CCA  Center for Contemporary Art and Ecology 

18 May – 25 August 2024

Pilar Mata Dupont & Erika Roux


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The sea has long been depicted and understood as a desolate, inhospitable and lawless area. A self-contained no man’s land awaiting exploration, exploitation, and ultimately occupation through transformation. From colonialism and the slave trade, to piracy, commerce, sea tourism and offshore finance, the Dutch nation and its inhabitants have maintained a longstanding maritime history. This conflicted history and deep-rooted connection with the sea is fraught with manifold watery power relations, among forms of resistance, survival and exploitation that developed over the centuries as a response to the elements and capricious environmental circumstances, and the geopolitics of war, territory, sovereignty, trade relations, and colonial violence. These power relations equally extended alongside the far-stretching Dutch coastal line and onto the expanding mainland, into what turned out to become a perpetual project concerned with ‘reclaiming’ land from the sea, taming nature, and oftentimes literally expanding the horizon of the Netherlands through land conversion and ideals around the makability and profitability of the landscape. 

It is precisely at this increasingly thinning threshold between the sea and the Dutch polder landscape that the exhibition SCENES FROM THE POLDER WESTERN by artists Pilar Mata Dupont and Erika Roux is situated. Through a series of vignettes, informed by the cinematic tropes of the Western genre, Mata Dupont and Roux unpack a sequence of moral tales regarding an environmentally vulnerable country facing complex issues, such as climate change, sea level rise, floods and droughts, collapsing infrastructures, a nitrogen crisis, and their subsequent societal polarisation and political (mis)management. Through a tragicomic narrative, the film installation LOWLAND MELODIES, A POLDER WESTERN at RADIUS establishes arcs between different scenes and characters—human and other-than-human—each seeking to relate, in their own way, to the changes in territory, environment, and community in the Dutch culturally and politically constructed landscape.

Exhibition campaign image for SCENES FROM THE POLDER WESTERN by Rudy Guedj.

Climate change and the consequent rise of sea level have become more and more pressing, especially when living in the Netherlands, of which approximately a quarter of its landmass is situated below sea level. While the main strategy for flood protection has historically been building higher and stronger dykes—most notably with the implementation of the Delta Works after the North Sea flood of 1953—this centuries-old practice of land protection through geo-engineering is coming to its limit. Within the current climate regime, the Netherlands is not only faced with a frontal opposition from the North Sea, but is equally and increasingly subject to both the interior flooding of rivers and droughts (through the accelerated melting of glaciers, and more unpredictable weather conditions), simultaneously destabilising infrastructures and the ground water level sustaining different life forms, landscape and biodiversity. 

This idea of an unwelcoming and hostile natural land to be conquered and controlled, and the conditions that have shaped the Dutch perception of water, are reminiscent of the Western myth of the frontier and the cowboy and settler’s relation to the natural landscape around them, and their relation to the taking—stealing—and making of their own nation. The dusty earth and encroaching desert of the traditional Western translates to the historical peaty swamps of the lowlands before the taming of the sea began, and places where ‘new nature’ grows. The expanse of the ‘big sky’ with its contrasted shadows translates to highly artificial land, reclaimed from the sea, grey skies above. In short, the alleged enemy, here embodied in Mata Dupont and Roux’s work in the guise of anthropogenic climate change, is not facing us—like the good/evil polarity in the Western genre—but is already among us, is part of us. The modernist project of setting boundaries between nature and culture, of installing humans as custodians and overlords capable of taming and subjecting ‘nature’ to become a stable backdrop for human activity has failed, but is nonetheless mighty real. At present we see two main attitudes in facing the instability of our watery environment: a branch of resilience politics aimed at maintaining the known level of human comfort through techno-fixes and increased safety measures, and more sustainable solutions that would allow the sea and rivers to reclaim and rewild, taking more land away from human inhabitation. Nevertheless, both strategies are not without problems and complications. 

Lucas Jansz Sinck, map of the Beemster Polder, 1664.

This latter attitude towards the environment of letting the sea and rivers occupy inhabitable and cultivated land seems to stand in polar opposition to what may be deemed the main project of the Netherlands since the 14th century, namely that of land conversion through the establishment of ‘polders’—tracts of land enclosed by dykes. The proverbial saying “God created the Earth, but the Dutch created Holland” is indeed clearly visible in the geography of the Netherlands through a cartographic, grid-like expanse of land mass, established after a process of reclaiming land, recovering flood plains and marshes that has lasted for several centuries, from the 14th to the 20th century. The Netherlands currently knows around nine thousand polder areas, for which the Flevopolder is perhaps the pinnacle of makability and ingenuity as the world’s largest artificial island. Parts of this reclamation of land can be read in light of the aforementioned resilience and survival tactics, the protection and defense against the elements—through the construction of dykes, sluices, pump stations, delta works, the Closure Dyke (Afsluitdijk). Simultaneously, the process of land conversion should be read as a coalescing desire to expand a limited amount of available landmass to be recovered in the key of agricultural profitability, going hand in hand with increased industrialisation, and, ultimately, the indexation of land on the vectors of capitalism—eighty percent of current available land in the Netherlands is used for agricultural purposes, among predominant forms of monocultural crop and industrial livestock farming. Land that was initially deemed as worthless and useless, such as peat marches, were excavated for turf—a type of carbon fuel—and subsequently converted to be fit for agricultural purposes. These same peatlands, that have now run scarce, are deemed to be of great value as carbon sinks within the climate crises we are currently facing. 

