Lively in-between

In 2006 Elmo Vermijs (1982) graduated from the Architectural Design department of the Gerrit Rietveld Academy, Amsterdam. After his graduation he developed his own practice at the interface of art, design, architecture and landscape.

Current issues, local context and generating new perspectives through the use of materials are central. Wood is the common thread throughout his projects. In the fall of 2019, he stayed at Residency Aomori Contemporary Art Centre (ACAC), Japan.

As I write this, the coronavirus is spreading, without knowing what the world will look like when this piece is published. What I do know is that this virus is questioning us about who we are and who we want to be. This is a theme I also explored during my residency in Japan, but from the perspective of the forest.

Hidden in the hills, ACAC is located on the outskirts of Aomori.

It is June 2019, on the boat from Terschelling to Harlingen I see an email from Aomori Contemporary Art Centre (ACAC). With restrained excitement I open the mail, this is my last chance (after two previous rejections) to go to Japan. The mail is formal and states that I have been invited for a residency, titled Lively in-between. And that's what it was, a Lively in-between experience. Hidden in the hills, ACAC lies on the outskirts of Aomori. A rebuilding town that had been completely reduced to ashes by an American bombing raid during WWII.

As a little boy in the 80's I grew up with a macrobiotic viewpoint. A way of eating and philosophy of life that came from Japan, via America in Europe and influenced a generation (parents) in the Netherlands who were looking for a new view of humanity. Wednesday afternoons consisted of macrobiotic cooking lessons from my mother together with my friends. The other days after school I did only one thing. Building! In the dustbins of sawmills I searched for wood to build with. Japan was in different ways always nearby.

When I visited an exhibition by Takahiro Iwasaki in the Japanese Pavilion at the 2017 Venice Biennale, I became fascinated by Japan all over again. I knew I had to do something with that. For a few years now, I have also felt the need to go deeper. That need was met in 2018 by the project Groundedwhich questioned the future of the polder on Terschelling. Here I brought up the perspective of the soil. What if the soil would have a voice?

ACAC, is located in the middle of a (planted) forest and consists of a main building in the shape of an arena with exhibition rooms, library, office, café and pond.

In a self-initiated project: StagingwoodThis way of approaching things will be continued in the future. Japan, with 67% of its land surface consisting of forests, seemed to me to be the ideal place to take the first steps in this.

ACAC, is located in the middle of a (planted) forest and consists of a main building in the form of an arena with exhibition spaces, library, office, café and pond. A studio building with wood and print workshop, library, workshop, video and presentation space and a residence building, consisting of ten rooms, shared living room and kitchen.

Upon arrival, director Kaneko-san showed me around and in the evening (far too hot for the time of year) I sipped Japanese whiskey and gazed up at the stars, what a place. The view from my room was grandiose; I looked out over a valley of forests that stretched before me. To capture the next fourteen weeks, I would take a picture of this view every day.

The next day I met Murakami-san, the curator who would supervise my project. She was delighted to meet me, but communicated formally and politely. I didn't get much of her, she seemed to be an introvert. Her English turned out not to be as good as she pretended. In the days that followed I met my fellow residents from Indonesia, India and Japan. Fortunately it clicked immediately. We ate together regularly, asked each other for feedback and had fun together. After the opening, halfway through the residency, we made a trip to the only Buna forest that is on the UNESCO world heritage list. An ancient ecosystem that made a deep impression on me.

After the opening, halfway through the residency, we made a trip to the only Buna forest that is on the UNESCO world heritage list.

My goal for this residency was to research the life cycle of the forest through a philosophical and creative creative process. Beforehand, I had read up on the function of mycelium in the communication between trees, old-growth forests and the Japanese problem of production forests. I started collecting wood in different stages; sawdust, charcoal, ashes and composting wood. I mixed these with water and pounded them into small molds, which immediately produced interesting results. At the same time I discovered the indigenous HibaA special tree species that only grows in this part of the world. The wood does not rot because of antibacterial properties and has been used for centuries to build sacred sites.

