In the fall of 2017, BKinformation draws attention to the possibility of an artist-in-residence near Arles. After applying and unfolding plans, I am notified that I will be welcome in June 2018. The residency is made possible by Arts Atrium in Zurich. Claudia Froelich is the driving force there and is involved with Arts Atrium in terms of policy and organization. She also works as a visual artist. She has always wanted to set up her own artist residency. She found the right place near Arles, about five kilometres southwest of the old town. There she bought the Mas Afficion country house, which she had thoroughly renovated.
The days lie before me, silent and closed like elongated seeds.
It now consists of a private home, and three artist residences: two studios (bright and equipped for clean work), and one bedroom with a separate studio for rougher work. There is a large kitchen for communal use. Around the house are spacious lawns, bordered by olive trees, magnolias and oleanders. There you can work and build: house and garden breathe activity. Kevin Rodgers (Canada), Thea Gregorius (U.S.A.) and I are welcomed in rooms that are still wet from the paint, where the mattresses have just been taken out of the plastic and where the legs have been turned under the tabletops an hour before. On the first day of our stay, all three of us are given a mountain bike (for rent). Claudia guides us in about twenty minutes via the supermarket and the bakery to the historical centre of the city.
The days lie before me, silent and closed as elongated seeds. The immediate surroundings are filled with the chirping of house sparrows, the intense singing of the nightingale and the hooping of the hoopoe. On the worktable lies an unedited text about mourning, 244 pages. My goal is to start transforming that text into poems. I want to make drawings to echo or reinforce the words. Possibly these drawings will in turn generate new words.
First I go exploring, walking every day with a detailed map (1:25,000) in my pocket. I comb the nearby surroundings, and get to know them: quiet, torn asphalt roads, the cart track along the cornfield in which a single sunflower wafts along, dull, new villas, abandoned and broken barns, horses, caravans and a llama at the home of a circus, the small school, overflowing garbage containers, an empty factory site, a mailbox. I see laughing terns above the rice fields and hear cetti singers in the bushes.
The silent isolation increases the concentration. The observations of the surroundings seep into my work, how could it be otherwise.
I keep a diary and paste in the pictures I take along the way of the most diverse eye-catching or not so eye-catching things. Short lines of text catch me up on those photos, as well as fragments from pop music. Eventually, over half a year later (January 2019), this will be my first self-published book: Small walks 1 - 49. The first ten days are over, the temperature is rising, sometimes above 30°C. In the meantime I have also started editing the text on mourning. The silent solitude increases the concentration. The observations in the surroundings seep into my work, how could it be otherwise. Thea, Kevin and I have found a good form for shopping and eating together. Without too many fixed arrangements there is always enough food in the house (from the market in Arles: beautiful tomatoes, ripe apricots, bread) to prepare a simple meal. We eat at the concrete table outside, enjoying in silence, or talking about art.
Kevin regularly goes to Arles, "to drink a glass of wine, and to see what's going on". This way he ends up at concerts and vernissages, which are not mentioned in the official magazines. From Arles he visits Aix-en-Provence, Marseille, Avignon, Saintes-Mariesde-la-Mer, Salin-de-Giraud (salt extraction). It's all easy to do with public transport, despite the strikes. Thea runs a daily round, and works for hours on her minute perforation drawings.
I am pushing my limits. Almost every evening, after a day of writing, reading (Paustovsky, Story of a Life, part 1) and experimenting with watercolour, I ride my bike into the Camargue. It is long light and I follow the bee-eaters that fly in front of me, see black ibises and stilts and catch a glimpse of flamingos. There are many mosquitoes. Goggles and anti-mosquito spray are indispensable. On returning home I sink into the red fatboy (the only frivolity in the Spartan studio) and read what I wrote earlier, add to it, look at the photos and the one-minute films I made that day. Prior to the presentation of the above-mentioned Small walks 1 - 49, I posted a 1-minute observation on YouTube every morning for 49 days: a selection of the films I have been making for years, also during this residency.
You don't have to be religious to be impressed by the devotion.
Cycling in other directions brings me to special places, for example: Mas Vert, a high and architecturally interesting winery from 1920, Pont de Fourques, a suspension bridge from 1830 over the Petit-Rhône, and the bird-rich marsh of Vigueirat. In Saliers I look in vain for the remains of a concentration camp for gipsies, that was there during the Second World War. The gruesome history lies hidden under a rice field. The memorial (from 2006) I find only after the residency, when I have a car at my disposal. It stands on a nondescript spot along the road to Cap d'Agde.
On one of the trips I pass a Benedictine monastery, where about fifteen monks live. I visit a Sunday service in the small church. You do not have to be religious to be impressed by the devotion. In the monastery shop I buy a small madonna with child.
Walking in the immediate surroundings of Mas Afficion, cycling in the wider area, and the stay in that quiet house appear to have a profound effect on the refinement of attention to detail, on the further development of a meditative attitude.
After three weeks Arles comes in sight. This last residency-week I cycle almost every day to the old town, the high bridge over the Rhône is the entrance to the famous Roman buildings, underground passages, cemeteries, museums, Van Gogh highlights. The terrace with the yellow wall behind it really exists, as does the colonnade. Just outside Arles is a replica of the famous drawbridge. It all feels like holy ground. I look and look, drink coffee, listen to the swifts, sit high on the steps outside the amphitheatre and see and hear a gypsy orchestra approaching from a narrow street. There are many tourists in Arles, especially now that the annual photo festival is about to begin.
The museum Fondation Vincent van Gogh has a temporary exhibition of the British artist Paul Nash (1889 - 1946). During the First World War he was appointed war artist. In a letter (1917) from the Western Front in Belgium (Ypres), he writes to his wife about the 'ridiculous, mad incongruity of wild flowers growing and birds singing amid the bomb craters and blasted trees on the battlefield'. In the twenties and thirties Paul Nash visited the south of France several times (including Arles). During the Second World War, the battle is again the subject for impressive paintings (Battle of Britain, Battle of Germany). At the end of his life, he painted sunflowers, including the beautiful Eclipse of the Sunflower.
I walk on the verge, past closed fences with intercoms, every now and then a dull, thumping bass sounds, as if someone is trying out a sound system.
A last evening walk. Today one of the narrow roads has been resurfaced. I walk in the verge, past closed gates with intercoms, now and then a dull, thumping bass sounds, as if someone is trying out a sound system. I turn left, come to an old road and get a better view. In the distance I see how the low sun is reflected in the mirrored aluminium panels of the tower under construction of Luma Arles, a centre for contemporary art and culture, on the edge of the historic town centre. Official opening is in 2020, but there are already many activities. A slow-moving car overtakes me, the woman behind the wheel turns down the window, looks at me suspiciously, and asks, "Cherchez vous quelque chose, êtes-vous une gitane?"
To my right is a cornfield, bordered by cypress trees. A noisy mowing machine follows its trail. Above the machine, the spindly trees and the moving grain, the sky is an intense blue, but I also see pink and green. There are patches of grey and greyish yellow clouds. This is where he must have been, that painter, I realize with unexpected emotion. He had to catch this light and these colours, only in paint, because words are not able to do so.