Nickel van Duijvenboden
Orders Editions Documents
Roma Publications Endless Lowlands Gwenneth Boelens
/ De Ateliers 2014 residency programme, Amsterdam
29.5 Presentation of Mark Manders’ Room with Broken Sentence at Venice Biennale (I contributed to, and text-edited the catalogue)
13.5 Guest author for Lost Painters: read my post on Steve Reich and Ben Frost
14.2 Text contribution in Geert Goiris’ Lying Awake; opening + book presentation in Museum M, Leuven
25.1 Contribution to Jack Segbars’ exhibition in 1646, The Hague; opening at 7 p.m.
12.12 A Desert Warehouse: LP with acoustic noise recorded in Donald Judd’s Chinati Foundation
About my work
Writing and image-making are never far apart in my work. From the start it has been placed within several contexts: photography, visual art, literature, criticism, theory. For a while I thought I had to resolve this ambiguity, until I realised that it was a condition to arrive at my work.
Also read the interviews.
He knew there was no point in moving. The heaviness never went away for more than a second before returning. As a child he’d been frightened by these episodes, intimidated by the thought that his own body could make him feel this way. He'd wondered why they happened to him, if he was the only one, and above all, how he could escape them as quickly as possible. Then he would see an enormous field in front of him, too large to fully take in, and an indefinable form racing through it with unstoppable force, blurred with speed. The shape would make the field dark, a fathomless black that flickered electrically, like velour brushed flat with one sweep of the hand. His limbs would sink like lead, as if he could not move them, as if from one moment to the next gravity had doubled. All this time, he would remain exceptionally self-aware, almost as though outside his own body, and to his surprise he would notice that he was lying completely still, with a slow pulse, breathing calmly.
Now that he was older he felt the same surprise. The abstract vision of the field and the form racing through it had made way for a different ones. He experienced a kind of infinitude, like a cosmos, a field of prickles and tingles arising from his own powers of observation, which had been completely disabled just a moment earlier. How could a state of inactivity give rise to this inextricable tangle of signals? It was the most treacherous calm imaginable. Sometimes he was haunted by the feeling that his body was forcing this on him, playing a sadistic game.
An abandoned house bears a specific kind of silence, a silence steeped in absence. Sound has that unique quality: it can make you aware that a place remains in existence while no one is there and time progresses. My mother could never get used to that. She must have experienced it for years, every time she arrived, parked the car on the terrace and switched off the engine—a hush. She would then get out, make her round through the house, turn on the main switch, open the water valve, light the gas heaters and start loading the refrigerator. This routine unrolled itself pretty much weekly, and had been built up during the many years she had come here together with Wim, her husband. My second father. Since she was alone, however, silence returned as soon as she completed her round and regained possession of the house, exuding a sense of absence even when she was at home.
While moving through the house, it dawned on me that silence is not actually silence. Silence is sound; here it consisted of overhead planes, birds beating their wings, idling blowflies. Tractors, turbines, rustling leaves. Bated breath and suppressed swallowing. I had become so accustomed to these particular noises that I did not hear them anymore. Recording them enabled me to listen as though I was a new arrival—yet at the same time I knew I would never hear them again. Not even if I would return.
“When you think of the farm, what sound pops into your head?”
My mother closed her eyes. “The refrigerator pump. When it switches on, that buzz.”
Later, when the recordings had already been made and we were on our way back to Amsterdam, she said: “A swan taking off.”
I truly hoped that, by some coincidence, I had captured a swan’s wingbeats on the path between the grasslands at dawn.
“What do you think, are you going to read her book?” my father asked as he drove me to the railway station.
“I can’t stand her.”
“Did you even read her last book?”
“I can think of something more important.”
He sighed. “God, you’re blasé. Everybody seems to be searching for the all-important lately.”
“What’s wrong with that?”
“It’s very liberating to read a nice fat page-turner from time to time. You have to be open to it. Otherwise you’re only overlooking it, the real thing, the unpretentious. You’re so afraid other people might think you appreciate that type of thing.” He snorted. “If you wouldn’t worry about it so much, they will figure that out soon enough.”
“It’s not about that. It’s the whole air that surrounds it. It’s impossible to overlook. To try and persuade people to buy a book with a picture like that—what a fuss. I’m just not interested. And I’m not going to defend myself for it.”
“But you are.”
“That’s because you’re provoking me.”
“You’ve had that answer ready,” my father said, breaking off the conversation.
I couldn’t think of anything else to say, even though I pondered it the entire
train ride home.
(Sunday, 13 October 2002)
* * *
Now that I’ve committed them to the paper, these sentences I was curious about, they fail to impress me. Winogrand said: “I photograph to find out what something will look like photographed.”
