FRITS GIERSTBERG / DUTCH DARE (EN)
Frits Gierstberg, Dutch Dare (2006)
'In the Netherlands there are no mountains, only wind', Rem Koolhaas once wrote. True as a cow, as the Dutch expression puts it - but the little word 'only' is not quite justified. The wind, after all, is as defining an element in the experience of the landscape of the Netherlands as mountains are for the landscape in other countries. ( Wind and water, in addition, once made it possible for the Netherlands to become a prosperous nation, dispatching sailing ships to colonies in the East and West.) It keeps the cloud banks lining the Dutch skies in a state of continual change. In combination with the abundant water, which reflects sunlight against the clouds, this creates a constantly changing play of light and clouds over the landscape. It is this changeable light situation that painters in the seventeenth century and countless others in the centuries that followed dubbed the 'typical Dutch light' , which the tried to convey in their paintings ( the German artist Joseph Beuys once asserted that because of the filling in of the geographically centrally located IJsselmeer, this light would disappear by the mid-twentieth century).
In a land so ruled by the wind, it is amazing that it took until the 1990s for someone to come up with the idea of attaching a camera to a kite. Photographer Gerco de Ruijter (b. 1961) took his first kite's-eye-view landscape photographs - from the air down - in the early 1990s. This resulted in startling images. Kites can reach heights higher than a building, but they never get as high as planes do. The photographs show the Dutch landscape in a way no one had ever seen: familiar yet strange, in an odd balance between the abstract play of patterns in the ploughed fields and the straight lines of ditches and waterways, and a high degree of detail that accentuated elements in the frame like roads, house roofs, cows, cyclists, etcetera. To a certain extent, his pictures remind one of the first photographs of New Photography, like those taken by Alexander Rodchenko from balconies toward the streets of Moscow below, in the 1920s. Then, too, one had to relearn how to look in order to know what one was seeing. but in reality, De Ruijter's photographs hark back even further in history, because they are also reminders of the Dutch tradition of cartography, which began in the early sixteenth century. It is the art of cartography that not only helped promote the worldwide expansion of the Dutch trading empire, but was also to have a defining influence on the way in which Dutch landscape painters looked at the landscape - what Svetlana Alpers has dubbed the 'mapping impulse in Dutch art'.
In his work De Ruijter plays a game with the paradoxical nature of photography, namely that it can, in a single image, both make reality abstract and reproduce it in realistic detail. This game is given an added dimension here in that it is not De Ruijter himself who is looking through the viewfinder and pressing the button - here the 'camera's eye' records entirely autonomously (although the photographer by now has a fair idea of what is being photographed and afterwards of course makes a selection out of the frames shot). De Ruijter creates a conflict between realism and abstraction that can be seen as typifying the geometrical construction of the landscape of the Netherlands itself - irony is that at the same time that De Ruijter is opting for a visual strategy that removes the horizon from the image frame, the same horizon, due to rapid urbanization of the countryside, is fast disappearing from the Dutch landscape.