Sacred Grounds


Sacred Grounds, Quiet areas in the Netherlands and Flanders.

This series has been made possible through the kind support of Stichting Sem Presser Archief.

The corresponding book has been made possible through the kind support of the Mondriaan Fund

Loek van Vliet, Sacred Grounds – Introduction text of the book, by Maartje van den Heuvel

For his series Sacred Grounds, Loek van Vliet has photographed landscapes in the Netherlands and Flanders, Belgium. He has chosen a specific type of landscape: ‘quiet areas’ – demarcated outdoor spaces where noise restrictions have been instituted by governmental authorities. In terms of our experience of landscape, as well as art that depicts landscape, this series is a sign of the times.

Quiet areas are a relatively new phenomenon in this flat, densely populated, industrialized and urbanized corner of Northern Europe. By the end of the twentieth century, five locations had been designated as such in Belgium. In the Netherlands, 650,000 hectares distributed across various parts of the country were designated as quiet areas in 2002.[1] One underlying reason for the creation of quiet areas that has been cited is the declining number of places for people to enjoy peace and silence as a result of our increasing mobility and ever-expanding building and infrastructure.[2] The accompanying governmental policies view the sounds of flora and fauna as natural and non-invasive, while sounds stemming from air, rail and/or highway transportation, industry, and business are deemed as disturbing (and thereby implicitly labeled as ‘unnatural’).[3]

Interestingly, the definition of a quiet area reveals a shift in attitude towards our surroundings. A quiet area is a space that is environmentally protected, in which ‘the sounds of flora and fauna predominate’.[4] What is intriguing about such a definition of a quiet area is the word ‘predominate’. It appears to express a desire ­– even if only at the local level and concerning nothing more than the realm of what we are able to hear – to negate the predominance of humans and allow nature to preside once again, if only for a moment. In the view of many, it was this human predominance over nature that cast our planet into an ecological crisis in the twentieth century. The influential document that marked this emerging awareness was a report published by the Club of Rome in 1972.[5] Today we see these quiet areas winning terrain, as spots on the map that affirm humanity’s growing desire to bring an end to its own predominance.

Since the Renaissance, the respect for nature in the West has been replaced by a human predominance over nature. How this occurred can be observed in Western literature and landscape art. In his classic book Philosophy of the Landscape, Ton Lemaire describes this as the ‘process of the desacralization of nature’.[6] This book was written in the 1960s ­– a low point in the ecological crisis. According to Lemaire, the crisis in human interaction with nature is reflected in certain forms of photography from this period. As key examples, he cites amateur travel and picture postcard photography. These he believes to be the ultimate expression of humanity’s desire to make nature controllable or manageable.[7] The photo camera, as he puts it, mechanizes ‘our desire to capture the visible reality, and as such, is the extreme consequence of this modern perspective of the world, which hesitantly appears for the first time in the early landscapes of the fifteenth century.’[8] How intriguing it then becomes, when one acknowledges that since the time of Lemaire’s statements about landscape and photography and the findings voiced by the Club of Rome in 1972 with regards to ecological developments, that photographers are the ones to have stood up, and through their work, opened our eyes to a renewed and respectful experience of nature. Loek van Vliet is one photographer who exemplifies this and, especially, with his series Sacred Grounds.

To a degree, Van Vliet builds upon what was accomplished by his predecessors, who brought to our attention the character of the contemporary landscape held in check by humanity. In 1975, the exhibition New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape was held at the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York. American photographers, and the now famous German couple Bernd and Hilla Becher, chose above all to photograph industrialization and urbanization, as well as people’s growing mobility.[9] Essential to the photography shown at this exhibition was that humanity’s influence on the landscape was observed from a neutral perspective, to which the term ‘topographic’ in its title referred. Human influence on landscape was neither criticized nor idealized, but instead documented. Because these photographers had an eye for geometry and systematization in the landscape, a new beauty became simultaneously visible.

Between 1976 and 1997, the Bechers taught a number of photographers at the art academy in Düsseldorf, Germany, including Thomas Struth and Andreas Gursky, who went on to develop this interest in the urbanized and industrialized landscape further.[10] The photos of New Topographics were generally in black-and-white and small-format. The photographers of the ‘Düsseldorfer Photoschule’, by contrast, employed large, tableau-like formats. These works were initially documentary in character. Later, however, images were being digitally manipulated to a greater degree (Andreas Gursky, for example) and constructed into delirious monumental visions of large-scale urbanity. While Van Vliet refrains from going this far, the Düsseldorf photographers may nevertheless be seen as his spiritual predecessors, because they focused on the cultural nature of the man-made landscape.

Closer to home, precursors to Loek van Vliet’s photos are found in the work of Dutch photographers such as Hans Aarsman (specifically with respect to Hollandse taferelen = Dutch Scenes, 1989), Jannes Linders (Landschap in Nederland = Landscape in the Netherlands, 1990), Wout Berger (Giflandschap = Poisoned Landscape, 1992) and Theo Baart (Snelweg = Highways in the Netherlands, 1996; Bouwlust = The Urbanization of a Polder, 1999).[11] They too focused on what humanity was doing to the landscape in the areas of industrialization, urbanization and the growing infrastructure for mobility. The Dutch, however, worked less frequently in the format of the monumental photographic works that were coming out of Germany. Instead, their approach was more narrative, serial-based and documentary in character – with the photobook as well assigned an important role.