A shift of perspective. That must be why certain things stay with me. But
there are some things one cannot write about.
(Friday, 21 January 2005)
A siren wails across the level sands from various directions. There is no way of telling where the source of the sound could be.
– One minute, someone says.
People start pushing and shoving.
– Stay down.
– But I’m sticking out.
– You’ll be fine. It won’t come to that.
– How could you possibly know?
The last one pushes at the others again. They settle into a mass.
– Do you have children? he asks me.
– What are we doing here, in God’s name?
– Shut your trap, another man says.
The silence lasts for seconds. Instinctively, the men bow their heads. I can feel the boy behind me laying his on my back. I can’t be sure I’m not imagining it, but even with my forehead pressed against the sandy wall of the trench and my eyes squeezed shut, I see a flash of light. Suddenly a shock wave travels through the ground, rippling the desert floor like a sheet. Then a low roar comes crashing over us, pressing us down, as if bulldozers were rolling over the trench.
Without raising my head over the edge, I open my eyes. Sand and dust fall onto my neck. I can’t see a thing, not even the wall of the trench, my fingers digging into the dry soil. The sand gets into everything—my nostrils, my ears, the collar and sleeves of my jacket. When all I can hear is the whisper of shifting dust, I finally dare to raise my head a little. I can feel a warm wind, warmer than the desert air.
– It’s coming this way, the man next to me shouts. There’ll be nothing left of us.
“It won’t be long,” Parisa said apologetically. Turning in her seat, she accidentally unclipped her seatbelt. She pushed it aside airily. “They never work anyway.”
“Is this an expensive neighbourhood?” I asked.
She nodded. “Cleaner air.”
“Where does your circle of friends live?”
“Scattered around Tehran. Most of them live with their parents, in the suburbs.”
“The good parts.”
She shrugged. “What’s the difference if you cannot leave?”
We took a turn into a narrow side street and stopped in front of a fence. I could look under the apartment building. The entrance looked well maintained. There were parked cars maybe two generations younger than the dented working horse that had carried us all the way up from the city centre. We were let in by a buzzer and took the elevator to the top floor. Navid’s room, an attic perched on a flat roof, was directly above his parent’s home. The access door to the roof was open. There was a faint smell of marijuana. Navid welcomed us rather phlegmatically, but the willingness with which he set up his audio equipment conveyed a concealed joy.
“Nickel, why are we walking through these woods?”
“To see where this path leads.”
“What are you hoping to find?”
“Hoping to find? I have no idea. The remains of a penal colony, I guess.”
“Aren’t you scared?”
“Scared? Of what?”
I knew what had given him that idea. A couple of days before, I had read him a passage about a mass grave. It described corpses sliding down a mountainside after an overfilled grave had burst open. The permafrost had kept the bodies perfectly intact.
“Or did they get rid of all that?” he asked.
“I don’t think so.”
He stopped and pointed his camera at the cart track, which at this point was almost entirely overgrown. He was unaware of his shoe sinking into the muddy ground.
“Are you hoping somewhere inside that we find a mass grave at the end of this path?”
“Somewhere inside? What’s that supposed to mean? Deep down in my heart? Jesus.”
I started walking again.
“You don’t really want to go that far, do you?” he shouted.
I shook my head. “We passed that point a long time ago. Whatever we find now, we’ll just have to accept it. We can’t hit rewind any more. If you’re so keen on making a documentary, why don’t you just interview yourself?”
He was silent.
“You know why we’re here. Everything we’ve done has been leading up to this. We want to get an impression of what it was like by standing in the place where it happened. We’re not tourists. We’re trying to rouse something that lies slumbering beneath this landscape. Otherwise you could just as well make some garden-variety travel film, and it would never occur to us that the road we just cycled on might contain the crushed bones of forced labourers.”
Behind me I heard the camera snap shut. “You’re just afraid of feeling empty. You always have been.”
“A few days ago I had her take the daily photograph for once. Her hands wavered as she measured the light and adjusted the camera settings. It was painful to watch her being at the mercy of the machine, but it was somehow telling. I don’t know why I wasn’t inclined to help her. Maybe I realised I had to let her go through it on her own, to make her see that she was actually better off doing her drawings.”
Indirect Speech II, 2009
“I asked him why he did that. He did not understand what I meant. Store things. Keep things. He shrugged his shoulders, saying it was nothing. I said that the drawing was nothing, too. He replied that the drawing was the principal activity of the expedition. I shook my head, reminding him he took a photograph with the field camera every day for research purposes. I said I couldn’t match that. Then he said: Exactly. But still you continue. I can’t match that.”