In my first weeks, I visited the oldest Hiba tree (800 years) and forests. I interviewed parties around the production, management, history and worship of Hiba trees and its forests. This led to two directions and works in my research; one linear and one cyclical. Residual Landscape in the exhibition space and Compost the Linear in the pond. Both assumed various material stages and would change throughout the exhibition.

I decided to sit differently, now completely with my back to the window, and let the four corners go around faster in my mind until they disappeared via a spiral into the ground.

Before I started working in the exhibition space, I did an exercise to occupy the space. The occasion was a tragic accident a few years earlier in this space in which a Japanese artist died. I sat down in the middle of the room, my back to the window and closed my eyes. I imagined the four corners of the room and tried to make all the energy disappear through a hole in the ground. It didn't work, it was as if someone was standing behind me and tapping on my left shoulder. I decided to sit differently, now with my back completely to the window and let the four corners go around faster in my thoughts until they disappeared via a spiral into the ground. Then in my thoughts I put a sun above the room and asked for a colour, which was green. I filled the space with that and let this colour take the energy of the space outside. Finally in my mind I put a circle of white roses around the space. Slowly I opened my eyes and felt that I could start working. On the last day I would do a similar exercise to give back to the space.

Residual Landscape made with seven residual stages of Hiba that arise from the linear production system of wood processing. With these residual materials, I created a Japanese landscape in which objects that have their origins in the architecture of nature worship are placed.
Upon entering, the overwhelming smell and orange glow of Hiba to the visitor. For the landscape I borrowed 3.5 cubic meters Hiba Sawdust and treated the windows with Hiba Oilwhich created a mystical atmosphere. As a visitor, you were invited to enter the landscape with bare feet.
The surface felt pleasant and the footsteps visibly changed the landscape. Objects (pounded from charcoal, ash, sawdust and dry dust) stood in different places. My point of view was: By placing an architectural object in a place that is venerated, man appropriates it.

Immediately after the opening, things went wrong. Despite clear instructions, deep tracks were made in the sawdust, a harbinger I thought. In advance I had estimated that the Japanese public, given their culture, would treat the work with respect. Nothing turned out to be less true. ACAC did nothing. Within a few days, a number of objects were destroyed. ACAC reported this but would not close the space; they placed signs saying 'maintenance' next to the objects. It led to an impasse. This situation was exemplary for the relations that followed. ACAC did not believe they were responsible for anything. They thought I should fix it without any form of compensation.
I thought we should come to a solution together. The following week I held a meeting with the three curators. After I had repaired the objects and with a clear routing about shared responsibility, the room opened again after more than a week. Fortunately no further damage was caused by the visitor.

By placing an architectural object in a place that is venerated, man appropriates it.

The other thing, Compost the Linear is made of material stages that occur in the cycles of the forest, which I had collected during my fieldwork. At one of the sawmills I found a hollow trunk that had been eaten by insects. This inspired me to make a work that made the influence of the weather visible. I used the hollow tree as a mold, filled it with a mix of different materials and pounded it into a solid mass. The first version, a horizontal one, failed when I tried to remove it from the mould. Yet for the first time I saw the shape language the insects had created, fascinating. Despite the very cold and short days I took the chance. I built a second version, vertical in the pond.

After two days I removed the mould. By now it was getting dark, and the shape was slowly becoming visible. I went for something to eat and when I came back I saw that the object had fallen backwards, disappointed I left. The next day it was lying in the water like a body that had been gaping, 'not bad' I thought.
In the weeks that followed the material and the shape slowly changed to finally disappear under a layer of snow. I imagined a pond with dozens of these logs, visitors on boots with the danger of falling logs. Just as the changing climate is trying to tell us something.

It touched on so many layers, personal, cultural and professional.

The residency was insane, bizarre and amazing at the same time. Things happened that I still, when I think back, can hardly comprehend. It touched so many layers, personal, cultural and professional. A piece of time where worries about everyday things were just an afterthought.

As this text appears, I am publishing an image essay printed with Hiba oil and paper, from my residency. In 2021 I will present during the Ichihara ArtxMix a new work on the Satoyama landscape, Mirror of Soil (postponed by the virus). Japan leaves a deep impression on me. The impact of this trip will probably only start to unfold in the coming years.

Interested in the publication? For more information send an email to

More Columns