Peter Delpeut, Fietsen en vliegeren


On a sunny but windy day in June, I rode my bicycle from Amsterdam to the Oerol Festival. Coming from the Frisian polders I took the sea dike for the final leg to Harlingen. A great and compelling experience – the wide Wadden mud flats at my left, the grassy dike under a sky wild with clouds at my right. The sea breeze pushed me against the concrete. It was as if I was on a cycling track’s sloping runway, pedaling full force to the finish.
Less than a year later, I clearly recalled this experience when visual artist Gerco de Ruijter asked me to name my favorite Frisian landscape. I had written about it on the occasion of the Nature as Artifice exhibition in the Kröller-Müller Museum. Writing helps to preserve memories. Atelier Fryslân, the consulting agency for town and country planning in Friesland, had commissioned De Ruijter to photograph exceptional locations in the Frisian landscape. The public was asked to send him suggestions through the Internet. He knew I was familiar with his work and expected I would be able to send him in the right direction. He had read my piece about Nature as Artifice. Maybe reading is sort of recalling someone else’s memories.
De Ruijter takes his photographs from an uncommon position: he attaches his camera to the line of a high-flying kite –a few pieces of cloth, a couple of sticks– and gives the winds free reign. If he thinks his kite is above great scenery, he uses a little transmitter to activate the camera. Therefore he doesn’t look through the image finder but allows the kite’s perspective to surprise him. Only after returning home and developing the negatives, he sees what was photographed, and this may be something not at all expected. Coincidence directs his work. De Ruijter’s photographs, or rather: the images he carefully selects, reveal an unthought-of play of colors and lines. Often, it is not easy to recognize the landscape even if definite elements give indications. The images dwell between the recognizable and the abstract; depending on where De Ruijter sends up his kite, they hesitate to acknowledge if they are pastures, salt marshes, canals, tree tops, or rather an abstract painting with Mondrianesk or Art Brut qualities. Like the Gestalt image: is it duck, or hare? De Ruijter’s question is: landscape, or abstract? Or both? This indeed is what makes it so fascinating: the viewer commutes from sensation to sensation. The images are nothing more than pictures of the earth. At the same time, though, they have detached themselves from the earth and it is as if the viewer loses grip. The viewer becomes literally uprooted.
I was convinced the sea dike at Harlingen would be a great spot from where to take kite photographs. De Ruijter would surely catch a sensational play of lines between sea and dike. But could such image also catch what I had experienced during my bicycle ride? Fighting the wind, the dike’s grey concrete crunching under my tires – these were mainly earthly experiences: me in the landscape. Thinking of landscape, I first see an horizon, a line between the earth and the sky. I, the viewer, know my position; my experience of the earth starts at eye level. Yet in De Ruijter’s photos all references to eye level have disappeared. His camera is in a vertical position, there is no horizon. The images lift you up from the natural world and what you receive in return is something wholly new, a new reality. All things considered De Ruijter’s photographs are no landscape photos. They have little in common with our daily two-footed experiences. Landscapes are his material, his medium – they are what paint containers are for the painter. Do these images want to tell us anything at all about experienced landscape? For me they are totally flat, no deeper than the paper they are printed on, a play of forms, lines, colors. The longer I thought about it, the more convinced I became that as soon as De Ruijter got his kite up in the sky, my experiences from the bicycle ride became obsolete.
Many months passed and I had almost forgotten that I’d submitted the sea dike piece to Atelier Fryslân. Then I heard that “my” photo had been selected for the small exhibition of De Ruijter’s project in the Fries Museum. I would have refrained from this appropriation if not something strange had happened when I received the photo digitally and opened it on my screen. What returned in a split second was exactly the experience of my bicycle ride on the dike. As if I was experiencing it anew. Not because I saw what I had earlier seen as a landscape (my wheels had not left the dike), but because the sensation of cycling, the speed of the bicycle track, my off-plumb riding, was called up. The photograph was undoubtedly De Ruijter’s even if the figurative element was stronger than in most of his work. The sea water, the basalt stones, the concrete slope, the green of the dike’s grass, the two parallel roads behind the dike – they were all recognizable. Yet something was out of the order. The dike, of which I remembered its gradient rising from the water, was flattened and the higher grassy knoll at my right in the photo appeared to be level with the sea and the dike. Then, the roads behind the dike had been invisible from my position in the saddle. It seemed as if the world was put on a display in the way the cubists used to do in the 1920s – unfolded as a picture in a fan. Each time I watch the photograph I get more amazed. The effects are exciting, nerve-racking.

