Bart Lodewijks & Jan Kempenaers
On the Road to Watou
In the interminable winter months leading up to the Watou art festival, I make linear chalk drawings on the houses and farms in the area. I draw lines – long or short, thick or thin – that in their great simplicity have nothing to hide. Jan photographs the temporary drawings, along with the environment as it changes through the seasons. The chalk lines prompt questions – and that leads to conversations. We hear from gentlemen farmers and day labourers, from people averse to poetry and those who embrace it. In the village, we come across a pug looking for its ball. Each of us writes about our encounters: Jan produces factual reports, while I interpret the events and create a story.
January 2021 Watou sits in a cloud. The village is deserted and enshrouded in mist. Beyond the edges of town lie ploughed fields under a thin layer of snow; some Brussel sprouts are scattered on the asphalt. I come across a poem by Anna Enquist on a plaque on a wall across from the church. It is a spring letter to Gerrit K. on the occasion of his eightieth birthday – an event certainly deserving of congratulations. ‘(…) I write you. The last address is known, / our postcodes already carved / into stone. The words ever thinner / the smoke at its wispiest, at its best. / I write you. That’s where we’re headed.’ Gerrit K. had a learned head and a walrus moustache, a man who could spin words into silver – that is what I remember of him. The fields are soaking wet; it is zero degrees Celsius, with no wind. A tractor with monstrous ploughshares stands desolate by the side of the road. I think of the potato-grading machine, that self-contained farm computer given a voice by H.H. ter Balkt, the grousing prophet of Twente, who just like Gerrit K. lies well and truly under the sod. Ter Balkt called the potato-grading machine the most dented of farm machinery. There seems to be a whole row of dead poets in my head, some of whose lines I know by heart. But instead of reciting them, I write: ‘Watou does not lack for winter vegetables. The Brussel sprouts lie on the road for the picking. / They taste better / after a few frosts. / Every sprout from the earth / returns to her bosom. / Jan and I aren’t waiting for spring, / we’re starting now.’ In the village square is a statue of a soldier with a lion, a monument to the victims of the First World War. There are seven cafés around the square and a church encircled by a cemetery with fresh flowers on the graves. There is a hotel, a butcher, a greengrocer and a brewery. What more do you need – at least under normal circumstances? But these are not normal circumstances, thanks to the coronavirus pandemic. Everything here lies within walking distance, but everything is closed. Nineteen hundred people live in Watou, but the streets are empty. It’s a microcosm of the world. I unfold a street map on the bonnet of my car. A thin, crooked line demarcates the border with France. The village of Watou itself is fringed by gently sloping farmland. With a little imagination, it 2-
A level is a piece of metal and can be used as a weapon.
takes on the shape of a bird. Oude-Poperingestraat and Douvieweg are the wings. I smooth out the folds of the map with my hand. The square, where the car is parked, is the heart. Houtkerkestraat, Oude-Provenstraat and Moenaardestraat are the tail feathers. I show Jan. At the edge of town is a castle, where a bridge with a wroughtiron fence and a heavy lock denies us access to the castle grounds. The water in the moat is covered by a thin layer of ice. The castle façade is dull grey, like a slate-board – so many places to draw on with chalk that one spring will never be enough. With my green winter coat and sturdy lace-ups, I look like the soldier in the statue on the village square. My rucksack is filled with chalk: three boxes, each holding a gross – exactly 432 milky white chalk sticks all told. It’s like they’re cartridges I’ve brought on a rampage. I draw up my collar. Where does this rowdiness come from? The ruler, an aluminium level I hold tightly, points ahead of me like the needle of a compass. Jan walks beside me with his camera on his chest. But we don’t quite march in formation; both too pacifist for that. I’m off to do battle with a sack full of chalk. Meanwhile, Jan is upset because the cold is wreaking havoc with his camera battery, which is almost empty. A tractor with its plough raised races past, and on a nearby property a pug searches for its ball. One vertex of the knee-high wall framing the property has a statue of an eagle with its wings spread out. I imagine the bird soaring through the air, looking down on the village. It strikes me how many statues they have around here. On the way into town, in a field, I saw one of a horse with a stone Amazonian on its back. There’s a man standing next to the eagle statue, dressed in camouflage pants and an army jacket. He looks at us suspiciously, holding the pug that was just running around. I need to go to the toilet but don’t dare ask the man that. I walk toward him and say, ‘Good people.’ The dog has dark, beady, inquisitive eyes. The man glares at me stoically. ‘We’re here as part of the poetry festival,’ I say to explain our presence. ‘Can you take a step back?’ he says in an admonishing tone. ‘Haven’t you heard about corona?’ Then he adds in the same breath, ‘As long as they keep their art over there,’ and points toward the mist covering the fields. He puts the pug back down on the ground, whereupon the critter sniffs at my pantleg disarmingly. ‘We are not looking for trouble,’ I say. ‘You could be border criminals for all I know,’ he contends. ‘A level is a piece of metal and can be used as a weapon, just like a fence-post. You could lift up a car with it and steal the tyres.’ We learn that he is a hunter in his free time and that there are too many foreigners running around Brussels and Antwerp.
