Inertia and the power of one human being

What does it mean to be part of nature? And is it possible to escape this? These were the questions I was left pondering after seeing the exhibition Palpable Futility by artist Guido van der Werve in Eye Filmmuseum. His films often contain overwhelming images of nature. They remind us of humanity’s insignificance and our problematic relationship with the natural world. Van der Werve gives us a push in the direction in which the human race needs to travel. But can we overcome our collective inertia and change course?

Guido van der Werve stands in a frosty white landscape, warmly wrapped from head to toe. In a series of speeded-up photos, we watch him slowly revolve around his own axis. The work Nummer negen: the day I didn’t turn with the world is a time-lapse sequence lasting more than eight minutes in which Van der Werve stands at the Geographic North Pole for 24 hours and revolves in the opposite direction from the rotation of the earth. We can see time passing by his shadow, which moves around him like the pointer on a sundial and which remains visible for almost the entirety of the film, as it never gets completely dark here. The world spins on its axis during 24 hours, but Van der Werve doesn’t turn with it. Thanks to a supreme physical effort, the artist was able to escape from the rotation of the earth for a whole day.

Guido van der Werve, Nummer negen, the day I didn’t turn with the world, 2007, courtesy the artist and GRIMM Amsterdam | New York
Guido van der Werve, Nummer negen, the day I didn’t turn with the world, 2007, courtesy the artist and GRIMM Amsterdam | New York

Devastating machine

The relationship between him – as a human – and nature is also present in his other films. The artist can often be seen surrounded by stunning, vast landscapes marked by snow, mountains, woods or water. Landscapes reminiscent of how nature was depicted during the Romantic era: as an overwhelming, sublime environment of which humanity is just a tiny part. This impression of nature as ‘real’ and raw, where the influence of humankind can be seen only to a limited extent, is also recognisable in Van der Werve’s films. These are landscapes that seem far removed from our everyday, comfortable lives – but which we nevertheless are still part of.

The realisation that we as humans are just one of many elements that make up the natural world has proven a significant insight in relation to climate change and the ecological crisis. For a long time, our anthropocentric (human-centred) view of the world has meant that nature was appreciated only for its utility and usefulness in relation to humanity. This view of the world becomes untenable if we want to live on this planet in a sustainable way. The arts can play a major role in shifting the way we see the world towards greater ecological consciousness: a consciousness based around the mutual interconnectedness of all life.

This human relationship to nature is powerfully present in Van der Werve’s film Nummer acht: everything is going to be alright. In this work, the artist walks forwards, unimpeded, across a broad expanse of ice, straight towards the camera. He is followed by a gigantic ship that breaks up the ice behind him. It looks like Van der Werve could be swallowed up at any moment, but throughout the film he walks on calmly, without quickening his pace. The intensity of this image is huge: inhospitable nature, the threatening ship steadily eating its way through the ice and the fragility of the insignificant human being, unable to turn around. This could be seen as a metaphor for our current, problematic relationship to nature. Because of its momentum, the destructive machine (made by humanity) is unable to easily change direction or be brought to a standstill.

Guido van der Werve, Nummer acht, everything is going to be alright, 2007, courtesy the artist and GRIMM Amsterdam | New York
Guido van der Werve, Nummer acht, everything is going to be alright, 2007, courtesy the artist and GRIMM Amsterdam | New York

Test of strength

Humanity is not simply lost in nature in Van der Werve’s work, however. On the contrary: his works also show exactly what humanity is capable of. Nummer veertien: home is the film in which the artist completes a journey of more than 1,700 kilometres by running, swimming and cycling. From Warsaw, where Frédéric Chopin’s heart lies, Van der Werve embarks upon this extended triathlon to Paris, where the composer’s body is buried. The artist’s incredible physical feat was possible only after years of disciplined training. The images of Van der Werve, swimming huge rivers and running through varied landscapes, raise the question of whether the artist is entering into a test of strength with nature and himself, as part of this overarching nature. He seems to be seeking out the limits of what is humanly possible.

Guido van der Werve, Nummer veertien, Home, 2012
Guido van der Werve, Nummer achttien, Act 10, Spice of life, Death drive, 2022

At the same time, the film shows that however powerful and courageous human beings can be, we will never be more than a small part of this greater whole. As a viewer, we are reminded of the futility of life when the artist arrives, exhausted after his epic journey, in Paris, where we witness mundane scenes taking place on the streets while the artist catches his breath on a wall: only we, the viewers, and the artist himself seem aware of the incredible journey that led to this moment. Once he is surrounded by the tourists, families and rushing businesspeople of Paris, it almost seems irrelevant already.

Astonishing

Without using verbal expression, Van der Werve communicates the existential contradictions of life in a visual way. Both the realisation of the boundless possibilities within a single human being, as well as the absolute meaninglessness of a single human life in relation to the greater whole, are brought together in his films. In 2016, the artist was involved in a serious road traffic accident; initially, his chances of survival were thought to be negligible. Nevertheless, he made an astonishing recovery thanks to his extraordinary physical and mental attributes. The last work shown in the exhibition, Nummer achttien: Act 10, spice of life, death drive, deals with his process of recovery. This is part of his latest work, to be released later this year. The artist’s ten commandments can be seen both in the film and displayed alongside the exit from the exhibition. Engraved on two headstones, the artist imparts his rules for living to the visitor: “there should be a sustainable planet; worship the universe” and “humans have no rights over flora and fauna”. We leave the exhibition with these thoughts in mind, and Guido van der Werve gives us a push in the direction in which the human race needs to travel. In the hope that we will be able to change course, in spite of our collective inertia.

Guido van der Werve, Nummer acht, exhibition Guido van der Werve – Palpable Futility, Eye Filmmuseum Amsterdam, 2022, © Studio Hans Wilschut
Guido van der Werve, Nummer acht, exhibition Guido van der Werve – Palpable Futility, Eye Filmmuseum Amsterdam, 2022, © Studio Hans Wilschut

Guido van der Werve – Palpable Futility

Romanticism, nature and the sublime are never far away in Guido van der Werve’s universe. His first retrospective exhibition, Palpable Futility, can be seen from 12 February to 29 May 2022 in Eye Filmmuseum.

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