Selected texts
‘In Want of Fox’, the work of Els Dietvorst, Cherry Smyth The beauty of our ugliness. On the Earthly Vanitas in the Work of Els Dietvorst, Pascal Gielen Notes of an Autodidact. On Els Dietvorst’s work, Hans Theys Looking for the everyday, Rolf Quaghebeur 2010, Kathleen Weyts
Dietvorst does not evoke pity, but compassion. You can call her militant. She fights against exclusion and for an ecologically better life. But the message never drowns out the accessibility of art. That is a great achievement. (De Tijd)
‘In Want of Fox’, the work of Els Dietvorst

‘The body tries weighing a planet, on one hand,

and a story, on the other.’ (1)

We are in the time of dead-ice. We are at a time when glaciers are becoming too thin to move and are starting to die. In August, 2019, a scientist and a poet decided to commemorate the death of Iceland’s first glacier, Okjökull. They unveiled a plaque addressing a future humans are less and less sure to be part of, with the words ‘Only you know if we saved the glaciers.’ This ritual accrued solemnity and sorrow beyond a news item and stood as a brief cohering point for the despair caused by climate catastrophe, or ‘solastalgia’. Here, a collaborative act brought the world’s attention to the loss of the ‘OK’ glacier, creating a performative refuge and making central a periphery we must face if we are to prevent the end of the planet’s ice.

The art practice of Els Dietvorst is deeply concerned with this critical balance between ecological urgency and harnessing story that can resonate beyond the local to rekindle the sense of a common artform and a primal interconnectedness. Becoming a sheep farmer in south-east Ireland in 2011, sharpened the questions that have long been posed by her work: how to meet art through activism; how to recover and represent the dignity of marginalised people; and how what she calls ‘an experiment on the outside’ could bring an outsider element to the narrative conventions of drawing, installation and film-making?

In deciding to discover what it meant to ‘live, love and die with nature’, Dietvorst, not only found a slower, more sustainable lifestyle, but collided with seasonal routines set askew by climate crisis. ‘I’d love to meet a climate change denier who is also an honest gardener,’ she writes. (2) As well as creating found-wood-carved pastoral shrines and almanacs such as ‘My Monthly Routine’, woodcut, 2019, which considers the impact of weather systems, she also began to recalibrate the socially engaged practice she’d developed in an urban setting in films such as ‘The Return of the Swallows’, 1999-2004 and ‘A Walk with ACM’, 2010.

Dietvorst found that the rhythms of encountering local farmers and fisher-people, their exchange of knowledge and support and their intrinsic awareness of the beauty and severity of the natural landscape altered her relationship to her visual aesthetic, her ‘documentary’ subjects and the environment. The choreography of the images in ‘The Rabbit and the Teasel’, 2014 and ‘I Watched the White Dogs of the Dawn’, 2017 is distinctly painterly and the editing pace languid. Her key concerns explore everyday labour and survival, and the long-standing generational identities that are under threat in a changed and changing rural economy and ecosystem.

‘The Rabbit and the Teasel’, builds an extraordinary album of a family’s devastation by the savage demands of rearing livestock on a small farm. Dietvorst invokes and honours the lyrical folkloric tradition of Irish story-telling and music, as well as drawing on framing and editing devices common to experimental films by artists such as Mikhail Karikis and Patrick Keiller. Working with a non-professional cast, Dietvorst exacts an emotional rigour and claustrophobia that recalls the intimacy of John Cassavetes, who in films like ‘Shadows’, 1968 and ‘Woman Under the Influence’, 1974 conjoined individual emotional pain with collective racial belonging or communal manual labour. An adult recalls his childhood in ‘The Rabbit and the Teasel’, through a tender narrative voice over, with the clarity and symbolic intensity of a Bernard McLaverty or Mary Lavin short story. The film chronicles the young boy’s silent grief when his mother leaves home and his taciturn father endures relentless livestock loss and existential anguish. Dietvorst’s vision uses line, colour and the position of the horizon to set the rich materiality of the milieu against the emotional poverty of the family’s situation. Long, meditative takes show the close up of a cattle dealer gently brushing and blow-drying the hide on a bulls’ back to prettify it for sale; or a curving red rope outlined against the dealer’s white coat; or the wider family gathering happily for what may be an annual photograph in front of the white, harmonious architecture of the farmhouse. Dietvorst’s editic images are seductive without a whiff of sentimental idealisation of bucolic life. The scene where the mother cracks eggs and separates the yolks into a baking bowl creates a spell that evokes the boy’s trance-like love and encapsulates the artist’s method, in which a mythical, archetypal memory is held by a concrete physical action in the present. Thus Dietvorst shapes our shift between memory’s free-floating mood and colour and the ordinary, everyday routines of farming life. You could argue that this movement is also one of form between abstract visual decisions and those in the representational realm, with the change from dreamtime to real time blurring and bleeding as we watch. Dietvorst’s approach sets up a captivating interplay between reflective and performative memory. It doesn’t matter that the boy remembers the mother packing her suitcase in what seems like a scene from the 1960s and later he runs under a 21st century wind turbine, as we are the boy, then and here and now, with our own historical losses running alongside our contemporary pacts with totemic creatures or magic stones against grief. This overlap between fact and fiction, between documentary action and reconstruction teases out questions of truth and challenges the role of the spectator and what Dietvorst asks of us.