Who is this man? I look over his shoulder as he’s talking. The pug ambles blithely around. I see a bunch of animals arranged on the windowsill: a herd of elephants sorted from large to small, a lion, a gazelle, a rhinoceros and a zebra. ‘Everything in the living room belongs to my wife. Mieke, come join us!’ he calls. Mieke comes outside, leaving the door wide open behind her. She is larger than her husband. ‘You have a nice collection of figurines on the windowsill,’ I say as a compliment. ‘Ach, yeah, every year, I get more animals. People know where to find me. I repair them, paint over the cracks and put new glaze on so they look brand-new. I’ve got a whole bunch more in the attic,’ she replies. In the dim-lit darkness behind the open door hangs a huge, terrifying head. It looks like the head of a monster. It’s probably a wild boar, a tearaway that roamed the Watou region. Did the man shoot it himself? He squints his eyes like a cowboy in a Western and glances sideways at my level, as if he still does not entirely trust us. Maybe the boar’s head is a hunting trophy. In my mind, I can see the man pulling the trigger as the animal appears within range. He looks like someone who upholds tradition. I imagine he even brushes the boar’s rough coat and cleans its teeth when he can. It is undoubtedly important to him that the tusks be sparkling white, the tongue salmon pink and the gums beet red. Strange thoughts I can’t seem to shake. ‘We’re artists: Jan and Bart,’ I say, in an attempt to return to reality. ‘Pleased to meet you: Mieke and Hans,’ she says at once. Now that we have exchanged names, the ice is broken. A smile appears on the man’s face. ‘And look at what I always carry with me…’ He pulls out a small Opinel pocket knife. ‘Come on, Hans, that’s a banned weapon,’ says his wife disapprovingly. ‘It’s only prohibited if you open it,’ he replies sheepishly. ‘Might I be able to photograph the eagle from close up?’ Jan suddenly asks intently. ‘Be sure to keep your distance, huh, ’cause of corona,’ says the man. We walk across the drive toward the eagle. I see the open cargo bed of a Nissan 4 x 4 sticking out of the garage. ‘I’ve had that thing since 1998. It has three hundred thousand kilometres on the odometer,’ he adds momentously. I tap the front tyre with my level and say, ‘You could go right out on safari with this thing.’ From close up, the eagle is gigantic. ‘The wings would make a great umbrella when it rains,’ I joke. ‘Female eagles are larger than the males,’ Mieke says bluntly. I can barely suppress a laugh. ‘It’s true,’ she continues. ‘I read it in The VERY BIG guide to birds.’
Her physical size makes Hans look relatively small, but maybe he compensates for that with his Nissan. When we enter the hallway, I don’t see a boar’s head at all. It’s a rolled up net hanging from the wall. You could definitely use it to trap a boar, though, so I wasn’t that far off. But for now I give my thoughts a rest; next thing you know, I’ll be seeing the porcelain legion on the windowsill march outside. ‘Coffee?’ Mieke asks. My curiosity about what might be inside is so great I immediately nod Yes. Because of the pandemic, it has been over a year since I sat down to a table with perfect strangers. The couple watches Jan with some trepidation as he charges his camera batteries in the kitchen. The coffee maker gurgles, and they don’t seem to know what to say to us right off. The only one entirely thrilled with the unexpected visit is the pug, a bitch named Rinus who constantly wags her cropped tail. ‘We would like to move to South Africa,’ Hans says to break the silence. ‘At least there you have room to hunt and drive around in a Land Rover,’ he says. ‘Yup, there are plenty of land rovers there,’ I affirm, but he does not pick up on the double meaning behind my words. ‘We’ve brought Africa into our house anyway – the nice things about Africa, that is,’ Mieke says. ‘I have boxes filled with wild animals upstairs, sorted according to size and colour. It’s so sad that so many species are threatened with extinction.’ Hans stands up with an affable grin on his face and says, ‘Can you two keep a secret?’ ‘Oh no, Hans, do you have to?’ she asks, but he has already left the room. ‘Hunting is in his blood,’ she says, preparing us for his return. ‘But he doesn’t have an evil bone in his body; he’s as sweet as honey.’ We hear the click of steel on steel coming from the hallway. Hans enters the room with a hunting rifle that he lays out on the kitchen table as if it were the most precious possession on earth. As we turn to leave, Mieke directs me to the toilet. ‘If you ever have to go, now you know where to find us,’ she says kindly. I shut the door of the smallest room in the house, totally alone. There’s a bar of soap in the shape of an elephant on the porcelain washbasin. I sit down, take a deep breath and close my eyes. I circle above Watou like an eagle and see the soldier and the lion from the statue marching through the village. Zebras nibble peacefully at the tree leaves; a herd of elephants traipses along in a line; rhinoceroses bathe in a stream; gazelles glance around skittishly. A horse trots through the fields with an Amazonian on its back. I open my eyes and wash my hands with the soap elephant. The Watou story has begun and anything could happen.
Brother and Sister
February 2021 The farmhouse façade is still reasonably intact and somewhat resembles a movie set, but everything behind it is a wreck. The roof has caved in and massive wood rafters cry out toward the heavens, as if expressing the anguish of the old inhabitants. Doors dangle from their jambs and there’s a carpet of sparkling white snow in what was once a living room. A wicker seat hangs crooked in a wooden chair. Glazed tiles grace the spot where a stove once stood. The hearth is blackened, with a crack in the chimney evincing a human tragedy. Yet, not all signs of life are gone: judging from the traces on the rug, the rooms are inhabited by small game and birds. All the buildings on the property are derelict, except for a large shed next to the farmhouse. There’s a bike but no detectable signs of human life. ‘I should still just knock on the door before I draw on the farmhouse,’ I say to Jan and proceed to bang on it loudly. ‘All you’ll do is wake up a sleeping beauty,’ he says. I hear some thumping in the shed and take a few steps back. The door is opened by a heavily bundled-up old woman I estimate to be about seventy. She looks at us kindly. Then a man about the same age appears at her side. The couple stands inquisitively in the doorway without saying a thing. ‘Uhm…,’ I stammer. ‘Are you with the police?’ she hazards a guess. ‘No, not at all. Far from it,’ I say back. ‘We just happened by.’ ‘My name is Marleen. We are brother and sister,’ she goes on. The pair of them are spending the winter in the structure we took to be a barn, a room measuring about five by five metres that used to serve as a break room for the farmhand. An electric heater blows warm air into the room as daylight spills in through a small square window. Marleen and her brother have no problem at all with us taking photos and making chalk drawings on their property. I draw a horizontal line in chalk on a concrete rainwater tank. Jan combs the area with his camera. Every now and then, he points out a place he thinks would be suited to a chalk drawing. We barely speak. It is so cold that we need to conserve our energy. After a few hours the sun breaks through and the top layer of dirt soon 10-
The frost on the ground seeps slowly upward to my feet, but it’s my hands that are getting colder and colder. I draw on the brick façade of a farmhouse in ruins. The aluminium level I press against the façade and that I use for drawing chalk lines feels like a frozen block. I’m wearing fingerless gloves so I can draw with precision but don’t have much feeling left in my benumbed hands.
