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Secret Path Along Which Death Escaped / Ruhezeit Abgelaufen (The time for peace is over)

 

The Vijfhuizen Fort, now the Art Fortress at Vijfhuizen, was built around the turn of the 20th century as part of the Defence Line of Amsterdam that surrounds the Dutch capital. This military system made it possible to flood the countryside surrounding the ring of 45 forts if an enemy attempted to capture the capital. The forts would then control all access roads along the dikes.

The Vijfhuizen Fort itself was built, 'to block and defend access provided by the orbital canal system of the Haarlemmer Lake and its dikes and quaysides, together with the Spieringweg and the western edge of the permanently dry areas of the reclaimed land at Haarlemmer Lake.‘

Any visitor to the fort is bound to be impressed by the sheer starkness and monumental scale of the concrete construction. Everything here suggests a history of conflict and countless deaths in battle. Nothing could be further from the truth, however, because not one of these forts ever saw military conflict, not a single enemy appeared and not a drop of blood was spilt. The arrival of the age of flight coincided with the fort system's construction; its strategic purpose was lost and the forts were rendered militarily obsolete.

The ring of forts was left in peace and in 1996 was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Vijfhuizen Fort became a contemporary art museum. A century ago, it was ‘the enemy' that justified its existence; now it is art that must bear the burden of responsibility for its present and future.

 

This hardy 19th century fort in its romantic setting, with ramparts that never sheltered soldiers from artillery fire now confronts the visitor, paradoxically, with death. Obviously no one fell in battle here and no one was buried at this place. In fact it is this very absence of death that pervaded me with an awareness of its existence. The fort is suffused with death's absence - something that is as remarkable as it is intangible. In this setting, the meaning of death finds a striking parallel in the fort's own unheralded non-existence. Now, recycled as it has been for to serve contemporary sense of meaning, I wondered where death had gone.

 

A few years ago, I was confronted with the efficiency of death. First, at the care home that so quickly and effectively despatched my mother to the afterlife, and then by my encounters that followed with the Dutch economy of death, which will only allow temporary use of a grave, for ten or twenty-year rental periods; eternal rest comes to an early and irrevocable end if you cannot come up with the next instalment. Death, that profound mystery and inexhaustible source of inspiration for life and for art, has become a commodity in a ruthless market economy. Being dead is expensive. So death usually does not last long. ‘Rest In Peace' is not to be taken too literally. Death is no longer one of life's certainties. What will it be like when death ceases to exist altogether? No death is certain. What meaning is held in the moment death ceases to exist? What is the significance of deaths end? It is in the light of thoughts such as these that I embarked on the laying of a secret path along which death escaped

The ramparts that form the external defence of the nineteenth century Art Fort at Vijfhuizen now contains a path made up of hundred and tombstones from exhumed graves - tombstones have a longer life than death. Surviving relatives made the gravestones available for this purpose over the past two years. Each of them had given up their claim to a personal monument so that the stones could be recycled to create a single, large work of art - a work that calls attention not only to death but also to its absence. Countless individual life stories have been fused together into the secret path as a way of giving death a tangible identity. The cemetery is equipped for processing private grief, but my intention was to create some room for death himself.

 

Secret path along which death escaped took over two years to complete and was inaugurated on 10 May 2009. This was marked with an afternoon of events and the opening of an exhibition entitled Ruhezeit Abgelaufen (The time for peace is over)

This title comes from a notice placed on graves in Germany to indicate that the grave rental period is over and that it is time for the departed to depart. The inscription has something almost cheerful about it, as though the occupant's overextended lunch break has ended and an afternoon's work still beckons. It typifies the paradoxical circumstances that beset death nowadays: apparently a point must come when we have to take leave of death.

 

The theme of the opening event was contemporary death. Artists, poets, thinkers, musicians and academics performed and participated at many locations in and around the fort and among the many visitors. Luc Devens sang with huge voice to keep death at bay. While Koos Dalstra used grand gestures and verse to pacify death, elsewhere Raoul Teulings was explaining that philosophy can only describe death obliquely - death cannot be shared. Therefore F.Starik read poems to one person at a time - that listener's back turned towards the poet. Hilary Jefferey slowly walked the secret path, playing a new composition on his trombone with equally slow breaths. Jellie Brouwer interviewed Arpad Nesvadba, the director of Zorgvlied Cemetery, theologist Gurbuz Yalcin, anthropologist Erik Venbrux and the director of Mediamatic, Willem Velthoven about their specific knowledge of contemporary death culture. A week later, on 17 May, Life, The Game was premiered. Hans Venhuizen and Wouter Baars developed this project on life that irrevocably ends in death.

 

The exhibition, which I curated at the request of the Vijfhuizen Art Fortress, included work by Fernando Sánchez Castillo, Paul Haworth, Jack Holden, Hilary Jeffery, Rudy Luijters, Stani Michiels, Mu Xue, Erkka Nissinen, Tommy Olsson, Ronald Ophuis, Berend Strik and Hans Venhuizen. All of them are artists whose paths have crossed mine at some point. Death is not necessarily a specific theme of their work -it is at most an indirect influence. I offer no other explanation for choosing these artists than that their work has brought me face to face with my own - temporary - existence. Perhaps the work of these artists is not about death at all, but about life. After all, it is only in life that death can be experienced, through the art of living.

 

Hans van Houwelingen