(English) Art as a journey of no return

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Genius Loci: the Floating Shipyard

In april, I was invited to visit a project in progress, called ‘The Floating Shipyard’. Some 15 students from the Art and Science Department (University for Arts, The Hague) were working on a research project on an abandoned Shipyard, (Bieschbosch, Dordrecht) with the aim to express the multiple relationship between the place, its past and its future.

“An attempt to metaphorically 
launch the shipyard itself, as a metaphor for life, the journey, survival ,
living and working together!”
An ArtScienec Research Project

Art as a Journey. Reflections on the (im)possibility of the return.

Home is where one starts from.
T. S. Eliot, East Coker

An archetype which haunts the collective memory of western civilization is that of the fearful journey over the seas during which the hero has to stand every kind of ordeal. Add to this trial the outburst of the elements gone wild, water and wind causing shipwreck on shipwreck, gods and monsters alike directing their wrath to man, witches and nymphs taking him hostage by magic and seduction and we are fully in the epic called ‘ The Odyssea’, composed some 2. 800 years ago!

What kind of a narrative is it? The story of a war veteran, who after having won the war against the Trojans -by making use of a famous trick, – needed another 10 years to return to his kingdom Ithaca? Should we read this poem as a kind of ‘reportage’ of what really happened to a man called Odysseus or rather as an novel full of marvellous but fictitious adventures?

For Ithaca exists! It is a small island in the Ionian sea and it may be possible as well to locate many of the other places mentioned in the Odyssea. Yet it is not merely a report of a real journey nor is it to be classified as fiction. Rather, it belongs to a category which surpasses fiction as well as reportage, and at the same time encompasses both. This category can be called ‘the archetypical’ level of consciousness or the level where ‘images’, which should not be identified to ‘pictures’ are at work.

While the different stances of Odysseus’ adventures unfold, the way a spiral is unfolding outwardly, simultaneously the epic tells the story of an inward journey, as a spiralling movement towards one self. In the ninth song of the Odyssea this point is reached, when Odysseus declares ‘I am Odysseus, the son of Laertes’. He came to find himself One could call this a ‘transitional’ moment, where the one- reality as transmitted by our perception, becomes multi-dimensional, and where the realm of the archetypes (the so-called ‘mundus imaginalis’) amplifies the realm of the manifested world. Because of this, one can also approach the Odyssea as the description of an initiation, in the same way the novel of Joseph Conrad ‘ Heart of Darkness’ is an account of the crossing of the threshold between the world of ‘normality’ and the world where the soul forces have been unleashed.

Some aspects of this two-foldness of reality I could encounter in the brick structure called ‘transition’. On the one hand, as Gala did, one can ascend the stairs of the construction as a very concrete challenge to one’s sense of equilibrium and at the same time it is a metaphorical act, expressing the human need to transcend one’s limits gaining access to a higher plan. While advancing step by step and blindfolded (how daring!) on the transition wall, as a real act, another experience , one could call an inner transformation, goes along. This is exactly the key to the Odyssea! The daring journey as a real experience goes along with inner adventures, which leave a lasting mark on one’s self understanding and understanding of the world.

At this point, Virgini read to the audience one of her texts written in French in which she describes how children on a visit went on building the brick structure in a most natural way, calling them the ‘engineers of tomorrow’. The paradox between the massive, hard metallic structures on the yard (Virgini calls them the Queen and the King) and the frailty of nature (trees, birds, water) permeating this cosmos of cement and metal, offers the potentiality to a gesture, where no choice has to be made between the frail and the hard, a gesture out of freedom.

Also in the project of Pim, there are these 2 elements: an imagined journey, to which real time and space corresponds. The imaginary ship of Pim navigates between buoys (outlined on a paper as a kind of partition) and at the required moment, one of those buoys is plunged in the water, so as to mark the advancement of the trip, which will be concluded by the launching of the anchor, when the ship has returned to the dock!