thaws out, so that I sink into the muddy ground a bit. I take off my fingerless gloves and unzip my coat. Now it’s just the wind giving me fits. A fighter jet pierces the steel-blue sky. I think of The Painted Bird, a harrowing book by Jerzy Kosinski set in rural Poland during the Second World War, far removed from the artillery fire. Nobody had any idea about what was happening in the communities outside the cities. I sit down on a kitchen chair. Marleen sits across from me and her brother is seated in an armchair near the heater. Jan is outside taking photographs in the late-afternoon light. The electric fly killer on top of the refrigerator gives off a blue glow and a fluorescent light buzzes on the ceiling. ‘My brother and I were born and raised here,’ Marleen reports, pointing toward the farmhouse with a sad look on her face. ‘I thought you would draw little figures, but they’re all straight lines,’ her brother says, changing the subject. I chuckle and ask what happened to the farmhouse. ‘We couldn’t keep living in it,’ he responds. ‘We were caught off-guard,’ she adds. ‘The roof literally fell to pieces, thankfully not on our heads. It was Christmas 2013. The ceiling held up, though; we got lucky there. He,’ and she points to her brother, ‘doesn’t want to rebuild the farmhouse.’ ‘We are not welcome at the bank,’ he says. ‘We can go in there, of course, but then we have to pay them money at the window to get any help. We are useless with computers. Just have to wait until it warms up; only then can we actually do anything.’ ‘The farmhouse died of old age,’ she muses calmly, adding in the same breath, ‘We weren’t expecting anyone to drop by; we get very few people here.’ ‘There was one time when over a hundred people came all at once,’ he interrupts, ‘though it was a long time ago. That was during the Second World War, and my sister and I were very young children at the time. A British aeroplane crashed down in our field; the pilot disappeared without a trace. And the whole village turned out to see the wreckage.’ ‘The Germans took everything that was salvageable. Our father was so angry about that, because his crop was trampled,’ Marleen says. She pulls a black-and-white photo of her with her brother out of an old box and says, ‘This photo was taken shortly after the war. We don’t have any photos of the crashed aeroplane or all those visitors. We really don’t have anything, just a story.’
March 2021 Watou is getting ready for the summer. The hedges that separate the gardens from the street have been clipped into playful geometric shapes. Minimalist turf rolls carpet the lawns and the windows on the houses might as well be mirrors. The cars, which for a large part dictate the streetscape, are so shiny in the sunlight I have to squint so as to not be blinded by them. Behind the brewery is a row of closely set labourers’ cottages. A low concrete wall hides an overgrown piece of land. I’ve been drawing on walls like these for years. The chalk clings nicely to the concrete surface, almost as if it were made for it. And such walls are low enough to look over and see what is happening on the other side. Through the act of drawing, I come into contact with the residents of a property. The walls belong to everyone and to no one, but I feel like I have gradually acquired a sort of ownership over them. I see five sparrows cuddled cosily together on a concrete wall. They fly off as I approach, chirping loudly. Flanders is full of concrete walls. They hide gardens and courtyards from view, demarcate orchards and car parks. Children tear their pants on the steel rebar sticking out of the concrete. Most walls are six-feet high and made of concrete slabs wedged between concrete uprights. And whenever I draw on them, I’m curious about what lies behind. Quite often what they hide is of a prosaic nature: makeshift sheds, pigeon lofts and other such ‘extensions’. None of the walls are the same either. For one thing, the tops are always different: sometimes they have ridges, other times arches, small battlements or diamond-shaped openings. These are the concrete masterworks of the common man. You won’t find walls like these mentioned in the scholarly books. They tend to be ignored, deleted from the landscape, as if they weren’t even there. Admiring them is an art, an exercise in humility. Only Roger Raveel gave them their due. He probably saw such walls the first time he opened his eyes. He tore his pants on them. Without detracting from the ridges, arches, battlements and diamond-shaped openings – which are not exactly beautiful – 14-
Whenever I draw on those six-foot-high concrete walls so prevalent in Flanders, I’m curious about what lies behind them. Quite often what they hide is of a prosaic nature: makeshift sheds, pigeon lofts and other such ‘extensions’.
I have now been drawing on such walls for twenty-plus years. I grasp the top of the wall with my hands, right where the birds were perched, and pull myself up to survey the property behind it. I see a neatly mowed lawn. And the sparrows have regrouped onto a garden chair under a folded patio umbrella. I draw a line of chalk on the wall and feel like I’m continuing work on a drawing started twenty years ago. Then a car stops in front of me. The driver opens the window and says, ‘Not allowed.’ ‘Yes, it is,’ I object. ‘It’s allowed.’ ‘Not allowed,’ he repeats. His car is crammed full of building materials and he is wearing work clothes with traces of cement on them. The man says ‘not allowed’ once again, slumped down in the driver’s seat, and gives me an affable look, the expression on his face at odds with his words. I have earned the right to draw on these walls. I must not become rattled; if I concede, I’ll never get anywhere, I say to myself in encouragement. ‘The wall belongs to everyone,’ I say, in an attempt to win him over. ‘Not allowed,’ he says, with the same exact tone to his voice. ‘I’m not done drawing,’ I say. ‘You don’t understand me: IT IS NOT ALLOWED…’ ‘The wall doesn’t belong to anyone,’ I try again. His words speak volumes, but his friendly look is also impossible to ignore. ‘If you think the drawing is ugly, the rain will wash the chalk away soon enough,’ I say, at a complete loss. He shakes his head, incapable of saying anything other than ‘not allowed’. Taken aback, I just look at him. It’s hard for me to cope with such friendly determination. ‘Do you live here?’ I ask. He looks at me without answering. I resolve that I will only stop drawing if he knows that there’s a folded patio umbrella behind the wall, then he is the one with ownership over the garden and the wall. ‘What is on the other side of the wall?’ I wager. ‘I just mowed the grass. I put out the garden furniture for the summer,’ he responds. His good-natured look now matches the words coming out of his mouth. ‘I hope it’ll be a nice summer,’ I say, feeling somewhat ashamed of my brashness. He waits for me to pack up my drawing supplies, gives us a friendly nod and drives off. I look at the wall with the unfinished chalk drawing. The sparrows have since reassumed their position on it. It’s a scene straight out of Roger Raveel.
