The Parkstad Limburg Prijs, catolgue essay. 2022.
In 1913, geologist and physicist Arthur Holmes, published pioneering research into the mesmerizing radioactive processes of the Earth’s matter, offering a fundamental new reading of the land. Landscapes previously seen as permanent and stable, were revealed instead as a vibrant cacophony of motion and transformation: a kaleidoscope of diffraction, disintegration, radiation and frenzied vibration. In later writings he described a ‘magnificent unseen earth, veined with radioactive minerals from Ceylon to St Ives, Katanga to the Mourne Mountains’ where high-velocity ejections of electrically charged helium atoms that are Alpha ‘rays’, long and intricate patterns of transformations that can be traced, ‘each accompanied by an explosive liberation of energy’. For artists at the time, Holmes’ discoveries offered the possibility of transforming the most familiar of landscapes into radical new worlds. In 1938, Paul Nash described in his article ‘Unseen Landscapes’ that the world that lies, visibly, about us is ‘unseen merely because they are not perceived.’ For him, ‘stones, bones, empty fields … back gardens’ were suddenly alive with new intrigue and offering ‘endless possibilities of fresh adventure’. Deep geological time removed itself from a static history, revealing itself as an ever-active agent to be collaborated with in the present.
The Parkstad Limburg Prijs recognises the specificity of our shared experience of place; with all its cacophony of difference, divergence, texture and temporalities. When visitors come, we take them to the tunnels, caves, bunkers, rivers and the quarries. Sediment layers of coals, silts, muds; hidden stories below our feet that shape the surface and our sense of place. These geological underlands are formative. As with our art practices, these rocks, individually and collectively churn in the Earth’s crust, sometimes maintaining form, sometimes transforming their essence, forming collaborations and interactions, and occasionally coming shining, iridescently into the fore.
Wiel pushes open the kissing-gate to let me through, and then passes through himself. It creaks both ways, a slow wooden exhale, welcoming its age and it’s being. This well-worn path– its edges adorned with unruly cow parsley and cornflowers and poppies–used to be a thoroughfare for workers on their way to the mines. Now it is the quiet pathway of countryside ramblers and dog walkers.
In Heerlen, where Wiel worked as a miner in his youth, the pits bored six hundred to eight-hundred meters below the ground. Our evasive, extracting, colonising actions mould into the geological formations of the land. The earth’s strata are being and time solidified; each layer exists as a ghost of its era, laden in silences, loss, mysteries and unknowns. He and his fellow pit workers voices sung out into the chasms of the earth’s crust, past the lamp-light, into the darkness’s beyond where they echoed into silence against the 300-million-year-old rhythms of the coals.
Also a blacksmith, Wiel instead sought the coals from Genk, 30km east in Belgium. These were the ‘first-class’ coals, that could heat his furnaces to their hellish molten depths. Stories also travelled of the heats endured in the 1100m deep pits. Intensity endured for a lifetime by each miner. This highly prized first-class coal was worth the suffering of the sea of glistening, soot-covered fleshy and ephemeral human bodies. Limburg’s black gold.
Once vast grasslands and forests, thriving ecologies of insects, plants, animals, mosses, fungi and microbial communities have long ago sunk into swamplands, submerged into a watery suspended existence. Bound together in closer and closer kinship, they slowly melded into one; no longer a community of bodies but a singular connected tissue. Peats turned to coals.
In the unhurried sun of a late August afternoon, we arrive at Landgraaf. The foot of the long slow shallow steps of Wilhelminaberg, Wiel eye glisten; meanings hidden to me, in the sedimentation of a lifetime of memories.
A monument to aching bones, throbbing muscles, tender shoulders, knees, necks and backs. Young bodies aged before their time. A mountain made of sweat and toil.
A slag heap of the unwanted. Pulsating and reverberating. Rocks and earths that had spent eons in slumber alongside precious coals or protecting them from above. Thrown aside. Abandoned and uncherished. Now cherished in their newly choreographed form.
Along the riverbank, at the hollowed mouth of disused over-grown storm drain, the river ebbs and flows, creating small whirlpools of possibility by its banks. It is the resting point for the solidifying silt of centuries past and the contemporary river at once. Other people’s lives have flooded here from upstream over the centuries, clinging momentarily in crevasses and nooks, creating blockages and slowing streams. Creating knobbules of sedimented formations. The debris of construction sites, factories and farmlands, eroding hill ridges or crumbling breezeblocks. Swept onwards, accumulating here; the calcifying veins of past Limburg lives.
