Mirroring Landscapes - text

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Alan Watts



Is there a way to restore our connection to nature, make us become one and the same yet again? How can we not see we are nature? As an artist and human being, the relationship between ourselves as humans and nature has been consuming me every step of the way. Questions on the sustainability of my practice – one which relies on potentially harmful processes – on the subjectivity of my experiences and on the influence we have on the world around us, have guided me through the course of this project. By not only implementing, but also questioning photographic techniques, I try to examine photography both as the subject and the technical field in which I undertake my research. Mirroring Landscapes, the title of this project, refers to the many ways in which we relate to the world around us. First of all, it points to how our perception of the universe reflects our inner world, our desires and beliefs – and how we have learned to see ourselves as the center of the universe for far too long. Second of all, it points to how the impact of our actions on the landscape reflect our broken connection to our surroundings. Lastly, it points to the use of photography as the means to create a mirror image, a way to direct our views on the world in which we live today. The eponymous book deals with these same topics through three chapters, starting at an off-grid residency in the south of Spain, running through a contaminated red river and ending at an abandoned industrial park in Portugal. These locations have been at the center of my research – in material and geographical sense, as well as in the way they are an example for the human connection to, and interference in, the landscape. The main questions I kept asking myself are a leading thread through both my visual and linguistic explorations. Is it possible to become one with nature, forget about ourselves for just a moment? How do we justify our appropriation of the landscape? How do we view the impact we have on our surroundings? •



While my visual work is influenced by my thoughts and the things I see, feel, smell and hear around me – it is in essence always abstract, and a thing on its own. I believe in the benefit of material thinking – an intuitive and physical form of ‘thinking’ through materials – where the interaction with matter comes before linguistic thought, and becomes a catalyst for new ideas or forms of being. I don’t want the visual work to be an illustration of a preconceived idea, or a representation of something that can also be said – but a form of thinking in and of itself. Yet, I do believe ideas in words are an indispensable part of the work, whether this is as an inspiration or influence, or as a way to analyze the visual and physical work made. This book aims to create space for these thoughts and the things I’ve seen, felt, smelled and heard, without them becoming an explanation of the visual work. Rather, I see all these aspects as though they run parallel to each other, at all times interconnected and intertwined, influencing one another, yet not the same. For this reason, the images presented in the book are separated from the text, considering them an intuitive form of research into the topics I deal with. Take them in as you wish, make them your own and let them guide your thoughts. •



As a maker, I am at all times interested in the origin of my own productions, and believe it to be important to constantly adjust my view on the materials and production processes used. Yet my practice, with a leading focus on photographic techniques, relies heavily on rare metals which at some point will run out, not to mention the harm we do in the attempt to extract them from the ground below our feet. Looking at the materials inherent to many of these photographic techniques, I came to wonder – why do we even think we have the right to take these substances out of the earth? Is there a difference between the use of natural materials which are regenerative, and the ones which will not return? Shouldn’t we focus on developing new techniques, or going back to old techniques, which are a lot less harmful? Or should we simply just let go of the use of it in its entirety? While I, within my practice, have the desire to employ as many natural and non-toxic materials as I can, I started to question to what extent this is actually possible. How do I deal with making things, while I find it hard to see the benefit of adding more to the world? Photography can be seen as the (visual arts) discipline in which the maker distances him or herself the most from the material world, simply by only capturing it. But it is naive to believe photography is an immaterial practice in itself. While it can be used to visualize and direct our perception and experiences of the world around us without adding too much to it (and in this way discuss important social and environmental issues), it is inherently an interfering form of matter. One could suggest there is a difference in impact between analogue and digital photography, but even here, there are a lot of variables to take into account. Though it is true digital photography does not rely as much on chemicals as analogue photography, the productions of cameras, printers and inks used in the creation of physical prints, are nonetheless harmful. Even the storage of large digital files has a material side to it, and the extensive use of a camera, let alone the constant development of new technologies, will lead to a discardable object in no time. Some might say that using analogue cameras are, at least in this time and age, less harmful simply because they were already there. Yet the chemicals used in both film, photographic paper and the substances needed to develop an actual image, are in no way friendly to our planet. It is easy to become rather pessimistic with all these things in mind, but I believe it to be important to take a look at all the processes and materials used and try to find their unique qualities so we can discuss their necessity. Only in this way can we try to work towards new techniques, or move back to old techniques, which have the same qualities – but less impact. To see the harm we have done, and still do to this day, we need to look our impact straight in the eye. Or lens. •





Among these ancient trees, it all became so apparent. I expected to calm down, blend in with the birds and the bees, but in reality I couldn’t feel more separated from it. No matter how hard I tried, how badly I wanted to forget about myself, if only for just a moment, the disconnect manifested itself so utterly, and so bluntly. Behind every bush I expected danger, and the silence of the night left me wide awake. I would like to fancy myself an admirer of the natural world, yet spending my days at an off-grid piece of land in the south of Spain made me feel out of place. Living in a city has taken its toll on my ability to connect to that which I believe I am a part of, despite the sincere desire to feel it. The beautiful oak trees which adorn the hilly landscape, quickly turned into my enemies – and I found myself capturing them as distant creatures from a haunted forest. Beautiful in their own way, and yet: so far away from me. While my work has already focused on the human connection to nature in previous projects, it is here that the actual disconnect slapped me in the face. It was so clear that I was trained not to see myself as a part of nature, but as something living apart from it, above it even. I didn’t even know how to move away from it anymore. The trees couldn’t seem to show themselves to me as they are, but bounced my inner fears and turmoil right back at me. Instead of feeling humbled by the lack of control on my surroundings, it made me feel uncomfortable, out of place. Even though I believed it to be the land where I could find peace of mind, the feeling of misplacement left me anxious and confused. Then is it fear, which turned us against the wild? This discomfort that made us want to appropriate the land, turn it into something that we can control? When did this disconnect unfold, and can we find a way back? How can we co-exist, live according to the rules of the landscape, and become part of the ecosystems which sustain our own lives? •