April 2021 Out in the pasture, stranded on its own, is a statue of a horse with a stone Amazonian in a posh hat on its back. Horse and rider had caught my eye in January, and I wanted to return to them. The horse stands about ten hands high, next to an old-fashioned garden light with a lampshade made of glass panels, which hangs a bit askew, and an electricity cable that’s been concealed in the grass. I try to imagine what it looks like at night, with horse and rider all lit up. ‘Whoa, whoa: leave my horse alone,’ the man says in mock earnestness. ‘What a beautiful statue,’ I say when he reaches me. ‘I got it twenty years ago for twelve thousand Belgian francs,’ he responds, in heavy dialect. His name is Gaston. He smells of garlic and there are holes in his wool sweater, but he looks the picture of health. ‘Does the lantern still work?’ I ask with interest. ‘No, it never worked,’ he replies. ‘It needs fixing. For a long time, I kept the grass mowed, but since tall grass is better for the little critters, I’ve allowed it to become overgrown. Otherwise, the worms, beetles, bees and wasps in these parts have too hard a time of it. Just take a whiff… what do you smell? Manure and more manure, ammonia and chemicals. Those little critters aren’t equipped for that; they die off in droves… it’s like the land of the dead around here. I said they could come here; come burrow and dig in my garden.’ He speaks so monotone it’s hard to understand him. ‘There are also moles,’ he continues. ‘The farmers want to get rid of them but they can’t, you know. Moles know how to dig in – they’re clever animals, with a gorgeous pelt. A mole’s fur can lie in any direction, so he doesn’t have to turnaround in his underground tunnels. Did you know that? You won’t ever catch me stomping on a mole’s hill.’ And he pats the stone horse on the neck. ‘I used to work at De Lovie and I would sometimes have to catch the moles,’ he continues. ‘I was able to catch them, but then I would release them somewhere else.’ ‘De Lovie? The psychiatric clinic? You worked there?’ I ask. ‘What?’ he says, bringing his hand to his ear. ‘Did you work at De Lovie?’ I say a bit louder. The man seems to be deaf, or at least hard of hearing. ‘After twenty-five years they threw me out because I didn’t do my job well enough in 18-
A powerfully built man over the age of sixty, with grey locks and a friendly grin, walks my direction. He’s wagging his pointer finger in disapproval, but his facial expression gives away that he’s not serious.
their opinion.’ I want to tell him that the poetry festival is being held predominantly in De Lovie, a vast, empty castle located ten kilometres outside Watou, but he keeps talking and I don’t get a chance. ‘Maybe you guys would like something to drink? I’d like to offer you something to drink,’ he says. When I politely decline his offer, he reaches into his breast pocket and pulls out two blue euro bills. ‘Here, for you guys: twenty euros each, for you to get a drink at the pub,’ he says.
Jan and I walk through Watou, each of us twenty euros richer. The pubs are closed; the neighbourhood market is too. Only the butcher is open. We wait our turn. ‘I saw you talking to Gaston just now; I happened to be driving by,’ the butcher says. ‘You can thank Gaston for whatever we buy from you; it is his treat,’ I say. The butcher nods as if this were quite common. ‘You’re the one drawing all those chalk lines in the village, aren’t you?’ he asks me. ‘Yes, and Jan is photographing the drawings. You’ll probably see more of us,’ I say – as if what we were doing was the most natural thing in the world.
Bart has been asked to take part in Kunstenfestival Watou, a wonderful confluence of visual art and poetry in the open air. He suggests to me that we collaborate on it and plans to convince the curators that this will bring added value. And although it doesn’t start until summer, we want to ‘get a jump on it’; the build-up is important, so are the seasons. Jan Kempenaers
9 January: First time going to Watou. I leave from Antwerp and head to Lemberge to pick up Bart, then we continue on our way. I estimate it’s 320 kilometres there and back. Luckily, I enjoy driving, especially now, when so many other people are doing less of it; they’re teleworking. In the car we talk about important and less important matters and compare notes about the art academy where we both work. We arrive at Watouplein, the only square of any significance in the village, which is located next to the church and the cemetery. It is all very misty and deserted; because of the coronavirus situation, the pubs and restaurants are under mandatory closure. I park the car next to a festival artefact, a metal cut-out of Hugo Claus. I recognize his profile instantly; there’s his signature too. My mind briefly wanders to a memory of a sun-drenched Isola Comacina, an artists’ island in Lake Como, where I met Hugo’s son and we played chess. We see a woman walking with her dog. Bart strikes up a conversation with her. She is a big fan of the festival and they are both animal lovers. In the meantime, I take a few misty photos of the adjacent brick houses. We wander on. Bart searches for suitable places to make a chalk drawing and I take some more photos: a boat in a front garden, assorted structures, a misty field. I think about previous editions of the festival, about what and where, my memories are vague… the farmsteads used to be in ruins; now they’ve all been restored. We turn onto Steenvoordestraat toward the Douviehoeve, a farmstead that was a prominent festival location in the past. Along the way, Bart talks enthusiastically about his latest discovery: fingerless gloves. He can draw just fine with them on, while keeping warm. They look to me like gloves an angler would wear. When we arrive at the farmstead, Bart immediately finds a good place for a chalk drawing: a metal gate painted black, with a little chapel to the right. I go ahead and take a photo. Bart wants to ask permission first to do a drawing. We see a couple of cars in the driveway, but no doorbell. We knock: no answer, so no drawing. We look around a bit and see some unusually large chickens. I think they must be Flemish Giants, but Bart happens to know those are rabbits; the chickens are called Coucous des Flandres. They also have a couple of gorgeous donkeys there. We take the first street to the right. I continue photographing whatever catches my eye, including a pile of junk behind a café. Then the owner of the junk shuffles slowly in my direction, Bart 24-
