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Text: Héctor Hernández, 2018
“Ho tseba lefatse o tle o hate naha”
“To know the world you must tread the country”
It has been a while since I wrote in my notebook. I used to do it almost everyday. It is a good exercise to sit down in the bed at the end of the day letting a soft and cold breeze in through a small opening in the window, being that the liminal space that allows you to go inside yourself, to go through the experiences of the day. There, you take a step back away from them, there, you breath in and out slowly. All the feelings go deeper and you get a new awareness of everything you write down.
Yes, it is a good exercise to go back into the experiences of your day while at the same time you are focused on the interaction of every single atom of your skin with the air.
I feel my body as the boundary of the two spaces which can occupy both sides.
So then, what is that boundry between the inner self and the outer self? What is the boundry between myself and the surroundings?
How can we open a door into that threshold and be, at the same time, in both places?
How can just a breeze make me as light as a cloud and how can the same breeze go into the deepest space inside myself allowing me to walk that path, in and out, paths that are at the same time internal and external?
Everyday I can see more clearly how minds, our beliefs and our mind-sets modify perceptions of the reality. They dye the way we see the surroundings. And the feelings we get from them.
The quote of Henri-Federic Amiel keeps coming up again and again, surely because I have much more to learn. Each time it broadens, allowing me to go deeper and deeper. “Any landscape is a condition of the spirit.” And it still makes me ponder about it.
Is it possible to open a door in this space of personal perception, covered of preconceptions, cleaning it and achieving a new relation between the inside and the outside, a new perception of our surroundings?
Does the cultural establishment allow us to extend our perceptions or, on the other hand, reduces it, compress it and label it as what we get?
Is the social imaginary an enclosed-wall-space where the meanings of the perceptions have been agreed, becoming anything except perceptions?
Maybe I should start reading more on phenomenology, hermeneutics and epistemology.
Are we still in the eternal battle between interpretation and explication, objectivity and subjectivity, logic and metaphor?
Is embodied knowledge and intuition more important than rational and analytic knowledge?
Can we not place ourselves in that third space where both cerebral hemispheres interact continuously? Is not the same liminal place that, being threshold between them, allow us to be in both spaces?
And weren`t these solved a long time ago by paradoxical logic where the static and lineal dualism were understood as a continuously interacting unity?
So, coming back to the beginning, can we see experience in another way - as the boundary between ourselves and our surroundings, something that affects us at the same time we affect it?
Can we reject, as Arne Næss said, the idea of humans in the milieu in favour of a relational image of humans with the milieu, an image where everything hangs together?
Honestly, I am a bit tired of a lot of art projects that place humans in front of nature, -like if we hadn´t learnt anything since Friedrich- or these ones that still want to show the confrontation between nature and human culture.
Do we want to keep the romantic vision of nature sublime, pristine, magnificent and distant so that it separates ourselves from it, and hence, only describes our interpretation of it, the way our mind has shaped it? It reflects how the brain works, not what nature is.
In the attempt to define, understand and represent it, it gets compressed, reduced. In this attempt of trying to reach it intellectually, there is always something measureless that vanishes.
Do we want to keep this imposition (or domination) of our aesthetic views over it?
Do we keep ourselves static in the post-modernism way of criticising all human stupidity? Or do we want to go further and start doing things differently, start treading new paths?
Therefore, I am just thinking one thing: We should take care of the condition of our spirit.
In South Africa I got the strongest impression of being “out of place”
Before applying for the residency at El Ranchito Matadero Madrid-Nirox Sculpture Park, I was thinking about all of these themes. At the same time I had some clear ideas of sculptures and installations. I related them to some political-social problems I read associated with land reforms such as expropriation of land from colonial farmers and the resettlement of native peoples in South Africa as a metaphor for a place to be reached, the notion of standing before a distant ‘there’ and the feeling of not belonging to a place.
Lately, it seems that art-projects need to bring to light different political and social issues. After all I felt myself forcing associations of old poetic ideas with politic ones. Politic is always in the surface of the things. Boisterous, trying to be right, trying to persuade. And that is not my way of expression.
Poetry can present the non-self, the lost condition of the human spirit. Through poetry we can solve the human problems, and to relate with nature again. And from there, start working on everything else.
Thus, there I was in South Africa, reading about its history and the problems of land dispossession. The land where hundreds of years ago, some people followed their own thoughts of being the chosen ones as walked then through the desert to reach the “promised land.” The land where fights between the colonialists took place, the land where gold was taken away, the land where apartheid took place, and after that, a brutal capitalism was installed. A huge complexity for someone totally external.
What do I know about it? I cannot get close in the least to those problems. It would take years.
And I didn´t want to repeat imposing my ideas. The same attitude that has prevailed in colonialism of forcing our thoughts into the land. That was the turning point. The promised land was not outside. I needed to question myself, my approach, my own positioning.
Non Terrae Plus Ultra.
The promised land can be a religious idea of racial superiority with which the Dutch caravans crossed South Africa from Cape Town to Pretoria. It can be the gold deposits of Johannesburg where 50% of the world´s gold was extracted and today they are nothing else than just yellow toxic mountains where nothing grows. It can be the promises that native people are waiting for getting back those fields that were snatched.
But for me, the promised land was coming back to the starting point, the individual.
The most significant thing I can do is going inside. The self-questioning is the only way of avoid inflicting my ideas.
No land beyond.
For many days I was with that feeling of being out of place. I hadn´t been capable of touching the place, of connecting with it.
