Landscape and Identity

In this part of the website I present an ongoing research into Landscape and Identity. As part of of a research group of the Lectorate Art, Theory and Practice at the Royal Academy of Arts, The Hague.

The outcome should be twofold a theoretical essay and a set of photographs representing this research.

I wish to take you along this proces on this page.

The main question I’m after is.
In which way does our surrounding landscape shape our (individual and) collective identity?

This very broad question I wish to explore focusing on one specific part of the Netherlands, The Gelderse Poort, and one specific element of the landscape, water / rivers.

But to start that of I need to step back first. I will try to define how I approach some of these terms, and where the points of departure are based upon.

Identity is already a very comprehensive term. As I link it to national or collective identities in this research I will for now focus on the idea that Identity is the perception of one self1, and how one self can relate to a collective group. For example, a nation. With which he or she can identify due to common markers in the collective mentality. Which means all the set of ideas, thoughts, behaviors that are standing in high regard within this collective.2

The main reason for me to focus on the way the landscape influences this collective identity is two-fold. I think it may form a basis to maintain and broaden the sense of belonging to a specific place or country,3 and create a sense of community. As the landscape can tell the story of the historical roots of an area where one finds himself within. With the ever-increasing globalization there tends to be a homogenizing influence on local culture.4 Besides positive sides of this phenomenon it may also result in a loss of identity.

Even in our globalized world of cosmopolitan communities, made of transnational people, cultures tend to make roots in and adapt to the particularity of a specific environment and geohistorical context.5

Therefor an effort needs to be made to root local and national identities in the landscape. As the German philosopher Herder pointed out that geography and climate have played a very important role in the habits of different nations/people.6 Recently Auke van der Woud concluded something similar, the landscape decides the way people think and act living in that landscape. A radical transformation of space leads to a cultural transformation. Former habits, former social connections, certainties about live and death, who are deeply rooted, partially unconscious, within the landscape, make place for new [habits etc.]7

Specifically, the influence of the environment on the local and national identity may function as a starting point of intercultural dialogue. And may create a collective narrative for people to identify with. In order to create such a narrative, the environment and landscape needs to be read. You need a common language that that can read the geo-historical context of this environment.
Seeing comes before words, the famous first sentence of John Berger’s Ways of Seeing. But you need to be able to recognize what is shown, or can be seen. A few lines down the essay it becomes in this sense more interesting. But there is also another sense in which seeing comes before words. It is seeing which establishes our place in the surrounding world; we explain that world with words, but the words can never undo the fact that we are surrounded by it.8

We see our surrounding on a daily basis. It shapes the way we see the world. It provides us with that what is familiar, and thus gives us a frame of reference to what is different or new. But The way we see things is affected by what we know or what we believe.9

My main interest is how one’s identity is being shaped through the environment. How you are seeing the world is shaping your actions and behaviors.

Through my work I hope that people, at least some, may look different at their environment, taking a fresh look. Recalibrating the way they are looking. Creating awareness of the ways of seeing, or possible ways of seeing the world. Which in turn may better their life, and everyone’s lives.

Artist Jeroen van Westen gives a great example in this sense, that when looking at a landscape every subtle difference in height may contain meaning. It could be a hidden dyke, a former sand ridge, or the transition of water to land or vice versa.10

In his book Identity Francis Fukuyama points towards a direction of improving the recognition of everyone’s identities. Not strictly bordered by race, ethnicity, or religion, but by the place one is living, as a human being. Through the acceptance, and living by, a (national) credo.11 Not based on ancestry (bloodlines / Jus Sanguinis) but by where one is born or living (Jus Soli).

I wish to propose that with such a conversion, because in many European countries this would mean a conversion of looking at immigrants for example,12 a national identity can forge a stronger society, that people can get rooted within the landscape they are living in. You can be simultaneous rooted in one village, region, country and feel European. How you relate to the world is based upon in which situation you find yourself. Therefor I tend to look at the word Identity from the frame of reference that a national identity should be available for anyone living in a place (Jus Soli), connected to the soil.

But in a broader sense it is probably more hybrid, and a combination of acquiring one’s national identity. It should be part of being rooted in a place. A strong connection to the environment you live in, can root yourself into that environment. Shape this environment and be shaped by it.
In order to connect to a community and place speaking a common language, as noted before, is important. What you see and notice is influence by what you know. My role as an artist is to layout the visual structures of these landscapes.

Creating a coherent story, but also expanding the frame of reference of an area. Being an engaged outsider, not blind to too much familiarity; and being able to look with and without prior knowledge.
How the river Rhine for example has influenced the hinterland. It’s dikes, canals, wetlands, etc. these visual aspects, but also its economy, trades and crafts. Its geography in structures of power. Our ideas of safety.

1 Landscape Identity, Toposmagazine, Topos 92, 2015, ISBN: 978-3-7667-2112-6
Also on other places it is worded in a similar manner. However this was the most precise: When talking about our own identity we mean a permanent and continuously experienced innermost quality; we mean our own self, our perception of me. […] Our identity is fostered by interrelations with the outside world, triggering mental processes.

2 Herman Pleij, Cultuurgeschiedenis van Nederland, een hoorcollege over de geschiedenis van Nederlandse Identiteiten, 2015, ISBN: 9789085308942

3 Unesco: Page visited on November 26th, 2020

4 Unesco: Page visited on November 26th, 2020

5 Unesco: Page visited on November 26th, 2020

6 Francis Fukuyama, Identiteit, Waardigheid, Ressentiment en identiteitspolitiek, Atlas Contact, 2019.
ISBN: 978-90-450-3780-6, Page 85.

7 NRC Handelsblad, 19-11-2020, Zelfs het Poldermodel is een Mythe. (Roughly translated), Bernard Hulsman, on the latest book Het Landschap, De Mensen 1850-1940, Auke van der Woud.

8 John Berger, Ways of Seeing, Penguin Books, ISBN: 0-14-013515-4, Page 7

9 John Berger, Ways of Seeing, Penguin Books, ISBN: 0-14-013515-4, Page 8

10 Tracy Metz, Regionale identiteit. Kunst en ruimtelijke planvorming, NAI/SKOR 2006, ISBN 978-90-5662-537-5

11 Francis Fukuyama, Identiteit, Waardigheid, Ressentiment en identiteitspolitiek, Atlas Contact, 2019.
ISBN: 978-90-450-3780-6, Page 209,210.

12 Francis Fukuyama, Identiteit, Waardigheid, Ressentiment en identiteitspolitiek, Atlas Contact, 2019.
ISBN: 978-90-450-3780-6, Page 211.

Photographs of the first trip, to The Gelderse Poort