1 Off and running
having now also joined me. He lets the man know, in his own friendly way, that we are working here as part of the art festival. ‘As long as they keep their art over there,’ the man retorts, pointing to the misty horizon. He goes on to say that it’s worthless, that festival, and that it doesn’t do anyone any good, certainly not the people of the village, too many cars on the streets and so forth. It is good for the hospitality sector. We are ordered to take a step backward; don’t we know anything about the coronavirus? Bart tries to reel off a few positive things about the picturesque village. Then the conversation turns to another theme, border crime. Watou is not far from the French border, a mere three kilometres, we are told. A man carrying a rucksack with a level sticking out of it – Bart, in this case – could easily be a border criminal despite his Dutch accent. What else is in there besides the level? And a level can also be a weapon: it is a piece of metal. And it can be used as a lever, just like a fence-post and a pair of wooden joists (to which he now points). You could use it to lift up an automobile and steal the tyres. We also learn that Brussels and Antwerp are too full of foreigners and that he is a hunter. I hope there’s not a direct connection, I think to myself. He then pulls out a small Opinel pocket knife and lets us know that it is an illegal weapon. Bart keeps him talking; I’m overtaken by a strong urge to flee. I know, though, that Bart needs these encounters, as he calls them; he uses the dialogues in his writing. We wish the man a pleasant day and continue on our quest for drawing locations and photo subjects. We decide it was a case of an overactive imagination and think of his loved ones. We carry on walking, as I take photographs, and discover a small, brick monument with some moss growing on it. It is missing a few bricks. We try to decipher the nearly invisible text: Schutterwijk Watou, inaugurated during the village fest 15-8-1978 – a stone some 43 years old. Bart decides to make the first drawing on the memorial stone. I affirm that I think it’s a good idea and the level and chalk are brought out. While Bart draws, I walk along the adjacent dead-end street and photograph what I notice: lots of small front gardens, a white angel, a fountain filled with plants and still a lot of Christmas decorations. I come back to the monument and the drawing is finished. I photograph it from afar, from close up, from every position and angle. I have to be thorough, because it will disappear again with the first rain that comes along. We look at the photos together and Bart nods approvingly. We decide that everything looks good, the drawing and the photos. We are officially off and running.
2 Dodemanstraat: From farm to bunker On the way to Watou, a short pit stop at a petrol station – coffee, newspaper… lots of coronavirus news: no injuries, many casualties, fewer/more infections, fewer/more hospitalizations, fewer/more vaccinations, fewer/more… and then there are the antivaxxers. Also, more flooding in France, protests in Myanmar and Kalashnikov launches a new shotgun for hipsters, a ‘gadget weapon’ appropriately named MP-155 Ultima. The manufacturers want to attract a demographic that grew up with gadgets and cannot imagine life without them, the so-called Generation Z. Lemberge: Bart joins me. Next stop, Watou. This time we don’t drive to the famous Watouplein but to Dodemanstraat (Deadman’s Street). In preparation for this happy visit, I did some meagre searches and discovered a heritage monument, an architectural curiosity called the Allied Abeele 28-
It’s too cold. We walk back to the car, grabbing a takeaway coffee on the way (the most bitter ever). No chance of warming up inside anywhere. Bart comes up with the idea of doing drawings on the first side wall next to every Watou village signboard, as a sort of ‘Welcome to Watou’ he says. I think it’s a good idea. We go by car in search of the Watou signs and check out the side walls: they seem suited to drawings. Even at the last sign we encounter an excellent side wall: blind, no windows, no doors, though it does have a billboard and two small white squares on it. A car stops in front of the house. This could be the owner, Bart says, and races over, up for an encounter. I use the time to pick out some subjects; like words in a sentence, they become images. The man’s name is Kevin. He is indeed the lawful owner of the side wall and Bart can draw on it. A local garage owner hammered up the billboard – Renault: Passion for Life – on Kevin’s side wall without any consultation. He then let the passion-for-life people know that they needed to remove the sign without delay. Finally, we drive quickly back to the village square, where we spot a colourful mosaic. Bart sees the continents in it; I see a painter’s palette. It’s missing a few tiles and is probably a leftover from a previous edition of the festival. We buy some local beer and are ready for the drive home. Then we notice some thin black lines on the navigation screen. Bart is curious about them too, so off we go on one last exploration. Long story short: my car is not made of the right mettle for traversing such paths. So we have to make do with a twilight photo and then head home.