Van Vliet, however, is by no means an imitator. In Sacred Grounds, he does not maintain the critical distance with which many documentary photographers have viewed landscape in the past. Nor does he show the means by which our experience as a visitor is guided. At no point, for instance, does he show signs that provide directions or that literally designate ‘quiet areas’. Van Vliet is not simply looking at a landscape as a critical observer, but attempts to visualize how it actually feels to be in that landscape. The photographers mentioned above are known to have photographed in areas of nature on occasion, but when doing so, they either exposed the manipulated vision of the tourist through irony or depicted mankind’s systematizing influence, as encountered in Gursky’s famous Rhein II from 1999.[12] Van Vliet, by contrast, takes nature as found in the quiet areas of the Netherlands and Belgium seriously once again. He allows mankind’s manipulation – which the entire concept of the ‘quiet area’ implies ­– to do its work. Van Vliet tries to give nature a brief opportunity to predominate again and allows it to feel ‘boundless’ within the limits of the demarcated area. He provides an opening to experience the quiet area as a place where nature predominates.

Van Vliet is like a walker in the landscape, who invites the viewer to experience the same. The perspective of the walker is considered important in the new experience of the landscape – a subject that Lemaire addressed in 1997.[13] In the arts, painters, photographers, poets and writers take this position as a starting point for their work.[14] In the United Kingdom, for example, which possesses a rich tradition in walking culture as well as performance art in the landscape, the emphasis is placed on the process of walking. Van Vliet, by contrast, approaches the experience of walking through impressions of still, tableau-like images. In doing so, he remains true to his own well-founded local tradition: landscape painting.[15]

Van Vliet relates to landscape painting in yet another way, thereby giving his work an exceptional contemporaneity. He employs visual means derived from Renaissance painting and Romanticism. From Renaissance painting, he draws upon centralized compositions and atmospheric landscapes photographed from an elevated vantage point. In other images, he emphasizes the mysterious and sublime aspects of nature, from which Romantic painting drew much of its inspiration. Subsequently, Van Vliet crystallizes the experience of these landscapes, by calling the series ‘Sacred Grounds’. His photos communicate a visual language found in painting, but with an added spiritual dimension evoked by the title. All the more remarkable, when the label ‘quiet area’ serves as a continual reminder that this sacredness is nothing but a human construct. With his photos, Van Vliet takes the next step in restoring our respect for nature. What is special is that this occurs with a total acceptance that this nature, and the manner in which we experience it, have been manipulated by humanity.

Maartje van den Heuvel, Art Historian and Curator of Photography Leiden University

[1] These received a ‘quality label Quiet Area’ validated according to established criteria., consulted on 29 October 2014.

[2] Milieucompendium 2004, p. 184.

[3] It is interesting that ‘gebieds-eigen’ (‘area-related’) sounds, produced by e.g. agricultural activity, were excluded. These are therefore implicitly classified as ‘natural’. The discussion concerning what this means for pop concerts quite frequently organized by farmers will not be addressed in this context.

[4] Milieucompendium 2004, Natuur in Cijfers, Den Haag (Centraal Bureau voor de Statistiek, Rijksinstituut voor Volksgezondheid en Milieu en Milieu- en Natuurplanbureau) 2004, p. 185.

[5] Dennis Meadows, Rapport van de Club van Rome: De grenzen aan de groei, Utrecht/Antwerpen (Het Spectrum) 1973 [translation of The Limits to Growth, New York (Universe Books), 1972].

[6] Ton Lemaire, Filosofie van het landschap, Amsterdam (Ambo) 2010 [1970].

[7] Lemaire speaks of a process of illustrating one’s point, ‘that is to say, the visibility of a world that is objectified by the perspective and brought within reach of humanity.’ Lemaire 2010 [1970], p. 51.

[8] Idem p. 52.

[9] William Jenkins, New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape, Rochester (George Eastman House) 1975. This was an important exhibition, where attention was given to mankind’s manipulation of landscape for the first time. During its initial showing, few people attended the exhibition. The principle behind it, however, has gained such momentum that a reconstruction was recently made. This ‘remake’ was also shown at the Netherlands Photo Museum in Rotterdam. See Britt Salvesen and Alison Nordström, New Topographics, Göttingen (Steidl) 2009.

[10] Stefan Gronert, Die Düsseldorfer Photoschule : Photographien 1961-2008, München (Schirmer/Mosel) 2009.

[11] For nineteen artists in photography and video who depict the industrialized and urbanized character of the Dutch landscape, see: Maartje van den Heuvel and Tracy Metz, Nature as Artifice: New Dutch Landscape in Photography and Video Art, Rotterdam (NAi Uitgevers) 2008.

[12] This photo changed ownership in November 2011 for US$ 4,338,500, as the most expensive photo ever sold. Maev Kennedy, ‘Andreas Gursky’s Rhine II photograph sells for $4.3m’, The Guardian, 11 november 2011, section Art & Design,, consulted on 28 July 2015.

[13] Lemaire 2010 [1970] and Ton Lemaire, Wandelenderwijs, Amsterdam (Ambo) 1997.

[14] Walk on, 40 Years of Art Walking from Richard Long to Janet Cardiff, travelling exhibition Northern Gallery for Contemporary Art e.a., 2014

[15] Among the many publications on Dutch landscape painting, Stechow remains a classic: W. Stechow, Dutch Landscape Painting of the Seventeenth Century, London (Phaidon) 1966.