Indirect Speech I, 2008
She considered the fact that she cherished a moment in which he reflected her own, awfully egoistic, longings. But however much she tried to concentrate on an alternative version of Lev, her thoughts disintegrated with every attempt. Her inability to imagine him in another situation taunted her, but she had to accept it. Was that why she had not pursued her search, because she had wanted to protect herself from that image? Was it because she was afraid of finding him, leaving her unable to keep him alive even in her imagination?
On the other hand, what she had seen at the radio tower was arguably an equally bitter reality. The thought of the glue-like ice-hole and the goose down mingled persistently with the other image. The one busy ousting the other. Few impressions were powerful enough to deny her a way out. Although she had seen enough to accept that he was no longer alive, it was not enough to accept it as definitive. She was entrapped.
“This was an incredibly difficult bit to write,” he said in a low voice.
Hauser avoided his eyes. “Was it?”
“I get distracted,” the screenwriter continued. “Happens every time. I watch movies, sort my photos, listen to music, read the paper—it’s a nightmare.”
Hauser nodded. He had no idea what the screenwriter was talking about.
“It’s because of the high expectations. It has to be memorable. A new image. Nothing less. But when I’m under pressure, I always take the path of least resistance. A scene like this, for example, I can write out of the corner of my eye, in just a few seconds, between one thing and another, making coffee and watching TV. It has nothing to do with concentration any more. It’s pure fragmentation.”
“Fragmentation,” Hauser repeated.
“Yes. As a mode. Instead of concentration. We don’t need to pause for breath anymore as we process all the images coming at us. Those days are behind us. The transition from one thing to another is seamless.”
The director looked distractedly over his shoulder at the screenwriter, who broke off his monologue. In the silence that followed, Hauser returned his attention to the actors. The man was still lying on the floor, while the boy was walking away, into the depths of the warehouse. The image of the child making his way alone stirred something inside him that he couldn’t suppress simply by swallowing. It was shattering.
“Okay, stop,” the director said suddenly. “Let’s pack it in.”
As the entire crew slowly set to work, he rushed ahead of them to the door, fishing his sunglasses out of his pocket and flipping them open. “Thanks,” he mumbled as he went by.
“That was...” Hauser began, hurrying after him, “That was...”
“That was a one-time deal,” he replied brusquely. “I’m scrapping that scene. I had to see it to be sure I could get rid of it.”
Dazed, I walk over the grass and flop down at a picnic table in the shade under the trees. The confirmation that Jacq is here, at the moment when I had stopped believing in it, has knocked the wind out of me. For the first time I become aware that I have been following him like a detective, that I am sticking my nose into his affairs. What am I doing here? Clearly no one is in need of my ominous tourism. Do I wish to confront him? Now that I have come across his tracks, I can no longer pretend to myself that I just wanted to know what he is up to. No, I want him to account for himself. Why has he left me alone, what was so important, and what merits so much secrecy?
In the meantime I pick at the shapes carved in the table-top. Squares have been carved in various places with a sharp object, divided into four smaller squares. The figure strikes me as a remnant of a repentant vandal: from my youth I remember that this is the quickest way of erasing a swastika. Joining up the arms so that you are left with just a square comprised of four smaller squares. How often have I had to do this, confronted with the vague sense of shame that remained after I had defiled a school desk or a toilet with the square icon? The figure never failed to shock me, even though I drew the offensive interplay of angular lines in a spirit of wantonness. To me it was a symbol of the unspeakable; not erasing it would have been a grave error. But the sensation of the transgression and then subsequently correcting myself, brought me close enough to the limit to taste what it was like to be evil.
A framed portrait hung above the chimney breast. Even without a proper view he was able to recognize it: the frontal one, with the uniform. He had it too, at home. Everybody did. He pictured the dust on the frame, on the furniture, on the floor. The smell inside the house. He pictured the man for whom it was built, but who had never been there.
On the terrace were four garden chairs resting against a table on their front legs. A masoned windbreak. A stained gas tank. A small pool with a concrete edge, empty. The lawn between the terrace and the empty swimming pool had been trimmed no so long ago. They kept it, for the absent one. But that did not exceed the lawn. The molehills were merely leveled. A sublime metaphore for the nation: a superficial order that was being eaten away from within.
As he quietly made his way through the thicket, the framed portrait stuck in his mind, as if it kept staring at him. That one sole image, he thought, in an endless reproduction, should illustrate an absolute ban on all images.