As the two of us are contemplating a drawing, the lady of the house appears, a plucky old woman named Marleen. She knows all about the festival but has never been. Also, she expected Bart to draw little figures, never thought it would be straight lines – though she doesn’t have an opinion either way. She then goes into an elaborate account of the practices of the farming trade; nothing is how it used to be… it’s all about yields these days and that requires scaling up. Having said that, she points toward four large, identical buildings on the horizon and lets us know that they house some fifty thousand chickens and that last summer it got too hot for the chickens and all fifty thousand literally dropped off their perches, stone-dead as it were. It took a multitude of containers and quite a bit of equipment to clean up all the corpses, and there was a revolting smell, so extreme that their daughter’s car still smelled of decaying chicken a week after the clean-up. The noise pollution appears to also occur with live chickens but not at the moment, with the wind in our favour. The current farming generation is at it seven days a week and no longer attends Sunday mass, and thus also no longer goes to the pub to get plastered together. Competition – there was none of that in the old days between farmers; everyone pulled in the same direction. But along with the mass and the pints, the solidarity has also disappeared. She says these really are rough times and that she is scared. I expect yet another story about the coronavirus, but she starts talking about computers, which they know nothing about, and about bandits, mostly dark-skinned ones. Bart responds that many people are having a difficult time of it and she nods in agreement. She is retired herself; too old to work, too young to die, we are told. 30-
Aerodrome Bunker. Bart is also eager to see it; concrete is a receptive vehicle for his chalk lines. Despite the fact that the Flanders heritage inventory reports it as being ‘preserved’ and ‘extant’, we are unfortunately unable to find the bunker. What we do find on Dodemanstraat is a farm in a ruinous state: the grounds, a few stables, a collapsed house and a variety of other objects of faded glory. There is also a small pond surrounded by trees and bushes – frozen over, of course; it’s minus five degrees Celsius. Bart considers it a very drawing-worthy place; I hear the word ‘permission’ pass his lips. No sooner said than done… there’s a bicycle, there’s a door… I knock and detect signs of life. A man is sitting in a small, dimly lit room, eating. Short conversation, resulting in wholehearted chalk-drawing permission. So, Bart scouts the area closely with his drawer’s eye as I scan it with my photographer’s eye.
Bart draws diligently on and marks the entire property with chalk lines. As with all such visits, I photograph everything I find the least bit worthy of being a subject: lots of ‘decay’; some quirky details, including a telephone with a rotary dial that still sits in the collapsed house – the cable is unplugged and it has a sticker for the fire brigade, ‘Brandweer Watou: Tel. 900’. Add in some idyllic winter landscapes and Bart’s transient drawings in various degrees of context. Marleen pops up again, ready to help. She asked around about the bunker, and it does still exist. She points into the distance and says, ‘Left at the first farm.’ Then she talks about her husband; he’s in the hospital and gets around with a walker. As she acts out just how hunched he walks – extremely hunched – she explains that not everyone gets to grow old gracefully. Frozen as we are, we have little to contribute. We promise to stop by after visiting the bunker and then drive toward the first farm on the left. There we find a good-natured man; the bunker is, indeed, still standing in the adjacent pasture, largely underground. We are reminded to be careful; some old German soldiers might jump out at us. A quick drawing – the sun has almost set – and a couple of photos before and after, not during. We knock on Marleen’s door again and are heartily welcomed inside; it’s a small room, with an equally small window, an electric heater, and a gigantic washing machine. We thaw out in the car on the drive home. Bart tells me about the ‘Dutchbatters’, the Dutch battalion assigned to Srebrenica in 1995. The now-retired soldiers are receiving reparations. They were hoodwinked back then by the commander of the Bosnian-Serbian troops, Ratko Mladic, and then held partly responsible for the ensuing genocide. Twenty-six years after the fact they are all being given some money tax-free and offered visits back to help them process any lingering traumas. Both of us have an affinity with the former Yugoslavia: Bart shot a film there and I photographed a lot of war memorials.
We explain to her that we are actually looking for a bunker. She’s heard about the bunker. It used to be there, but she suspects that it is now gone. How curious, I think to myself. She has to go; her two old chickens are thirsty; she has to break the ice. They don’t lay eggs anymore. She used to have more, but they were eaten by a fox. Bart opines that they’re beautiful animals, foxes, but they get hungry too, of course. In addition to her chickens, her cat seems to have disappeared.
Ghent to Merelbeke: A brand-new senior centre. Bart is working on an art integration project there. He has produced a lot of drawings inside and out, including on a large stone affixed to a wall. In addition to Bart’s drawing, the stone has a text on it. I read it: ‘The warmth of friendship breaks the silence of your loneliness. The light of love drives out the darkness in your spirit.’ The author is unnamed. I photograph the stone in its current context. Soon it will be moved, along with the text, the drawing and the seniors, from the old to the new part of the building. Merelbeke to Poperinge: Bart met with the organizers of the festival and gives me his report on the way. They all visited a castle together, on the site of De Lovie vzw, a social organization offering services to young people and adults with intellectual disabilities. Even though it’s a good ten kilometres outside of Watou, it will be serving as the base of operations for this edition of the festival. The Douviehuis, including the mural by Roger Raveel, is no longer involved: new lords, new laws; everything’s been diverted. As we’re about to reach the castle, Bart receives a call from an associate at De Lovie. In short, reconnoitring and photographing are fine, but a few meetings need to be held before any drawing takes place. We decide to explore the castle first and then the grounds. The castle: a majestic building, unique ambiance, slightly faded glory, a place of work. Some clumsy signs on the ground floor containing information about the monument, a handful 34-
Antwerp to Ghent: I pick up Bart at the train station. We make our way to Henry Van de Velde’s renowned Boekentoren building. The retired head librarian there has invited me for a visit to take some photos. She informs me that the restoration is almost finished and incredibly beautiful; an opening celebration is planned for September. ‘The last two weeks of February present a unique occasion, though: a fully restored, cleaned-up and completely empty library. You’ll never see the likes again,’ she writes. A number of photographers have been invited; it’s not an assignment, and there’s no budget. But it is an opportunity – an opportunity to record something at a unique moment in time, to experience something exceptional and maybe even get a ‘kick’ out of it all. There could be a book at some point, an exhibition, with rights being paid, etcetera. Bart also likes the idea of a ‘kick’, but I suspect him of ‘attempted chalking’.
