In Search of an lnner Eden

Les vrais paradis sont les paradis qu’on a perdus. (Marcel Proust)

To set foot on an Island is perilous. All expectations and preconceptions must withstand the brutal test of real experience.

Islands are distant places; an effort must be made to reach them. Their remoteness evokes the idea of travel, of passage; “a system of openings and closings” that makes an island isolated and yet penetrable at the same time.

It would appear that an Island – perhaps because of its very insularity and far-away-ness – is preordained to be a projection surface for literary content, and has been just this more or less continuously from early mythology right up to the utopian, exotic and adventure literature of modern times. Linked to the paradigms of the travel tales of Antiquity and the Kelts, to idyllic places of longing, to the idea of the utopian state and to Robinsonade, the island space represents neutral testing ground for idealistic concept and poetical fantasy.

Ulysses’ islands are a series of disappointments as his projections are shattered one after the other. Although he finds his home in the end, his journey is the epitome of futility and human disenchantment.

Gauguin´s South Sea remains the essence of the exotic; his vision of the noble savage sharpens our sense of eroticism and still nourishes our ideas of a paradise on earth – a Garden of Eden full of beauty, abundance and innocence.

In the early twentieth Century, the German writer Christian Kracht wrote “A Small Empire”, a novel about a man´s search for paradise in the Bismarck Archipelago, which is now Papua New Guinea but was once a German colony. August Engelhardt (who really did exist) intends to start a coconut plantation on the Archipelago and found a colony of cocoivores. On arrival he takes possession of Kakabon Island for an exorbitant fee, strips off his clothes and undertakes to nourish himself entirely on coconuts and sunshine. Engelhardt’s affinity with nakedness, sunshine and the coconut is pure philosophy: he writes a tract on the benefits of sun worship and cocoivorism, and sends enthusiastic letters to vegetarians back home, encouraging them to join him. Needless to say, his idea of the garden of Eden, where mankind lives like Adam and Eve, fails.

Kracht is playing with the protagonist´s wish for salvation and exposes the idea of the island-as-paradise as a half-truth only. The remote reservation could easily become a laboratory of the “anti-civilized”, the regressive and, yes, of the infernal.

The starkness of prison islands such as Robben Island, Chateau d´If off Marseille, Tito´s prison camps on Goli Otok or the slave lodges of Goree and Zanzibar was greatly valued as it facilitated surveillance. Islands that are far away and out of sight are useful for nuclear tests such as those on the Bikini Atoll or Mururoa. More often than not there are reasons to long to leave the longed-for island. Life in the supposed paradise can be grim. The insularity, the “insular state of emergency”, encourages murder, breach of international law, cannibalism, and rape.

When we look at the imaginology of islands, Sylt is a very interesting example of how parameters can shift. Whereas islands like Bali or Tahiti have always been seen as places of longing, Sylt was a remote little island in a sea defined by disaster and uncertainty.

The North Sea, a force of nature too strong to control, and the storms of winter, called der Blanke Hans have always brought destruction and death to the local people. A very famous legend goes that der Blanke Hans swallowed the impious city of Rungholt and the romanticist poet Detlef von Liliencorn wrote his best-known long-poem about the power of nature and what it means for the people living in and around the North Sea. Some scientists even presume that the imagined island of Atlantis can be found on the floor of the North Sea.

The islanders of Sylt, who were poor throughout the centuries and earned their living through subsistence farming or on board whaling ships, became renowned for felonious deeds. They lit huge fires on their beaches to lure ships to the rocks to shipwreck. The islanders then looted the ships and killed the sailors or took them hostage.

When Jean-Jacques Rousseau postulated his famous “Back to Nature” there was still a long way to go before tourism was to become the major source of income for the island of Sylt. During the period of industrialisation the idea of a summer retreat became popular among Germans and a shipping line from Hamburg to Sylt was established. Today, tourists come to the Island in droves and although they may perceive the island as a paradise, the reality is very different.

The dichotomy between imagined and real space is Jaco van Schalkwyk´s point of departure. On Sylt, he was fascinated by the seascapes and by the forests of the island and its appropriation by so many artists before him.

The power of the sea and its destructive force juxtaposed with the perception of holiday makers on the beach who have come to Sylt to live in a dream and deny reality.

The power of the wind wreaking havoc on the trees of the island juxtaposed with the perceptions of holiday-makers picnicking or walking through the woods.

Many of von Schalkwyk´s paintings appear reminiscent of Romantic painting. The forest scene with its ruins, for example, is a direct reference to Caspar David Friedrich´s “The Abbey in the Oakwood” (1808-10).

It was Friedrich who first felt the wholly detached and distinctive features of nature. Expressed in terms of music, Friedrich reduced the composite chord to one single basic note. Bare oak trees and tree stumps are recurring elements in Friedrich’s paintings, symbolizing death. Friedrich’s symbols of redemption counter this sense if despair: the cross and the clearing sky promise eternal life, the waxing moon suggests hope, the growing nearness of Christ. In his paintings of the sea, anchors often appear on the shore; these also hinting at spiritual hope.

It is the iconography of this master of landscape painting that van Schalkwyk pays homage to, and, interestingly, it is by doing just this that he transcends romanticism and paints about today.

In contrast to Friedrich, no people inhabit von Schalkwyk´s spaces. They are deserted and lonely and reflect the vanity, futility and destruction of modern man.

These paintings are a magic mirror into our souls and the deceptive landscapes of our dreams. When scrutinized with searching heart rather than sober-minded eye, these seascapes and forests take us into the gloomy fairy-tale landscapes of our souls. These intense images are haunting and deeply moving.

These magic mirrors of our souls are also mirrors of our actions. By focusing on the island, on these insular dream-spaces of mystery and trepidation, van Schalkwyk not only emphasizes the destruction of our ecological environment by man but also makes us aware of what this destruction does to our dreams and conceptions.

Where Romanticism celebrated the idea of nature as both refuge and dream, von Schalkwyk reveals that this very nature is being neglected and abused, is no longer a haven, a Garden of Eden, but a place of utter devastation.

In the visitor´s imagination the natural beauty of an island like Sylt can be enjoyed and is safe during the holiday time.  Any damage done is by the storms and floods of winter – that is, by nature itself – and happens in the absence of the guests.

That nature is being destroyed by our own actions and ideals is a fact often ignored.  The delicate ecosystem found on an island is more prone to suffer from man’s irresponsible exploitation of nature.

And the price we are paying for this can be seen in van Schalkwyk´s paintings. Trees without leaves due to acid rain, a beach swallowed by the sea, dunes eroding away, creeks running dry.

We are struck by the paradox of the beauty of these vulnerable natural spaces and the inability to protect them so deeply rooted in our condicio humana.

Van Schalkwyk´s landscapes are real landscapes that become symbolical and allegorical manifestations of our dreams and illusions. They play with our ideas of nature: forest as resonance-space of our soul, forest as place of danger and threat, forest as place of piousness and salvation. In his seascapes Schalkwyk invokes the lascivious atmosphere of a remote place of perfect eternal monotony where we can experience the unbrokenness we so desperately long for.

All these places are the epitome of our own troubled inner self and hint at the fact that the Garden of Eden is always somewhere else.

“….one can surely bet that mankind will disappear like a face in the sand of the seashore” (Foucault)

Indra Wussow is literary scholar and curator.