*1958 in Nordbrabant, Niederlande
1979/1980 Studium am I.N.O.D.E.P (Paris) Pädagogik für Unterdrückte (of the oppressed)
Er übersiedelte nach dem Studium nach Amsterdam, wo er heute noch zeitweise wohnt und arbeitet. Seit 1983 lebt er immer wieder an ausgewählten Orten, die ihn herausfordern und somit seine künstlerische Arbeit prägen. Seit 1991 beschäftigt er sich neben seiner schreibenden Tätigkeit auch mit visuellen Arbeiten.
Introduction: ‘Windowed Cabinets’ , ‘A Mountain of Light’.
In his childhood he felt that language was the access key to Freedom. ‘Just to feel’ was not enough, the awareness had to be lifted up to a different level. For this purpose he felt that one language in particular – that miraculous instrument in which through words one could lay hand on anything without holding it – was the adequate tool.
He was – in many aspects – an unprivileged child. As a little boy he had that feeling of being misplaced. He lived with the same sun and moon as everybody else, but to him it seemed that his location on earth was an erroneous one. Being an optimist by nature was his luck. For many years he found solace in that single phrase (which he often let echo in his head): ‘in years to come nothing will be the way things are and all things will change for the better…’.
He was incapable of defending himself against mean creatures, infant monsters who bullied him and adults who exercised their power on him to do what they wanted him to do; to believe what they wanted him to believe. He felt defenceless and withdrew himself into all kinds of shells, figuratively and literally, a half voluntary and half forced seclusion to shield himself.
He was that insecure child, with cheeks that turned fire-red when adults would look a bit too long at him, as he instantly got the feeling of being cross-examined, being hauled before a court. He wanted to be ‘good’. He wanted to be loved. He told himself never to use his fists as such physical aggression was an act of incapability of dealing with issues in a civilised way and yet he was a brave and proud kid – in his own understanding of these words – ready to stand up against any person being unfair, ready to revolt against any unjust situation, any injustice of any kind.
He was an ideologist.
…what made him suffer was the notion of not being understood…
I like to believe in a language which is universal and of all times. I have been searching for such a poetry, ever since the very beginning I started dedicating most of my time to writing.
Een Berg van Licht, Dutch for ‘A Mountain of Light’ is a work of critical poetry with it’s deliberately chosen title as cross-reference to both the literary work by that classic Dutch author with almost the same title and the Monte Verità in Ticino. Licht means ’Light’ in Dutch and in Dutch etymology the word is found with an earlier meaning: lucht, which signifies ’sky’.
When I first started to live permanently in Ticino (1992), I occupied a tiny cabin – the lavatoio of Cavergno – in the remote valley called Val Bavona. This dwelling was to become my hermitage for 21 years, until two years ago. I did not speak a single word of Italian and in trying to understand what was going on I was restricted to the reading of the nonverbal communication between people. It was in those early years in the mill-house that I started to think of something to which I would later refer as ‘visual poetry’.
Beeldend dichter (Bildender dichter). In my writings I have always put strong accent on the perception of our surrounding world through the eye. Texts often contain minute descriptions of what I have once seen. Nothing is ‘being invented’. I prefer to restrict myself to factual observations, keeping them in a kind of archive and using them (set loose in completely different contexts).
Writing – to me – is a quest, ever since the very beginning. I am in search of an Ars Poetica, a language, the ultimate way to reflect something that lives deep inside.
Een Berg van Licht is dedicated in memory of Harald Szeemann, a dear friend.
© Kees Hensen, Amsterdam, July 2015.
Kees Hensen and Switzerland.
The text is especially written for the occasion of: ‘Zeitreisen’.
I wanted to experience how farmers live, high up in the Alps, isolated throughout all seasons. I had seen a movie in Amsterdam, featuring the life of those who live at the heights where silence reigns. Especially the landscape sceneries of that motion picture had aroused my curiosity. I wanted to find myself a way into the real world of mountain farmers and volunteered – the same year – as farmhand for the haying season. That was in the summer of 1987. My very first visit to Switzerland.
After having travelled the whole night, agitatedly in an overcrowded sleeping compartment, I arrived early in the morning in Basel. Several times I had to change trains before I arrived at the station from where the travel would continue by post-bus. At that station you had to step down from the high train carriage onto bare soil. There were no platforms at all and the rail-track lay in open terrain. This situation was most uncommon and it felt as if I had been travelling back in time. The weeks to come would emphasise this sensation.
