Margriet Craens SRV#7, photo's: Heleen Haijtema 

'I look at cheese holes as kind of a universe’ – visiting Margriet Craens on her residency in Friesland

Issue no5
okt-nov 2021
Fluïditeit

Margriet Craens is an artist and writer who likes to challenge our common assumptions about art, food, design and culture. Currently, she resides in a camper van in Friesland, researching the most well known product of Dutch culture: cheese. We caught a moment with her to talk about her residency.

In the middle of the city Leeuwarden, a blue-white van stands quietly alongside the canal. From outside, it seems to be a snack bar on wheels, but the table and chairs disclose that it is someone’s camper van. People are looking at it with curiosity, trying to glance inside. You can pick up the persistent scent of the cheese, milk, and sheep in the air.

“When they called me about this project, I was just starting to make cheese by myself at home. So, that was the first starting point. Firstly, I just had the idea that I wanted to do something with cheese and Friesland, but I live in Eindhoven and had never really been to Friesland”, admits artist and writer Margriet Craens, who has always had an interest in food, design and culture. She explains that her initial thought was to make a cheese factory in the van, but because she was still a beginner in cheese-making, she decided to first focus on researching the topic. She was invited Voorheen De Gemeente, an art-initiative based in Leeuwarden, to come up with an idea for the project.

As part of her residency at VHDG, Margriet embarked on an adventure with a van around Friesland, discovering the cheese production and the culture of this product

Margriet Craens' van, photo: Maia Paduraru

Margriet Craens' van, photo: Maia Paduraru

As part of her residency at VHDG, Margriet embarked on an adventure with the van around Friesland, discovering the cheese production and the culture of this product. Over the last month, she has been talking to farmers, cheese lovers and cheese haters, and has even started to predict the future of the cheese. Margriet: “I feel like I'm constantly driving through this production landscape of the cheese. I'm mostly in the rural areas because I cannot drive on the highway with this van ­– it can only go 30 kilometers per hour.”

A couple of plants in the passenger’s seat accompany her during her expeditions. A poster of her project is hanging above the table. It depicts the artist as a sort of a “Petit Prince”, traveling to discover the Frisian cheese in this case. The van is the place where Margriet has been living for the last six weeks – it has become both her living space and art studio. The space consists mostly of a bed and an improvised kitchen. A board is pinned with photos and notes. The van helped to immerse herself fully in her creative endeavors, Margriet explains. Funnily, the van was originally used by a milkman, who used to bring fresh milk to the people in the villages back in the old days. Later, during the 1970s, the vehicle served as a supermarket on wheels.

Margriet Craens in her van, photo: Noorderblik

Margriet Craens in her van, photo: Noorderblik

One of Margriet’s intentions was to understand the farmer’s views on environmental policies that have been, or will be, implemented by the Dutch government. Margriet: “I noticed when I talked to the farmers and the cheesemakers, that current climate regulations are quite a hot topic. They are giving them a really hard time to keep on doing what they do, to keep on running their businesses...I'm curious to hear more about their experiences, because I think that media-coverage often represents these farmers differently than they would themselves. The reality is way more nuanced than what we read in the newspaper. All of them have their own story. But you cannot get the farmer out of the farm. This is really what they do, and with a lot of passion. The idea that they would ever do something else in their life is just a weird plan for them, you know, this is really their DNA.”

Determined to consider ‘the future of cheese’ in a non-political or scientific way as well, Margriet’s residency flips the subject from cheese production to spirituality, introducing the element of ‘the unexpected’ to counter our dominant desire towards the rationalistic and scientific explanation of the future.

Determined to consider ‘the future of cheese’ in a non-political or scientific way as well, Margriet’s residency flips the subject from cheese production to spirituality

“I look at the holes as kind of a universe”, Margriet humorously explains while looking at a piece of cheese. ‘‘I think it's funny to focus on what is not there, the holes and their structures, instead of on the cheese itself.” With the help of a book on I Ching divination, a popular form of ancient Chinese forecasting, Margriet analyses the patterns of the holes in the cheese to predict the future. Her I-Ching predictions call for harmony between what we produce and consume, so that the existence of cheese in the future can be safeguarded.

Margriet Craens, work-in-progress

Margriet Craens' van, photo: Maia Paduraru 

She explains that there already exists a form of magical divination which uses cheeses, called ‘‘tyromancy’’. It was used in the Middle Ages to predict the future by looking at the shadow of melted fondue cheese for instance, or by looking at the kinds of smells and molds produced by the cheese. Margriet managed to perform this practice in an art event at SYB - the third Triennial of Beetsterzwaag in Friesland. At the event, Margriet once again noticed the widening gap between the farmers’ ongoing passion for their business and today’s generation of vegans: ‘Some people in the audience speculated that consuming milk should become a ‘taboo’, like smoking cigarettes is these days.’

‘‘Tyromancy’’was used in the Middle Ages to predict the future by looking at the shadow of melted fondue cheese

Margriet Craens in her van, photo: Noorderblik

Margriet admits that it has been quite a challenge to work in an area that she is not familiar with: “This residency has been a very confusing trip for myself so far. The world of milk, cheese and farming is already really big, and then I was also trying to connect it to another huge field: spirituality, which I didn’t know much about either.” Moreover, even though she worked with the theme of food before, this was the first time that food became the actual the material of her project. Besides visiting farms, she has been busy photographing different cheese slices, and is still thinking about the present the results in the exhibition that opens at VHDG on the 12th of November. Margriet: “How to tell a story that involves all the things I have researches so far: I'm still chewing on that. I’m like a cow that has to chew two to four times, and I think I'm in the third stomach.”

The exhibition that follows up on Margriet's residency will open November 12th, at VHDG.

Maia Paduraru
studies journalism at the University of Groningen

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