Straight Line Attempt

F. Maes, 2015

Fifteen years ago, in spring 2000, Griet Dobbels’ 30 Wind Socks were installed for the first time at ten locations along the promenade in Knokke-Heist. Since then, this has been repeated every year, from Easter to the autumn half-term holiday.

In January and February 2015, Griet Dobbels spent three weeks in a flat with a view of the sea in Bray-Dunes, just a few kilometres from De Panne. Emergent (Veurne) invited her there in the context of the group exhibition Positie kiezen (‘Choosing a Position’).

A flat with a view of the sea puts its occupant in a specific position: it literally leaves the inhabited world behind it. Inside the flat all the neighbours cease to exist and a one-to-one relationship is formed between the occupant-viewer and the sea. The window acts as an interface, a vertical projection screen or frontal view that reduces the sky, sea and beach to a series of lines at different heights. The view of the sea presents the promise of a homogeneous surface that also extends endlessly beyond the horizon. The viewer on the other side of the window can survey the sea at a single glance. The ‘pact’ between the individual and the world is sealed in the uninterrupted horizon, which is at the height of the viewer’s eyes.

In Filosofie van het landschap (‘Philosophy of the Landscape’), Ton Lemaire writes that the individual and the horizon made their appearance in Western art at the same time. And that time was in early or proto-modernity, the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, when a new type of relationship between man and the world emerged. In many paintings this took the form of architectural elements. For example, the window played a crucial part in representing the new relations between individual and world, inside and outside, and culture and nature. It was not without reason that the fifteenth-century architect Alberti defined the painting itself as a window. It is on the basis of the window that the individual situated himself outside the world and precisely in this way was able to acquire a certain measure of overview. It was only by taking physical and mental distance from it that one was able to capture the ‘land’ in an image and in that way make it into a ‘landscape’. In the art of both the Italian and Flemish Renaissance, the many interiors that offer a view of the landscape through a window provide evidence of this awareness. By visually isolating a small part of the world and placing oneself outside it, it became the surveyable and measurable object of the individual view. And it was precisely by making the world an object of the viewer’s eye that Western man became an individual subject: an actor capable of bending the world (or part of it) to his will, and who could make a difference to that which existed. But at the same time, this individual of course remained part of an existing world, the world of his immediate impressions and relationships, which he would never ever be able to survey as a whole. Modernity is this straddled state, the separation between these two positions that is impossible to bridge: at all times we find ourselves simultaneously outside the world and part of it. The best proto-modern and modern art has always given expression to this consciousness, from Van Eyck to Picasso, from Rembrandt to Broodthaers.

Griet Dobbels’ oeuvre consists of a constant dialectic between the two positions, sometimes seemingly nonchalant, then apparently obsessive, often childishly simple, simultaneously playful and serious, incisive and light. In a position between these two poles, she never gives the impression of being able to close the gap, of being able to transcend or resolve the antitheses.

During her residence, with her view of the sea, Griet Dobbels systematically used her flat as a modern viewing machine, as a camera. Using washable felt pens in various colours she kept a daily record of the movement of the tides on her window. In this way the lateral movement of the surf was converted into a sequence of horizontal lines, accompanied by a note of the time, which varied only in height. Just before she left, Dobbels transferred these ‘height lines’ to tracing paper. One of the sheets was exhibited, fixed to the wall with tape. The artist did not consider it a problem that it regularly blew up with a rustling sound and after a time was quite creased, on the contrary.

A camera on a tripod stood in her flat throughout her time there. So it was a camera within a camera, a static eye. She often made the camera automatically take long series of photos at regular intervals. She used these pictures to make animated films. In one of them she opted to take up a position beyond the window. At low tide, while the camera was operating automatically, she went down to the beach. Using the point of her shoe, she made several attempts to draw a straight line down as far as the surf, perpendicular to the waterline: Straight Line Attempt. What she herself was unable to check at that moment had in the meantime been recorded unrelentingly by the cyclopic eye of the camera: the degree to which, again and again, she deviated from geometrical correctness, sometimes just a little, sometimes rather more. And the way each attempt was washed away by the indifferent sea. In this way, Dobbels added an appealing, childishly simple episode to a strong tradition, which first appeared in the 1970s when performance artists (including Vito Acconci, Rudolf Schwarzkogler, Ulay & Abramovic and Yoko Ono) presented themselves deliberately as the object of the recently introduced video camera. They pointedly visited the other side of the window, thus provoking the viewer, often in intense, dramatic actions.

