Marianne Brouwer
projects & works

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Baadsters (Amsterdam)

Amiel Grumberg
`Women bathing`
Marianne Maasland

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design Ariënne Boelens

Marianne Brouwer (ENG)
speech printed in catalogue “Water”, published by Stichting Op Zuid Rotterdam ( 2003

Opening Speech Water
Ladies and gentlemen,
It is with great pleasure that, at the opening of the WATER art project today, I can say a few words about the work and the artists involved. For which I would like to thank the curators of the exhibition: Irene de Graaff, Marianne Maasland and Marius Sterrenburg.
I would like to congratulate the board of the Waterleiding Bedrijf Amsterdam on the 150th anniversary of the Amsterdam Waterleidingduinen which happily coincides with 2003, the year that the United Nations have dubbed the Year of Water. The Waterleiding Bedrijf Amsterdam marks this event with an unusual project that is all about the cultural meaning of water.

The usual definition of culture runs as follows: culture equals man’s dominion over nature. That nature is controlled by man was considered perfectly natural in the West for centuries. Christian theology placed man at the centre of creation. Because man is the only being with a soul. In a nutshell: your dog, my cat, the rabbit we just saw hopping through the dunes, are barred from entering heaven because they have no soul. Which gives you and I, as humans, the right to control them.

A mere three months ago, a scientific experiment was carried out in America to see whether fish suffered pain when they are caught and die. The fisherman claimed they did not, perhaps because it was in their interests to do so. Luckily for the fish, the experiment proved otherwise. But that is not the point here –this is: the argument that fish cannot feel pain originates in Christian theological tradition. Something that the fishermen were probably unaware of. In the meantime, that tradition lent their opinion a certain undisputed conviction that no one could argue to the contrary without hard scientific evidence.

Over the centuries, this originally Christian notion of man, master of creation, gradually became a sort of natural materialism: Western faith in the superiority of technology. Here in the Netherlands, for instance, we are used to battling and overcoming water. Water is the nature we have learnt to dominate. The Dutch are world famous for their water technology and now suddenly, with the heat of the last few months, water has become scarce. I don’t know what your experience was, but to me it was like living in a totally different country, having to learn to deal differently with things. If you’ve ever travelled through a desert you will probably have seen the people there use sand the way we use water, to scour pans and the like. In Holland, we have a pretty good of idea of how to protect ourselves against cold and rain. But over the last few months, we learned we also needed to protect ourselves from heat, adopting working hours common to tropical countries and keeping to the shade during the afternoon. Having to deal with this in everyday life is very different than getting used to it while on holiday. I think in the beginning that we –assuming it would soon go back to the usual rainy weather until mid December– were momentarily struck by the awe-inspiring power of a nature entirely strange to us in this country. That compels us to follow other habits, schedules and clothing. That inspired in us the elementary fear of not being able to cool off. Of thirst. Of not having enough water.

I propose that, today, we abolish the definition of culture as domination over nature once and for all, replacing it with the conclusion: culture is the way in which people live with each other in and with nature. And this does not only concern naked existence, survival through strictly material things like food, shelter and clothing, but the social aspects of our existence too, the fact that we live in groups –thus our society. And it concerns the metaphysical aspects of our existence, everything to which we assign meaning and transform in myths and religions: the sense of awe for that which is incomprehensibly greater than us, the experience of death, or beauty. Man is not automatically superior to nature in every culture.

Perhaps you find this a slightly complicated way of doing what I initially came to do: introducing to you the water exhibition here in the dunes. I looked at the artworks today and feel that the organisers have made an exhibition worthy of notice. This is due in the first place to their successful invitations to three very different artists, all three internationally known and respected, to create work here ‘in situ’; secondly, because the exhibition was devised and prepared with great attention for both content and organisation. And because this entire project has been a shining example of cooperation. Cooperation with all the bodies involved, with the theoreticians and experts in question and with the artists. But what makes this a particularly exceptional exhibition is the fact that it shows how the concept of nature can differ so enormously in different parts of the world. Differences that the three artists draw upon, each from his or her own cultural tradition. This is not just another multi-cultural exhibition because multi-cultural as a term always gives a sense that everything has either been lumped together or is a sort of exotic soup. And here we are concerned with tightly formulated, intense differences relating to long traditions and different world views from very different corners of the globe and climates, that all revolve around a single theme: water...

These are the artists:
Meschac Gaba from Benin, North Western Africa.
Toshikatsu Endo from Japan.
The third artist Wapke Feenstra, is from Friesland, in Holland. First of all, I have to say that I seem to know as little about Friesland as I do about Benin. I have never been to Benin and I have been only a sometime visitor of Leeuwarden, the capital of Friesland. So if I tell you that the Friesian landscape is nothing like the water supply dunes, I cannot confirm this from personal experience; I only know this because Wapke Feenstra says so. The introduction to the project proposal states –and I quote– ‘of the three artists she is the only one who didn’t discover ANY cognitive connection points with the landscape of her background’. I find that an astonishing comment when you think of where the two other artists come from. So I hope it wasn’t just a casual remark by Wapke Feenstra, but a purposeful statement that clearly shows that not every Dutch artist looks at landscape or water in the same way or with the same information or the same feelings, or that without further ado, we can assume that we understand everything an artist creates because we live in the same country. Because it is NOT the same country.

