'Edges of the Experiment' investigates the idyllic notion of the American landscape, showing which elements contribute to the iconic landscape, and at what cost they can be maintained. It describes the thin line between nature and civilisation. How did the landscape evolve, and where are the interfaces between the organic and the artificial world, and do they fail or succeed? 'Edges of the Experiment' is a two-volume publication. Volume one shows over 60 photographs made over a period of ten years by Jongerius. Volume two is a collection of essays about the making of the American Landscape, with texts by Matthew Coolidge, William L. Fox, Hans Gremmen, Taco Hidde Bakker, Mark Pimlott, Warren Techentin, Raymond Frenken and others.
It doesn’t begin from scratch. It doesn’t even begin with water and sand. It begins with numbers. Figures. All the sand that forms the Maasvlakte, the wind that worries the surface and the grass that grows there all developed from softly humming computers elsewhere in the country. Predictions for the future, estimations concerning the world economy, macro-economic models, the growth of the world population, raw material reserves, production figures, share markets, funding models, budgets. And then: so many acres, tons of sand, cubic metres of water to be displaced, the quantity of basalt blocks, flow rates, wind force, pump capacity. Abstractions of units and magnitudes that far surpass the powers of imagination of the average recreationist on the still-unspoiled beaches of the coastal area. In that respect, Maasvlakte 2 is not really nature, but rather a precision instrument to resolve a mathematical formula in which the economic growth of the Netherlands is maximized. The Maasvlakte is a product of technology, is technology. The way it looks is the way it was calculated. It has a form that is practical, efficient and sustainable. It is a mathematical expression in sand, water and wind. Where the virtual world of zeros and ones has been translated into a physical reality with a natural appearance. And, from a more traditional perspective, the umpteenth triumph of mankind over nature.
This last aspect harmonizes with a strong Dutch tradition. Down through the centuries, our country has accumulated much expertise on how to reclaim land from the water, how to construct sandbanks, build dikes, rechannel rivers, resist storm surges and fix sand dunes. The Netherlands is not unique in such activities, but is internationally regarded as the specialist par excellence in this domain. This being the case, it currently exports technological knowledge on land reclamation and dike construction to many foreign destinations – ranging from Dubai to New Orleans.
Essay by Frits Gierstberg
It’s as if they’re having another shot at the Creation in Rotterdam. If you look at the photos Marie-José Jongerius has made in the last 18 months at Maasvlakte 2, you realize immediately that this must be the world where God once began – everything here is ‘without form and void’. See for yourself: not a human being in sight. No plants. No animals. Just darkness and air. Mud, sand and rocks under poor lighting. The first verses of the Bible book of Genesis continue: ‘And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.’ After that, God left the scene rather hurriedly, leaving humankind with an earth it had to flesh out and imbue with meaning all on its own.
Now take a look at Jongerius’s photos. What’s the difference? Of course, as observers we know the answer to that question perfectly well: here, at Maasvlakte 2, humankind has manoeuvred itself into the role of God. You can see it from the huge grabbers, cranes and conveyors: at Maasvlakte 2 something grand is being accomplished, something that rises far above the forcefulness of everyday life. Remarkably enough, however, Jongerius’s images give hardly any indication of the intentions behind this immense act of creation. And that immediately provides a certain tension: the formlessness and void in Jongerius’s world hold promise that everything is still possible here. However, there is also that preponderant darkness, which gives the observer the feeling that they have to watch their step, that perhaps there are powers and forces at work that may be impossible to control.
Nature versus culture. Emptiness versus controllability.
Confrontations like this make it very clear how special Jongerius’s project is. When you look initially at Lunar Landscapes, you wouldn’t for a moment think that these photos were taken in an area of 20 km2 situated in one of the most heavily populated and intensively used parts of the world. There is no evidence of that whatsoever. And that is where the tragedy lies: the world in the photos seems enduring and immutable, but make no mistake: at the moment that you look at these photos, in fact shortly after Jongerius printed them, this world had already ceased to exist. No single place on earth (unless perhaps Shanghai or Hong Kong) has changed faster in recent years than Maasvlakte 2: there has been a continuous process of priming land, digging pits, constructing roads, dumping stones, removing roads, sowing grass and flooding land – like watching one of those films where a flower blossoms in two minutes or a butterfly emerges. It is precisely that conflict between enormous vigour and raging transience that gives Jongerius’s photos an unmistakably romantic feel. In this way, her Lunar Landscapes also point out an important function of photography: unlike any other medium, photos are capable of capturing a world that would otherwise disappear and be forgotten.
Essay by Hans den Hartog Jager
For weeks Marie-José Jongerius travelled through California, looking for a subject that would fit her artistic aim. She regularly made use of the numerous hotels along the state’s highways. Like modern oases, almost all hotels had a swimming pool. One can point to the hot climate as an obvious reason for this. But another reason might be found in the idea of California as the modern equivalent of paradise. The main characteristic of a paradisiacal place is the abundant presence of sweet water, hence the name of the series: Sweet Water.
Essay by Marcel Feil