Artist Guido van der Werve (1977) can make beautiful and very complicated films to begin with. He can write and play the piano at a high level. He can compose and orchestrate. He is also good at chess and skiing and he is an exceptional triathlete. You say the latter, cultural man, maybe nothing, maybe you even have a brother dead from sports, but then you’re wrong, because Van der Werve’s athletic endurance – running, cycling and swimming over very long distances – is seamlessly linked to his artistry. . Movement, Displacement, Effort, Progress: Beethoven, Coleridge or Richard Long, they would have understood right away.
Van der Werve made seventeen films so far is an eighteenth in production. All the talents are expressed in it. E.g: number twelve, a forty-minute masterpiece entitled: Shaking piano concerto in three movements: the king’s gambit accepted, the number of stars in the sky, waiting for an earthquake† Van der Werve sees a similarity between chess and musical composition. He builds a chessboard, which is also a kind of piano. He learns to orchestrate and writes a composition for string orchestra, based on the movements of that chessboard in the king’s gambit. Each move has its own pace and charge – offensive, defensive, wait-and-see – and Van der Werve translates that dynamic into the composition.
The first part of the film shows him playing chess on the chess piano in the hall of the Marshall Chess Club on West 10th Street, Manhattan, against Grandmaster Leonid Yudasin, while the orchestra plays and the club members quietly play their own games. . Then suddenly the artist finds himself in a cabin in the haunted, dramatic Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument Park. He thinks about the amount of stars in the universe. He whizzes through the landscape. In the third part, Van der Werve is in another hut on a desert site, right on the San Andreas Fault. In anticipation of an earthquake, he ponders Pythagoras, who claimed that the planets move in accordance with mathematical laws and create an inaudible symphony in the universe. Meanwhile, you hear the tones of his shackles.
Etc. In the movie Number 13 Van der Werve from New York goes to Rachmaninov’s grave and then records a twelve-hour marathon, which he runs in the garden around his home in Finland. IN Number 14 he walks, bikes and swims from Chopin’s tomb in Paris to the place in Warsaw where his heart is buried. Seventeen hundred miles. He swims across all rivers. The twelve sections of the journey follow the construction of a requiem composed by Van der Werve himself.
It’s actually some nonsense to explain here how those movies are. No one is going to see the 12-hour marathon movie in its entirety; after all, there is only the Finnish house to be seen when the sun goes down, and once in a while the trudging runner comes by. No one can count the stars in the universe. The earthquake does not occur. But: those movies are cinematographically beautiful to begin with. The atmosphere is moody, calm. The music is beautiful. And: the whole thing is not that heavy. Van der Werve even has a slightly comical appearance. You marvel at the craftsmanship, the virtuosity and the absurd effort, but you smile. Barbara London, video curator at MoMA, compared Van der Werve to Buster Keaton.
Van der Werve’s ‘peripatetic’ art, his sense of displacement, I find classical and romantic in the broadest sense of the 18th or 19th century. High-minded, deeply personal, heavy in ambition, but cheerful in mind, and in direct contact with the planet. Not overly sweet, no fainting on the Drachenfels, but walking on the ground in Papendrecht, interested in how to understand what passes you by in life – reality, time, emotion, history – through movement, as on a journey or a pilgrimage.
Those who went out into nature two hundred years ago could not escape thoughts of the insignificance and temporality of human experience. You could draw a line in the grass, move a rock in a river, whatever. Obelisk blows, footsteps fade. But in the meantime, that experience was quite inspiring and, if you had the talent and energy for it, fruitful.
‘As for me, I do not travel to go somewhere, but to go. I travel for the journey itself ‘
Beethoven was therefore reportedly an avid hiker. Logically: there was still no train, no mountain bike, one did not sit in a rattling carriage for pleasure. While on holiday in Heiligenstadt, he went for long walks alone. We know how it went. You walk out of the dusty city. It is early. You breathe in the fresh air. You choose a path and put the passport in it, you want to stay away all day. Along the way, you eat a sandwich and buy a glass of milk on a farm. You see the green fields, you find shade in an oak grove, you doze by a stream, always by a stream. It’s starting to rain, it’s even thundering for a while, but it clears up again. A hearty meal at the inn on the way back, humming along with the bagpipe, maybe even a little flirtation with the innkeeper’s daughter, and then back through the gate just before dark, exhausted but refreshed.
We know this because Beethoven turned it into a symphony (the sixth). It was not a pure nature experience, not a direct translation from foliage to instrumentation, but an allegory on the evolution of a life, progress of the pilgrim. He had borrowed the whole idea from Musical portrait of nature or grand symphony by Justin Heinrich Knecht (1752-1817) from 1784, but that aside. Walking was the key. All the romantics were walkers, and that walk was no small thing, not a walk around the pond with the dog or a stretch on the beach between mulled wine and hot chocolate. The Romantics set the pace and ‘wandered’ eight, ten, twelve hours in a row. Then people were still in shape.
The legendary cinema Richard Holmes experienced how strong that relationship was when he literally followed in the footsteps of Stevenson, Coleridge, Shelley and Mary Wollstonecraft. Coleridge, for example, proved to have covered enormous distances in one day; it dawned on Holmes that there must be some relationship between the dazzling tempo and the rhythm of the poems. The endurance of the poet-athlete was an integral part of his work. Not only did the mental impression of a landscape or a thunderstorm mean physical activity was also important for understanding the world.
Is the work of Guido van der Werve as interesting and as longing and as lively and as infectious as Beethoven’s sixth? Yes. He takes an idea, no matter how junk, and executes it. Is it possible to walk across the ice in front of an icebreaker? Is it possible to travel seven miles and forty feet in a full bath as it was to the bottom of the deepest sea trough? Is it possible to climb 8848 meters in your bedroom, meter after meter, to the top of Everest? There can.
The most insane example is the movie Number nine: The day I did not turn with the world† In April 2007, Van der Werve withdrew from reversing with the Earth’s rotation for 24 hours. This is only possible in two places: the South Pole and the North Pole. On the last pole, Van der Werve stood in one place for 24 hours, facing the rotation.
The scientific side of it, the fascination of where exactly you are on the planet, is also so nineteenth century, so typically Jules Verne. Many of the journeys and studies in his long books revolve around a similar obsession with geographical positioning. IN Travel around the worldld about eighty days Phileas Fogg is wrong in a day: he had crossed the date line in the opposite direction. Professor Lidenbrock crashes into a volcano in Iceland and comes up on Stromboli, annoyed that he can not explain it: how could his compass fool him like that? Captain Grant’s children are looking for their father, who was wrecked somewhere on the planet, but they only know the latitude. There is nothing for it but to travel the entire southern 37th parallel around the world. We wonder, in our armchair; Van der Werve will go after it.
Richard Holmes followed Stevensons Traveling with a donkey in the Cevennes (1879) step by step (but without easel, Stevenson’s idiosyncratic Modestine). Holmes acknowledged in Stevenson the need for ‘inland shipwrecks’, the ‘drowned man on land’ who will get lost in finding himself through it. “Real travel,” Holmes wrote, “has at least as much to do with disorientation as with distance. The traveler surrenders to the womb of the gods to find out what can happen now.”
Stevenson also wrote that his hike had no purpose: ‘As for me, I do not go on a journey to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for the journey itself. The big task is to be on the move, to experience the needs and problems of our lives more closely, to get rid of the thick spring mattress called civilization and find under your feet the granite globe, covered with razor-sharp pieces of flint. ‘
Guido van der Werve: Tangible uselessness. Eye Film Museum, Amsterdam, until 29 May