Stones with a heart
The sea takes and the sea gives
By Pauline Brenninkmeijer
When Yael Artsi first set foot at Terschelling her idea was to create a monumental Sculpture and to place it in the landscape by the sea. The Dutch island Terschelling is located in the Wadden Sea, an inlet and a protected nature reserve, situated between the North Sea and the Northern Netherlands mainland, Germany and Denmark. Yael was certain that the image should be of granite, the kind of stone she felt was best adapted to the atmosphere and the unruly climate of the island. The material would be imported from France. But a miracle occurred. Off the coast of Terschelling lay the wreck of a Swedish steam ship, sunk in 1903. On the bottom of the “Otto” a treasure was found: more than sixty huge blocks of Norwegian labrador granite. The cargo had been intended for the inside of a large building in Manchester. Members of the Terschelling diving team “Ecuador” retrieved 33 stones out of the sea for Yael's Sculptures of which she eventually used 22. The sunken stones received a second life. In June, 2003, Yael started work on the first three blocks.
“Terschelling is to me like a big kibbutz. If you need a hand, you just ask a passerby and he will help you. I could live here.” These words were repeatedly used by Yael Artsi during her periods of work at Terschelling. First of all, with “Sculptures from the Sea” she made a masterpiece of art for the inhabitants. The islanders admired the little woman who stood sturdily cutting and sharpening, knowing exactly how to move the heavy stones, understanding the contruction workers’ jargon. She received help from all sides. Construction firms, transport companies, members of the diving team, officers of the municipality, many contributed their bit. An elderly couple, who had lived their whole life at Terschelling, came especially to her: “Thank you for what you are doing for our island.” People realized that the Sculptures could form a unique attraction for the 450,000 tourists who come to the island every year. “When will our Sculptures be finished?”, they regularly enquired.
It was certainly not a simple job for Yael. The unhelpful proportions of the blocks, mostly long and narrow, limited her in her design. In the early years, the location was not yet known. It looked like an unmanageable project, but the story wrote itself. Only in 2005, when Yael had already completed three sculptures and processed nine stones, was the location “The Little Light” assigned – a dike landscape near the Wadden Sea with a historical significance for the island. She had to change her plans drastically; a more intimate concept was necessary for this special location. In the fall of 2005 she had completed her final design, consisting of the actual six monumental Sculptures. On September 8, 2006, “Sculptures from the Sea” will be inaugurated in a festive way.
The arrangement of the park looks balanced. The “Sails” form a beacon on the seaside; the “Islanders” look out at the bay and see in the distance the famous lighthouse “Brandaris” towering above the small seaport town of “West”. The "Bollard” stands on its place, as though it had been there for many centuries. The Sculture “Island” constitutes, in an inviting way, the entry to the park. Via “Wreck” the visitor walks automatically to the center of the sculpture “Perish”. Yael calls it a Memorial. A solemn place where on a six square meter stone floor, an oblong granite block, sculpted in the form of a wave, reminds one of a grave stone. The stone is partly placed in the earth. The upper side is polished smooth and begs to lay upright. A grave stone like a water bed, but hard. Even when the sun shines only a little, warmth is agreeably felt. A place inviting you to rest and meditate in the middle of a splendid landscape where one can stand in silence in commemoration of all those who through the ages never came back from their sea travel. Many islanders have some experience of that in their family past - the sea that was supposed to earn one’s daily bread, though always involved risks. Because of the sandy coloured stone floor around the objects, “Perish” looks like a sandbank with a grave for the unknown drowned. Yael left the upright stones unprocessed, which made traces of the sea visible – lumpy fossilized marine animals. These rugged stones, hiding their beauty, look in their simplicity as beautiful as the polished parts. This Sculpture, “Perish”, represents the life cycle of man. The round polished stone symbolizes birth, when all is still perfect. The standing unprocessed stones represent the capricious path of life. The lying stone is the dying process of man who may rest in peace.These are the themes of birth, aging and death.
Here life wins, for the creating potential of man and nature is endless. An indomitable force. This theme always comes back in Yael’s extensive work. Stones are for her as people whom she shows in all their diversity.
The Sculpture from the sea speak the language of the people who have populated this island for more than 1000 years. Quite directly. Raw and primitive. Comparable to the story of granite, which started one century ago when the blocks in the Norwegian stone quarry Idde fjords were hoisted aboard the “Otto”.
