Geert Opsomer

Protected Landscape – Filip Berte

When the door of Protected Landscape closed behind me I had to think of the American truck driver Mike Davies who, in his books Ecology of Fear and City of Quartz, described a catastrophic picture of our future metropolises. Among other things he writes ‘The best place to view the Los Angeles of the next millennium is from the ruins of its alternative future’.

His outline does not strike us as apocalyptic (otherwise he would emphasise something totally alien to us) because the landscape he describes is already very familiar. We see the seeds of this possible future. Which is why this future is catastrophic rather than apocalyptic. In other words, he tells us the future of the past and/or the past of the future.

Replace L.A. with Europe and you find yourself in the middle of Filip Berte’s Protected Landscape. Like Mike Davies, Filip Berte describes the future of the past and/or the past of the future: a landscape with order enforcement and underlying chaos, maximum surveillance and security, a Fort Europe (or Fortress L.A.) where the exceptional situation has become the rule. A culture of fear linked to the extreme control of anything alien that does not comply with the western dream (Garden of Eden). To preserve the shops of our welfare society and the residential zones with a zero tolerance of crime, we need more than vigilantes and neighbourhood watch groups. Around the shopping precincts and residential zones we need zones where the authorities allow certain illegal activities to take place and transitional areas, as well as grey zones on the outskirts of the town with intensified police control. On the edge of the city or state both Filip Berte and Mike Davies see a ‘gulag fringe’ with prisons, camps and guarded transit zones. As far as Filip Berte is concerned, we seem to be returning to a pre-Copernican flat world on the edge of which it is extremely insecure, from which you could fall off, and where safety is threatened by intruders, monstrous beings and deep darkness.

This is a far darker utopia of Europe than that of George Steiner, who describes Europe as a coffee house where you can hear various languages being spoken, a landscape with a scale that is calculable and human, cities and towns with street names that glorify European culture and history and a classical culture that refers to Jewish-Christian and Greek ancestry. Filip Berte does not go along with this classical culture image, onto which progressive ideas are grafted.

Filip Berte’s work reminds me more of Paul Klee’s famous Angel of History (the Angelus Novus) which the philosopher Benjamin says looks the catastrophe of history in the eyes: ‘His eyes are open wide, his mouth is open and his wings are spread. This is what the angel of history should look like. He has turned his face to the past. Where we see a sequence of events, he sees a great catastrophe which continually heaps ruin upon ruin and casts this at his feet. He would like to stand still, waken the dead and assemble what has been crushed. But a storm from paradise rises, is caught up in his wings and is so strong that the angel is no longer able to close them. This storm irrepressibly drives him into the future. The storm is what we call progress.’
(Benjamin, who had the painting in his possession, describes it in this amazing way. It was rather painful to see the painting hanging in Documenta 2007 as an opener for an exhibition aimed at reconnecting with a more classical approach to art.)

Yesterday, while the exhibition was being set up I walked around in Filip Berte’s lost or regained paradise and saw the Europe of the camps, the control of terrorism and the deportations that have come to the fore since the Balkan wars and 9/11. The Europe that dwells safely under the umbrella of the so-called directorate of justice, freedom and safety. It is above all the notion of freedom that gives us a safe feeling in this context, is it not?

Filip Berte does something rather similar to what Beuys did when he made a design to increase the height of the Berlin Wall a few centimetres for artistic purposes: aesthetically speaking it would improve its proportions. By placing a heated political discussion on an artistic scale and magnifying it, he enables us to reflect on it. By taking a detached view, the harsh absurdity becomes visible. From an aesthetic point of view, Filip Berte makes scale models that magnify the political and human implications of the Fort Europe policy.

We wander around in a landscape with a central political fortress that is protected like a fenced-in concentration camp. The inner circle is a closed circuit in which trains travel in circles and there are white Lippizaner horses, the lackeys of power. This is the territory of Europe’s power structure or of those who think they govern all. Surrounding it are various transit zones, the blue and grey mountains: the territories that have optimum security and the areas that can join this umbrella of safety. And finally there is the expulsion zone, the black mountains. This is where the exclusion prisons are (which remind us of a sort of oven), the refugee tunnel (a sort of expulsion pipe through which the landscape spits out everything it wants to get rid of), something like stealth bomber or a vehicle used for deportation purposes (a sort of CIA flight in preparation). Everything appears to be heading in one direction: it is a one-way street. It is clear along which road you will be banished, it is not at all clear how to reach the safe plateau.

On the opposite side there is an exodus of shadows. It looks like a landscape with Argonauts. Or a migration of peoples to some promised land or other. Are they spirits yet to be born or shadows from the underworld? Ruins or rebirths? There is also what appears to be an empty-looking and tumble-down transit camp. It seems deserted…

Next to it is the ruin of a burned-out house. Kosovan or Balkan houses during or after the war? It is also a metaphor that refers to catastrophe or a new possibility. On the video film next to it, hope and destruction go hand in hand. And then there is the glass house in which everyone imagines they are safe. Provided with home automation and security systems. Bathed in light. The house is a glass cage surrounded by a park. A park with pets. Separate from the rest. The civilian ‘alone on a mountain’.

A hundred years ago in Europe we still saw the fringes of society on the street. Civilians clearly saw the pariahs and barricades. Now the naked face only appears every now and then. We have to look at the fringes of the globalised world, the borders of Europe. Or we must be prepared to look into the abyss, the darkness on which our western society is founded.

We are struck by the fact that there are more horses than people in the landscape. Are they human animals, human horses? Horses on guard like Lippizaners, and domestic horses in the paddock, but also black stallions who appear to be rising in revolt, who want to escape, but in all the turmoil smash into the walls of the fort, of the protected landscape, horses on the edge of the abyss. Europe is a dead museum but one that is kept alive by extreme security. Afraid to look at its own ruins, to look across the border, to look over the wall as often happened in Greek tragedy (Teichoscopy).

When I leave the Protected Landscape, three images stick in my mind: the black horse, the black ruin and the poetic image of the angel of history.

1. The image of the spirited horse leaping up against the searchlight instinctively makes me think of one of the metaphors of European cultural history: the philosopher Nietszche, who embraces a horse and from that moment disappears into madness after using his hammer and his ideas to destroy the safe houses of western philosophy and western culture. How wildness can turn into melancholy.

2. We are waiting for a positive dream, we are right in the middle of the melancholy phase. The black ruin and the angel both remind me of this. The angel that increasingly thrusts itself on me is no longer Klee’s angel of history. He looks more like the angel that Ilya Kabakov drew for his designs of The Utopian City. In one instance he looks sideways onto the utopian world like a guardian angel that wants to intervene. But in another instance he is a fallen angel, a man who has fallen down from a great height because he could no longer keep up the balancing act. A little later he is seated at his writing desk busy with his next design. He is the designer of all this, or the describer. Kabakov calls him a man-angel or an angel-man. This angel is Filip Berte.