Apart of being the source for the archetypical story of the journey as an initiation, the Odyssea is also at the source of a major theme in Western literature and art: the theme of the ‘nostos’ or the possibility of a return to the same. We can find nostos in’nostalgia’ a term which is composed by ‘nostos’ and ‘algos’ , meaning the pain (algos) of or for the return. Sometimes it is translated by homesickness, but algos (such as used in an-algesicum, a medicine to soothe burning pains) is a burning pain, not a vague feeling of wishing to be at home.

Not by coincidence, Andrej Tarkovsky named one of his last masterpieces ‘Nostalghia’ (1983) in which the longing for his homeland and his wife are expressed by abandoned, dark, ruined places. As many exiles in recent times have experienced, even when a return proves to be possible, it is never a return to the same. T.S. Eliot called home that place where one starts from. Does one then have to leave his place in order that it becomes a home? Even with the risk, that at your return, it will never be the same?

In another movie, Ulysses’Gaze (To Vlemma tou Odyssea) from the director Theo Angelopoulos, who recently died in a car accident, the impossible return is the leading question, during an interminable train journey through the Balkans, back to a homeland , which no longer exists.


Then why should one leave home?

As far as I can understand, this is exactly the point where art and artistic creativity enters!
There is a way to understand any artistic activity as ‘being on the move’. ( Onderweg zijn, Etre en marche, Unterwegs). It is not something one does apart from other activities, but rather a way of being, a continuous dynamic from idea to realization and back. Often this is called : the artistic process. A process has to do with time. Not with the clock time, but with the time as one can live it, time as an alive element. This means that also time, as every living entity, presents a characteristic rhythm. Time expands and contracts, with an interval between the 2 dynamics. The in-and outwinding double spiral, everywhere present in ancient Greek art, is a adequate image for time, as a flow. Already in the artistic process, one can find it in the contraction of the effort to give shape to an idea and then the elation, the expansion of taking distance, of letting go.
The interval at that point is most important, then it enables the ‘transition’ between the focused effort, where one is in the effort, and the moment when one can let go and find back to oneself. We find the same interval in the rhythm of the heart (systole and diastole) in the flow of water that is still allowed to stay alive, the breathing, and so on. Sometimes the interval is experienced as an empty moment, a moment where one does not know anymore if the process is advancing, going the right way. But it is exactly this ‘emptiness’ which gives the chance to let the process speak out for itself. Suddenly, one can catch a glimpse of what is asked there and this is possible only because the focus is no longer exclusively on what one has in mind!
The source of art is to be found in this fleeting moment of interval which opens in the flow of the process.
It is a kind of a tight-rope walking between giving a determined shape and allowing your determination and the shape to withdraw, were it only for this ephemere instant, the instant where you catch an already vanishing shadow – and when without warning almost, an answer to a not yet asked question arises. All that is needed is to stay awake and to start to listen. Such a moment could also be qualified as ‘poetic’.

1. If the artistic process can be understood as an ongoing movement between giving shape and letting the shape to withdraw in order to let a new shape manifest, then process is by definition unfinished. Of course, projects will end, works will be made, but the process as such goes on, then as soon as one has come to a conclusion, a new research opens. The Portuguese artist Vieira da Silva (1906-1992) described her career as an unfinished research project: ‘All my works are one and the same painting and that is not finished’. The research becomes more important than the finished work. Baudelaire in his poem ‘Le Voyage’ called this ‘ Partir pour partir! (et non pas pour arriver quelque part!) Research also means that the initial idea can change because of the project, as the idea of a totem pole, marking a central point in the area, turned into a ship cabin with periscope dug out in the earth.

2. What the keeps one going? What drives one? If not a very  particular kind of nostalgia, the pain of the longing! Pain,  because the process will never reach the shore of complete  realization, unless as a kind of shipwreck! But then, as  Odysseus, you cannot find peace, before you can start to built another ship. Of course, this burning question is an individual one. It can never be a ‘given’ one in the sense of a programmed one. But what is common to every one who is involved in an artistic process, even in the extended meaning (Erweiterter Kunstbegriff/Beuys) is this pain of the impossibility of a return to the same, once you have started to be on the move. One should not understand this pain as a load, an oppressive feeling. Rather it has the quality of some particular kind of joy. The joy for instance when a ship after years of preparation leaves the harbour, the sails finally risen and exposed to the wind, knowing that it will not last forever!

