Bernice Nauta (NL), Learning to become something, 2021. Photo: Katherina Heil

The hidden hands of collectors haunt the show – on 'The Land of Few and Far Between' at Billytown

Issue no5
okt - nov 2022
Neo-90s

​“Collecting, Gathering, Keeping”: these are the three words used to introduce the groupexhibition currently on view at Billytown. On her visit, Cara Farnan is struck by the array of bodies gathered here: moths, books, twigs, corners and people try to tell their intimate stories. It’s only when talking to curator Kim David Bots that these stories, and the thrill of collecting they exhibit, truly become within reach.

With its wide windows, the vitrine-like space of Billytown acquires every passerby for its depository: a man searches his coat pockets for cigarettes, a teenager kicks a football with a splunk against the window, leaving a round smudge at the point of impact. Like most collected things, neither of them have consented to their presence within the show, and yet they are undeniably a part of it. In the very center of the space is a painting by Arno Westerberg: The most natural thing in the world. A giant white hand caught in an act of picking. It is both solid and spectral as it hovers above a maroon background, only barely marked with hints of what is being reached for. As I watch the people outside, it reaches down from above and plucks me. I am placed among the rest of the works that fill the gallery. If the man with the cigarette were to look up, look in, he would see that the works and I are objects together, side by side.

Curator and artist Kim David Bots, uses just three simple words to introduce The Land of Few and Far Between to the viewer: “Collecting, Gathering, Keeping”. There is no curatorial statement or artist’s bios. Just these words, an excerpt from Gustave Flaubert’s A Simple Life, and the works.

In the very center of the space is a painting by Arno Westerberg: The most natural thing in the world. A giant white hand caught in an act of picking

Arno Westerberg (FI), The most natural thing in the world, 2021. Photo: Katherina Heil

Jiří Kylián (CZ), Silent Cries, NL | 1987 | 13’. Credits: Choreography: Jiři Kylián | Director: Hans Hülscher | Camera: unkown | Production: RM Arts, NOS Music: Claude Debussy | Company: Nederlands Dans Theater I Dancer: Sabine Kupferberg | Lighting: Joop Caboort | Costumes: Jiři Kylián | Decor: Jiři Kylián | Photography: Joris Jan Bos. Photo: Katherina Heil

Collected bodies are present everywhere around me here. Like those passers by, it seems that few have chosen to be gathered up. Behind the glass of a TV screen, and behind glass again, Silent Cries dancer Sabine Kupferberg protests her confinement. Choreographed by Jiří Kylián, she presses, smears, and pushes the vitrine she is placed behind. Back to us, with one foot pressed against it, she laboriously raises wing like arms, then at once takes flight, circling out again and again. Moths flick and flutter, in Thomas Swinkles’ film nocturne, gathered by the light which pulls them, but they do not allow the camera to keep them for long. Running along one wall and off around a corner out of sight stand numerous copies of Het Marshall-plan en U, an illustrated guide produced by Dutch illustrator Jo Spier in 1949. The books on the wall, after years apart, stand side by side comparing how life has changed their skins; ‘nice tan’ one calls to the another who has been discolored by the sun, and ‘some bruise you’ve got yourself there’ to the one ink stained and splotchy.

Many of these works are incredibly intimate, it feels almost voyeuristic to look upon the clock and the bear and the coin and the fossil in Bernice Nauta’s Learning to become something as they learn about the stories that are told about them. How must it feel to find yourself collected and written about like that? It seems as though a body has just vanished from the blue carpet of Kim David Bots’ N.O., and we are catching a glimpse of the discarded clothes and bedroom floor it leaves behind. As songs are sung to camera in Lucia Nimcová and Sholto Dobie’s film Bajka/Tall Tale, we also glimpse lives; domestic interiors and mundane tasks. People sing among piles of plates on kitchen shelves, a woman reaches towards the camera to offer us a bit of apple, another woman gathers piles of pillowy soft fibers into a bag.

