2010

While the consequences of climate change manifest themselves worldwide, the Occupy movement continues to carry out its anti-capitalist protests, uprisings both great and small cause a stir in the media, privacy appears to be a right we have lost, the city is promoted as the place for the future, and mobility has become a nagging question, Els Dietvorst is silently withdrawing from this world in transition. She is swapping Brussels for the open countryside and moving to a small village on the south-east coast of Ireland. This is not an act motivated by romanticism. Anyone familiar with Dietvorst’s work knows better. When she still lived and worked in Brussels, the wanderer in her took her to ‘lost’ places, to the seamy side of the city, where life takes on a different dimension and time beats to a different rhythm.

If I were to describe Els Dietvorst’s work using a fashionable term, I would label it ‘Slow Art’. But her oeuvre, which she has gradually been building up since the late nineties, is at odds with all the trends. It is totally unique. Unlike an intruder or a voyeur, Dietvorst deals with the world with a frankness and openness that you rarely encounter. She is captivated by things, integrates well, meets new people and enters into discussion with them, makes friends and inspires confidence. And the moment she takes out her camera, a bond is created between the artist and the person she is filming. This approach reduces the camera to an abstraction, and clears away any sense of uneasiness or the need to pose, leaving a human being rooted in his own reality and narrating from there.

Mick, Frank Matt, Vinni and TJ Butler.

Two years after settling in Ireland, Els Dietvorst started work on the web documentary The Black Lamb. Over a three-year period, she recorded fragments of her new environment, and that of local figures. Their unconventional lifestyle is diametrically opposed to the delusion that is everyday life. While she accustoms herself to life on the sheep farm with her partner Orla, parallel storylines develop that give the viewer an insight into a life lived in tune with the rhythm of the seasons, away from materialism. A world where tradition and rituals do not serve a nationalistic discourse, but instead serve life itself.

Whilst the narratives in The Return of the Swallows (2000) were still interwoven with those of Arthur Rimbaud, The Black Lamb has no need of another narrative. The narrative constructs itself from the fragmentary recordings.

It is often said of Els Dietvorst’s work that it depicts the seamy side of society and that it is social-artistic by nature. But it is much more than that: her work celebrates life by reducing it to its essence. In the eye of Dietvorst’s camera, the banality of day-to-day existence makes way for magic.

At first sight, the protagonists in Dietvorst’s films appear to lead extremely introverted lives. But anyone who opens up to their stories, as the artist does, notices that they are actually right at the heart of life. Mich, Frank, Matt and TJ Butler have a bond with nature and with their animals. From generation to generation, they live in a sequence of repetitive actions and events: ‘Every year the same thing. Every cow the same thing. Every spring the same thing. Every day the same thing.’ A world filled with craftsmanship, rituals and ethics. From the thatcher to the slaughterman, the sheep-shearer to the cattle-dealer: they all live in a world where life experience is gained by means of actions, such as killing and plucking geese. This is also a world where words really matter, because they are used sparingly. Or as Vinni says: ‘So it is’.

Too much rain for one life

‘I am TJ Butler. I am one of the third generation of cattle-dealers. My grandfather was one, my father was one, and now it is my turn.’…

‘I don’t know where my knowledge of animals comes from. It just seemed to suddenly be there.’ … ‘I began to remember the names of sheep breeds: Zwartbles, Lleyn, Suffolk, Border Leicester, Jacob. And I could imitate the bleats of all our sheep.’

The short testimonies of TJ Butler in The Black Lamb lay the foundation for a bigger project: The Rabbit and the Teasel. In this full-length film, Dietvorst transforms Butler’s narrative into a modern rural drama, in which the raw reality of a rainy year drives the farmer to despair. Or as Butler’s father puts it: ‘Even if farmers are as tough as nails, this season is soul-destroying’. Only someone who has experienced the effect an out-of-control climate has on his body can bear witness to this, because it disrupts the very core of his being. It breaks the soul.

It was once said…

In a world where petty opinions, hysteria, commotion and emotion have become the norm and neo-liberal humanity is rapidly losing sight of the path to happiness, The Black Lamb is a breath of fresh air. Just as Dietvorst’s early works — sculptures that she apparently placed at random in public spaces — inspired passers-by to interact, her expanding web documentary brings the viewer back into contact with his immediate environment. In her new film The Rabbit and the Teasel, this environment has been turned upside-down. The natural world no longer knows how to behave. The consequences are sobering.

Els Dietvorst reflects on her own life: on what it means to live and survive far from the comforts of the city. What happens to a person when they end up back at the beginning of the food chain? She takes the viewer with her into a consumption-free society that depends upon what the seasons provide. She appeals to the collective memory of the local community. Her fellow villagers tell their stories, film and act. Fiction and reality are woven into a modern fairytale. 

Once it was said

that man became farmer

when he harnessed the ox

to the plough and the harrow

and scattered the seed on the furrows

Who among us remembers the harvest?

‘My mother believed that it was possible to show ‘compassion’ for animals and still eat them. “You must cherish the animals that you eat and you must take responsibility for their quality of life,” she said. She was proud when everything that ended up on their plates was born, raised and slaughtered on the farm.’ What a difference there is between this proud farmer’s wife’s attitude to life and that of the city-dweller-gone-mad who, in an attempt to find himself again, turns to things like yoga, pilates, yogalates, vegetarianism, veganism, alternativism and activism. As part of his quest for balance, the seeker is confronted with all kinds of dilemmas, is wrenched out of his comfort zone, and despairingly asks himself if it might help to use a bit less shampoo from now on. The farmer’s wife who trades her eggs for tea and coffee in the winter and for tomatoes and strawberries in the summer has no need to ask this question. She is part of an era that is gradually being lost.

‘There it is, the edge of the world, the hole in the earth. The crust has gone. Beneath it is a large black hole in which we will all finally disappear, into the Milky Way.’