Proximity, 2023

One of the aspects highlighted in this edition of Watou is the proximity of France. That is what strikes Niels Albers the most on his visit within the context of Patchwwwork. When he goes for a walk to the French border, all he finds there is a small brook and a bridge. Nevertheless, he gets the impression the world on the other side of that border is completely different. It continues to fascinate him.

As Albers remarks, nowadays borders within the European Union are no longer a real obstacle but more like a transformation line between cultures and languages. He discovers that while the physical distance from Watou to France may be limited, the mental distance appears much bigger. On both sides of the border fewer people speak their neighbours’ language and on the French side they don’t know much about the festival or want nothing to do with it, like the farmer just across the border.

The work of Niels Albers is often inspired by the location and its history. For instance, he discovers that a large part of the Westhoek is the only part of Belgium that was never occupied by the German army. This is probably due in part to the nearby trenches. This war fact inspires his project for Watou, which is located right on the border. At first glance from the Flemish side it looks like the blank side wall of a house, no different from so many others in Flanders. But on the other side – the French side – the visitor discovers a heap of organically stacked sandbags that appear to support or reinforce the wall. The sandbags offer protection but saplings sprout from some of them and a trickle of water runs to the brook. This is very symbolic because not only is the name ‘Watou’ derived from the word ‘water’, but water is obviously also a source of life. In other words, so is the border formed by the brook. Incidentally, the number of saplings is based on the quantity of CO2 it took Albers to travel back and forth to Watou and complete the installation.

From the sandbags visitors can look across the border and into France. This way they can look out over the landscape but also reflect on the often invisible physical and mental boundaries. After the festival the plan is to donate the saplings to different inhabitants of Watou so they can continue to grow and store CO2, and in order to give them a life beyond the memory of those who visited the festival.

      Our thanks to tree nursery ’t Graafschap.

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