The Woodworks

In January 2010 Maurice Meewisse together with photographer Casper Rila went to a forest in the east of the Netherlands to start their woodworks-project.

Among other things, The Woodworks pays homage to the traditional work done by the lumberjacks, the manual workers who performed the initial harvesting of trees for ultimate processing into various forest products. In this project however, the lumberjack takes it a step further and produces his own construction materials, some of which are exhibited alongside the documenting photos of the time he spent in the forest.

Now and then the small figure of the lumberjack nearly becomes one with the forest, merging into the tall rows of tree trunks around him, as the dark colours of his clothing almost camouflage him against the background’s withered greens and greys. In most photos he turns his back to the viewer, which is a motif that gives associations to the Romantic painter C.D. Friedrich.
Friedrich’s figures are often turned away like this, as they gaze enigmatically into the far and boundless distance – a distance usually filled with rugged mountain gaps, cold seas or impenetrable forests. In Friedrich’s vast landscapes, the human subjects are alienated against a backdrop of unconquerable nature, pining for answers. Motionless, these lonely people stand humbly and watch the spectacle of nature without taking part. For many of the Romantic painters, loneliness seemed to be an inevitable side of their life and art, expressed in the desertedness of their subjects and the gloominess of their landscapes, resonating with existential angst.
The lumberjack in The Woodworks is neither humble or motionless, and what is resonating in this landscape are the sounds of his axe and the creaking and tearing of falling trees.

He too is gazing into the forest – but the forest is not boundless, and his gaze stops on the horisontal wedge he has just cut in the pine tree infront of him. He is not a contemplative observer of nature’s divine creation, on the contrary: he is observing his own creation, his own marks on nature. He is not awestruck and paralysed in the confrontation with nature, instead he moves around the forest and interacts with it, as he cuts down trees and kicks the logs, conducting his personal project. Even though he is alone in the forest, there is nothing lonely about him. He is working on his own by choice, in order to get the work done, his whole demeanour radiates efficiency and an almost heroic determination. His solitude is neither an accusation, a sacrifice or a sermon – it is simply his frame of mind and circumstances of action at this given moment.

The Romantic landscape was often depicted in states of transition; in the twilight of dusk or dawn, bathed in milky moonshine, or shrouded in mist and fog, thus to enhance the sense of uncertainty and bewilderment of the scene. As we peer through the forest, we see the mist in the distance hanging lightly over the fields on the other side. But somehow we do not detect uncertainty or bewilderment in these photos – it seems as if the lumberjack’s clearing of the forest also entails a clearing of the air, as if his determination and innate trust in the project eliminate any doubts.
The mist rather functions as a border, enclosing the patch of forest within which the lumberjack is working, creating together with the trees a space around him. This space is mainly dominated by the verticality of the tall pines and the leafless beech trees, but the vertical structure of nature is now challenged by the fallen trees on the forest floor. These trunks almost constitute a space of their own, laid down as they are, like half-finished grids in the undergrowth. Or they function as arrows, pointing in different directions out of the forest, establishing the lumberjack’s changing lines of sight.

We do not find ourselves in the middle of a large, dense forest. This part of the forest thins out into the open area, and in every direction we can see signs of civilisation. Rail tracks are running alongside its edge on one side, a wide, well-used gravel road penetrates the forest from the other side. The lumberjack’s own stationwagon and trailer appear too, emphasising that the civilised world can be easily reached. Somewhat like a present-day Thoreau, he dwells in the edge of the forest, setting up a provisional camp. What was it that drove Henry D. Thoreau into his fabled living experiement in the 1840s? Possibly it was a counteraction to the growing Industrial Revolution of the period and modern materialism. For a time, Thoreau chose to live by his own means – building his own house, making his own clothes, growing his own food. To live in a new deliberate and conscious manner.

I see a similar consciousness in the The Woodworks. The exhibition does not necessarily speak the familiar ecological messages about how fragile our planet is and how we are not doing enough to save it, instead it encourages awareness and deliberation.

Photo by Casper Rila