Prix de Rome 2018

 A Sudden Subsidence

This is my entry for the first round of the Prix de Rome 2018 ‘Low Pressure’. The assignment was to design an intervention in the rural area of Groningen (NL), strengthening the relationship with the changing landscape and its inhabitants.

Discovering the widespread landscape of Groningen by bike, I pass through a small village called Ganzedijk. It has everything that is typical for this region: a repetition of houses neatly aligned to the road, long stripes of fields, a straight canal, big farms and trees that are precisely ordered. Wherever I look, everything is man-made. It all seems very much under control. Leaving the last house behind me, I find myself on a small dike; trees in rows along each side, framing a perspective of an endless line. To the right I see farms, to the left some small forests and never-ending fields stretching all the way to the horizon. Time seems to stand still, the space all-embracing. I feel calm and free.

Then something mysterious happens: the long linear perspective over the dike appears to transform into a reflection. I do not really understand what I see, but the mirrored village seems to crumble behind me, as if it is gradually changing into a ruin. Looking back over my shoulder I reassure myself that nothing bad is happening, and curious to find out if I will manage to pass the reflection, I continue pedaling. Arriving at the end, the reflection reveals itself as a wall. Another wall – looking thick and solid – frames an opening to the right through which I can pursue my route.

Wary I start following the curving path, two tall walls on my sides, not being able to see what I am going to encounter at the end. The wall to my left stops. I am frightened to death. The soil below me seems to collapse and sink into an infinite giant hole. While I step of my bike – I need to stand still for a moment – I notice that I am standing on a wobbling thin slab that floats above the sinking soil. The dike has been pushed away to the opposite side of the circle and the river seems to be pushed towards my side.

What am I to do? The spiraling soil and walls make me feel dizzy. Looking back my view is partially blocked, but what I see is the ruin-like ghost town. Suddenly I realize that I have not seen any people around. I did not pay much attention to it, but the houses were looking in bad states, maybe even abandoned. Looking straight ahead I see the river and fields framed by two walls, to the left an eternal landscape. Attracted by its beauty I continue walking carefully.

An enormous mirror is reflecting the collapsing soil. Walls of different kinds are blocking or confusing my sight. Where the view is unobstructed, there is nothing that would help me estimate the distances around me. I do not see anyone. Nobody can see me. The calmness I felt before has shifted to anxiety. All at once the lost notion of time and the never-ending space make me feel desolate and lonely. Looking through a wall in front of me the silhouette of a village starts to emerge. I only see it vaguely, as if I am imagining an oasis. The wall continues behind the mirror, framing an opening again. Then it stops. Will this be the end?

The dike continues, and the village turns out to be real: Hongerige Wolf. I jump on my bike and speed away to look for anyone. What did I see? Was it an illusion or a vision? I feel confused and alone. Finally I find someone: “Sir, I think the soil is sinking!” I say with a squeaky voice. “That is no news,” the kind man replies, “it has been sinking for years, ever since they started the gas extraction here in Groningen. Enormous cracks run through our houses as a result. Nobody wants to come and live here now. Even our services are moving out. We love this place with its all-encompassing beauty, but it is fragile, and slowly turning into dust.”

I now realize that I had just experienced the underlying tension any inhabitant of this lovely place must feel. The contrast with the ‘high pressure’ Randstad made this area attractive to retreat to in order to live in peace. But its qualities of beauty, space and calmness are shifting to a sense of abandonment, uncertainty, loss of control and solitude. The contrast is becoming even bigger.

maquetteMy 3D-statement visualizes the sinking soil in this area of Groningen. The infinite mud hole breaks through the dike, which stands for control and order. Together with walls that isolate and confuse, it makes the passer-by aware of what is going on. It makes the feelings of inhabitants tangible. The dike as well as the river seems to be pushed aside by the power of the earth collapsing. The rough surface of the landscape conveys this strength. The trees are made to look fragile in contrast with the land, and the houses create the impression of order by their repetition. By flipping up the sides of the box, an abstraction of the effect caused by the different walls can be experienced.