Sitting on the rear seat of the post bus I was anxiously looking out of the window during the dazzling voyage. Besides me there were two other passengers who already got out at the fourth or fifth stop. No other passengers got on board during the trip which lasted almost an hour. I sat there all alone, as if this trip was especially organised for me. The mountain road was narrow and had many curves. Actually, many curves were bridges over streamlets through which light brown water rushed. Out of precaution the driver used the horn every time before turning to a more lengthy part of the road along the slope. Each and every time it was exactly the same tune: two times the same four tones with regular intervals. I could hear how that noise echoed in the valley. I somehow feared that with this blasting noise my arrival was being announced.
Though being exhausted, I got totally excited by how things had taken a turn. My identity papers had been stolen during the night in the train and this strengthened the idea that I was to break laws and regulations. It felt as if I was being taken into another world, a zone that had not been drawn on any map, a forgotten world. I went there as an intruder. Loudly announced though.
At the last stop I got out. There was a post office, part of a group of houses, located around a bridge, built over the main stream of the valley. I noticed how the driver watched me curiously, while carrying big linen sacks into the post office, but he did not ask me anything. At the counter I found the postman, who apparently had been informed about the arrival of a stranger that would come all the way from the Low Countries. He took the phone and after having finished a brief conversation he told me to wait in front of the building. Someone would come and fetch me. Shortly afterwards he closed his office and left in the company of the bus driver. It was almost noon.
There I sat, deadly tired, as I had not slept for thirty six hours, listening to the monotonous streaming of water and – every now and then – the indistinct barking of dogs, in one of the most impressive European landscapes I had ever seen… In the heat of the sun I waited without seeing a single person pass by. I cannot tell for how long.
A roaring sound that slowly increased woke me from my daydream. It made me think that an avalanche would sound like this, were it not that the rattling noise was one with a mechanical repetition. A vehicle stopped at a distance of ten meters. I assumed though that it came for me. I approached the driver, a man in his thirties, who threw open the passenger door. An intense odour, heavy as it was, fell out of the car. At first, I could not even tell if I liked it or not, but in any case, it was far too strong to be pleasant to the nose. I did not yet know that I was going to be dressed by it myself, and that I would carry it as a garment, while returning to the North, four weeks later.
The driver mentioned his name, looked at my arms and hands and that was all. During the whole trip he did not say a word… With caution he drove his car. The engine of the vehicle sounded as if it was about to break down any moment. I was focussed on the huge gap between my feet. I paid little attention to the view, being preoccupied by the sliding road underneath my shoes, as if a film was quickly wound up, far too fast to distinguish the images of the single frames. It felt so unreal.
How long the ride lasted, I can’t tell, but when I got out of that vehicle I faced an astonishing panoramic scene, looking down into a vast valley that stretched itself to the left and to the right, opposite a magnificent hang of a steep mountain. At this height one was lifted into the sky and it felt as if one was being detached from the earth.
In the field, below a wooden house, a group of adults and children – all with pitchforks – worked under a sun that was even more merciless than down in the valley. They continued their labour, undisturbed. Some looked up, but only for an instant.
In their tradition the ancestral house and land is inherited by the youngest son, in order to secure the future of the parents who will continue to work their fields with their children and grandchildren until their last day. It was the youngest son who had come down to fetch me. His father, Joseph, came to greet me and took me inside the house. I told him that I had not slept for one and a half days and that I had decided to come up early, one day in advance, to be completely fit andready for the next morning.