Dietvorst draws on the traditional proportions of landscape painting throughout. Just as the farmers explain that the sheep exist beneath cattle and horses in the agricultural hierarchy, Dietvorst’s framing establishes hierarchies of meaning and significance. In one scene, a flock of sheep run straight to camera, against a ground comprised of two-thirds green hills and grey sky, as if to reiterate how the weather dominates the experience of farming and determines its success. Also, in the high, wide-angle shot of the barren farmyard, the unforgiving blunt concrete is hemmed by farm buildings, low dunes and dull cloud. ‘It was the year of the dead. Dead cattle, dead sheep. You could smell it in the air’, says the narrator, as water-logged carcases of sheep and calves are dragged out of view. In learning how the farmers persist in farming, Dietvorst is teaching herself not only how to be a good shepherd, but how to persevere as an artist. ‘There is no such thing as finished’, the protagonist’s father would say of a farmer’s work, which Dietvorst echoes with ‘Art never leaves you alone either.’ (3)

‘Most people live in silent despair’, a neighbour explains to the boy, whose comfort lies in the painting of a robin left by his mother and the sudden flooding recollection of her words, ‘If you feel an empty hole when I’m gone, call the robins or the wrens or the blackbirds and they will talk to you.’ It recalls the protective role of animals in Olga Tokarczuk’s masterpiece Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, in which wild animals take revenge on local hunters. ‘The human psyche evolved in order to defend us against seeing the truth….The psyche is our defence system – it makes sure we’ll never understand what’s going on around us….For it would be impossible to carry the weight of this knowledge. Because every tiny particle of the world is made of suffering.’ (4). In many ways, Dietvorst’s work shows us that the artist’s job is to keep finding ways to pierce the defence system, soften us, help carry the weight of unbearable truths.

While the longing to domesticate a wild robin consoles the boy, the father clings to superstitions as props: he’s certain that the black lamb will protect the flock from disasters; that it’s best to see animal manure as gold; that a goat-hoofed finger is a talisman; and that each life has seven new starts, each marked by a small stone. The rituals act as narrative hinges: the father almost dies when there is only one stone left, and by swallowing the stone the boy secures the father’s resurrection. Thus Dietvorst weaves stories local people have constructed to overcome sadness and come to terms with calamity into the narrative, teaching us the important lesson of ritual’s role now. As poet MTC Cronin affirms: ‘It’s not the artist who wants the artwork, but the art.’ (5)

Dietvorst conjures both the mystery of being deeply connected to nature and the trust it demands as making a living from the land or sea becomes more and more precarious. The parallels with the precarity in an artist’s livelihood are evident.

‘In wrath we await

The rare poetic of veracity that huge art whose geometric

Light seems not its own in that most dense world West and East

Have denied have hated have wandered in precariousness…’ (6)

While Dietvorst navigates a line between landscape composition and narrative cinema in ‘The Rabbit and the Teasel’, in ‘I Watched the White Dogs of the Dawn’, she alludes to modes of visual abstraction and documentary traditions to create something that enriches both genres. The film works its way towards a more realist series of interviews with people working in fishing through a sequence of astounding images that unsettle figure from ground, foreshadowing the dislocation of fishermen and women from their livelihoods and familial heritage. Slowed down footage of underwater, accompanied by an eerie drone tone, suggest the perspective of sea creatures: our source of food and of human life itself. Then a shot of a seagull tugging at a scrap of fish (often used to denote diminishing fish stocks) emphasises instead the texture and tone of the abstract ground of the pier, speckled blood red and green with algae as if some harmony beyond the demands of earning a living make this life worth choosing.

Later, Dietvorst invokes the modernist land art tradition in the static image of a sea wall that runs a vertical line through the centre of the frame, shored up by sand and rocks on either side. Slowly, she visually investigates the ways humans have intervened in the shaping of the littoral and in turn how these patterns and grids create a sense of belonging or aesthetic pleasure. When we spy a lone figure navigating the arcing sandbank, we are unsure if this is a performance or a daily routine, a re-enactment or a necessity. Are we watching to learn a lifestyle, escape our own, or both? Or to question both? Dietvorst allows the viewer to float these questions in a muted environment where people silently sort winkles, mend nets and toss lobster pots and trawls from a boat. We are granted the slowness of looking, of space and silence that the participants later describe as the solace of fishing and being close to the sea. Interestingly the protagonist never speaks in ‘The Rabbit and the Teasel’ and this honouring of wordlessness becomes a sign of a growing need for calm for Dietvorst, whose woodcut ‘Future’, 2019, states: ‘inner silence is the new luxury.’

