Backstage with Walter van Broekhuizen en Arjen de Leeuw
by: Aafke Weller
The landscape painter uses the figures of men to mark a road. He would not make that use of my figure. I walk out into a nature such as the old prophets and poets Menu, Moses, Homer, Chaucer, walked in. – Henry David Thoreau, Walking (1862).
Walking is Thoreau’s glorification of the art of cross-country walking, but it is more than a glorification; the essay is an argument against the ever-increasing encroachment by man on nature: “[…] when fences shall be multiplied, and man traps and other engines invented to confine men to the public road; and walking over the surface of God’s earth, shall be construed to mean trespassing on some gentleman’s grounds. […] Let us improve our opportunities then before the evil days come.”
In Beetsterzwaag, these “evil days” were upon us long before Thoreau navigated the untamed wilderness around Boston, Massachusetts. The old Friesian woodlands had been completely harvested by the 17th century. One century later, the Friesian aristocracy planted new woods in order to, as fashion would have it, stroll in the majestic shade of the American oak.
In their movie, Une Condition Naturelle, Arjen de Leeuw and Walter van Broekhuizen study the difficult relationship between the modern, urbanized man and nature. The film is a playful piece on the romantic desire for a sublime experience in the wilderness. Through clever camera work and with the help of nature itself, the artists construct an enormous and dramatic forest out of the tight and trimmed woods of Beetsterzwaag. Nature’s help comes in the form of fog, setting the scene upon which a small, dry-humoured drama unfolds, an expression of the tragic condition of man. Tragic, because we keep longing for nature, which we feel a part of, but from which we have paradoxically and irrevocably extracted ourselves. Despite an abundance of survivor-type reality-television, a modern man just can’t cope with being alone in the woods.
Une Condition Naturelle begins idyllically: behind a fogged up window a man reads a book, outside the last drops of rain from what must have been a heavy storm drip down the glass, and one can hear the sounds a wet forest makes.The window opens, a cup of coffee in a hand emerges, and as the pleasant scent of a wet forest takes root in the mind of the viewer, the image is interrupted by a plant-sprayer spraying, generating the raindrops on the glass. The camera zooms out and shows a hut made out of cardboard: a piece of décor placed in a studio, not in the woods. The viewer is immediately put at a distance, and made to assume the role of observer.
Walter van Broekhuizen has played with the contrast between isolation and exhibition before. A House in the Woods (2008) was a life-sized copy of Thoreau’s wooden hut at Walden Pond (Walden, 1854), but where Thoreau built his house for seclusion, to reflect on society, van Broekhuizen built his replica largely to reflect - from society - on seclusion; one of the four walls and the roof of the hut were left missing while the only window was boarded shut. Those who entered A House in the Woods, walked onto a podium on which it was impossible to be secluded. Thoreau's backstage is van Broekhuizen’s frontstage. These exact terms are used by the Canadian sociologist Erving Goffman to talk about the manner in which we present ourselves to one another. In The Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life, Goffman uses an analogy from theater to describe our daily lives. If we are on the frontstage (in society), Goffman claims, we play a specific role dictated by our routine circumstance. When we go backstage (i.e. alone in the woods) we can disregard this role-play. However, this doesn’t mean that we will become at one withourselves in seclusion. According to Goffman, the self is formed playing these roles. When we don’t need role-play any longer we actually lose ourselves a little bit, and that is often more uncomfortable than appealing. It appears to be necessary to find a new role as soon as possible, even if we are alone in the woods.
In Une Condition Naturelle we see both of the artists walking aimlessly through the woods. They go out alone, but cannot seem to decide what to do with their time. We see them throwing stones into a pond out of boredom, but this is not the deep, existential boredom that Thoreau and his reclusive predecessors seek out in isolation; it is more the uncertainty of what to do with oneself when nobody is watching. This uncertainty is overcome by doing something for the hell of it. In a subsequent scene, one of the men comes up with the idea to fell a tree. The tree is then brought into the same studio as the hut, where a print of a mountainous landscape covers an entire wall. Despite the artificial landscape of the studio, we can understand how the artist would want to momentarily take on the role of a heroic lumber-jack; the tough guy who takes down a proper pine tree in order to warm his rosy-cheeked girlfriend by the fireplace.
When we are alone we can play whichever role we wish. After the initialstages of adjustment, we quickly take on a new role; a role in which we are as free as we’ve ever been.
Thoreau hoped to shake off society’s restrictions and conventions, but in his diary he is unable to address anything but the same society that allows him the framework within which his actions and thoughts have meaning. When this social framework disappears, a great danger looms on the horizon of this isolation: madness. In Une Condition Naturelle both men unnoticably pass a critical boundary. In the middle of the film we see them with binoculars, watching the same bird. The typical stance of the birdwatcher is so accepted that we don’t even notice at first that the two men do not hold binoculars, but a pair of pine cones in front of their eyes. At this point in the film, all is lost: one binds the paws of a fox on the underside of his socks, while the other cries like a wolf. Finally, we see both men running gleefully through the woods, ending the movie with a quote from the German social-psychologist Erich Fromm: ‘Man is born as a freak of nature …’.