The image, immovable as it is, allows me to fly. Not as in a dream, nor as Superman, but as a state of consciousness. And this state of consciousness is clearly associated with my experience on the bike. What can cycling have to do with flying? At the end of the 19th century, no one would have asked this question. Cycling, a new rage, was compared with flying. Not just the racers were called flyers, also more mundane bike riding was expressed in metaphors referring to flying. This tour de force always amazed me, for no one but a few balloonists had actually experienced flying. Flying was falling down, which is what the fool did who jumped from the Eiffel Tower. To fly, one needed fantasy, the power of imagination, and apparently our grandparents regarded the simple being in motion between no more than two wheels as “flying.” Maybe this image was so popular because it expressed an unattainable desire? Flying might have been impossible, but by riding a bicycle one could at least approach the experience. Meanwhile, the world’s pace accelerated and heaven lost its boundaries. Too often we crossed the sky supersonically to still compare the sensation with cycling. Metaphors age too. Nevertheless, Gerco de Ruijter succeeded in returning the old feeling to me, as if a symbol was falling from time.
De Ruijter’s kite flying is something old fashioned after all. Aerial photography most often has a somewhat aggressive character – the photographer pumping iron. See the French photographer Arthus-Bertrand, who is aiming to take shots from helicopters and airplanes of practically the whole world. He calls his project “Earth From Heaven” and presents exalting colors preferably in large format. The statements accompanying his images refer to ecology or have a social context, but the images themselves undeniably expose machismo – the earth for the sake of effect. These are images that display the power of the photographer who shamelessly maximizes the use of all available technology. How different are the images De Ruijter produces with his kite camera: mild-mannered, kind-hearted, gentle, almost apologetical.
One day, I went out with him because I was curious to see how he created his images. What I saw probably was the most complex method of making aerial photos. His technology is that of a child at play: the thinnest of lines, a simple reel, an uncomplicated kite. He himself built the girdle around his body to keep control of the line and the kite. He walks after the kite, slowly, with the pace of a loiterer, squinting at the flat landscape, now and then looking up to check the camera as it hangs down from under the kite. The transmitter he uses originates from a toy car’s remote control. In the camera is a negative which allows him to take no more than six photos. He has to make the right decisions, because after six exposures the kite has to come down. Homemade handiwork, that’s what it is, but in the good sense of the word. I learned that technology indeed influences what it produces; from below the screaming propellers of a helicopter one makes photos that differ from the ones taken from below a silent and peaceful kite connected to the earth only by a thin line.
I also learned that coincidence isn’t the right word to indicate De Ruijter’s photography. He may not look through the view finder, but he knows perfectly well where to find something he will fancy. He calls these locations: “borderlines,” places where two types of landscape meet. Also, he reads the tactility of the land, as experience informs him what the texture of the earth will probably tell his camera. What doesn’t mean he doesn’t surprise himself time and again. Those surprising photos most often are his best. They are images stripped from anecdotal time and place.
And now De Ruijter presents an image from the sea dike between de Afsluitdijk and Harlingen. Has he thought of my biking experience when he sent his kite up into the sky? He must have expected a sharp contrast between the softly rippling water and the immovable, greyish concrete wall of the dike. Yet, the bicycle experience is called up strongest by the Z of the road distancing itself from the dike. At the end of the kite’s line, he can impossibly have dreamed of this image. It’s nauseating, it is as if the earth leans towards the sea, as if the world is toppling over. It doesn’t make much difference. It couldn’t go wrong. Bicycle and kite both are technological miracles only appearing to be lovely old-fashioned if placed opposite the present state of the art technology of motion. In our contemporary eyes both the bike’s and the kite’s slowness, quietness, and peacefulness come accompanied by a pleasant sort of bravura: the longing of freedom, space, the whisper of a silent movement. Bicycle and kite are kindred spirits. No other technique than kite flying could transport my cycling experience to photo. No photographer could do it better than Gerco de Ruijter.

Dit artikel verscheen eerder in de Groene Amsterdammer onder de titel: Fietsen en vliegeren. Het vormt een hoofdstuk in Peter Delpeut's bundel Pleidooi voor het Treuzelen