I first met Marjolijn Dijkman at Bard College in the fall of 2017, and this is how I became acquainted with her work. We met again in New York State in the spring of 2018 when we both (each for her reasons) traced the footprints left by the first (Dutch) settlers in the Hudson Valley in the 17th century.
The modern age, the age of exploration and Enlightenment that stemmed from medieval ignorance, flourished due to the cruel naval supremacy. (1) One can think of the modern age as a whole as characterised by various aspects of the ‘search for the truth’ rationalism, the replacement of religion with science, and the church’s rule with a state. The enlightened man felt liberated from the bottom of the cave of religion to the light of the scientific sun. He believed that he would be independent to develop a more advanced and better society, based on ‘truth’.
Dijkman’s exhibition at Club Solo is a semi-retrospective. It allows the viewer to follow her practice’s development over the last ten years, which can be defined as Decoding the Coloniser’s Mind. The decoding of the coloniser’s mindset requires identifying the evolution of the Enlightenment into contemporary practices, despite the prevailing opinion among many scholars that the fall of the Nazi regime ended the Enlightenment project and the colonial reflex.
Still from Surviving New Land, Marjolijn Dijkman, 2010
Surviving New Land (2010) was filmed about a decade ago during the expansion of the port of Rotterdam Maasvlakte 2 into the sea. From the deck of a boat, Dijkman’s camera scanned the strip of land that has emerged from the sea, and for a moment, one wonders whether it is a giant whale floating on the water or a lonely island that no human foot has yet stepped on? The audio channel that accompanies the video combines the sound of the waves with the music and fragments of sentences that are said not in front of the camera lens. Do we experience fata morgana and déjà vu at the same time? On the one hand, there is a sense of an event taking place in front of our eyes, but only the echo reaches our ears. Have we reached a safe shore? Are we the first, or have they all left long ago? Did we miss the ceremony or maybe the moment of creation? The Port of Rotterdam website tells us that ‘If there is no space to expand on land, why not create land in the sea? After all, the Dutch are known for their engineering skills.’(2)
Modern science and empires are driven by feelings of lack and a constant expectation of being revealed beyond the horizon of the thing that must not be missed. The connection between science and the empire is almost inextricable; for the Europeans, the empire’s building was a scientific project, while science is the coloniser’s project. Modern empires are characterized by flexible borders and a tireless appetite to swallow more and more territories and continents. Anchored in continental Europe but dominating distant geographical provinces, if only because of their maritime superiority. By the end of World War II and the recognition of many colonies’ independence, the prevailing propaganda was that naval control had lost its power, and so had the Enlightenment project. A further examination (3) of Maasvlakte 2 and the Dutch engineering capability tells a different story, which is repeated along with the Gulf of the Emirates’ oil ports, Bahrain, Indonesia, and England.
Many argue that human settlement on the Moon, Mars, or other planets is a natural, inevitable step of expansion. Robert Wright argues in his book Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny (1999) that although there is no intelligent designer of any kind, evolution is moving in a uniform direction leading it to ever greater complexity. That is, our evolutionary destiny leads us from the stage of the creation of the first replicator through the formation of planets and complex life, to the formation of intelligence and globalisation, and finally – to the spread to other stars.
View of the ground floor of the exhibition at Club Solo, Breda, NL (2020)
The microscope and the telescope, (4) more than any other technological inventions, represent the Enlightenment project and the colonial way of thinking; both built on the principle of mirroring, projecting, and reflecting, both extending our ability to see. Whereas the first allows us to see and follow a whole world of creatures of whom, without a magnifying lens, we had been unaware, the second brings distant worlds closer to us and allows us to glimpse into what is beyond our reach and control (for now). But just as what we see through a microscope we cannot touch or feel, the image reflected through the telescope is an image from the past. Both devices mark the user’s point of view as the centre to which the light converges or is reflected. Like the sea’s gentrification, so too does the telescope allow the beginning of the process of conquest of space.
In Reclaiming Vision (2018), Dijkman and Toril Johannessen use a light microscope as a camera to document the colonies of live microorganisms from the Oslo Fjord in Norway. The film begins with a fair disclosure that says: ‘This is a work of fiction inspired by a real and historical event. All scenes have been staged by the artists. Any resemblance to scientific research is coincidental.’ For twenty-six minutes, a kaleidoscope of colors and shapes unfolds in constant motion. Sometimes, we can recognise a shape that looks like a nano shrimp. Another moment, green beads glow in front of our eyes, alternating with transparent gold-colored circles or tiny colourless squares huddled together in the corner of the screen.
Microbiologists (5) often sound like anthropologists. With the help of appropriate technology, they go out into nature to monitor the evolution of bacteria, which does not occur in the laboratory. In early 2020, the world learned about a new type of microorganism, SARS-CoV-2; although viruses do not meet an organism’s definition, they are associated with microbiology. SARS-CoV-2 has turned us all into amateur virologists. Even without biology classes, every child today knows that a virus is a body that penetrates other cells and uses the cell’s reproductive system is housed to reproduce. The virus infections are treated and are harmful to all life forms.
Navigating Polarities, Marjolijn Dijkman, 2018 (Commissioned for the 21st Sydney Biennale, 2018)
Navigating Polarities (2018) is a video installation that is reminiscent of Camera Obscura rooms, which are located at the top of towers in various port cities and allow viewers to see the city 360 degrees on one surface, with the image projected on a concave round surface, reminiscent of an inverted planetarium or radio telescope. Mushroom smoke dripping after shells fall, a railroad track entering a tunnel, various maps centred on a compass drawing, and a magnetic field in motion are some of the images that make up the video. A woman’s voice tells us that ‘Natural law is in a constant state of flux, reversal, and alternation, at one time the sky and the land were reversed …’ The modern empires have placed a utopian society at the edge of their world of discoveries, in the Atlantic, the Indian Ocean, and the Pacific. Everyone wrote about an inverted society different from the society in which they operated. The new expansion of the world has inspired them to create a new political vision. It is not traditional political authority, but the individual’s will and natural inclination should be the cornerstones for building a new society.