Once we are back at Watouplein, he immediately produces some well-placed drawings; I photograph all around me. At the foot of the Hugo cut-out, which turns out to be part of a series by Roger Raveel, we find a purple Atoma notebook. In it we read ‘Nomination, upload A4, reference project, why’, followed by eighteen pages of plans, we suspect by a landscape architect. It’s all amazing; graves need to be relocated, different, better. On the last page, we read: ‘Watouplein, completely new?’ Hopefully, this doesn’t spell the end of Hugo, Roger and the continents-slashpainter’s palette. 36-
of historical photos, captions, an eventful history. Impressive accommodations on the first floor, high ceilings and hand-painted faux marble. We also notice a series of large-scale black-and-white photos on the period wallpaper depicting people sitting in bed, presumably sick, since they are part of an educational exhibition on tuberculosis. On the second floor we see a text on the wall that reads ‘De Lovie furniture: no personal material.’ The store-room floor unfolds at our feet and we behold an unfathomable amalgam of assorted items, beds, chairs, tables, shelves, cabinets, sinks, etcetera. We also encounter a footless Jesus resting on some blister padding as well as a Joseph leaning against a roll of bamboo. Door number 10 headlines: ‘Personal furniture. No furniture from De Lovie!!!’ That same door displays a collection of seven stickers: ‘I’m Flemish and proud of it’ figures prominently next to ‘Always welcome’ and ‘Amnesty International’. In the room, we do indeed descry a pile of personal possessions: a bed belonging to Danny, Martin’s coats, an anonymous telescope on a tripod, a beautiful episcope – an unadulterated Neo Solex with a 400-mm objective. There’s a record collection: classical, German folk music, accordion. I look at a cover: ‘Silver Star presents Frans Bonne and his accordion’, six songs on the A-side in a variety of styles: circus march, quickstep, tango, slow rock, Viennese waltz; on the B-side, slow waltz, waltz, disco and also ‘Eebie Deebie Doebieda’, a chachacha – all in unsurpassed stereo. Frans poses proudly with his instrument and there is a telephone number listed. Finally, a pile of magazines; on the cover of the top one I read ‘16 X PARTY’. Walking aimlessly, we further explore the much-larger-thanexpected property, which conceals buildings that make us think of the former Eastern Bloc. There are also caves, ponds, an artwork (maybe) and an arbour surrounded by artificial concrete rocks. We are overtaken by a range of considerations and doubts during our tour. Bart decides that we have done enough reconnoitring and wants to get back to drawing.
When I get home, I check out the Douviehuis, www-wise. The property has its own website full of interesting information and contemporary photos. It has indeed been deftly decorated as a holiday home and, according to the website, given a modern look, complete with premium materials and sophisticated appliances, including Wi-Fi and a sauna, all cosy and comfortable – and it has parking. On top of that, it offers a nearly endless range of possibilities, and it would also appear ideal for customizable ‘breakout sessions’, smokers and pets not allowed. There is also much to be discovered and explored in the surrounding area, especially in terms of ‘eating and drinking’. Finally, a quote from Hugo Brems, a participant of the Poetry Summer of 1993, catches my eye: ‘If artworks and poems are allowed to roam freely, outside the protective and comforting boundaries of the museum, the gallery and the poetry book, then images, representations and meanings start to lash out wildly, creating new, unexpected and impudent connections.’
We hoof it to the Douviehuis. The mural by Raveel has company in the form of two billboards, one affixed to the wall and the other propped on the pavement in a wooden sandwich-board. While Bart searches for the right place to draw, I read ‘Available for rent soon: Douviehuis 2020, polyvalent space with kitchen and bar! For workshops, meetings, seminars, family events, exhibitions…’ The sign screwed to the wall contains some simulations of what it might all look like. The two signs become immortalized by means of light-sensitive sensor. In the meantime Bart has made a good deal of headway, a long horizontal line on a concrete beam to the right of the mural underlines the metal words ‘Douviehuis Holiday Home’ and cuts through a small yellow sign with a stylized Flemish lion on it. He then draws a vertical line to the left of the simulation. ‘Now they’re nicely sandwiched,’ he says. We continue to the end of Kerkhofstraat to briefly visit our poets, Anna Enquist and Jotie T’Hooft. Unfortunately, their plaques have disappeared, with only the contours and pegs still visible. Bart commemorates them with a short, horizontal stripe. Some more photos and chalk lines here and there. We pass by a distinctive concrete structure that we thought earlier might be an artwork. Bart refuses to draw on artworks.
Bart has thought of a melodious title for our contribution to the festival, ‘Naar Watou toe’ (On the Road to Watou), and so it is. We conceive of a plan to project the photos on video screens, a digital version of an old-fashioned slide projection. Bart wants to ‘surround’ the screens with colourful drawings. In mid-April we receive a message from the curators of the festival: ‘It took a while, but we found a very good place for your presentation… a space in the Brewery.’ I suspect they are referring to Leroy Breweries, a brewery located directly across from the Douviehuis. The company’s trilingual website is captioned by the slogan ‘Cheers to our Belgian Tradition’. On it I learn that they produce fine and unique regional products valued around the world, primarily craft beers, backed by high-quality ingredients, four centuries of expertise and a strong team. Craftsmanship, tradition and passion have been cultivated there since 1572. The curator duo Chantal and Benedicte are already on-site when we arrive, brimming with enthusiasm, and we receive a warm welcome. Benedicte used to work for a renowned art gallery in Antwerp. She is currently busy drawing up long-term plans for various foundations established by artists’ descendants; artistic legacies must be rigorously managed. She also gives lectures, so-called online art talks. Chantal, in turn, is the programme manager of the Belgian radio station Klara, which is part of the Flemish radio and television broadcasting company VRT, the public broadcaster of the Flemish community in Belgium. Klara plays mainly classical music and, unlike most other radio stations, is practically devoid of commercials. The owner-brewer is unfortunately not around, which is a shame since I was eager to meet him – and his beer. Instead, a key has been left for us and it provides access. The brewery appears to no longer be in use; it might more readily fall under the heading ‘industrial heritage’. Adorning the entrance is a silhouette of a bottle formed out of a steel pipe, with an information sign screwed to the inside. A historical ‘factoid’ catches my eye: ‘During the French Revolution, the brewery narrowly escaped destruction by the revolutionaries because the beer was so admired. Meanwhile, the castle [Kasteel van Watou, built in 1620, destroyed in 1793] was plundered and razed to the ground.’ The sign also mentions the ‘tournée locale’, a free ‘beer cycling’ brochure and map listing local breweries. Next to a minuscule European flag I read: ‘This sign made possible in part 40-
