Story from Issue 14
Seeing his spritely eyes and long white beard, it’s easy to imagine artist herman de vries as a mythical creature frolicking through the primeval forest. The octogenarian often wanders through the vast Steigerwald forest near the former school building he and his wife Susanne have lived in since 1990, leaving traces in the form of short poems or questions carved into rocks, or sometimes doffing his clothing and walking au naturel. He’s delightfully eccentric in many ways, like never using capital letters in his own writing and name (he doesn’t like hierarchies, he says), and playing with words and syllables in his speech. And nature, especially vegetation and earth, has been his artistic medium for decades.
In the 1950s, Dutch-born de vries began working as a scientist exploring ideas of chaos theory and randomness.Later, as an artist, he was categorised as part of the ZeroGroup—a multinational and loosely affiliated art movement focused on “pure objectivity” that was active from the mid-50s to the mid-60s. While de vries always played with the intricacies of language, his early works consisted of abstract paintings and geometric studies, which soon turned to collages of found materials, often trash. He explored the blankness of white in monochromatic textile collages, paintings and nearly wordless artist books. And by the mid-70s he had fully turned to nature in his art, and began using earth, leaves, wood, stone and many other found materials in his visual works.
In an era in which the danger of humanity losing nature’s bounty is on our collective minds, de vries’ body of work is remarkably relevant. In 2015 he represented theNetherlands at the Venice Biennale, showing a retrospective of earth works in a contribution titled to be all ways to be, which filled the Gerrit Rietveld-designed pavilion with old and new earth rubbings, long tableaus of vegetation as art material, drawings, word pieces and even rosebuds on the floor. As part of this exhibition, he also used an abandoned Venetian island (once used for quarantining victims of the Plague) to show how nature can reclaim man’s interventions. This year, the nearly 88-year-old artist has four major exhibitions, one of them at the Stedelijk Museum in his hometown of Alkmaar.
I meet him at his home in Eschenau, a tiny village of around 200 people in the rolling hills, forests and fields of northern Bavaria, Germany. In the nearby town of Haßfurt, as I fumble for the address, I ask a lonely cab driver fort he “artist in Eschenau.” He knows exactly whom I mean and where to take me. Arriving, I ring a strange door bell involving a violin (an artwork by Fluxus artist Joe Jones) and am greeted by de vries, Susanne and a friendly cat. After a tour of some older artworks made of leaves and rubbed earth and collections of natural materials, we settle in to talk. He speaks in a lilting, Dutch-inflected German peppered with English, while Susanne occasion-ally jumps in to add detail or crosscheck memory. After the talk we go into a barn behind the house and see his newer works: collections of stones, large stalks of grass pressed singly into elongated vertical frames and a large canvas on which he’s repeatedly written the word “all” using a burnt piece of wood.
KIMBERLY BRADLEY How did you start using nature as artistic material?
HERMAN DE VRIES i started with art in 1953. i worked for a year and a half in the plant protection service but i found the work unsatisfying, and science, an incomplete approach to reality. so, i started drawing and making in-formal paintings. then i tried to remove colour. at the time, i was studying zen buddhism and making white collages and paintings. the white image was an attempt to get to the empty. the images i originally made were colourful and i painted spontaneously, but i can’t really paint well [laughs] nor draw well.
i worked on an experiment with caterpillars in 750 marmalade jars under a roof in the garden to see how their environment influenced them. i randomly distributed the experiment series and gave each a colour to easily find them.a colourful, random pattern emerged. i saw this as a method i could use in my visual artwork and made patterns with fisher and yates statistical tables for biological, agricultural and medical research. they became more and more complicated, but were not complicated enough. i missed the third dimension—space and development in time.