The “Sails” do not refer to a sweet pleasure yacht that goes out sailing one day, but rather to the hard seaman’s life, a struggle for life. Proud sails that are always fully geared and this time will not sink - for anything or anybody. The wind and the sea do not get a hold over them and that, is reassuring.
The three stones of “Sails” each underwent a different process. Yael gave them a “face” on all sides.
The “Bollard” is like an anchor. A bollard is left on the wharf, while the question always remains whether the ship – the partner – will come back safely.The rope apparently offers security, but at the same time unsettles, as seafarers on the quay continue to long for the briny deep. They will depart again, let everything loose again, say goodbye. The sculpture stands there waiting, forever. It is actually nothing else than the realistically sculpted woman at the port in West Terschelling. She stares out to sea, waiting in vain for the return of her beloved. “Sails” and “Bollard” constitute the comforting shoulders on which time sheds its tears.
As to the “Islanders”, Yael continues to embroider on this theme. Islanders who live with the sea. They are free ànd locked. They leave ànd are left. Two shapes, rugged ànd polished, male and female, with a head in organic form, like a huge pebble. The head like the child which connects them, still radiant and intact. The gap between the two standing stones is like a small porch, where, from a distance, the visitor can perceive the Brandaris – the five centuries old lighthouse of Terschelling. Just like the Brandaris which outlives everybody, the stone hewed “Islanders” will survive as well. Yael positioned the "islanders" in this way because of the connection all inhabitants have with that splendid lighthouse. The Brandaris is the first and last image that stand on your retina upon arrival and departure.
“Wreck” refers to all wrecks that strew the sea around the Wadden islands. Museums on the island bulge from the findings on the sea bottom and bear witness to human grief. The sculpture is like a ship which disappears in a vertical position to the sea bottom.
The waves are carved in it. One side of the stone is polished like a mirror and reminds one of the smooth sea, level on a windless day.
The creation “Island” is a big wink to the residents of Terschelling. The map of their island, almost identically, sculpted in stone. The other side of the stone corresponds in style to the other five works.
The sculptures from the Sea have taken a modest place in the dike landscape. Through the works of art, visitors are even more conscious of the beauty of the landscape while the landscape, with the water around it, embraces the works of art with love. Therefore, the stones receive a big added value. The same interaction between nature and culture forms the basis of “Oerol”, the famous theatre festival at Terschelling which takes place every year. At more than 60 locations, a temporary theatre location is being realized in a professional manner. Beach, wood, dunes and polder landscape are at the same time podium and stage setting. Beautiful as the performance may be, nature still plays the starring role. In 2006, the 25th performance took place. With the creation of her sculptures during the festival, Yael also offered a form of theatre. In this way she could share her creative process with people. Many followed enthusiastically Yael's origination process year after year. sculptures from the Sea commemorated 25 years of “Oerol” when it was offered on this occasion to the residents of Terschelling.
In Yael’s work, one can taste her connection with nature. But never before could she create her images as directly under the influence of landscape and elements as now. Working in the open air with a view of the sea which is in continuous movement, with tides in a form unknown to her. Next to an immense beach at ebb tide, where old Dutch plains are uncovered. The variable incidence of light continuously changes her stones. Wind. Endless distances and airs. “On the island I feel isolated. You start with nothing. For three weeks I am only here, disconnected from everything else. I hear no news. You always know you are on an island and there is nowhere to go.” During her work she only had an eye for stone, nature, sea, and for people with whom she contacted. Maybe therefore, Sculptures from the Sea barely resemble her previous work. “This is the real creation”, I heard her say. All inspiration came from the place. She had no preconceived idea. She did not have to think.
Like a primitive artist, she sculpted what she felt, as dusty and unhealthy as it may sometimes have seemed to outsiders.
In these times sculpting in stone, as she does, has become rare in The Netherlands. In public places, in villages and towns, in new residential areas, sculptures are usually made of steal, artificial material, glass. Designed by an artist and often performed by other hands. Not endlessly processed and cherished by the hands of a stone sculptor. A stone has a soul, according to Yael. Images from The Sea, washed ashore on the island by the course of history, have a soul. Powerful as they stand there, they have an eternal life. It is Yael’s victory over death. “The sea takes and the sea gives”, and that will always be.