality’; a concept that proves to consist of a mere wafer-thin package of language and habit operating software, determined by the delusion of the day. From a restless need having to hunt the personal moving reality, this artist will probably be investigating the rest of his life, with a large risk of developing into a person who experiences through his own role as an artist/researcher: a finder of what has always been present and what he now experiences life through his own art. Art as a mind-expanding means. Okay, let’s set out again, as in a boys’ book, for another chapter and another exciting adventure!
PASSION TO CREATE
Dirk van Ginkel
Published in the book Arjen Boerstra – Popositions
You can hardly see any work by Arjen Boerstra without seeing him in person too. He is an inseparable part of his own creations. As he himself says: 'It's a kind of primal feeling. I made that work of art, after that we belong together, don't we?' A conversation about the connection between art and life.
On the top floor of his studio in Groningen are a few attributes that Arjen Boerstra will use in the late summer of 2021 for his project Room. A bed, a table, a kitchenette, a compost toilet, all made of wood and made by himself. The Room itself is a wooden house on which Boerstra has attached the chimney at an angle, in the way that small children draw such a thing. It is Boerstra's intention to stay in his room for a week during the Kunst aan de Vaart Buiten manifestation in Assen. Secluded, high above the canal in the center of the city, hanging from a crane.
Like all his projects, this work is dominated by a quest. In this case: 'What happens when you live really secluded from the world, what do you discover about yourself? Who are you, what are you? I am very curious about that. I will report by filming myself and sharing everything on YouTube.‘
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‘As a boy I was a little archaeologist. In the 1960s, the farmlands around Heerenveen still had a lot of “street dung”, a mixture of household waste and other junk. Everything people could no longer use at the beginning of the last century, they threw in a heap, it was later spread over the country. Exploring these areas, I would find pottery shards and pipe bowls, but also shells from the Second World War, for example. I displayed it all in my boys' room in a neat and orderly fashion. Fortunately, my parents have always kept the collections I built up. I am still grateful for that.
‘I have already exhibited some of my archaeological finds at Tweede Exloërmond, a village in the peat colonies in Drenthe. There I built a drilling tower to lift the mud from the province of Drenthe. I combined those shards of glass and pottery with my childhood finds. It has become a beautiful story about the history of that area.
‘I still cherish those childhood finds. Later I supplemented these collections with shell casings and test bombs that I found during holidays at the military training area on Terschelling. I still must have some of those bombs laying around here. The idea was that fighter jets tried to hit certain targets with those things. If that worked, you saw a plume of smoke. But often they missed the mark and of course there was no one to pick them up except my friends and me.‘
The passion to create
The urge to build things was not unfamiliar to Boerstra. His father was an engineer who often made things in his shed. One day he placed a windmill of his own design with blades of up to three meters long on that shed.
‘Imagine this in the boring residential area where we lived at the time. Once during a big storm, my mother was afraid of having this thing flying through the window or god knows where. So she climbed on the roof and stuck a broomstick between the blades. Broomstick broken, of course… Yes, those are indeed beautiful memories.
‘My father was interested in alternative energy, he read a lot about it and looked for solutions himself. He was a seeker, he also immersed himself in alternative medicine, he had an interest in the paranormal… It went a bit crazy sometimes. If he had discovered something, it was immediately a new truth. At one point, he got a hold of books like “Were the Gods Cosmonauts”. When I told him about my plans to bake fries in the South Pole – the project is called “The Antarctic Potato Eater" – he immediately came up with a story about the Germans working there during World War II on a UFO plan in underground labs. He found it on the internet. His critical compass was not always very clear, unfortunately. A bit tiring at times.”
But father Boerstra was not only interested in UFOs, but also in matters closer to home. He liked to photograph his immediate surroundings.
‘After he passed away, I discovered that he had made thousands of slides. I digitized them all. I was one surprise after another. He photographed my old granny-bicycle I had thrown against the shed, but also the pumps one of my sisters had kicked off at the front door after a night out. And when I slept, he would sometimes empty my trouser pockets and photograph what was in there: a ball, a stone, a piece of rope, a magnet… All found between the normal family snapshots.