Wapke Feenstra made a work she entitled Bather(s). It comprises 22 concrete tiles located at sixteen different points along or in the vicinity of the art route. She painted images of bathing women onto the tiles with special paint. The images are all based on well-known paintings by Renoir, Matisse, Picasso, Degas, Courbet, Ingres, Gauguin, Seurat, that is to say, from the last one hundred and fifty years of Western art history, which more or less coincides with the anniversary of the Waterleiding Bedrijf. This is perhaps why Rembrandt’s painting Bathsheba and the Elders is not included, Bathsheba being Holland’s most famous bather.

What makes Wapke Feenstra’s bathers unusual is that they are hard to see. They only appear when doused with water –you need to buy a bottle of special bather water and a sponge from the Information Centre, take it on your walk, discover the tiles in their secluded sites, and wet them. Only then will the painting appear. Like pebbles or shells. At first they seem mat and colourless and only when you wet them do you see their deep colours and striations and, for a moment, they are as enchanting as gems. And when they dry, the miracle vanishes.

The beauty of art is that you can interpret what you see in many ways and make as many associations as you like, hopefully long enough until you feel you’ve arrived at a point where the associations bring you to an understanding of the work.

In the case of the bathers, you can draw many lines from one association to another. With the way memory works, for example, with remembered images that surface of paintings you have seen. With art as collective memory, as a sort of cultural blue print. When you have covered the entire route you will have seen more or less the most important bathers from the last 150 years of Western art.
But you can also associate them with voyeurism, spying on naked women, like the elders in Rembrandt’s painting. This could be a second explanation for Feenstra’s omission of that painting: because it is a sort of archetypal painting of bathers and as such would remind the viewer too much of his own intentions while washing the paintings. But not all the viewers are men. I think then that the same Bather(s) similarly offer female viewers an identification, perhaps with their hiding places, their seclusion, and the luxury of being alone or imagining you’re alone.
A third association is mythological or religious depictions of bathing women as a pretext for lush nudes –an old given in painting. But the specific element of the theme of the Bather is that it is also a modern theme, like that of the Swimmer. It is a sort of contemporary classic –sport, recreation and being in nature. Perhaps with this the work partly delves into the recreational uses of the dunes and beach that are relatively recent, because prior to the Victorian era no one bathed and beach fun was unknown in our culture.

This brings me to perceiving the present landscape as a frame for the bathers. Having seen each of the bathing women, you are left not only with an after-image of one and a half centuries of painting, you have literally seen the bathers appear in a natural setting. Whether nature is recreational (for ramblers and beach-goers), or functional (a water sourcing area), the context is irrevocably contemporary. I think that when the ‘natural’ image of the bathing women fuses in your memory with the image of water conduits or wood chip paths, you realise that perceptions of nature are entirely cultural, or the reverse –our nature is culture, art.

From an excess of water, we go to the drought and scarcity of water in Benin, to which the work of Meschac Gaba refers. Meschac Gaba was born in Benin, and moved to the Netherlands in 1996 to pursue his art studies at the Rijksakademie, Amsterdam. He has now settled in Holland, and is married to a Dutch woman, a curator at the Museum Boijmans. The wedding took place in the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam as part of Meschac Gaba’s exhibition there. I’m not telling you this as an anecdote but to indicate that the work of Meschac Gaba is a convincing, profound commingling of art and life.

Meschac Gaba’s work for the Water exhibition has three parts. The first is a Water Village that he built in a clearing in the dunes. The village consists of sixteen slender African huts looking something like a cross between a birdbox and a sentry box. There is a water cooler in each hut –you know the kind, water containers of cooled water. Using a specially designed mug also on sale at the centre (we’ll be carrying quite a lot with us on our art route!) you can drink water from the water cooler, then sit on one of the tree trunks on the village square to enjoy it alone or in company. The water is free. Setting up a drinking water project like this in the Netherlands would be a bit like selling ice to the Eskimos but such a gesture in Benin would make Meschac Gaba an applauded benefactor. This contrast is naturally an intentional part of the work. But the work is about memory too: Gaba’s parents were relatively affluent and had a refrigerator. As a child, Gaba sold the water cooled in his family’s fridge, to other children. This memory connects the first part of the work with the second: installing a soft drinks machine in the Information Centre with bottled water from the mountains of Benin, (the brand is Possotomé, which I presume to be the Apollinaris or Pellegrino of Benin) and has even won numerous prizes in Europe.