4 We also cater to dogs
After that, we thoroughly survey the site. It is littered with a hotchpotch of rubbish: a container filled with construction debris, gas cylinders, a barbecue, empty paint cans, oil barrels, etcetera. A high stack of yellow beer crates catches my eye; it is leaning dangerously over. Outside the main building, we explore several of the outbuildings. In one of them we notice, in addition to various other objects, a blackboard with writing on it headed ‘motor vehicle maintenance’. A distinction is made between diesel engines and petrol engines and it also details oil changes, tyres, kilometres and dates, ‘17-11-82’ being the most recent. Bart is extremely interested in a pair of aluminium ladders. ‘Those could come in handy,’ he says deliberately. The property leads to a grass field that looks out onto a metreslong concrete fence hiding the adjacent street from view. Bart immediately spies an opportunity, ‘One line from right to left,’ he says. I nod and hold his yellow level at what I deem to be an appropriate height. Bart concurs and gets straight to work. I depict the location in great detail, all the while thinking of a quote by the photographer William Eggleston: ‘One image from one image’. When Bart is about three-quarter’s done with his drawing, a head suddenly appears above the concrete wall. It is the lady next door and she wants to know what exactly we are doing there. Bart rolls out his usual story: drawing, with chalk, nothing permanent, festival, etcetera. We learn that the wall does not belong to the brewery but that she built it herself. Drawing on it does not present a problem, though we must repeatedly promise not to drill any holes in her wall. ‘Making a racket’ is also strictly forbidden; her two granddaughters are studying on the upper floor. With the pandemic, they would rather stay with their grandmother than in their student flat; one of them wants to heal sick animals in the near future. While I take a mere hundred photos, Bart finalizes his chalk drawing, then draws another three. Finally, we go in search of 42-
thanks to the “Copyright Westhoek” leader project.’ Chantal and Benedicte show us the exhibition space in question, a small, fairly dark hallway connecting two larger rooms. We are happy with it. We all quickly decide that one of the walls still needs to be cleaned and it would be useful to have electricity. Then we part ways and the curators rush off to the next location. Bart and I outline the contours of the monitors and the surrounding drawings with tape. We conjecture that it will look good and can be finalized by 3 July, the official opening of the festival.
something to eat. We make our way to the local butcher and order a couple of sandwiches; the choice of fillings is practically infinite. I notice some large brown bones behind the refrigerated counter and, curious, ask the shop assistant what they are for. ‘We also cater to dogs,’ she says.
On the village square I park my car next to an eye-catching concrete construction, which I immediately photograph. A manwith-dog appears and asks if I am working for a newspaper. I repeat the same old story: festival, photos, chalk lines. He turns out to be a true Watounian and proceeds to tell me, unasked, about the structure. As I already suspected, it is not a festival remnant but a multifunctional canopy. The man likes the way it looks and thinks it’s versatile, too. You can wait there for the bus, park your bike under it, hang out and chat and even just sit on a bench. I show him the chalk line that Bart drew on there earlier. He then guides the discussion to the inevitable question of whether that chalk line is art or not. I nod repeatedly and think about a phrase from August Willemsen’s Braziliaanse brieven (Brazilian Letters): ‘You must never ask yourself that [whether something is art]; just work on the assumption that art does not exist – that makes it all so much easier.’ We take our leave of one another. Bart had the idea that it would be nice to stay the night in Watou for once. He asks the curators by email for accommodations. We hear back in a flash that: they are doing well, the projected budget is not doing so well; it is limited, and also, a lot of things have become more expensive because of the coronavirus. They do have a ‘camping arrangement’ available, a dormitory above the festival house with no hot water; we would have to bring our own sleeping bags and mats. We pass. Writing is a holiday. We will stay at the ‘Home of a poet’. It’s not only a writer’s residence but also a holiday home. The house comes with lengthy instructions that we receive by email. To start with, the writer wishes us an inspiring and productive stay. The house inventory lists all sorts of things, but there are some items we need to bring ourselves, including soft slippers. There is also a mishmash of specific instructions; we bear in mind that the cutlery with gold trim must not be put in the dishwasher nor in the microwave oven. A ‘checklist’ and a list of COVID-19 rules have also been appended. 44-
5 Art doesn’t exist
Roger, our publisher-designer-friend from Amsterdam, is going to join us; he’s on his way. He is in charge of designing the free newspaper we have conceived of and also provides us with all sorts of welcome advice. He wants to re-experience the atmosphere in Watou in person to get a feel for our project. He’d been there before, some nineteen years ago, when it was called ‘Poëziezomer Watou’ (Watou Summer of Poetry). That time he exhibited publications he and Mark Manders had put out and there were throat singers from Mongolia. We spent the evening discussing our project in detail: suggestions, comments, considerations, image selection. The next morning we visit the exhibition space together and make some decisions and a final plan. Before taking our leave and heading homewards, I notice a framed quote: ‘The nicest thing about pleasant experiences is the memory.’
Upon entering the charming house, I’m struck by a black-andwhite photograph stuck to the wall: four men in glasses, seated on a bench. The photo carries the following inscription: Gwij Mandelinkck, Herman De Coninck, Hugo Claus and Rutger Kopland, Codadag (Coda Day), Watou, 8 September 1991. Framed or not, poetry is royally represented. The mantle sports an alarm clock collection numbering some fourteen specimens, in which the clock hands are all arrested, indicating different times of the day. My thoughts drift to Hiroshima, to the wrist-watch I saw at the Peace Memorial Park, the hands frozen at quarter after eight, 6 August 1945. Might these arrested hands also be related to historical events?
This free publication was published on the occasion of Kunstenfestival Watou 2021, organised by Stad Poperinge. Text and images: © Bart Lodewijks & Jan Kempenaers, 2021 Translation: Nina Woodson Design: Roger Willems Made possible with financial support of the Mondriaan Fund.