Many of these works are incredibly intimate, it feels almost voyeuristic to look upon the bear in Bernice Nauta’s Learning to become something as they learn about the stories that are told about them

Thomas Swinkels (NL), nocturne, 2019. Photo: Katherina Heil

Lucia Nimcová (SK) & Sholto Dobie (UK), Bajka / Tall Tale, 2016, (38:44 min). Director & Camera: Lucia Nimcova. Sound: Sholto Dobie. Produced by sittcomm.sk. Photo: Katherina Heil

But there is also an intimacy to how items are collected, and the hidden hands of collectors haunt the show. I know that there is information that I am missing. I understand the desire to keep these origins tucked away and out of the limelight, by providing very little text to the viewer. But I am desperate for it. I want to know why.

What was it about that cup, or twig or leaf that made Thomas Swinkles reach for it. What did it remind them of, what curve or shape caused them to bend, grab, clasp, bring home. Why did these particular moments in the Notebook series resonate with Paulien Oltheten as she watched back the footage she had obsessively gathered years before? Why these specific works, what brings them together? I feel sure that it must be something a little more personal than just the three words Kim offers us. Without this knowledge I feel uncomfortable, uncertain.

This desire I find myself carrying as the works and I face one another, brings to mind words from Ursula Le Guin’s text, the carrier bag theory of fiction: “If it is a human thing to do to put something you want, because it’s useful, edible, or beautiful, into a bag, or a basket, or a bit of rolled bark or leaf, or a net woven of your own hair, or what have you, and then take it home with you… then I am a human being after all. Fully, freely, gladly, for the first time.” I do not want just to see the abstract white hand, hovering anonymous and bodiless above it all. I want the flesh and skin hand, marked with traces of life, a hand that is human.

On my second visit I meet Kim, and we walk and walk and talk, and he tells stories, and under the stories the show springs to life

Kim David Bots (NL), Scene nr. 7 (border), 2022. Photo: Katherina Heil

Nishiko (JP), Corners removed for ‘To knock the corners off (2011)’, 2014. Photo: Katherina Heil

But I am lucky, because on my second visit I meet Kim, and we walk and walk and talk, and he tells stories, and under the stories the show springs to life. Listening to him talk I can feel his enthusiasm and obsession shimmer and there is an excitement which I wish could have found a place within the show on my first encounter.

There is a friend who works in the archives of the Nederlands Dans Theater, whose stories of storing dance led to Silent Cries being placed here. There is a friend who works in residential mental health care, who uncovers a box of 700 drawings, and a notebook belonging to their draftsman F. van Abeelen, logging how many drawings were made each day. There is a room now long since demolished, and as a result of Nishiko’s obsessive gathering there is an imagined image of a room made only of floating corners. There are photograms we cannot see, negatives of Thomas Swinkle’s instruments of structured miscellany hanging surely on the wall. There is Kim in his grandmother’s home, coming across Het Marshall Plan en U, which sets him off collecting the rest of the copies which line the wall. There are all the moments which came before and after a couple raised their arms to take a selfie. There is a book of carefully cut and pasted images of cars, discovered by Arno Westerberg. In all these stories there is a thrill of discovery, an unexpected find, a moment of resonance. All the thrill of collecting that was just out of reach when I walked around alone.

Paulien Oltheten (NL), Notebook series (Wheel and Walking), 2017- 2020 (left) Notebook series (Selfie Nearby), 2017- 2020 (right). Photo: Katherina Heil

Bernice Nauta (NL), Learning to become something, 2021. Photo: Katherina Heil

To collect something is to tell a story, first to yourself and then to others. The story is the thread that links all the gathered things together. Stories turn individual stars into constellations. “A novel is a medicine bundle, holding things in a particular, powerful relation to one another and to us.” This does not mean that these stories are always true, it is likely I have misremembered parts of the ones I mention here. Nor does this mean that the thing that is collected even consents to being a part of the tale that is being told. Nonetheless stories are there, ingrained in the deeply human acts of gathering, collecting and keeping, and there are times when they need to be acknowledged as the threads that not only allow the works to connect to one another as a collection, but that allow the viewer to connect too.

The exhibition Land of the Few and Far Between is on view at Billytown until the 25th of November

Cara Farnan
is a visual artist and educator

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