About 90 kilometers north-west of Seville, Spain, there is a river called El Río Tinto. The name says it all – the river runs for 100 kilometers from inland to the sea, of which half of the water has turned blood red due to heavy metals contaminating its flow. The region has been subject to 5000 years of mining, leaving behind a trail of humanity’s tendency to appropriate the landscape. Not far away from this eerie river, one of the world’s largest open mines still functions to this day. But rather than trying to hide the consequences of the mining, the river has been turned into a touristic highlight, with parts of the old train tracks in use for a guided tour along the river. The river is proudly presented as a natural phenomena, a result of the soil rich in metals – the reason for the ages-long endeavor of taking these precious materials from the earth. Walking along the water must be one of the most conflicted views of the landscape I have experienced thus far – there was no one around, birds sang their songs behind me, and the hills of the mountains were covered in lush green trees. But the closer you got to the river, the more life seemed to have been taken away – charcoaled trees (remains from a massive forest fire years ago), dried up soil, and only a single plant finding its way through the cracked sand. At the mountain’s feet, right below the dried-up riverbeds, the muddy ground turned into a clear red liquid. An image so otherworldly, so bizarre, yet so beautiful in all its glory. I couldn’t help but be amazed by its view, but felt even more surprised by the pride with which humans look at these remnants of the Anthropocene – how can it be, that we cannot see this as contamination? Would this river still be red if it wasn’t for us humans interfering? The pollution of the water has turned it into an extremely acidic environment, only suitable for certain types of algae and bacteria to survive and thrive. These organisms eat the metals in the water, resulting in the blood-red color of the stream, yet leave the environment behind with no room for any other form of life. Even NASA has shown interest in the river and the region due to its resemblance to planet Mars, and use the little life left in the river to research the potentiality of life on Mars. But again, how can we not look at this and see the harm we’ve done? How can we do research into an environment like this, hoping for the possibility to once move to another planet, while we ourselves are the ones making the one we inhabit now unfit for many more years of life to come? Even after my return home, the thought of these algae – the only life left on this small part of the planet – kept coming back to me. Their resilience, their strength and ability to not only survive despite, but even live off of these scarce materials, show both sides of the story. So small, yet so vital to any form of life on earth – so harmful in large quantities, yet also so valuable in the development of more environmentally friendly materials. The problem and the cure. Slowly they found their way into my work, both in their physicality and as metaphor. It is on a cellular level that we share our similarities, and by zooming in on this small scale of life, we might learn to understand more about how we connect to all that is around us. That which seems inorganic shows a whole life of its own, and while we may ruin the planet for ourselves, eventually life will prevail and build a new world from our remains. •




So I wonder, is it a human thing to not see the destruction? To find beauty in the haunting trails of the Anthropocene – of the damage done and the debris left behind? Purple and pinkish barren land, iron drops like fossils in the ground, vessels cracking from their seams. The destruction creeps up on you, and the lack of concern and responsibility can be sensed from every corner of the terrain. On the edge of the Portuguese post-industrial city of Barreiro, you will find these abandoned pyrite fields – remnants from an industrial era, land created solemnly by the dumping of chemical waste. Large parts of the city have been left behind with no one to look after it, as if a sudden event made everyone flee the site. After the fall of the Estado Novo regime in the ‘70s, the industry quickly collapsed. The whole city was built to house the factory workers, but with no factory to maintain, there wasn’t much left to stay behind for. As a result, Barreiro became a ghost town, a place once filled with life had turned into an industrial graveyard. Did the people responsible for these wastelands realize what they had done, or can we not blame our ancestors for their ignorance? While the sight of the park without a doubt will make you question your own undertakings, every little detail will bring up the enchanting association with mineral-like textures. The materials left behind have been exposed to nothing but time, and the weathering of the abandoned has formed these man-made substances into organic shaped fossils. Resemblances of tree bark oozing resin, rocks laying bare their shimmery insides and soft pink colors like a blanket on the ground. But on the contrary, none of these things found on this site are as innocent as we may like to think. We look for the organic in the static, the human in the inanimate, yet we forget to look at how these things have come into being. Is it nature taking over, or our tendency to seek out beauty in even the most daunting of sights? A coping mechanism, a blindfold we put on to cover up our own doing, an incapability to come to terms with what we have done? •



Even though the habit of seeing beauty in the decay of our landscapes might cover up our harmful acts, it is this same pursuit that will lead us to a better future. Similarly to nature’s ability to overcome, to grow through the cracks of the past and find ways to spring new life from all that is left behind, we humans will always do the same. We find beauty in the remains of previous times, to create a sense of positivity in order to move on. We use aesthetics to lead our imagination, to be able to think of better times ahead. We see beauty, because we are alive. •



concept, design, photography and texts by tjitske oosterholt copy editing by isadora goudsblom lithography and printing by robstolk ® bookbinding by boekbinderij patist typefaces pp eiko span forma djr micro paper arena natural rough 300g/m2 arena natural rough 120g/m2 melo 60 g/m2 edition of 300 published by tangible stories

ISBN 978 90 832 2640 8 © 2022, amsterdam made possible with the kind support of the mondriaan fonds and fonds kwadraad

special thanks to hilde and peter from arteventura, tim and diana from pada studios, manon klein for the curation of the show ‘paralaxe’