Unfortunately that is no guarantee that the water will be allowed onto the Dutch market. Importing the water is fraught with obstacles, because the water needs a special quality certificate which is extremely costly and remarkably difficult to acquire, so this part of the project is stagnating. The Beninese share in this water exchange hasn’t materialised as a result and we are still waiting to see if it will work out within the period of the exhibition. So much for the World Trade Organisation and free trade traffic from Europe to Africa, but not vice versa. Something to think about while you sip your water sitting on the tree trunk in the Water Village.

The importance of the economic aspect of Meschac Gaba’s work will be clear by now. It also figures in the third part of his work for the Waterleidingduinen, the gilded ‘waterhapper’ (water biter). I didn’t know what a waterhapper was, because they’re hardly used any more which accounts for my unfamiliarity with the word. A very beautiful word, waterhapper, which merits a return to favour. The waterhapper is an elegant version of the traditional water pump on market squares –a small cast iron fountain from which water constantly bubbles out and which everyone can drink from for free. Apparently there used to be quite a few in the Vondel Park in Amsterdam. In the Waterleidingduinen there are still two, one quite near here, and that’s the one that Gaba has gilded. Gold plays a key role in all Gaba’s work. It shines, it is expensive and even prohibitive, it is symbolic, and he uses it to reflect all these references, and a multiplicity of meaning. The gold water fountain has suddenly become a jewel, an invaluable source of water and all that it represents, from source of life to source of income.
I do not know if you saw the recent documentary on the water situation in South Africa where European companies have purchased water rights and even the poorest people in the ghettoes are forced to pay dearly for their water.
Poverty, shortages and wealth and abundance are recurrent themes for Gaba who is a master in demonstrating the African art of recycling, reusing and re-reusing things that have been discarded as worthless elsewhere. The most important of which is money. Gaba has been recycling banknotes for years &ndsh;paper currency regularly dumped by banks once it has been rendered useless. He made a papier-mâché necklace out of it, new banknotes of his own design, and even confetti. And he printed the money as confetti on the mug.

There is no lack of water in Japan. Lakes, streams, rivers, inland seas, oceans, it is all there. A lofty chain of mountains known as the Japanese Alps runs the entire length of Japan and feeds the country’s major rivers with melt water. The rainy season provides the paddy fields with water till deep in the summer. But the work of Toshikatsu Endo is not about scarcity or abundance, but philosophy. According to Western tradition there are four elements: earth, air, fire and water. In those parts of Asia that follow the Chinese tradition there are five: earth, metal, wood, fire and water.
In turn, these elements relate positively to each other: one creates and reinforces the other, or in a negative sense: weakens or destroys the other. There is no sense of man’s dominion over nature because he depends upon it and is part of it; sickness, misfortune and war are just as much due to the disharmony of the elements, both in individuals and in nature, as health, peace and fortune arise from their harmony. Buddhism has a comparable relationship to nature because it assigns equal value to every living being. In Japan, moreover, there is an important and original tradition just as vital as the Chinese and Buddhist ones: Shintoism, which asserts that all of nature is animate and possesses a soul. Not only people, animals and plants, but also rocks and water, for instance.

When you see Endo’s work as a whole, you become aware that he is referring to these traditions all throughout his oeuvre. Take for example one of the untitled circular works: a ring of fire that is really a ring of burning charcoal. You will remember the importance of the interaction of the elements and the fact that the works are not dead objects but living processes in the act of transforming energy.
Water is traditionally the element of both erosion and growth, of danger, intangibility and unfathomability on the one hand, and transparency and perfect adaptation on the other. Water has ritual powers of purification and water as a mirror of reality asks the melancholic question, what is reality. And then there is the psychological aspect of water as a symbol of the unconscious or subconscious, as interpreted by Freud, Jung and others. Here, I would like to quote something Endo said about a work he made in Japan in 1996 and that simply comprised turning on a tap in an empty apartment:
‘The water pouring out of the tap filled the sink in the kitchen, overflowed, ran down the floor and flowed outdoors away. I had witnessed scenes like this many times in everyday life. On every occasion, the water was left running as a result of neglect rather than by deliberate will. Such water appeared to be reminiscent of something feminine. A secret image of female sexuality, as it seemed, was endlessly submerging the memories inscribed in the house and was flowing towards a certain unidentifiable object.’
It is no coincidence that the title of this work refers to Freud: Trieb-Water-I.
Water as a symbol of sexuality. In Japan, prostitution is known as the ‘water trade’. When reading Endo’s description I was seized by the memory of the heartrending loneliness and perverse practices of the male protagonists in the novels of the great Japanese writer and Nobel prize winner Yasunari Kawabata. I do not know if that remarkable image of female sexuality with which Endo evokes the oppressive fear of being washed away, and a fascination with the power of careless women, is also an explicit part of the work here in the dunes. For certain its title is Trieb-Water-III. The work itself consists of five water holes in five different locations. The artist allows water to bubble out of the ground, surging up by day, ebbing by night.

More information on the artists and their work I cannot give you here, but full details will be published in the catalogue. Over the last few days, the works have been photographed on site for the publication, along with fascinating articles by artists, curators and scientists. Now I would like to ask you to applaud all those involved in organising and realising this Water project.