‘My father was a difficult and authoritarian man, but also someone who was very concerned. He and my mom were my biggest fans, encouraging me from the start to explore and build things. My father stood for the functional, my mother – trained as a clothing designer – for the aesthetic. She encouraged me to neatly finish of my constructions. I suddenly realize they wanted to make everything themselves, just like me. They also felt the need to translate their ideas into a product. It's good to have this conversation, because looking back I suddenly experience the richness of it all.'
Lost & Found
At secondary school, Boerstra and a friend made his first publication: De Proleet. The magazine for the average idiot. The friend drew, Boerstra designed the logo and wrote about paranormal affairs, made up horror stories and responded to topics from current events. For example, when The National Card for public transportation was published, De Proleet introduced The National Hooker Card.
‘It has terribly low quality if you read it now. But De Proleet was the first manifestation of having an idea, making something out of it, and then showing it to an audience. Four editions have been published. Then we had to stop, because the parents of fellow students started complaining.‘
At the same time, Boerstra and his friends developed romantic ideas about leaving the city and living in nature.
‘So we went to Oranjewoud, two kilometers away. There we discovered a burial mound from the late 18th century. We were sitting there philosofizing about all kinds of things, when we suddenly heard sounds coming out of it, a kind of rhythmic thumping. We discovered a hole on the side and so we were able to enter the burial mound. We went inside. We saw coffins, some of which were open, with bones and skulls… I made slides using a flashlight, but kept them hidden for twenty years, because I was a bit ashamed of the grave desecration.‘
Only long after his study at the academy Minerva in Groningen, Boerstra did take out the slides to show them to others. An evening was organized with the theme Lost & Found and the assignment was: show something you've worked on, but that never turned out to be anything.
‘A lot of people reacted with disbelief. That couldn't be true, that grave robbery, it must have been made using Photoshop etc. But it was true. I believe ever since, the fact of looking back on my youth and using it in my work has become a kind of starting point.'
Ironically, about forty years later, Boerstra received an order from Staatsbosbeheer, responsible for the area around the burial mound, to develop a apatial installation to enable hikers to view the burial mound without damaging it. Boerstra had placed the burial mound photos on his website and someone from the organization had seen it.
‘Great assignment. I have built a kind of gate of wood that refers to the gate that once stood on that spot. Long time ago my mother cut an article from the newspaper that contained a photo of that original structure. Everything came together beautifully: the history of the place, my own history and the contribution of my mother. And actually the influence of my father is noticeable there too. Like him, I also captured everything on camera. And I have always continued to do so. We apparently share that: recording as an act. In all these years it has not become clear where the banging from that grave came from.'
During his teenage years, Boerstra became interested in art. It was not a common thing he grew up with. Mondriaan was seen as a charlatan and Karel Appel was completely 'wrong'. So after a school career of successively mavo, havo and vwo (the latter without a final exam diploma), he wanted to study at an art academy. That was not entirely the visioned career for him according to Boerstra's parents.
‘My father told me: you are good with your hands and good with your head, you have to go to the HTS, a technical college. Then you can become an engineer and you are always certain to find a job. But becoming anything at all, having a job, to always be somewhere at a certain time, really scared me. And if anyone didn't like his work, it was my father, who complained a lot about it at home. So I didn't aspire any of that. I decided: I would not become a defined person to remain that way.
‘My later work shows all kinds of manifestations of that intention. Sometimes I'm a captain, then a potato chipper, cyclist, hunter, rower… But only for the duration of a project. So I'll just define myself for a moment. There seems to be a kind of belief deep within me there should be no limits to your personality. At least not to mine. My whole life is therefore a kind of quest, an exploration of possibilities. That is why this book is called Propositions, a collection of proposals of it-could-be-like-this.'
After his school days, he was twenty, Boerstra first went into military service. Then he applied to the Minerva Art Academy.
A neighbor in Heerenveen, the father of a school friend, taught Boerstra in his teens how to paint landscapes.
‘That man made five paintings a week and then sold them for three hundred guilders each. That seemed a good idea to me and he was willing to teach me. Pretty soon I was able to to paint this way and I made a lot.'
They were landscapes in the best Dutch tradition. Realistic, set up in dark colours, with plenty of room for air and light. Optimistic, with a few of those paintings under his arm, ex-soldier Boerstra reported to Minerva. They were not really impressed by his traditional work, but he was accepted anyway.
