Esther Polak / Gerco de Ruijter (en)
A row of small, rectangular photographs hanging on the wall. Pictures taken trom the air. A small piece of land with water alongside, with a meadow, a wood, the pattern of freshly ploughed earth. From above, the plough furrows are almost abstract - the precise, mathematical care of the farmer. The woods have a sense of space of their own. The trees, through the effect of the perspective, seem a tunnel wanting to bore into the earth.
The water’s surface shows the reflection of the clouds, so I am looking up and looking down at the same time. It is unmistakably the Netherlands. I fly through the air and the familiar landscape unfolds beneath me. There is depth. I am in a place I have never been before. I see Holland for the first time. I am flying.
The frustrating thing about our landscape is not that it is so flat. There are enough high spots. The way the land has here been created, these are our heights as well: high-tension cable masts, factory chimneys, office tower blocks. bridge pylons. There are fantastic vantage points in this low land. But nowhere have these places been made accessible. In the mountains, it is completely understood that you want to move up, to the top. There are paths. There are shops with climbing gear and guidebooks. There is none of any of this in the Netherlands. A yearning for the heights is not something one ought to have. Our high spots are not climbed. The pylons of the Zaltbommel bridge gradually disappear into the air. You can see that at the top, there is a place where you could stand, a kind of balcony. And down below, there is a door. But there is an unrelenting security system preventing my entrance. I have at times thought about thinking up an excuse to visit the top of a structure like that. I could write letters to the appropriate authorities, make phone calls. I would doubtless succeed in the end in getting up there. Then I could take photographs as well, filI up a cassette tape, be in control of a memory.
Afterwards l’d come back down. The place would reassume its cloak of inaccessibility. I would not be able to share my memory with anyone. l’d have made a privileged journey. This directly touches on the objection I have to aerial photographs. I see the picture and in the first place, I am jealous of the photographer. He was really there, but I remain down here below. Most of all, I see a pIace where I cannot go. Never will feel so earthbound as when I look at a photograph taken from the air. l am very much, altogether NOT there. But the photographs that Gerco de Ruijter makes do take me up with them. I want to spend a day with him. Flying. On the day we’d planned, it was unusually clear weather. We go by car to a place where Gerco had worked in the past. I have seen those photos. They show an incomprehensible structure of water and earth, something that looks like asphalt paving, full of cracks. In other places, the ground looks like paint, smeared on with a palette knife.
‘An incredible place, this, with all those canals. There, that’s slip from the harbour. It’s been spread out and levelled by machine. lt’s an amazing place. The water and the land are at almost exactly the same height, so the land patches are often under water. It produces beautiful structures. I haven’t been back here for a while and I was wondering what it looked like now.’
A big yellow kite emerges from the car, a line and pulley, a ground anchor and a clock. And of course the camera, in a cage-like construction of aluminium and electronics.
‘This is a special camera. I can wind it up so that it has enough energy to keep running. The electronics are so that it takes a picture every minute, exactly. I only have one kite. You shouldn’t try to change things too much. Every time I make changes, something goes wrong. Sometimes I‘ve walked around for a whole afternoon and then there’s nothing at all on the film. That happens, too.’
Gerco flies the kite about twenty metres overhead. Then he temporarily attaches the line to the ground. The camera is hung from the line. The mechanism that he has made for this is difficult to describe, but it looks simple and effective. When the camera is fixed to the line, Gerco starts reeling it out again. The construction rises in alarmingly huge leaps and bounds. The irregular breezes carry the camera gliding over the water. It wouldn’t be the first to drown there. When the kite and camera are quietly floating overhead, Gerco walks back into the area to get the images. He vacuums, Hoovers the landscape. Grazes it. We are beach-combing for images.
I once climbed up a cable tower to take pictures. But I didn’t like it. I started taking pictures this way when I was in art school in Rotterdam, in the painting department. Everybody was trying to paint abstract, turning the canvas upside down, that sort of thing. l’d sometimes fly a kite on the beach, and one day I hung a camera from it. I was searching for material for paintings, looking for new structures. But the photographs were so beautifully detailed and so rich, there was no point in painting them. I let the kite and the camera do the work. They decide what the image is going to be.’ ‘When I saw those photographs, I felt I had to try it in the Biesbosch, an expansive wooded flood plain. So I do, and I walk around sweating a day and then end up with nothing. The place, the landscape, is way too big. If I know an area really well, then I come home with much better photographs.’ In the end it makes no difference to me whether I am in a nature reserve or a farmer’s field, as long as I have an overview. It is all about space. I am not interested in whether I am showing something that’s man-made or something that’s pure mother nature. It makes no difference. I make no judgement. I only want to know what t looks like. I just want to look.’
’I have just finished a series of photographs of the Rotterdam harbour. There are gigantic heaps of coal and iron ore waiting for transport. The landscape is artificial, but after just a couple of rain showers, the effect of nature is already visible. The colours are new to me. It is not green alternating with water ditches. It’s not flat. I do not need to fly all the way to Mexico to see an image like that,’
We walk around for another hour. The camera quietly keeps working.
A week later, Gerco de Ruijter sends me a contact sheet of the photographs that we took that afternoon. I scrutinise the photographs, images that are totally different from what we saw while we wandered the area. And this is exactly that same tiny, insignificant piece of ground. We saw the same things. Gerco de Ruijter also went up alone, through his photographs. They are not a report or recording of a journey, they are the journey.
This is no dream image. It is pure realism. And that fact means that I can boldly, shamelessly let myself be carried upwards. Together up there, precisely because we are all stuck down here.
Esther Polak, 2001