In conversation with ‘Oude Willem’
In a transitional phase, the installation connects a visual story of man’s monumental efforts to cultivate and to question the use of land.
At the beginning of this century, after poring over its maps, the province of Friesland decides to let the Oude Willem area attenuate back to nature as part of the new national park Drents Friese Wold. It is an ambitious plan with far-reaching consequences. Fertilisation comes to a halt, Oude Willem will be virtually left to its own devices and over the years, it will revert to wilderness.
Cultural landscapes transform over the ages as a result of interests and options. In the 19e century for instance, a shepherd named Oude Willem (Old William) is roaming around here.
location: Appelscha, The Netherlands
client: province Friesland
manufacturing: Helldorfer Lasbedrijf & Scheepsbouw, Arnhem
technical drawings: Denis Bacal, Den Haag
technical engineering: Henk Semplonius, Laag-Soeren
© photography Rene de Wit/ Studio Frank Havermans
In the absence of provincial borders, Willem’s sheep graze this area, a heathland that derives its popular name from his. In the 20th century, the area comes under cultivation for a prosperous period of farming and cattle breeding. A locally established agricultural complex is actually called Oude Willem, which also remains the area name.
Commissioned to design an artwork for this location on the provincial border of Friesland and Drenthe, I arrived at a Landmark that connects the transitional phase from cultural landscape to nature. It tells a visual story about man’s monumental efforts to cultivate the land and, at least as important, questions it as well. For motorists, this platform on Frisian soil announces the border with Drenthe by referencing the black-and-white stripes of the 1894 boundary posts.
Through the ages, digging ditches has been essential for the realization of large parts of the Dutch cultural landscape. The ditches ensure the necessary drainage to keep the land dry for cultivation. The specially developed tool that mechanically performs this operation is called a V-ditch bucket, a contraption few people will be familiar with. It is a giant V-shaped steel shovel that is attached to an excavator. As a final human intervention in this new piece of nature, I use the V-ditch bucket to move the ditch at the edge of the field. By digging a diagonal line and closing the straight demarcation, the old structure is interrupted, opening up space for reflection. After the shepherd and the farmer, Oude Willem now belongs to the strollers.
The steel digging tool, expanded and turned upside down, constitutes the basis for the platform that literally challenges passers-by to explore this new stretch of nature. Standing over the new ditch that was dug with this type of machine, the installation provides the visitor with a moment of elevation; to watch the traffic, look for birds, recite a poem, give a speech, advance a thought, solve a problem, to think, look at the clouds, to contemplate, to pause, to imagine the past with Oude Willem the shepherd or, on the contrary, to envision a future in which the platform has landed momentarily.