Every time I looked at my surroundings I was not able to understand what was happening. The people, their houses, the way they move, the way they live and how life is structured. Their problems, their aspirations, their needs, their relations with the others. How they experienced the territory, how it is used and how they relate to the land. Everything I felt was distant. Everywhere in South Africa I felt myself in an enclosed space, surrounded by walls.
I travelled with Willem Boshoff and Helene Smuts from Johannesburg to Richmond -in the Karoo Desert- sleeping by Bloemfontein. He knows almost all the South African plants and encourages his students to take pictures of them in order for him to discover new ones.
While we were crossing huge farms in the middle of the country, I spoke with Helene about the relation with the landscape. She told me how these flat, everlasting fields where she grew up shaped her and her way of looking and thinking.
Everything flat, everything yellow.
Long distances, long times.
Getting to the Karoo was different. The koppies started to appear, less grass and more rocks. The feeling of immensity and emptiness modified a bit. Essentially, it can be misunderstood as a lack of life but once you are there, you can feel its presence even when it is not easy to see.
Exploring the surroundings around Richmond I climbed a koppie. The koppies are the typical mountains in the Karoo desert with a hat shape. In that dry flatness they stand alone. Very steep slopes with a flat top. And from above, you can find seashells. A long time ago, it was the ocean. Now it is a semi desert area. But there, in the top of a koppie, looking to the vast immensity, I could feel it, see it. Its movement dug in the slopes. And I felt, when I leaned out over the edge of the koppie, a raging wind. It hit me. It was following the hat shape of the hill and at that point, it showed all its presence. It was like being on a cliff. I spent some time playing with it. Swaying with the August wind, letting it to shape me in the same way that shaped the land.
There, I realised I wanted to build a new hut for my project one-night-hut for friluftsliv. It is a project I made one year before in the southern mountains in Norway where I walked in the morning, built a shelter with the materials I found, slept in it and went back the next morning. Some months before, while I was in my “home” mountains walking and sleeping outdoors, I refused to do it as a continuation of the project. I didn´t know why. But then, I understood. These huts were my way to connect with the place. I needed to do it in order to solve the distance I had with the landscape, and in my mountains, I didn´t need it.
So when I made up my mind, I started to check everything because I haven’t planned anything. I had no sleeping bag, I had little clothes. I didn´t know the surroundings. I had received some advice about dangerous animals like leopards, jackals, snakes… and about the cold nights. Easy things to solve not going far from the village. What my mind was really thinking about was how those Dutch caravans crossed these huge fields four hundred years ago, with limited knowledge of these lands, with no contemporary technologies, and not just for one day. And of course I was brooding over the advanced knowledge of the territory the bushmen needed to have in order to survive.
People were surprise about my idea but I just see it as a child game in comparison with them. Why is so difficult for us to spend just 24 hours outdoors?
I started to ask around how they made it. I went to the small horse museum and saw that photo with a dozen of men with some slaves that had hunted hundreds of buck. They were lying by their feet.
Used to be herds of bucks. Easy to hunt, easy to survive. And no farms, no fences.
Like the ancient ocean, I could barely feel their presence.
That morning I woke up, had breakfast, and picked up my equipment. I started walking. I made the decision and I could feel in my whole body how my disposition had changed. Mind clear and focused in every step. Attentive and receptive.
I could see myself walking “in” that landscape from above, mixing in the same liminal idea, with my personal vision directly from the path, in-between the bushes and the dry soil, the small stream, the slope and the rocks. The final area of Richmond, its peculiar houses, its brownish fields, the dust vanishing, the koppies in the background and me walking towards them.
The more I walked in those fields, the more they entered my being.
Swaying back and forth, I was in both sides.
At the koppie top, I didn´t lose my time. When I start building a hut I don´t know if I will finish it before it is dark or cold. Due to this, I needed to find the right place and start looking for stones. There is no day when the mind doesn´t show its weakness. Always, sooner or later, one starts thinking if there is going to be enough material, if it is going to continue to stand, if there is going to be enough time, if it is going to be dangerous, if it is going to be too cold, if one should go back…
In these moments, I can feel my vulnerability and the more I feel it, the more I need a solution.
All kind of thoughts go through one´s mind, but as they come they need to leave.
Since the very first moment you take your backpack, the mind gets quieter and the senses amplify. Every step has another weight and your silence lets you be on alert. Watchful to your own mind processes. And this presence allows you to hold the rocks more decisive when those thoughts come.
It took me around five or six hours to build the hut. Actually it was not finished, but the sunset and the possibility of falling because there were no bigger stones forced me to make a decision. Half of my body wouldn´t be covered.
No sleeping bag, no sleeping mat. Just some layers of clothes and blankets. A thin layer between me and the stone floor.
I didn´t sleep too much. Constantly the cold fell over my legs like a blow of a hammer.
I stood up with the sun to get warm. Some parts of the floor were covered with a kind of a thin frozen layer of dew.
Coming back everything remains the same, but somehow different.
I am not at the same position where I began. I have crossed a threshold.
“The absence of decoration and colour on the walls, their neglect or decay, while providing a suitable
setting for reflection, also prevent us from becoming distracted by them as an object in themselves.
The room avoids taking on the leading role in the scene (from an aesthetic perspective,
not a psychological one) […] There, man is like an index pushed forward in isolation,
disoriented, dependent only on his intuition and introspective ability to find
a point of reference. […] In a nutshell, it seems to tell us that we are
the true object of art, its fundamental space.
The path passes through us.”
Antonio Mengs, Stalker de Andrei Tarkovski. La metáfora del camino.
This project has been funded and by El Ranchito Residency-South Africa and Nigeria. Matadero de Madrid and Nirox Foundation.