It’s been years since you were exposed to so much light. It reminds you of that very first time, when you were still blank and greeted by a joyful scene. Then too, it happened with an unexpected flash searing a drawing of light onto your dark support. That’s what started it all, fifty-three years ago. Almost right after that, you were submerged into some foul fluid, in pitch-dark, time and time again. It bit into you, it made you swell up. Then, for the first time, you were exposed to the light of a lamp for a prolonged period of time. They cut you up into equal pieces and clasped you into a rectangular housing, so people could take in your fixed impression through a small window preventing them from soiling you with their sweaty fingers.
Strangely enough, the doctor is wearing cotton gloves this time. Together with others, you are subjected to a slow procedure scanning you from both sides in a light box. Nothing escapes scrutiny. Your inside is exposed, fragmented and reconstructed elsewhere. It seems you are being discarded. Afterwards you are brought back to your original state, with your wafer-thin essence joined without stitches to the frame where they lifted you from. You feel mangled – yes, that’s exactly the phrase: to mangle. What sort of laboratory is this anyway?
You might not be able to distinguish a fault line while standing on one. Other places, however, might retain obvious transitory features, forming a mental vacuum, invisibly charged, brimming with history, its existence unregistered by the senses or other, more objective means. Out there, nature slowly covers up remnants, both destroying and retaining.
But not here. Here, I am one of Ramble, not covered up but covered, monitored. Every patch of land was pre-planned, before our arrival. This place should have been a carbon copy of our original habitat, but it is merely the embodiment of an architect’s lack of imagination. Or maybe it is an abstraction of the idea of a habitat where, due to spacial and economic limits, each requisite ingredient is sparsely represented. The architect’s explanation would be that the whole thing is so delicately balanced; to minimize the parameters is to maximize control. And so each element – down to the tiniest grain – balances out the other.
“Yes,” said the young man eagerly, when he was acknowledged. “I was wondering – after this lecture in which, if I may be so free, you criticise everything – whether there is anything, any artists, works, books, that you do admire?”
This for Howard was the most difficult question conceivable. He was on his own here and adopted an innocent grin. Why hadn’t he prepared for this? His audience suddenly regarded him with sincere interest and some even held their pens at the ready. He experienced that strange sensation again: here he was the cynic who excelled in inflammatory speeches always directed against something, who could only discuss such matters in a negative light, and yet his audience appeared so interested in his taste. As if someone who could express his aversion to things so perfectly, would also be able to talk about what he loved so infectiously. He himself doubted whether he loved anything at all.
Because his silence had began to exceed the limits of the customary pause for thought, the young man sat up straight in his chair as if giving weight to what, after all, had been a perfectly legitimate question.
“Because, if you yourself create a work, I mean, you are a visual artist aren’t you? - then it must be difficult - to my way of thinking - not having a positive force to motivate you. Something to enthuse about.”
Howard tapped the edge of the lectern with the stick, the stick containing the rolled-up images which, according to him, were indeed nothing less than ashes...
If you desire, you may enter some of the houses. The space to move around extends as far as several storeys. You will not discover sanitation. Some houses don’t even possess a front door. You can only view these from the outside, but the absence of an entrance can’t keep you from imagining the interior.
Somewhere in the city you own a garage where you can store fancy cars and motorbikes. One way or another, it is never very difficult to rediscover the accessible houses or the garage. If you wait long enough, you’ll come across it again as a matter of course. You are, it seems, fated to discover important and pleasant spots, for they are located along exactly the route that is an obvious part of an ever more familiar circumference.
The various neighbourhoods have each got a certain identity. There are palm trees in the streets, lampposts, traffic lights. Waiting for these to turn green would however be absurd. In this respect, it’s a cardboard world: details appear to make sense, but don’t.
At times, we see each other driving among the rest of the traffic. We are not allowed to adopt a speed slower than the maximum and do not at all feel the need to.We are in this city to kill each other. The opportunities to harm one another are limitless. Here, death is painless, instantly followed by a flash of light at your character’s spawnpoint, a flash which implies your reincarnation.
“It’s a shame you can’t be here”, was the first thing I said.
“I am trying to visualize it from here. I was hoping you’d be able to feed me a few details”, he said cheerfully.
To visualize something. I was instantly reminded of his last article, which was coincidentally about this same subject. My father contended that “to visualize something” actually means to place yourself in the role that you would have had in the situation you are trying to visualize; not just a simple, cerebral visualization or projection, but an actual “being present” or role play, acting if you will, with the only limitation that you cannot be physically present. With age comes the skill to keep this to oneself; the subtle act of inner visualization.
I didn’t dare to tell my father that this conversation, during which he was making a visualization of my situation, was a perfect opportunity to test out his assertion. Was he really acting as if he was with me, inside himself? After we had spoken, would he no longer have the need to come? If he only knew how much his presence would have meant to me, whether it was mental or physical.