A River’s Promises

We travelled against the current, from Zwolle to Doesburg. Biking the one hundred kilometres of the IJssel biennial tour, we meditated with cows and willows on the wonders and futures of the river landscape.

Moderne devotie – Observatorium

As festival intendant Alex de Vries describes it, the IJssel biennial is an art event, a sculpture trail along the River IJssel, and a tribute to its landscape, its story and its region. Conceived in 2013, the biennial has its first edition this year, exhibiting works by national and international artists in the open air.
With our tickets, we received a yellow booklet containing descriptions of the artworks and the routes, as well as a large map. One special landscape route has been marked out for the IJssel biennial. It often follows the bicycle path and the Hanzestenpad along the river, but sometimes deviates from this classical route. We then took to smaller routes, narrow seashell paths and forest tracks, and boarded a few jetties to cross the water.

Besides an art event, the IJssel biennial is very much a landscape project, an invitation to (re)discover and link the various parts of the river territory. Indeed, the river created many links and lines throughout history, and the IJssel biennial forges its route between all these: the curling line of dikes; the dotted lines of Hanseatic towns such as Doesburg, Zutphen, Deventer, all prosperous trading places with rich facades; the hidden lines of the IJssel Defence Line and its bunkers, built to prevent a Russian invasion. And the artworks, subtly spread along these lines, could belong to many of these stories.

  • Untitled # 192 by Aeneas Wilder
    We discovered the beautiful wooden dome structure hidden behind the forest of the historical De Haere Castle. Related to the bunkers of the IJssel Defence Line, these rare circular objects are set in an agricultural landscape. Are they both a shelter and belvedere to meditate while immersed in nature?
    This unique structure offers various experiences. You can climb it to sit on and survey the field, or enter it to discover a preserved and miniature world of insects and grasses. On top of it stands a tree, a fragile monument that questioning our intrusion into the calm clearing of the forest.

Borboros – Groenewoud/Buij

This ‘river trail of art’ has some antecedents. Perhaps the closest one started in 2008 in France. The Estuaire art biennial is a 100-km route from Nantes to Saint-Nazaire, along the River Loire to the estuary, with art installations, events and cultural initiatives spread along the route. Three editions followed, and the programme ‘le Voyage a Nantes’ continued the event as a summer festival that is taking place again this year. For each edition, new artworks are exhibited for the summer alongside perennial ones, and over the past decade the region has gained a new identity through these events.

The Estuaire biennial in France was indeed intended as a strong project to reconnect with the territory and to give it a new image. Reinterpreting in a contemporary vocabulary the fantastic worlds depicted by Jules Verne, the nineteenth-century Nantais novelist, the artists brought the River Loire to life again with imagination, invention and tales of travel.

The IJssel biennial also sets itself within a political and geographical context. The national programme ‘Room for the River’, launched in 2007, aims to improve both water safety and the quality of the river surroundings by giving more room to the water, and the scheme is now at the implementation phase along the IJssel. When necessary, water from the river can reclaim the floodplains along Sheller, Ossenwaard and Worp, dikes are relocated, new pumping stations and safety structures are being built, and a strong shift is taking place in the landscape.
Located close to these projects, the IJssel biennial installations guide us in taming this new landscape, creating poetical stories, meeting points and viewpoints in this changing geography.

Untitled #192 – Aeneas Wilder

  • Hoog en droog by Maze de Boer
    Very simple and interesting work. A sailing ship moves with the wind and floats in the air. A symbolic anticipator of the flooding of the flood channel between Veessen and Wapenveld (part of the Room for the River programme). 

    The familiar holiday object evokes both genuinely and dramatically the slow but inescapable dynamism of the landscape change in the middle of this agricultural field. And the ticking of halyards on the mats sounds like a countdown to a new time when the green field will turn to blue.

  • Moderne Devotie by Observatorium
    A frame, closed with concrete retaining walls, floats above the ground and offers a narrow balcony to the river. Inside, a simple wooden bench frames the room. 

    The view seems oddly oriented to the river. Once can’t overlook the cornfield. The inner room and its narrow path fail to be intimate because of its soil. 

    Simple, gross, robust. Is it one of the strange water safety structures that we met along the IJssel? And why is the building not adapted to its present landscape? 

    The edifice is indeed intended as a shelter in case of flooding. When the deluge comes and the water recovers all ground under this ‘monastery’, here one can meditate about the changing world, following the example of Geert Grote, founder of the Devotio Movement, which was very successful in the IJssel region in medieval times. 

    Offering a strong physical experience, the architecture raises questions about adaptation and transition from our world to a future one.

Besides introducing the ‘Room for the River’ projects, the IJssel biennial chose climate change as a theme this year, and asked the participating artists about ‘their vision of the influence of climate change on our riverscape: from poetic dreamscapes and utopian visions of the future, to calamitous scenarios of doom’.

Waves – Tanja Smeets

It is may be a weakness of the biennial to adhere to a classical scenography (information boards beside every artwork), whose texts often stress the relation of each sculpture to climate change concerns. The theme seems dramatic and worrying, but appears out of place in the summer landscape of flowery banks. Many artworks move beyond this difficulty, weaving stories out of landscape, science, myths and contemporary images of climate change. Our imagination is forced to approach the topic with other eyes, at other scales, in other times.

  • Borboros by Groenewoud/Buij
    In an open library-cum-laboratory (Aquatheek) on the banks of the IJssel, bottles containing various samples of water are shelved, creating walls and windows of coloured lights. Some bottles are labelled with the origin and composition of the water (IJsselmeer, the puddle of a November rain shower, Dead Sea, various algae, aquatic plants, fungi and even bacteria), while others only sport strange textures and colours. 

    The appearance of the Borboros building (ancient Greek for mud and dirt) changes permanently with the reflections of clouds and sun on the angles of the bottles. The evolution of the precipitates and its simplicity seems to invite visitors to add their samples to the composition.Many stories are thus told, with the imagination diving deep into these miniature worlds of organisms, the many forms of life with which we share the need for water.

This first edition of the IJssel biennial starts strong and holds many promises for editions to come. It is an innovative and poetic way to discover and understand the complex system of the river territory. And this rendezvous is now set up to return every two summers. It is an invitation to remain curious and attentive to the changes in our landscape.