‘Painting landscapes was not something I wanted to do all my life, I had found out by now. So I started to “question” the phenomenon of landscape-painting, as it is called. For example, I painted a contemporary jet fighter in white outlines in such a seventeenth-century-looking work. Or I sewed sixteen small canvases with different landscapes together into a large new canvas and framed it. At the academy they got very angry about that. I made fun of figurative art, they thought, and this was not done in those years.'
It was therefore no surprise to Boerstra he did not qualify for the Academy Minerva Prize for his final exams, he was not even nominated. His work was described as 'a brilliant failure'. It was a huge mural in which he examined painting in all kinds of ways.
‘I presented a jumble of possibilities within painting, a universe full of options to express things, an explosion of opportunities and challenges. But of course without a final conclusion of how it should be. The work had its origin in something I had always been involved in – exploring possibilities – but now my canvas was a very large wall and therefore quite visible. “Talking back” I think it might have been a very good piece of work, but at that time I thought it to be unfair if I had been nominated.'
Moments of escape
During his study at the academy, Boerstra learned a lot about how things went in the art world, how you should behave as an artist, how success was defined…
‘Artists make a choice for a technique, a style, a subject and start building an oeuvre. All this leads to a whole collection of artifacts that define you as an artist. If all goes well, you can recognize an upward trend and you will eventually exhibit in leading museums and galleries at home and abroad. Eventually you will be written into the history books and have justified your existence as an artist. That's how I was taught at the academy. But yes, if you are never nominated – not even for the Academy Minerva Prize – and never win prizes and are mainly active regionally, then you are quickly seen as a failure.'
Although Boerstra has long believed that the art world was indeed structured like this, he knew from the start that such an way of living was not his style. Anyone who defines themselves so clearly places themselves in a golden cage, limits themselves, deprives themselves of the freedom that you should embrace as an artist. Only to think about it made Boerstra anxious. It felt like a liberation for him to discover artists in whom he recognized kindred spirits.
‘For me it doesn't have to be so heavy and serious, preferably not. And that is the same attitude of artists such as Erwin Wurm, Panamarenko and Wim T. Schippers. What appeals to me about their work is that it is so close to ordinary life. Wim T. Schippers who makes a film of emptying a bottle of water into the sea, the absurd sculptures of living people with everyday objects by Wurm, the beautiful but hopeless flying machines of Panamarenko… You will be amazed by their inventiveness, their humor and the transience of their art, in other words everything that “real art” usually isn't. Suddenly there was something to laugh about in art too!
‘I also love people like Andy Kaufman, a comedian from the 1970s. He played brilliantly with illusion and reality, so brilliantly that no one believed it when he died. Luis Buñuel, also a big hero. Perhaps comedians have had more influence on my work than visual artists.
‘All these people show that it is only a small step from the ordinary to the bizarre and this has always appealed to me. In this way you do not put yourself in a straitjacket, but you create moments of escape. For yourself and – through the humor and surprise of a slightly different way of looking at things – for the viewer. You will then be entering a domain outside the usual conventions and the strict white museum walls. People don't regard your work as art, but as theatre. Well, so what? As long as you do what belongs to you.‘
Characteristic of Boerstra's projects is that he is always a part of them. In all his silence and imperturbability, he is an extraordinarily humorous part of the game his work plays with the viewer. How did that happen?
‘After my academy days, when it became clear that painting would not work, I no longer believed in anything. This happens to me every now and then. I asked myself: what do I really like to do? For example, building kites. As a child I built kites much bigger than myself. I flew them at night in our neighborhood with a light attached to it. I came up with the idea to build a kite again, but not with a light but a camera. I thought that would be fun: looking at the world from above, photographing the landscape from there. Drones and Google Maps were nowhere to be seen at the time, so the kite with camera provided all kinds of beautiful unexpected images. Especially with the wide-angle lenses I used. But in all those images I was standing with the rope of the kite in my hand. In a strange way it was always a kind of confirmation of the fact that I existed on this globe. That's how I had found myself again, you could say.'
Boerstra started experimenting with film cameras, filming himself, for example, rowing indoors against the background of a black-and-white landscape. He started to play with real and unreal, reality and illusion. These experiments set the tone for the next projects. And he almost always played a part in this: silent, bald, with an expressionless face and 'dressed to the occasion'.