In the beam over the entrance of the door was cut the year in which the house had been built: 1750. I, for my part, could not believe my eyes and recalled a great many stories told about my grandparents and great grandparents, crofters in the southern part of the Low Countries… I knew that I was going to be hosted by the family, with great scepticism. They offered me a bed under their roof and a chair at their table, at their own risk. I was a stranger and for mountain farmers all strangers are seen as a potential danger. I just appeared out of nothing and like that I could – and would – just as well disappear. What could they expect from a city dweller who had come up to them with vague intentions. They certainly had put to themselves so many questions about my motives to work with them as volunteer…
Joseph took me into a very low pitch-dark space, with three tiny windows, where somebody stood bent over a stove, stirring in pots and pans. In that darken and moist space Joseph spoke to her. From their conversation I did understand not even a single word… She ignored me and I was not introduced. During the four weeks to come she would suspiciously keep an eye on me…
(This aged woman seemed to be some dark character from a fairy tale. When I learned that she still owned the knowledge of secret plants and herbs which she collected in the forest, I was not in the least astonished. Her looks and behaviour gave me the idea that this lady was from another era. In the fourth week of my stay, Maria would open – in my presence – the little cabinet centred in the all wooden cupboard, which covered one entire wall of the ‘Stube’, to get out a flacon with dark contents. Shewould prepare me a large glassful with an awful tasting mucous liquid. That drink had a miraculous effect as it ‘cured’ me almost instantly.)
With seven steps Joseph took me into the space directly under the roof. Two beds were standing there opposite each other. A second door led to an even smaller room with a third bed. Those were the bedrooms of the two sons, still living at home. I did not undress, I took off my shoes and fell asleep the moment I lay down.
I woke up with a shock. Something had woken me up violently. I still felt the pressure on my shoulder. When I opened my eyes something withdrew itself half behind the doorpost. I recognised the woman dressed all in black. I had lost all sense of time. Had I slept twenty four hours? I doubted it seriously, as I still felt dreadfully tired. The woman in black started talking. When she realised that I did not understand her speech, she started to gesticulate fiercely. Promptly I sat straight up and looked out of the window. In the field below the house I saw a group of people at work. I figured out that the meal at noon was consumed and all had gone back to work. I wanted to show them (and above all that dark lady with her grim look) that I had come with the best intentions. I know how country people think and feel. So I forgot about next morning and made my way to the field.
I was instructed what to do. Carefully I followed the doings of Thérèse and her four children. Turning long cut grass was going to be my occupation for the next thirty-one days. For the rainy days they had found me something else to do. In an open barn was piled up a colossal heap of woodblocks to be cut in matchwood that would fit in the stove. I guess that they had expected a lazy guy that wanted to fill his hollow stomach with easy earned precious food. I proved to be different.
The existence of those who live high up the Alps is one of great endurance and according to very old traditions. Their labour is tough, which explains why the children in early age develop muscles rather than growing in length. Even cheerful Felix, (who died at very young age) was working three months a year in the fields commuting between where the grass was being cut and the house, supplying all with water or apple cider. With the family I worked four successive summers. Rietmat: swamp terrain. It is after this quality that their land is called, as the earth stays moist because of the melted snow and ice that flows underneath the thin layer of earth over solid rock.
At nine in the evening of that very first day, the work was done. As is their custom: they sat on the field in one row, all men with their binoculars, smoking their pipes, closely observing the neighbouring steep fields below theirs. It is their ceremony, after a long haying day, being both tired and satisfied, to give approval to the hardworking day, before returning home to catch some sleep.
Thomas (he was then ten or eleven years old) sat next to me, silently. I broke that silence and asked him if there were eagles, while pointing at the sunlit summits over Rietmat behind us. He answered my question in his best German and described to me what a chicken-thief is. While portraying this big bird, he used both his arms, something which had caught the attention of his two brothers and sister, who were seated at the other end of the row. The three of them joined us within the shortest time… From that moment on, all four children tried to stay as close to me as possible, whenever they came up to their grandfather’s land (or whenever I went down with their grandfather Joseph and their uncle Martin to the land and farm their father rented since he got married and had moved out).
Those four kids wanted to learn everything about the world from which I came, very curious about all that I was willing to tell. It took the adults (with the exception of Joseph) four weeks to overcome their reticence. None of them talked to me unnecessary. The evening before my day of departure – after I mentioned that I wanted to come back in the following year- their attitude changed… Until that moment none of the adults had shown any particular interest in me… that is at least how it felt…
I am convinced that – if those children (Thomas, Martin, Monica and Felix) would not have been there – I would not have overcome the hardship of the labour and the extreme poor conditions I had to deal with, not to speak of that certain sense of hostility… Their sympathy, interest, curiosity and their desire to share was the initiation of something very special. Thus – then and there – a profound friendship was initiated.
© Kees Hensen, Amsterdam 2015