[susanne interjects] At some point, we began seeing random patterns in nature.
we were sitting inside having dinner and i realised that nature is also a programmed coincidence. we started to record coincidences in nature. the first was the series 1, 2 en 3 uur onder mijn appelboom (1975). we put paper under an apple tree and leaves fell on it—that became the work.that was the beginning. I saw that every leaf of the tree hada slightly different shape. in that time, i went to the hedges and plucked leaves from six different trees. six pictures emerged from this with the title physics and metaphysics are one. what did i see? reality and randomness.
[susanne] From randomness to reality. He wanted to break through to reality—it’s perfectly present in nature.
i was dealing with randomness programs and they became more and more complicated. but in general, i documented reality—leaves that had fallen, leaves i had picked. i made works with vegetation and then with earth that i’d collected. i’d rub the earth out into colour rubbings, like pigments, but it was still earth.
KIMBERLY Their colours are so varied. Where do you get this soil and other materials?
HERMAN i collect them myself, but people also send me soil samples from all over. a friend often goes to the island of siros in greece. i also have soil from the area north of siberia. another woman who went to tibet got me some soil from mount kailash, which is wonderful.
KIMBERLY I read that you walk in the forest behind your house every day, collecting natural materials and also...simply walking, sometimes very far.
HERMAN yes. six to seven days a week i walk one hour or a little more. i can’t walk long distances anymore, i’ll do about one kilometre. i record each route on a topographical map with red lines. i’ve been doing this for a long time, and this year, i’d like to publish these maps as an atlas.
KIMBERLY For whom do you work?
HERMAN i work for myself. but my work is incomplete when there’s no audience. speaking of audience, i notice that nowadays people overlook nature. i was talking to a biologist about collecting earth and he said “it’s all brown.” this was a field biologist. when he came to an exhibition of mine and looked at the works, he was astonished to see how many colours were in the earth. as a biologist he simply overlooked this, it wasn’t in focus. bu tart opened his eyes and gave a little colour to his life.
the chance in the change is the change in the chance
KIMBERLY You’ve been here since 1970. How did you get here from the Netherlands?
HERMAN it was random chance! i was living in holland, but people live on top of each other there and i needed to be more independent, so i planned on going to ireland. a couple of rock musician friends wanted to travel for a year and then come back and settle in this region. we’d done lsd together and that connects you, you know? i came hereon the way to ireland and i took a long walk through the woods. i saw how this village is so close to the forest and i thought, that’s it. there stood a farmwoman. I stopped and asked her if there was an apartment for rent. and there was. the next day i rented the apartment and three weeks later i moved. i stayed here and moved from house to house until i had the biggest house in the village. i also lived in the smallest house
KIMBERLY Younger artists today probably couldn’t do this. They depend more on cities, and networks function differently.
HERMAN we were always lucky. i never chased after anything and i was always a little independent. i had a good vegetable garden, so i could also take care of myself.
KIMBERLY But the artworks—there were always galleries that represented you and kept your connection to the art world, right?
HERMAN yes. farmers don’t buy my art.
KIMBERLY So, you were established when you got here.
HERMAN [hesitates]... yes. by the way, if the farmwoman hadn’t been standing there or if one of us had been there a little earlier or later, none of this would have happened. i would have gone further to ireland. so much of my work is about coincidence—chance and change. chance... if something changes, you have a new opportunity, otherwise you have homeostasis. there’s a chance in the change. but there’s also a change in the chance. [almost chanting]... the chance in the change is the change in the chance... and then when you go to another place, there’s another chance-field. there are other problems and other points of entry and exit. there are possibilities — but in reality, they are infinite.
KIMBERLY Your artworks are complex and simple at the same time.
HERMAN [Susanne speaks] It’s very simple and so many people try to intellectualise it. They don’t understand it...you understand it if you look at it. What is shown is simply, life.yes. [laughs] it’s fun for me. a few years ago i had an idea and susanne asked me, “is that really necessary for you?” that means the idea wasn’t simple enough. i often try to understand everything about a certain something, but in the end, the result is very simple. you don’t often see the background in the artwork, like the library upstairs that i use.