The exhibition SCENES FROM THE POLDER WESTERN is the outcome of a four-year long-term research project situated in the Netherlands, defined in relationship to the previously described interplay of land, sea, watery infrastructures, and the diverging aims, hopes and aspirations of the different stakeholders concerned. In 2020, Mata Dupont and Roux began interviewing climate scientists, sea level researchers, hydraulic engineers, artists and educators working in the field of water management, as well as people whose lives are intimately related to the sea and the land, among water millers and farmers. They spent time travelling around the country to discover the different landscapes of the Netherlands: polders, rewilded lands, farmland, artificial islands, storm surge barriers, and dykes. This early extensive fieldwork and interdisciplinary research provided the artists with new and more nuanced understandings of the Dutch landscape and its historical development.

During a residency with Waterwerken on the Brienenoord Eiland in 2022, Mata Dupont and Roux wrote the first iteration of a screenplay for the film—that was published in 2023 by Building Fictions, an imprint based in Amsterdam—entitled SCENES FROM THE POLDER WESTERN, from which this exhibition at RADIUS equally lends its title. In that, Mata Dupont and Roux used a mixture of narrative techniques, references from musicals, as well as the lexicon and tropes of the Western genre, expressing the tangled challenges that humans face in this environmentally vulnerable country. In their work, they draw on the incongruous parallels between a story set in the Netherlands and the North American myth-making of the Western genre, bringing forth territorial and cultural specificities of the Netherlands through a humorous play of contrast. Following its adaptation into the film LOWLAND MELODIES, A POLDER WESTERN, the screenplay presents a series of different characters—partially informed by and modelled after the aforementioned interviews and fieldwork—facing mysterious, uncontrollable weather events due to the North Sea reclaiming land. From a disillusioned climate activist dubbed eco terrorist to a duo of dyke keepers encountering an abnormally large hole in a dyke, from a Rijkswaterstaat policy maker launching a charm offensive to regain the trust of both board and public to a misunderstood climate scientist, and a compromised, somewhat nostalgic farmers family, the films gradually unpacks and inscribes a series of characters onto an assemblage of relations within an increasingly unstable living environment. The film takes the shape of a series of vignettes depicting different political perspectives and forms of relating to territory, the environment, and community, defying traditional understanding of borders and forms of living, as a lens to look at the tumultuous relationship with water. The vignettes function as a fragmentary prism, and much alike the characters in the film, they seem to revolve around a common ground that is precisely lacking: the characters are singularities turning in on themselves, in a process of becoming increasingly destabilised, but never quite arriving on the same page. Perhaps not dissimilar from the dutch verb ‘polderen’ and its political equivalent of the ‘poldermodel’—to describe the often slow process and model for reaching consensus among different stakeholders—LOWLAND MELODIES, A POLDER WESTERN provides a representative indicator for and status quo of the widespread dissensus the Netherlands is currently facing in relation to facing climate change and implementing relevant policies to mitigate its negative consequences. From agri-business-as-usual, political indecisiveness, the post-pandemic undermining of science fact and its institutions, to the increasing dissatisfaction of different social groups in all rungs of society, Mata Dupont and Roux shed light onto the blurry and watery frontier of the lowlands.

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Curated by Niekolaas Johannes Lekkerkerk, assisted by Sergi Pera Rusca.

The exhibition SCENES FROM THE POLDER WESTERN has been made possible with the support of the Mondriaan Fund, Municipality of Delft, Gieskes-Strijbis Fonds, Stichting Zabawas, l’Institut français NL, Van der Mandele Stichting, Stichting Mr. August Fentener van Vlissingen Fonds. We thank them all kindly for their support!

The film LOWLAND MELODIES, A POLDER WESTERN has been made possible with the support of Mondriaan Fund, Municipality of Rotterdam, CBK Rotterdam, RADIUS CCA, Amsterdam Fonds voor de Kunst, Kunsthuis SYB, Het Cultuurfonds, Ton Does and Media Horses International, WET.