EMBEDDED IN THE MOOR COLONIES

From 21st of March till 21st of May 2012, visual artist Erik Alkema (Amsterdam) lived and worked in the P.A.I.R, which was placed on a parking lot by Drentse Mondenweg between the villages Nieuw-Buinen and 1e Exloërmond in the province of Drenthe. In the middle of the moor colonies, where in 1901 his grandfather was born as the son of a peat digger and lived the first years of his life in a turf hut, Alkema moved into humble quarters of his own to get to know the people and the stories of the area where his grandfather's cradle stood. With him, Alkema brought his sewing machine and a large stack of fleece fabrics, and during his stay he populated the landscape around him with 50 cm tall puppets. Some were toiling, some were fighting, some were meditating - one of them was even digging up his own roots (in this case: carrots) from the soil of Drenthe. For the final presentation, an large cowboy straddled the concrete sculpture Gebroken Lijn – the neighbour of the P.A.I.R. - as if he was riding his trotting horse across the prairie.

Along with diary-like writings on his weblog, Alkema's puppet characters are the means of conveying the stories about events, concerns and indeed what life is like for the people of the area today. Like a provisional modern-day bard who uses a sewing machine instead of a lute, he installs himself in the midst of the local community, from where he then tells the stories and sings the praise of the area. In the Gaelic tradition, poems were the form in which the bards honoured their clan. Significant ballads were passed down from one generation to another via the talents and practises of successive generations of bards. In this way, the lessons and deeds of the past were related to those of the present so they could be passed into the future. Alkema also provides historic and social commentary through his puppet portrayals, which he creates when inspired; by a chance meeting, a visitor, a local legend or a myth.

He praises the area, but he is at the same time able to reflect upon, question or even critique aspects of life in the villages through the use of puppets. Indeed, using puppets provides the artist with a certain leeway when it comes to portraying or commenting on his surroundings. Puppets cross cultures and can be made to portray various characteristics and different personalities - they can portray any emotion or mental state that their creator wants them to. With a great amount of humour and playfulness, Alkema's puppets correspond with his experiences in and impressions of Nieuw-Buinen and the neighbouring villages, and they take form from the people he meets, and from his own ideas about living in the area in the past and how this past affects present-day life.

Photos of the puppets are presented on the weblog Embedded in the Moor Colonies with rather elusive titles, which leave the puppet and its situation or attire open for the viewer's contemplation. The photos of the puppets and the pieces of text that go along with them complement each other, but a one-to-one interpretation does not always present itself. The photos on the weblog serve as individual works as well as documentation of the actual puppets placed in the landscape as small temporary sculptures, and some of them bear the name “Monument for..” - for example Monument for Them Sand-People, or Them Who Are Able to Believe. Using a substantial word like 'monument' about these relatively small fleece puppets adds a certain amount of self-irony and tongue-in-cheek, which penetrates the entire body of works in this project. The puppets are quirky personalities, portrayals of traits, ideas, patterns of thought and habits rather than portraits of specific people.
The large cowboy with the title OUTLAW - Vrijheidsbeeld voor de Veenkoloniën (Guerilla Sculpture 2012), which appeared overnight for the final presentation, is a tribute to the pioneering spirit and strong will of the peat workers in the moor colonies and a reminder of their heroic efforts.

Traditionally, a puppeteer gives voices to his puppets, but Alkema sets his puppets free to roam the Nieuw-Buinse landscape and invites his viewers to play along and add to the stories with their own experiences or knowledge and impressions of the area and its people.

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The Cowboy pushes back his Stetson and takes a drag on his curly cigarette, before he lifts his gaze to the horizon again. He scans his eyes over the green, straight lined landscape, which seems to stretch on forever, and a smile spreads under his handlebar moustache. He feels comfortably at home.

A cowboy symbolises rugged individualism, a romanticisation of the man who takes risks to achieve his goals and rewards. He symbolises rural life - a rugged, outdoor existence based on strength, relentlessness and an ability to stand up to the vagaries of Nature. The Wild East of Drenthe - the moor colonies - signified frontier country, dangerous and challenging land, where migrant workers travelled to in the hope of making a living with the dirty and backbreakingly hard work it was to dig up peat. Simple farmhands and maids. Seasonal workers. Pioneers and settlers.

“Hello you! Yes, you up there with the hat. You are new here, aren't you?” The Cowboy moves his big head around to see where the voice comes from. Below him in the grass he sees a little man squinting up at him, hands in his sides.“We saw you from the road when we came cycling by. That is my wife over there.” The Cowboy notices another figure on the ground further away, parked with her back towards him. “Well, we will be on our way again. Just wanted to say hello. And see what you were doing up there.” Before the Cowboy can answer him, the little man is back on his bicycle and strides away against the wind together with his wife, who sends the Cowboy a curious look before she determined starts stamping on the pedals.

Flat fields all around, stretches of open land. Straight lines, grass. Land meets sky.
Through the excavation and extraction of peat, this open landscape was created. A man-made pit of exstensive dimensions.