KIMBERLY Shall we go to the library? [We slowly head upstairs. Bookshelves and ephemera like Moroccan drums line the staircase walls. A cat sways underfoot. Upstairs, in one book-lined room, are some desks for de vries’s assistants. Another room contains stacked shelves of thousands of books with titles like Hexen (Witches), Flora of India or Deciphering the Chemical Language of Plants. We discuss how Aldous Huxley analysed the effects of cacti and look at books on Vedantic philosophy. I ask him if he has any Carlos Castaneda books— he does. He has books on remote regions where he’s travelled—Morocco, India and Nepal, the 60’s hippie trails. He shows me his early artist books like chance-fields, a visual essay on the topology of randomness. Another, being this joy experience unity, is more recent. It shows a series of photographs in which he walked in the woods beyond the house for three days with two young curators. Everyone was naked, dipping into streams, sleeping outdoors, sitting and talking. I see books on religions like Buddhism and Taoism, and books on various mood-altering plants, hallucinogens and drugs.]
HERMAN i have the second-largest library of books on drugs in germany [herman says proudly].
KIMBERLY Are you religious?
HERMAN if i had to provide a religion, i’d say i’m taoist or hindu. but i have no religion—except for what’s out-side and my connection to it. religion comes from religare—latin for what connects or binds. that’s what lsd did tome. i was reconnected...unity.
humanity fades and nature will return
KIMBERLY You mentioned that you took lsd.
HERMAN yes. lsd allows you to perceive things that you otherwise can’t perceive in your programmed existence. you’re like a small child looking into the world. lsd allows new chance-fields to emerge. new realities.
KIMBERLY What is reality, really?
HERMAN it’s an active process. wahrnehmen (perception) means “taking truth” and it has to do with how you’re conditioned. i was conditioned in nature. i was lucky in that my parents always liked to go into nature. we’d go into dune valleys where there was moist moss and little plants with white blossoms called grass-of-parnassus or even a fly-catching plant called drosera that would grow in the moss. i thought this was wonderful as a child. i would lie down in this moss and the seagulls flew over me. these impressions stayed with me.
KIMBERLY Maybe that’s why you walk in the forest so much. Is it a kind of meditation?
herman i like being there, i have to be there. i have days in which i’m not doing well but i always walk to stay moving. what i see there is always different. if i didn’t have this forest, i’d be a different person.
KIMBERLY You dive deep into nature but your work always focuses on plants, not animals.
HERMAN plants are the basis of life. even carnivores live from plants. the predatory animals live from plants. a lion can’t live without the other plant-eating animals.[pause] do you want to know about the wordzufall? how do you translate this?
KIMBERLY “Coincidence” usually, but also “chaos” or “chance” or even “accident.” It’s one of those tricky words!
HERMAN meister eckhardt talked about coincidence. zuoval in old german (zu= to; fall= fall). it’s what falls to you, right? for me, zufall means we cannot trace happenings back in time and find out how and why things occurred the way they did. but there are gaps. zufall is a word for what we can’t explain within our processes. it’s a space of incompetence in our perceptive capacities. we don’t know where something comes from. going back to. the farmwoman again, if she hadn’t been there i would have gone somewhere else, not here. i don’t know why she was standing there. i also don’t know why i went there, exactly then. it could have been a little later, or earlier. i don’t know. this inability to track causality back intime is zufall.
KIMBERLY How does Zufall work in nature?
HERMAN [Susanne states] Exactly like everywhere else. You can’t trace things back. [herman smiles] there’s no such thing as zufall.
KIMBERLY No such thing? Are you two messing with me?
HERMAN [laughter] ... no, the word really describes an occurrence we can’t access. it’s a story about causality.
KIMBERLY May I ask one more question, which is politically related to causalities? How do you feel about climate change? Do you think about it at all?
HERMAN if humanity goes extinct, the cities and villages will be empty and central europe will again be covered by forests. life goes on, even if people die out. i actually find the idea reassuring. humanity fades and nature will return. §