HOW DOES REMOTENESS FEEL WHEN DISTANCE NO LONGER EXISTS?
NRC 20.09.2016 by Sandra Smallenburg
Sarah van sonsbeeck (40), artist, has been creating works inspired by 'silence' for the past ten years. This does not necessarily just imply acoustical silence, ,,geographical silence can be silence too". On Tristan da Cunha, the most remote inhabited island in the world, she is trying to experience silence in a new way.
Her voice sounds loud and clear through the phone, as if she were simply at home in Amsterdam, in stead of at the other end of the world. Artist Sarah van Sonsbeeck (1976) arrived on Tristan da Cunha , the remotest inhabited island in the world, two weeks ago. It is rather cold there, she says. ,,It feels freezing. But weather here is very changeable. Tristan is situated close to the ‘roaring forties’, the tempestuous region just above the South Pole.” She means to search for silence there, a theme inspiring her art ever since she graduated from the Rietveld Academy ten years ago.
In the heart of the deep South Atlantic Ocean right in between Cape Town and South America, on Tristan heavy winds and rain are common. Dutch writer Boudewijn Büch once visited the volcanic island, following the trail of Dutch fisherman Pieter Groen who shipwrecked there in 1836. That is how Van Sonsbeeck first learned of Tristan. She finds it hard to believe she is finally there, after a week sailing from Cape Town ,,For six days I saw only ocean, and then suddenly this enormous volcano was there.”
Three years it took her to conquer a place on the boat. Only about nine passenger ships per year visit Tristan, eight fishing vessels and only one more luxurious expedition ship. Planes cannot land, due to the rocks and heavy winds. Though the roughly 265 Tristanians may not be looking for mass tourism, Sarah got a very warm welcome there. Mainly scientists visit Tristan and its neighbouring islands, researching its unique penguin- and birdspecies. Van Sonsbeeck: ,,Every time Cynthia Green of Tristans Tourism Department told me there unfortunately was no place on the next boat for me, I felt both dissapointment and relief. I wondered if it would not be much better just to dream of the island without ever really going there.”
End of August Van Sonsbeeck got notified a week in advance she could go after all due to someone cancelling. It meant missing the opening to her own show at the Amsterdam Bijenkorf warehouse, but it would have to do. ,,It is so very strange to finally be here”, she says. ,,It is completely different from what I expected. I imagined it to be an unspoilt paradise. But is in many respects very modern here. I can phone and even use internet. Although use during weekdays is generally restricted to the evenings, so the school and offices may use the limited bandwith during the day.”
Sarah van Sonsbeeck finished a masters in architecture at the TU Delft, but transferred to the Rietveld Art Acedmy in 2002. During her graduation project she got fascinated by silence. ,,I had horribly noisy neighbours, who were fighting all the time. It drove me crazy. Until I read an interview with artist Bruce Nauman, where he states anything happening in an artist studio, may be art. Then I decided to use the neighbours noise as my material”
For her final presentation in 2006 she made an installation using the recorded neighbours noise. Also part of the exhibition was a letter stating: 'Dear upstairs neighbours, after calculation I find you take up 80% of my house with your noise. Please pay the corresponding amount of my rent. You can transfer it into my bank account 466826370. Thanking you in advance.'
After this personal debut Van Sonsbeeck made various conceptual works about the topic silence. Like 'One Cubic Metre of Broken Silence', a cube of acoustic insulating glass capturing silence which, when displayed outside Museum De Paviljoens in Almere, got destroyed. Also she made objects using Faradaypaint, an expensive paint blocking electromagnetic waves and so - mobile phone signals. In the garden of the Dutch consulate in Istanbul she put a bench with the text 'Sessizlik Belediyesi', meaning 'Municipality of Silence' on it. Since, according to Van Sonsbeeck, ,,silence can be great, but dangerous too when press freedom is at stake”.
Ever since she started to work with silence, she states, people told her to go on a 'silence retreat'. ,,That always seemed like a horrible idea to me, but I did think those people got it right, it was time for me to experience some sort of silence personally again. Silence isn't necessarily just acoustical. There is geographical silence too. So I got the idea to try to visit Tristan. How would it's remoteness feel? Or would modern means - recently an internetcafé was opened on Tristan - have evaporated this distance?”
Before she went she had lots of ideas of artworks to possibly make at Tristan. Amongst other inspired by the Moon Museum, a project from 1969 for which artists such as Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol and Claes Oldenburg supplied drawings that were then printed onto a miniature ceramic chip, secretly travelling with the Apollo 12 to the moon. The Sixth International Caribbean Biennial by Maurizio Cattelan, a fictional biennial in the shape of a book, was an example too.