That What Makes Us Human (2016), installed at Club Solo in Breda, NL (2020)
That What Makes Us Human (2016) is a statue of a right hand made of bronze with what appears to be a stone-age knife in its lap, but in fact, it is the product of a 3D titanium printing shaped like a meteorite. Hands are an ancient motif in Western art. We are well acquainted with the hand (finger) that creates the first man in Michelangelo’s paintings on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican. We are also familiar with the hand paintings of the angel stopping Abraham from slaughtering his son. And of course, the even older tradition (in frescoes, illuminations) since the Middle Ages, of the divine palm emanating from on high as a matter of supreme providence. In mathematics and physics, the right-hand rule is a useful rule of thumb for determining the trend of vectors involved in rotational motion in a magnetic field.
Earthing Discharge (2019) consists of a series of photos taken by Dijkman using a kind of electro-photography she developed. The photographs depict spodumene minerals from a mine in Manono in the Democratic Republic of the Congo under electric current. The parts containing lithium conduct electricity and make them illuminate. Our understanding of colonialism is often limited to simple ideas about how we think colonialism has looked in the past. These ideas hinder our ability to identify the complex ways that colonialism has shaped and continues to shape the unequal power structures of the 21st century, as anthropologist and historian Ann Laura Stoler claims in her book Duress: Imperial Durabilities in Our Times (2016). Unequal power relations between developed and developing countries continue to define the causes and effects of climate change. A clearer understanding of the source of these problems is a necessary first step in resolving them. People in prosperous countries are unaware that the waste they throw away every day is often sent worldwide to become someone else’s problem.
Mirror Worlds (2016): magic mirrors are made in Japan according to ancient techniques, from which, with the help of specific lighting, a reflection of the image engraved on the metal surface is projected on a nearby surface. In Dijkman’s magic mirror, the mirror hides a copy of one image from the Golden Voyager Record. (6) The image chosen by Dijkman depicts the sky map on which the coordinates of the earth in the universe are marked.
Remote Entanglements, Part I: Observatories, installation at Club Solo, Breda, 2020 (photo Peter Cox)
In 2019, Dijkman invited me to travel with her to Westerbork transit camp, which today serves as a museum with a radio telescope site next to it. I could not join due to last-minute changes. Dijkman visited the camp with her father, which led to the discovery that her grandfather was a member of the Dutch resistance during the Nazi occupation and brought to Germany under the Nacht und Nebel decree (‘Night and Fog’) (7) to a proxy camp of Buchenwald, where V-2s and other weapons were produced. (8) The factory complex was operated using a slave labor force of concentration camp prisoners. The prisoners were forced to construct the rockets along an improvised assembly line made of railroad tracks.
Remote Entanglements Part I: Observatories (2020) is the newest work on display in the exhibition. Dijkman returned to Westerbork with her father, to shoot the camp’s watchtower and the radio telescope (set up in the 1970s). She completes the journey that began a decade ago and connects the territorial to the extraterrestrial, the watchtower in charge of the camp’s boundaries to the radio telescopes that cross the atmosphere’s boundaries. Alternatively, the telescope, which was invented for exploring the unknown, actually functions as a watchtower, whose mission is to alert in the event of an invasion from outer space.
4 To this day, there is a debate about who invented the microscope. However, the microscope’s inventors are three Dutchmen; one is a father and son, and another person who parallel to them and, without knowing them, invented the same invention! In 1590, two Dutch opticians, Zacharias and Hans Jansen, assembled the first microscope from two lenses inside a cylinder. It was the simple microscope that magnified about 20 times, paving the way for the invention of the telescope. At the same time, the Dutch Hans Lipperhey worked on a similar invention; in 1608, he also developed the dedicated telescope. Galileo Galilei brings the telescope to the state of a reliable instrument, mainly for its scientific observations of celestial bodies.
5 Microbiologist Anthony van Leeuwenhoek is considered the father of microbiology; he discovered bacteria in 1677. He called these creatures animalcules, in Latin: small creatures.
6 The Voyager record also includes a spoken message by Kurt Waldheim, Secretary-General of the United Nations. Waldheim was complicit in several Nazi war crimes, facts that were not exposed until later. It is not clear how involved Waldheim was with the Nazi crimes against humanity. However, despite our attempts to put our best foot forward, we have introduced our message of peace with a man who served in units involved with massacres and deportations to death camps sent with Voyager into space.
7 The ‘Night and Fog’ decree was directed against persons in occupied territories engaging in activities intended to undermine German troops’ security. Upon capture, they were brought to Germany ‘by night and fog’ for trial by special courts. Circumvented military procedures and various conventions governed the treatment of prisoners. The code name stemmed from Germany’s most acclaimed poet and playwright, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832), who used the phrase to describe clandestine actions often concealed by fog and the darkness of night. https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/night-and-fog-decree
8 In 1945, Wernher von Braun arrived at Fort Strong. The small military site on the northern tip of Boston Harbour’s Long Island was the processing point for Project Paperclip, the government program under which hundreds of German scientists were brought into America. Von Braun filled out his paperwork that day as the inventor of the Nazi V-2 rocket, a member of the Nazi party, and a member of the SS who could be linked to thousands of concentration camp prisoners’ deaths. With Von Braun in charge of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, the development of the Saturn V booster rocket helped land the first men on the Moon in July 1969. Von Braun also served as a spokesman for three Walt Disney television programs on space travel, Man in Space.