Again Dietvorst’s evocation of the visual lexicons of modernism is light-handed: the rope carrying the lobster pots slackens and tautens on a grey field of sea – a line carrying the lineage for those seafolk, as well as the lineage of experimental film. A hook and lure dangling a frail lime wisp of seaweed is suspended in a high close up, as if over the distant headland: a visual metaphor for the thinning catch, a threatened way of life and the toughness the industry requires.

Gradually Dietvorst introduces the studio-set interviews, with the subjects starkly lit against a blackened backdrop. The selected palette of blues and greys echoes the seascape of their work. Just as a rich spirit life inhabited ‘the Rabbit and the Teasel’, here an elderly women recalls an encounter with a ghost which has remained vivid for years, while a man tells of witnessing a green man on the prow of his ship in a dream and later discovering his archetypal role as a symbol of rebirth. Even though the labour is often treacherous, exhausting and less and less financially viable, their stories seek another order by which to measure endurance and suggest interconnectedness. The work is a restrained and beautiful elegy not only for the small fishing community of Kilmore Quay, but for our fading connection to the natural cycles of growth and decay, to understanding the provenance of our food and who controls and capitalises on its production and distribution.

The stark staging of the interviews suggests that the subjects are speaking as and also beyond themselves. This element of beyond the self is one of the most vital drives in Dietvorst’s work – the move from the isolated individual to the collective vision, using aesthetic means that re-hallow manual labour while not underplaying the sheer doggedness it demands.

In ‘Fox’, 2014, Dietvorst sketches the head and neck of a fox, with a small figure, arms outstretched, holding its jaws wide open. It immediately speaks to the lines ‘I needed fox,’ by poet Adrienne Rich, ‘I needed history of fox.’ (7)

It’s an arresting image partly due to the visceral tension between the scale of the large fox and the tiny human, but also due to its ambiguity. It’s unclear whether the figure is holding open the animal’s jaws so it will not be devoured, or is emerging from the fox’s maw, being born on a bestial snarl? Or is the figure wearing the fox head as a costume, a animistic disguise to scare off bigger demons? The frenzied cross-hatching of the fox fur reacts powerfully with the smooth outline of the human figure, perhaps suggesting that a tamed human cannot hope to regain the coat and courage of the wild. Though we cry to.

‘For a human animal to call for help

on another animal

is the most riven the most revolted cry on earth….’ (8)

Dietvorst’s art practice is a proposition, a proposition towards quieter looking, towards deeper longing and a possibility of moral action. If art cannot change the world, it may be, in the words of Toni Morrison, an artist’s ‘responsibility to help make sense of it.’ (9). Dietvorst leaves us with sparks of images, a crying tree, a boy’s pale neck with a worm scribbling on it and what novelist Valeria Luiselli calls ‘small conceptual lightmarks….sometimes a light can make you aware of the dark, unknown space that surrounds it… and that recognition and coming to terms with darkness is more valuable than all the factual knowledge we may ever accumulate.’ (10) She faces the responsibility to represent a community as well as make community with a steadying grace and an enlarging integrity of vision.

Waldrep, G.C. ‘In Memory of Domestic Life’, from feast gently (Tupelo Press: North Adams, Massachusetts, 2018)

  • Dietvorst, Els, Field Guide * acte de révolte, (Mu.ZEE: Ostende, 2019), p.31
  • Ibid.p.34
  • Tokarczuk, Olga, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead (Fitzcarraldo Editions, London, 2018), p.223
  • Cronin, MTC, from Causal (Spuyten Duyvil: New York City 2018), p.41
  • Oppen, George, Seascape: Needle’s Eye (The Sumac Press: Freemont, Michigan, 1972), p.13
  • Rich, Adrienne, ‘Fox’ from Fox (WW Norton: New York City, 2001)
  • Ibid.
  • Morrison, Toni, Mouth Full of Blood (Chatto & Windus: London, 2019) p.270
  • Luiselli, Valeria, from The Lost Children Archive (Fourth Estate: London, 2019), p.60

Cherry Smyth is an Irish art writer and poet, living in London.

She recently published her fourth collection, Famished, a book-length poem (Pindrop Press, 2019) that explores the Irish Famine and how imperialism helped cause the largest refugee crisis of the 19th century. Famished also tours as a performance with vocalist Lauren Kinsella and composer Ed Bennett, drawing on the power of collective lament, using music and expanded singing.

Smyth also writes for visual art magazines including Art Monthly and has written essays for Jane and Louise Wilson, Elizabeth Magill, Orla Barry, Mikhail Karikis and others.

Twitter @CherrySmyth

Instagram @cherrysmythpoet