,,I wonder what meaning art can have on the remotest inhabited island”, she emailed me right before leaving. ,,Perhaps I will leave a small artwork on the island, much like the Moon Museum left the ceramic chip on the moon. Maybe I can try to make a Tristan da Cunha biennial with help of the Tristanians one day. Or perhaps I will throw gold leaf in the ocean like Yves Klein did in the Seine, or maybe I'll find ready mades (things that are so good they already are art)?
And then perhaps I'll end up helping the islanders doing things, like setting up a good corner fence the way Bruce Nauman once did. I would like to go there without a pre-conceived idea, without a plan, just me and my sketch book and then see what comes.”
Another plan Sarah rejected was to gold-leaf an existing bench on Tristan as a monument to Dutch Peter Green from Katwijk who still has about 71 Tristanian descendants living there. And yet, now she is there, Van Sonsbeeck feels it would be wrong to simply leave an artwork at the island. ,,That feels somehow colonial. For how can I possibly know what artwork, if any, would be wanted or good on the island without ever having been there?” So she decided to simply spend time on the island, talk to its people, make sketches.
Something that is inspiring her since she got to Tristan is the Tristan fishing gong. Because of the tempestuous weather on Tristan, fishing days are scarse. Every morning it is decided if the weather will allow fishing, which may only occur about 30 times per year. On these 'fishing days' the gong, made from an old gas or oxygen bottle, is sounded at the crack of dawn. All fishermen are then called to the harbour to help fish for crayfish, Tristans main source of income. In the evening Tristan women will clean and prepare the crayfish and freeze them so they may be shipped.
,,To me this gong symbolises the Tristanians resourcefullness and the knack they have for re-using things”, Van Sonsbeeck says. ,,Everything here may be re-used at some point, not much gets thrown away. The gong symbolises the tempestuous weather and the Tristanians dependency on it.” She is considering to make a work about the Tristan fishing gong. ,,But first I want to discuss it with the Tristanians. Maybe I can make a bronze copy of the gas cylinder. But yet then that may be to loud. I would not want to keep the Tristanians from sleeping! And perhaps bronze can't stand the weather well, because the salt wind corrodes everything more quickly here.”
So did she find silence in the end on Tristan? ,,The longer I have been researching silence, the more I wonder what it actually ís. The bird scientists on the boat are telling me that this is actually common, the longer you study something the more it escapes you, much as the horizon does. ,,The biggest silence I ever experienced, was in the anechoïc room (a room without echo) of the IRCAM in Paris. In there you could even hear your own blood flowing. Compared to that Tristan is not all that quiet. To me, it felt the most silent here when internet was not working for a bit. Only then I could really feel the 13.000 kilometers separating me from home.”
Note: SARAH VAN SONSBEECK: 'Seven Bars of Gold, Dripped' is on view until 25 september in the shopwindow of De Bijenkorf Departmentstore, Damrak, Amsterdam. Work by Sarah van Sonsbeeck is also exhibited until 30 september in the offices of Manifesta, Herengracht 474, Amsterdam.
Inset text: TRISTAN DA CUNHA
Tristan da Cunha, together with Saint-Helena and Ascension is part of an archipelago of the British overseas territories. The volcanic island is not easily accessible, due to its rocky cliffs reaching up to 600 meters. There is no airfield, only a small fishing harbour. Situated 37° 5' 50" degrees south by 12° 16' 40" degrees west it is not far from the so called ‘roaring forties’, the tempestuous area surrounding the 40th degrees south line.
In 1836 the bark Emily shipwrecked there, having Pieter Groen from Katwijk on board. He staid, married, changed his name to Peter Green and in 1865 even became spokesman for the community. On the island are currently still about 71 living descendants of the Katwijk' fisherman.
The roughly 265 inhabitants of Tristan are descendant of nine families only, whose names are: Glass, Swain, Green, Rogers, Hagan, Collins, Squibb, Repetto and Lavarello. The community is founded on equality. All Tristanians have an equal amount of cattle: 2 cows and about 7 sheep per family. Harvest is shared with people who have less. There is only one policeman on the island, but he has other roles on Tristan as well. Mass tourism doesn't exist. Given limited transport, only rarely tourists can be allowed to visit the island.
In 2005 Tristan got its own postal code TDCU 1ZZ , so Tristanians could order things from outside more easily.
Image text (left)
Sarah van Sonsbeeck on Tristan da Cunha. Left the empty oxygen bottle that is used as a fishing gong, when the men of the island are being called to go fishing. PHOTO'S BY SARAH VAN SONSBEECK