Guido van der Werve [Holland]

Nummer Acht: Everything is going to be alright

location: wall of a building, Robotnicza Str.

From the peaks of mountains, to the edges of oceans, to the tip of the North Pole, to every corner of the human mind, Dutch artist Guido van der Werve embodies man’s quest to know the unknowable, and find our place in the universe. And while his consequently mythical projects are often placed on par with Caspar David Friedrich, their corresponding melancholy makes van der Werve a very different type of explorer. Striving to touch a sublime that remains forever out of reach, he deflates the airs of human dominion to conduct meditative, often lonely adventures as a universal everyman. Yet he is careful to temper outright pathos with light-hearted doses of humor, stating – with tongue firmly in cheek – “dwelling in melancholy is definitely one of my favorite activities.” With an endearing enthusiasm for the blues, van der Werve translates prior studies in industrial design, archaeology, Russian literature and musical composition into a stirring series of lushly scored, performative films. Seeking to make these works as “direct” and emotionally immediate as the music he admires, van der Werve finds inspiration in the clarity and economy of his favorite composer, Frederic Chopin. Praising the power of Chopin’s poetics, he explains, “his music often sounds very simple, and I think you have to reach a really high level of understanding in order to be able to do that.” The ensuing voyages marry epic pursuits and elemental terrain with quirky personal preoccupations (i.e. antique instruments), enacting what the artist dubs, “possible scenarios of imaginary realities.”

In Nummer Acht van der Werve marches the path of progress in the shadow of eroding frontiers and impending history. His slow, searching advance takes place in the Gulf of Bothnia, in the northernmost expanse of the Baltic Sea near a Finnish port just south of the Arctic Circle. Upon this frozen plane of ice-capped water, the artist trudges methodically towards us as a 3500 tonne icebreaker ship (named “Sambo”) nips insistently at his heels. Without the aid of digital trickery or stuntman expertise, van der Werve conducts this walk as close to the ship as the captain would allow (approx. 10 metres). Just steps ahead of the enormous vessel as it carves a path of destruction, the lone artist is seemingly unfazed as he traverses a majestic, but endangered landscape poised to disappear (in the wake of environmental degradation). Yet in his miniscule scale relative to the behemoth at his back – carving confidently through the floe as once immovable ice crumbles against its powerful hull – van der Werve embodies our small, vulnerable place in this world.

Time looms equally as large in this ostensibly endless journey, taking on tangible presence as figure and boat move in lockstep. Renowned German writer and philosopher Walter Benjamin (1892-1940) characterized history as a colossal angel that moves through time with its back to the present – always looking in reverse, unable to chart its future course. One cannot help but equate this angel with the icebreaker that pursues van der Werve, even as the artist never once looks back at the force that threatens to crush him. He walks in synchronicity with history – trying to outrun its shadow but entrenched in its path – never able to free himself from its looming presence. In a consequent course where both reflection and ignorance could prove equally fatal, this man cannot do anything but march relentlessly forward. And while doubt and portent grow as large as the ship that hovers over his shoulder, van der Werve (as our everyman) must convince himself that as long as he keeps pace, everything is going to be alright.

In the shadow of impending disaster, this reassuring (if suspect) mantra echoes through a quiet apartment complex serving the families of the Gdansk Shipyard. Once a bustling center of activity, it has grown as dark and fragile as the industry that previously stood as large and proud as the Sambo. The ship-building enterprise that once guided a nation with both economic and cultural pride, now looms as the ghost that haunts the Shipyard (and Gdansk’s) uncertain future. Only time will tell if its human passengers can remain a step ahead as we turn our heads and collectively look back.