Dutch Landscape

A wall stretches out on the national park of De Wetering in the Netherlands. This wall is not devised to divide but to fuel our imagination. Whereas the elevation of the surface on which the wall was built changes, the elevation of the wall is constant all along. Its top surface is aligned with the sea level. In other words, if the dikes that keep the water away were to collapse, the water would reach the top of the wall. Although the wall itself only draws a line on the landscape, it also helps us comprehend the volume between the sea level and the ground surface. The wall acts as a trace of the now inexistent water bodies. In this sense it both denotes the confluence of human and natural history but also the lurking climate catastrophe.
Dutch Landscape

Another significance of  “Sea Level”, as this artwork by Richard Serra called, is that it reminds us of the great power humankind possesses over the planet. We have the power to shape the face of the earth, dry out seas and flatten the hills. We have been exercising it, while the rest disappears. However, we only recently started realizing the extent of this power. The perceived relationship between the humans and the paramount forces of the earth was not always like this. Whereas in Serra’s work it is the humans whose power we receive with astonishment, a few centuries ago the Dutch landscape painters were exalting the might of the “nature” over small human figures scattered on the landscape.

The landscape painting as an independent genre has originated from the Low Countries. Around the 17th century many artists in this region specialized in painting secular subjects such as landscapes and seascapes. The kind of setting on which the Dutch masters set their sight on is peculiar to this area. Situated on the mouth of a river system flowing into the turbulent North Sea, the terrain is abound with swamps, lakes, river deltas, reclaimed polders and dunes. The howling wind carries storm clouds from the ocean. The scenery created by the abrupt changes of weather unhindered by flat lowlands creates a feeling of awe in the eyes of the beholder.

Although it is now known that the Dutch were at least partially aware of the classical texts on the idea of “sublime,” it was conceived slightly differently from the other continental examples. The discussion on the characteristics and even “possibility” of the Dutch sublime dates back to 18th century. Although Kant discredits the taste of the Dutch nation by stating that “the Dutchman is of an orderly and assiduous type of temperament and, as he looks solely to the useful, he has little feeling for that which in the finer understanding is beautiful or sublime” the current perspectives tend to differentiate the Dutch sublime rather than repudiating its existence. One perspective stresses the covert mundane feeling in these paintings. For instance, Jan van Goyen’s famous painting “View of Haarlem and the Haarlemmer Meer” has a panoramic view that captures the distinct characteristics of the landscape with accuracy. In the lower quarter of the painting, closer to the gaze, cylindrical hay bales are scattered on the fields. On the left hand corner of the painting we come across two peasants sitting exhausted of the daily labour. These small details contrasts with the massive clouds floating over the plains. Although the climatic forces are indisputably the governing actors in this painting, the daily labour harbors the people providing them with a decent but yet a shaky place under their rule.
Dutch Landscape
The labour infiltrating into the scene presents a clue about the arriving triumph of humankind over the ordinance of the planetary forces. Such that the endeavor to shape the terrain accelerates in the following centuries. The current condition of these reclaimed lands as an anthropogenic landscape forces us to discuss the limits of human intervention on the planet and a new understanding of the “wild.” The recent exhibition “Garden State” in Garage Rotterdam focuses exactly on this issue. Starting from the superficial dichotomy between “garden” and “wilderness,” the exhibition questions human control over urban ecosystems. Considering that the concept of “nature” is packed with so much meaning that it became unavailable in discussing the relationship between the humans and the rest, the use of the concepts of “garden” and “wilderness” are promising. However, the exhibition sustains some fallacies by positioning these concepts as a dichotomy.

We tend to understand the “wilderness” as a pristine geography where no human-being lives. The same perspective also disregards the existence of wilderness in Europe and fancies an image of the wild through characteristics of jungles in the New World or the vast steppes of Asia. However, this perspective falls short of accounting for the fact that some of the things that we deem as “natural” are in reality human-made to a greater degree. For instance, the fruits we eat are this sweet and juicy because we wanted them to be so and selectively bred them according to our taste for millennia. On the other hand, the garden is perceived primarily as a human domain in which decisions regarding the lives of the beings and outlook of the topography is decided without the participation of these non-human actors. This view also falls short of explaining the existence of “undesirable” actors in these gardens and “unsuccessful” outcomes. Moreover, it directs humans to a fight against these non-human actors rather than searching for possibilities of communication and mutual decision-making processes among various actors.
Dutch Landscape
In the exhibition “Garden State,” Bik van der Pol’s video work titled “Facts on the ground” helps us develop an alternative idea of a garden by forcing us to start by accepting our might vis-a-vis the planetary forces. The work is composed of footage from the land reclamation project on the Rotterdam port. This footage demonstrates the similarities between the artist’s production process and those of the city planners and engineers. However, this kind of authorship assumes a universal hierarchical structure that esteems humans a higher position. Although the example of the Netherlands that I tried to situate within a linear narrative seems to legitimize this kind of hierarchy by putting the human and the rest in a rivalrous position, there is a multitude of narratives that bridges the natural and human history. If we are to consider these narratives in their manifoldness, we would see that communication among the actors of the ecosystems is vital.

Power comes with responsibility. But this responsibility cannot legitimate the use of excessive controlling mechanisms and undemocratic governing systems. In this regard, the artistic production promises new methods and perspectives to imagine prospective futures that embody interspecies communication together with the connections between animate and inanimate entities. Today, there are much less places where no human set foot, much less seas undiscovered. Where the great primate does not step on, its belongings which it deems obsolete reach, creating islands of thrash and rivers of antibiotics. Therefore we need to act immediately under the light of the discussions ignited by the artistic production. We need to take every new narrative in its humble contribution without getting dreaded by neither our power nor the planetary forces.

Oğuzhan İzmir

Oğuzhan İzmir, kültür sanat alanında yeni tartışmaları gündeme getirmek için yazdığı yazılarında sosyal bilim formasyonundan faydalanır. Siyasi sanat ve sanatın siyaseti yazılarında ağırlıklı olarak yer verdiği konulardır. Boğaziçi Üniversitesi mezunu olan İzmir, yüksek lisans eğitimine Koç Üniversitesi’nde devam etmekte ve bağımsız olarak araştırma ve yazarlık deneyimini geliştirmektedir.