During her residence, Dobbels asked herself a fascinating question. Is the fact that the Belgian coast lies more or less in a straight line purely coincidence, a mere chance of nature? After a certain amount of research, she found that this is not the case. It is the result of a dialectic between man and nature. After the Elizabeth Flood of 1404, Margaret of Male, Countess of Flanders, ordered that a dyke should be built to hold back the sea. It is still called the Count Jan Dyke, after Margaret’s son and successor, Jan the Fearless. These sea defences, large parts of which have been preserved and which also survive in street names, lie several kilometres inland from the present coastline and run from Dunkirk to Sas van Gent. The result was that the formation of dunes from the French-Belgian border to the Westerscheldt occurred more or less in a straight line. In the meantime, long stretches of dune have made way for blocks of flats. It is precisely the fact that the Belgian coastline is so straight that reinforces one of the essential functions of the exemplary flat with a view of the sea, which is the one-to-one relationship between its occupant and the sea.

After her stay in the flat, during which she briefly made herself the object of the camera, for the follow-up in June and July 2015 Dobbels changed the positions or relationships between herself, the camera, the coastline and the sea. She went onto the beach once again, but this time with the camera in her hand. It was now no longer herself who was the prey of her photographic eye, but the arrays of flats, the long rows of stacked viewing boxes along the promenade. The direction of movement was now no longer at right-angles to but parallel to the coastline, going eastward in several steps from Dunkirk to Nieuwvliet. The photos were taken in two different ways. No tripod this time. Taking account of the times of low tide, on each occasion Dobbels tried to start two hours in advance, when the beach was already fairly wide. She tried to keep to a straight line, close to the waterline and parallel to the promenade or dunes: Straight Line Attempt (2). Every hundred or two hundred metres she stopped, turned a quarter of a circle so that her back was to the sea, brought the camera to eye-level and took a sharp panoramic photo. The intention was that these photos would ultimately form one long, continuous digital collage of the piece of coastline walked.

After a certain number of kilometres, Dobbels turned round and covered the same distance in the opposite direction, once again as close as possible to the sea. She set her camera to a lower resolution. Retracing her steps, Dobbels held the camera out in front of her more or less at right-angles to the waterline and at navel level. Every other step she took a photo, without looking into the lens. She later made an animated film using these photos. In the jolting rhythm of the image dancing up and down, the viewer can follow what the camera had to endure in the course of the successive walks. The film is a direct record of this, with no additional intervention by the artist.

Things are different in the digital collage. Dobbels was trying to take all the panoramic photos of the coastline in accordance with a number of set parameters. To achieve this she imposed on herself the abovementioned rules. But the weather, the varying width of the beach, or the tailbacks and the search for free parking on the coast in summertime often prevented the strict application of the rules. She only had to stop her journey once because of rain on the lens. The broad beach at De Panne allowed for a much longer distance to the promenade than, for instance, Middelkerke. Dobbels’ attempts to photograph the coastline perfectly horizontally and frontally were also only occasionally able to approach perfection, and at other times failed miserably. When low tide was very early in the day, she had to photograph the buildings along the coastline backlit by the low sun. She then had to overexpose these pictures at home in order to achieve any kind of detail in the result. And of course a low evening sun required another sort of correction. So the resulting digital collage may from a certain distance give the impression of being a perfectly continuous, homogeneous depiction of a coastline, but on closer inspection it displays a great deal of incongruence in terms of perspective, lighting and details. The fact is that this rendering of the coastline shows the circumstances and history of its construction. Dobbels tried as much as possible to keep this line under control in the dialectic between the previously planned rules and the circumstances of each specific moment. Realising that a perfectly constant and static rendering was impossible, she tried to let the line move as she wished.

The digital collage of the coastline is printed on this twenty-part concertina book. When it is unfolded completely, to its length of 4.2 m., the coastline zigzags up and down. This rendering accentuates the fact that it is constructed. When it is stood upright in the form of a concertina, like a sculpture, the viewer, if he finds the right viewing height, can observe the coastline in a straight line.

24 July 2015. Griet Dobbels is walking on the beach at Knokke-Heist. A lively breeze is blowing in her face. She is enjoying the ten groups of three windsocks that try in vain to catch the wind and cheerfully point her in the right direction.

She walks from the channel in Zeebrugge to the one in Cadzand. That’s 24 kilometres there and back. She starts at about 11.30 am. She will walk without interruption until 6 pm, apart from short break to eat, drink and go to the toilet. During the outward journey she will take 201 high-resolution panoramic pictures, and on the return journey 7210 small-format photos for the animated film. From this last figure one can deduce that the return journey will consist of 14,420 steps. The journey will leave her with a blister on her left foot. Which is not too bad, considering the scorching combination of heat, sand and salt water that will attack her skin.

Here and there, one of the windsocks has a smear, a patch or a crease, but she doesn’t mind. On the contrary.


Koksijde, August 2015