Fictions and material traces rub up against one another: histories existing only in fragmentation, holding space for what has been forgotten. This once energetic storm drain, previously full of amalgamating, intertwining stories, now hang still awaiting the forces that will transform them into their next geological configuration. Like sand running through a glass hourglass, the silt’s ebb and flow through landscapes, measures time’s passing.
In his essay ‘Undercover Softness’, philosopher Reza Negarestani puts forth a politics of decay as malleable architecture that creates anew in the process of putrefaction. He argues that all structures – both physical entities and social formations – are always in a process of undoing into something else. The world is a world of stand-ins; a constant flux of material exchanges. Limburg’s silted waterways recognise this reality for the rest of us. It seeps out and seeps in; taking momentary form in resting points amongst the drains, channels and conduits as water traces it course through the landscape. They don’t seek permanence; whenever the opportunity presents itself, it slips back into liquidity.
Human and non-human, organic and non-organic, we are each only momentarily configured within our recognised boundary of ‘I’, and will eventually return to the fluid, fluctuating recycling of matter on the planet. The edges of our bodies are not recognised by chemistry; we are a multitude of molecules, each of which can be ripped apart, detached from the whole and reconfigured into a new formation. As too are our ideas, and our creations.
I had always assumed mudlarking was a popular pastime everywhere, but when I arrived in the muddy flatlands of Limburg, I discovered this isn’t the case. In London, lost treasures of the past surface with each tide: Saxon coins, Roman pottery, Victorian clay pipes, Georgian thimbles, and an abundance of teeth and bones. The Maas isn’t tidal like the Thames, but instead it has tiny pockets of exposed foreshore. Here on the riverbank of the Maas, I wait for Frank to arrive to join him on one of his regular rambles along the water edge. Watching the lapping waters in the shallows below my hanging feet, I recall Primo Levi’s words.
I set about patiently examining the stones: this is one of our tricks, the stones in a stream come from afar and speak clearly to him who understands. There was a little of everything flint stones, green stones, lime stones, granite, iron-bearing stones, even a little of what we call galmeida, all stuff that did not interest me; and yet I had the fixed idea that in a valley formed like that, with certain white striations on the red rock and with so much iron thereabouts, lead rocks could not be missing.
I walked down along the stream, partly on the boulders, partly wading wherever I could, like a hunting dog, with my eyes glued to the ground, when lo and behold! a little below the confluence with another, smaller stream, I saw a stone among millions of other stones, a stone almost the same as all the others, a dingy white stone with small black speckles, which brought me to a halt, tense and motionless, exactly like a hunting dog pointing. I picked it up. It was heavy.
There is such skill in sifting for potency amongst a mass of matter. At Selzerbeek, Frank brings me to brothers Frens and Reneer, who have a water-jet sifter set up; a homemade contraption involving a rectangular aluminium tray at an angle with a hose attached at the top end and a metal mesh at the other. Frens and I dig buckets the yellow gravelly soil from the river’s edge, he throws it with ease into the top of the metal tray, and as it gets swept swiftly down under jets of turbulent water, a sheet of thick rubber acts as a barrier to slow and spread the medley’s exit. Sand, silt and clay is washed away through a final grate, and what remains are pearly shiny stones, agates and remnants of Limburg’s ‘black gold’. Individual treasures, sifted from their earthy collectivities.
We – mudlarkers, artists, designers, writers – are both accumulation and fabric. Our ideas come to the surface momentarily, speaking to and influencing the relations of thinking around us. Like Frens and Reneer’s sieved treasures, our surfacing redirects others; just as others have surfaced before us, and will continue to in the future. We are a sea of ideas, morphing and influencing landscapes; shaping collective futures, both near and far. While some sift to the surface to shine for a short while, others maintain the bedrock and foundations of the landscape. Values morph and change, and our shape does too, and seeping back into the fabric of curios interactions.
Walking through the Limburg landscapes–under-land and over-land, natural and man-made–is to trace the trajectory of the multitude and diversity of creations that have emerged from here: specific in its constellation of its entangled times, place and materialities.
Inhabitants of Limburg absorb the complex entanglements of their under lands; whether we have lived here all our lives or visitors making this home only briefly, each of us respond to the ebbs and flows of the land, in its different temporalities, from the rush of the river gullies and slipstreams to the slow pressurised morphing of the lands geological foundations. Each of us turn our eye to different entities of the land; each placing value on things which speak to us in the personal.
Tressures surface here at different paces, and to different eyes.
And then slip away into the collective fabric of the land, to resurface again, at some later unknown time.