‘What else can an artist do than express his encounter with the world?’ (Maurice Merleau-Ponty)
In my work I take this encounter with the world quite literally. Most of the images I use are shot in the neighbourhood of my home or my studio, both in the centre of The Hague. A neighbourhood that is changing very fast. Buildings that I never cared for disappeared and I could not remember what they looked like. So I started photographing the changing city in an attempt to get a grip on things.
The first paintings I did were images of demolished offices. I liked their appearance. They looked quite like the images I knew from Gaza and Irak. But unlike these images, which were too heavy loaded for me to use, the demolished offices proved to be very useful as subject matter.
To keep in balance I also needed to registrate the buildings that replaced the former ones. So I photographed construction pits and new buildings. I called my exhibitions ‘ever renovating city’ and ‘breaking and building’.
It brought me to study architecture. I realised that profound architecture is integrated in our lived world. Buildings should resonate and include the surrounding natural and urban context.
Of course in The Hague the natural landscape is not to be found. Actually the whole of Holland is designed by dutch people. We only find nature where we allow it. So the only thing our buildings can resonate is the geometrical context of the man made environment.
Inevitably there is a resemblance between the city and the human body. When I did a series of city overviews I realized I was actually painting my own mental map. ‘Like the architect Juhani Pallasmaa once said: ’I dwell in the city and the city dwells in me’.
Not much different from human living tissue, the city bears its scars and reacts on them with new tissue. War can cause scars in the cityscape, the city councel can do so too, as we have seen in The Hague.
The closing of the channels in the 19th century, large scale demolishing of neighbourhoods and the building of problematic infrastructure left The Hague with problems that can hardly be fixed. Like a cityplanner once told me: ‘A house you can break down, but a square or a street is there to stay’.
So , may it be because of a war, because of disputable choices, because of sheer ambition, modern man surrounds himself with a continuously changing urban environment.
With good reason, you could call the constructed environment an extention of the human body. But you can also turn that around. Our domicile becomes integrated with our self-identity; it becomes part of our own body and being. So what does a continuously changing urban environment do to a man?
The urban environment is a result of the mechanisms and structures of modernisation, globalisation, mass production and consumption, mobility, constant change, economic power structures and profit making. True, good architecture should connect with its environment but this issue is mostly overruled by efficiency, visual aesthetics and comfort. Connection with the environment is then narrowed down to being able to move from one place to another at fast as possible.
We as human beings combine culture with nature. Our genes and instincts reflect the descent of mankind. Our mental state is directly related to our surroundings, be it the choice of position in a defined space, the tactility of the surrounding surfaces, the smells and sounds of other people, the resonance of our own footsteps.
Planning of cities is more and more a purely visual phenomenon. Certainly when architects use software instead of models a haptic relation with a design is no longer there. Just like going on a virtual tour which can be enchanting but can never replace the real thing. Could this be the reason for our feelings of being disconnected? Or does the urban environment simply reflect the state of mind of modern man?
We are led to believe that every renewal is an improvement. We are told that economic laws prevail above natural laws. We tragically force ourselves to live in this abstract efficiënt environment because we believe that money and possessions prevail over relationships and dreams.
Of course, every politician will emphasize the importance of economic growth and ambition.
In The Hague, the city council likes to see The Hague as a ‘metropole at sea’ and plans buildings and structures that I think don’t measure up with the scale of The Hague.
I personally don’t see economic growth as the solution of the various crises we are in. I feel that economic-, energy, climate- and religious crises are only symptoms of a total system crise. Modern man is incapable of living in harmony with his environment.The whole concept of economic growth is only possible because we don’t pay the price for the harm we do to the planet. Due to digitalisation both space and time become compressed. We can reach out over the entire world in a second over the internet. We can drive to any place and back home with your tomtom without having a clue where we have been.
So I see the problems of mankind reflected in my environment and my environment keeps me in a state of alarm.
Biologically we are not so much different from our ancestors in the caves, who could never survive without a profound understanding of their environment. So in my paintings I freeze moments of the man made environment in time. I invite the spectator to connect to the image, to meditate on it, to morally invest in it. We can do with a little slowness. We should have time to create memories, to experience feelings, to dream. The urban environment creates our frames and horizons,but looking at it we should be able to understand ourselves.