The boy dreams of Arjen Boerstra
Frank van der Ploeg
Published in magazine Ons Erfdeel
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!