‘During my military service, you got a haircut for free if you shaved your head almost bold. So I did. That hair wasn't doing too well anyway, so go ahead. Later I decided I didn't want to be one of those old-aged men with a fringe of hair, so I shaved my head completely bald. That has remained the case. And yes, that facial expression of mine, that just happens to be the way I look with the least effort. My face looks this way when I'm working on my own, which is often the case, also when I'm photographing or filming. So actually unintentionally it has become a distinctive thing. But it works. Like appropriate clothing. When I do something with boats, I look like a sailor and have a ring put in my ear. When I'm a French fries baker, I wear a white cooking coat. Because no matter how absurd a scene is, I think you have to make it as real as possible. And what also plays a role is a kind of primal feeling: I made such a work of art, shouldn't I actually stick with it? You and your art belong together, right? In a painting the signature takes over that function, but it is different in my work.'
Then Boerstra tells how important he thinks the person behind the artist is.
‘When I admire an artist, I actually enjoy the stories about his life the most. I think it's fantastic to know as much as possible about him, to see how a work is created and how work and life are linked. A kind of totality is then created. I also started to apply that to my own situation: viewers also get me beside the physical part of the work.'
Boerstra collected his own projects in various overview editions, including – with DVD – 'Observations and events' (2011) and '12, 13, 14, 15', a brochure with projects from those years. This latest edition is, according to Boerstra, the record of a 'madhouse time'.
‘I did five or six major projects a year, usually simultaneously. That was incredibly chaotic. I've always had a very powerful drive to make things, but it turned into an unhealthy drive at some point. I had got the idea that without those projects everything around me would collapse, both financially and artistically. I burdened myself with thoughts like: is my level high enough, are the projects interesting, do I show myself enough, am I doing well on social media… The whole thing swallowed me up, you could say. I got palpitations and other physical malheur and I could literally no longer work at a certain point. For the time it lasted – a few years actually – it was very annoying, but looking back it was a very healthy collapse.
‘I've come to see that all my beautiful thoughts about escaping artistic golden cages, entangled me and held me back. I had created a little man inside who was chasing and shouting. I should be done like this and did you even think about this and that… I lost the idea of doing something beautiful, something that in many ways was appreciated, which received positive writings, etcetera. It was as if everyting came down on me. I had to take it easy for a while.‘
During this period, the mental freedom arose to work on projects that Boerstra previously did not allow himself to work on, such as making a hammered dulcimer, an extremely intricately constructed string-instrument that is played with two hammers. ‘This was not an artistic, but a craft project. It was not in the service of an idea or a concept, I just wanted to make an existing but difficult to obtain and expensive instrument myself. And learn to play it. Suddenly there was time and space. Very new to me. The hammered dulcimer is kind of a model for the type of work I was going to make after I got back on track. It marked the beginning of a new kind of quest.
Looking back, he says to see a dichotomy in his work. The first period is all about own discoveries and simply presenting them to the public in a beautiful form. After his burnout, he has come to see his previous work as a collection of discoveries from which he can now draw to offer new experiences to others, without him always being present as a protagonist.
‘My Camera Batavia, for example, invites people to discover another world through a convex mirror. I don't have to be there myself. My object De Sterke Borg, which is located in a place where used to be a small castle, encourages people to muse about the past and present. And at the same time, by its shape, I refer to the constructions standing against so many houses in Groningen for a few years now to support them. The platform at the burial mound in Oranjewoud also belongs to this list. So yes, that's a change. In the meantime, I'm also working on a project called The Great Farewell Show, a fantasy about letting go and disappearing.‘
The first part of The Great Farewell Show is a film by Boerstra in the Belgian Ardennes. He looks like a nature adventurer with his cap, pole and rope. He lies flat on his stomach on some stones in a river, his head just above the surface of the water. At first you think that he studies very concentrated the underwater-world. But because of the absolute stillness of Boerstra, the fact that he apparently does not notice his cap being carried away by the current, and the unexpectedly long duration of the film, you get the impression that something else is going on.
‘That aspect of time changes the meaning of the images you see. At first you think it is a kind of play, but because of the length of time this staged aspect fades. You start to worry: is he still alive? This is precisely why I add a new aspect: I am there and I am not at the same time. Perhaps my stay in the room above the canal in Assen is also part of the Great Farewell concept. After all, the question is: what is it like to live isolated from the world? That is also a form of being away. But yes, I do play the leading role in words and images myself. Being consistent is not my biggest strenght. Maybe that's a good thing anyway.‘