3. Of course, there are some conditions to be taken in account on the road. One of these conditions is the willingness to be ready for any risk which one can encounter , even if this risk means that a process could come to a halt. Or even worse, that in the course of the process, the poetic quality will get lost. Because an artistic process is not something one can manage. You can only live it. (See: Vincent van Gogh).
A rather famous saying of Kandinsky describes this open readiness for the unexpected and the risk, as :’Becoming a servant of the situation, not the master’.

Many of the students I saw at work on the yard were exactly doing this: starting from what the terrain offered them, what was already there, what was given and from that trying to transcend the limitations, to turn them in possibilities. The servant turns into a master, but only because he has accepted the limitations first.

4. The art of dialogue as a permanent challenge. Being constantly on the move, driven by a burning question, ready to encounter the unexpected, one has to exercise dialogue as an art. ‘Das Gespräch ist die Kunst” is one of the famous words of Beuys , and again, art should be understood in an extended way. What does it mean to be in dialogue? Dialogue is a relation, it happens in the interval between listening and speaking, but the listening comes first. It is the silence before the first sound resonates. The concentration which was there before the hammers started to make the hall to resonate. Or the listening attitude towards the floating pier, in order to discover where it could be significant? To listen as a permanent state means that a space is created in which reality can speak out, whereas when I speak first, this space cannot open.

5. In order to keep this inner state of mind, one has to wake up and most of all, to stay awake. An universal symbol for this inner awakening is the flame, as in this sequence of Tarkovsky’s Nostalghia, where a man, stumbling in the darkness of a ruined area, lights a candle and has to do this over and over again, for the wind is extinguishing it. When finally he comes across the ruins, he leaves the candle for the next to come after him. The flame of awakeness is not there to light it self! Just as the lighthouse at he final presentation will shine on the other projects, make them visible rather then become visible itself.

6.  What finally could be at the core of longing, whatever the question is in which it expresses itself? Longing is not wishing, for in wishing the object is clear from the start. Wishing to be at home is not longing to return. What if the return is the turning towards the real, (Inkeer eerder dan Terugkeer) the reality in its pure essence, which can be a frightening experience as well? Reality as it truly is, and not as I re-present it, manifests itself in the interconnectedness (Zusammenhang/ Samenhang) of all what exists. Only when some glimpse, however tiny , of this interconnectedness can be revealed, reality is present! As the connection between the massive arch and the fragile raft. Or the construction of a pyre where the elements, water, air and fire meet! And participate.
In that way, art as a process comes to a constant search for meeting the real. Beauty is no longer the unique aim, but participates to this search. Then, when reality is given the chance to reveal itself as it is, there is a moment of transparency through which beauty shines. A moment of return!

Christine Gruwez


When you set out on your journey to Ithaca,
pray that the road is long,
full of adventure, full of knowledge.
The Lestrygonians and the Cyclops,
the angry Poseidon — do not fear them:
You will never find such as these on your path,
if your thoughts remain lofty, if a fine
emotion touches your spirit and your body.
The Lestrygonians and the Cyclops,
the fierce Poseidon you will never encounter,
if you do not carry them within your soul,
if your soul does not set them up before you.

Pray that the road is long.
That the summer mornings are many, when,
with such pleasure, with such joy
you will enter ports seen for the first time;
stop at Phoenician markets,
and purchase fine merchandise,
mother-of-pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
and sensual perfumes of all kinds,
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
visit many Egyptian cities,
to learn and learn from scholars.

Always keep Ithaca in your mind.
To arrive there is your ultimate goal.
But do not hurry the voyage at all.
It is better to let it last for many years;
and to anchor at the island when you are old,
rich with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting that Ithaca will offer you riches.

Ithaca has given you the beautiful voyage.
Without her you would have never set out on the road.
She has nothing more to give you.

And if you find her poor, Ithaca has not deceived you.
Wise as you have become, with so much experience,
you must already have understood what Ithacas mean.

Constantine P. Cavafy (1911)