“Uh, hey, what are you doing?” the Cowboy asks bewildered, as a little guy with pointy ears starts peeing against the Gebroken Lijn, the monumental sculpture on which The Cowboy is sitting. A few minutes earlier, the Cowboy had seen the little guy hurry across the parking lot with a desperate look in his eyes. Now he already looks more comfortable. “Oh, excuse me”, says the guy, “I just really had to go.” “But this is a sculpture, you know?”, the Cowboy says, “It was made by Jan Brouwer and Bas Lugthart and placed here in 1989.” The guy with the pointy ears looks up and down the large structure. Then he shrugs: “I don't know. I drive past it almost every day, and to me it's just concrete.”

Open spaces, horizontality, flatness. Overwhelming vastness.
The massive Gebroken Lijn towers over the road like the barrel of a cannon, and the fact that it reaches far up above the ground could make local residents feel at unease. As if it doesn't fit into neither the landscape nor the mentality of the area. Like an obstacle for the eye and the mind. Perhaps that is why some of the locals have never really taken it to heart.

“Ha! Hai-a!” The shrill yelps makes the Cowboy look to the right – and there in the grass he sees a battle taking place; an angry looking guy hurls himself through the air and places a ninja-like kick right in the middle of a windmill. The windmill almost breaks into halves.
“Take that and stay away!”, the ninja says with emphasis, while he wipes his brow. The Cowboy looks at him, questioningly. “Oh, you MUST have heard about that, surely?”, the ninja says agitated -“The windmill parks? The 200 meter tall monsters?!”
The Cowboy has heard about those plans; windmills on private land could be a goldmine for farmers in the moor area. But a lot of people are not happy with the prospects of windmills shooting up around them like oversized mushrooms. “I am not against wind energy,” says the ninja, who has now calmed down. “It's just too much. A wind farm here would turn our beautiful landscape into a noisy industrial space. What would it do to the lives of us living here?”
The ninja shakes his head and looks away. The Cowboy reaches down and picks up the windmill, now rendered harmless.

A unique landscape is one of the qualities that makes up the fabric of a place. Together with the local history it can form the identity of the area. However, when speaking of identity here, there is a distinguishing between between the peat- and the sand villages. The two areas have different stories - villages on the sand existed centuries before the peat area was populated. It is still noticeble today that there is a difference in self-image between those from the peat and those from the sand. There was a separation between the people who already lived there - the sand people in the tree filled villages - and the immigrants, who came to the area to live and work on the peat. Residents of the sand were traditionally more prosperous than those of the peat, which have lead to e.g. differences in education and income. The villages on the sand were pearched on a plateau, and because of the good and fertile ground, they were rich and thriving. Peat had formed over time on the lower-lying flatlands which were covered in swamps. Stretched-out lintdorpen, ribbon villages, originated along the channels on which the peat was freighted away. Today, they stand on sand - the namesake of the villages, the peat, has been gone for more than a century.

A jogger in a black hooded sweatshirt runs by the parking lot. He stops and squints up at the Cowboy. "Have you seen my dog?", he asks. "I was taking it for a run, but then it started chasing a bird across the fields. Now I can't find it." The Cowboy shakes his big head, he hasn't seen any dogs. In a tree on the other side of the field sits a little man, who appears to relax and enjoy the sunny day. "Maybe you can ask that man over there in the tree? He might have seen your dog running by." The jogger looks in the direction the Cowboy is pointing. "Him?! He is one of them sand people!" The Cowboy looks at the man in the tree again, he looks pretty normal to him.
"Well", he says " - his coffee water also boils at 100 degrees, doesn't it?" The jogger in the black sweatshirt looks across the field with doubt in his eyes. "Ha!", he says "- I'm not even sure they DRINK coffee!"

The people of the moor colonies literally transformed the entire area by hand. They drained the land and excavated the peat, and all of this happened with horse and wagon. Thousands of cubic metres of peat were cut, the channels were dug. Imagine the mentality, the strenght of will, the sheer work load of each day, 16 hours a day, 6 days a week during the season. And imagine overcoming all of this. The pride in the history of the area is strong and there is a book published about nearly every village. At the same time, an idea of how things were better before is prevalent, and the feeling of getting a raw deal is making people throw up their hands.

The Cowboy straightens up in his seat and whistles loudly, as if he was whistling for his horse.
"Hey, I want to tell you something - from one cowboy to another. Well, a group of others. Because in fact you're all cowboys. Out here, you carry the Wild East under your vest."
The people who have gathered around the Gebroken Lijn look at each other - there's the guy with the pointy ears, the ninja, the jogger (who has found his dog) and other people from the village.
The Cowboy continues; "Most of the people you descend from may not have been native to this land, but YOU are. This is your open spaces, your horizontality, your flatness. Your overwhelming vastness, your stretches of open land. Your straight lines, your grass, your views of where land meets sky."
He takes a deep breath of fresh air through his nose and his handlebar moustache flutters cheerfully;

"What they did is what they did - what you do is what you do."

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