Visitors to this year’s Art Amsterdam could see Erik Wesselo’s Backward, in which the artist rides a horse seated back to front. Annet Gelink Gallery showed this film from 1996 together with new work, including the photoseries Indian garden. In the period between Backward and the recent photos, Wesselo’s films have shown the artist tied to a revolving windmill sail (Düffels möll, 1997), setting fire to his hair (Burning up, 1998), and having the word love tattooed on his hand (Love, 1998). The photoseries Forest time shown in the Van Abbemuseum in 2003 is a series of enlarged polaroids of landscapes – at first sight very different from his actions inspired by Chris Burden and others. Wesselo currently lives in India. In this interview he talks about his interests and explains how his recent work differs less from the earlier work than one might think.
What’s it like, living there in Tamil Nadu? Do you take part in the local art world? And what do you do there?
Since I’ve been living in the tropical forest in India, I live more in the present. It’s more difficult to plan things here. I work with trees two days a week. I plant young trees, maintain the older ones, and take care of the forest.
Can you say something about the development in your work? Something seems to have changed since the performances and action films and the greater serenity that is a part of photos of nature – how do you see it?
I don’t try to really make a ‘beautiful’ photo. I don’t think that photos of nature are by definition serene, just as nature itself is not always serene. It is often seen that way from an urban perspective. Living in a tropical forest confronts you with constant rejuvenation and death. Nature is always fighting and in love with itself. Nature looks serene to us, but that’s only because we look at it from a certain moment, from our own sense of time, in which it seems to be standing still. Only the wind and waves cause the movement. But when you look at it from the perspective of nature itself, it never stands still. It develops and moves in time and place, but in a different time scale from ours. The tree is a force that rises vertically from the earth to the sky, merely passing us by on its way. It is the guardian of a time that will never be ours.
Time has always played an important part in my work. Most of my films were not shot in real time, even though you sometimes don’t realise. Backward was filmed at 75 frames a second, which makes you look at the movement in a more concentrated way. The rider is sitting back to front on the horse, looking towards the past with his back to the future. The camera movement can also indicate time, as in Düffels möll, in which the camera rotates with the movement of the mill. In She did it again the last shot is reversed so that the person steps out of the picture instead of entering it. What seems natural at first sight evokes an alienating effect. Burning up was filmed in slow motion to draw the time out. Every image calls for its own length and duration.
I read somewhere that your two best-known films, Backward and Düffels möll, are an attempt to relate to the landscape. Now it seems to me that during these kinds of actions you are relating more to your own body (fear, feeling sick) than to the landscape. Can you say something about this?
In spite of what you might think, I’m not so concerned with my own body in my more physical films. The body switches itself off and the action becomes more of an exercise in mental concentration. While I was making my films and polaroids I was usually unconsciously in a meditative state. I’ve learnt to recognise this since I’ve been living in India. It’s not so much that you shut yourself off from your surroundings, more that you are totally aware of what you see.
The landscape is an important element for me: I try to understand it and to become a part of it. Surrounded by landscape and nature, I’m able to transport myself to a different time. Unlike being surrounded by people or architecture, I can feel my real scale in the landscape. The landscape always puts you down on the place that you occupy at that moment.
What are you working on at the moment? Are you making photos as well as films?
At the moment I’m working on a long film for the Rotterdam Port Authority on the construction of Maasvlakte 2. Briefly, the film will be about the disappearance and emergence of land. Besides Rotterdam, it is set in various locations, including India. I want to keep the other two locations secret as long as there is nothing on celluloid. I’ve also been filming in Rameshwaram, a peninsula in Tamil Nadu. This place radiates a specific sense of disappearing. It’s difficult to define it in terms of scale, but also to determine its history and function. Both in Rotterdam and in Rameshwaram you get the feeling of infinity and transience. The spaces seem enormous, but they’re both narrow strips of land that disappear into the sea and are bounded by the sea. Sometimes only the light, the sky or a man-made object says something about where you are. If everything goes according to plan, the film will be screened in the Netherlands Photo Museum in Rotterdam at the end of 2011.
Didn’t you start drawing as well a few years ago?
Drawing was born somewhat of necessity a number of years ago. Sometimes I needed a representation of something of which there wasn’t yet an image, such as an invitation to a film that wasn’t yet finished (Olie, 2000). The drawings in the publication 56 Beaver St. (Rotterdam: Episode Publishers, 2006) are taken from polaroids I gave away or lost. It’s only very recently that I’ve started to attach more importance to it. While I was making the film Los cojones del diablo in 2006, I just couldn’t get closer to my theme. I circled that mountain for two months; at a certain moment it was so frustrating that I just decided to make a number of drawings of it. I first showed them in Annet Gelink Gallery during Art Amsterdam.
Now the drawings are often memories of photographic images that I was unable to make for an enormous variety of reasons – because I’d run out of film, for instance – but still go round in your head.
About Indian garden – what do you want to express with these photos? Is it about conveying the atmosphere of that particular spot? Or the moment? A gripping image or more of an idea?
When I started making the polaroids they usually served as preliminary research for the making of a film, as a kind of storyboard or location search. After a while they started to lead more of a life of their own. Indian garden is a project that is still not finished. What I have shown so far are nine enlarged polaroids but the project consists of more photos and short super8 films. The photos and films were made within a radius of five kilometres from where I live. One of the polaroids shows a butterfly, apparently in full flight, but if you look carefully you can see that it is hanging from the thread of a spider’s web and that half a wing has already been eaten. Another polaroid shows a plastic bag tied to a branch. That branch is the aerial root of the banyan tree, which is considered sacred here. There is the placenta of a cow in the bag. Eventually this aerial root may well enter the ground with placenta and all to develop a new trunk there. These are some of the things that fascinate me at the moment. Perhaps this will be the garden where everything comes together.
published in Dutch as ‘Een andere tijdsschaal. Een gesprek met Erik Wesselo over zijn werk’ (‘Another timescale – in conversation with Erik Wesselo about his work’) Tubelight 70/07.09.2010