WRECKAGE IN A BOTTLE (2019)
This artwork instantly evokes the image of a ‘message in a bottle’. Tom Herck plays with the mysterious, nostalgic allure of this concept. People have been sending messages in bottles for centuries for all kinds of reasons. Last year, the world’s oldest message in a bottle –a gin bottle from the German sailing ship Paula, 1886- was found on a beach in Western Australia. The Gin bottle was thrown overboard as it crossed the Indian Ocean, 950 km from the Australian coast.
Traditionally it was a method used by sailors hoping to send a message to the mainland and by castaways to advertise their distress to the outside world. A message in a bottle can make friends out of strangers, lovers out of the lonely, or give the dead a final chance to speak. It has also been used to provide scientific data about ocean currents or raise awareness about plastic pollution.
Stories about messages in bottles have enchanted us for centuries, provoking a sense of wonder and wishfulness, for example, the stories by Edgar Allen Poe and Charles Dickens, the song 'Message in a Bottle' by Sting, and Nicholas Spark's homonymous book -which makes use of the romantic potential of bottled banknotes. Impulses to connect, to love, to remember are so deeply human that they are in each of us. In this society, however, it is necessary to be reminded of this.
Although at first glance, Herck’s bottle might look like a ‘message in a bottle’, the bottle actually contains a large folded paper in the shape of a ship, that should contain a message. The ship in this presentation is a reminder of the decorative bottles that sailors made; often designs of legendary war or discovery ships such as the Passat and Santa Maria. In times of war, the message in a bottle was a frequently used method. As a port city Ostend had an important role in the First and Second World War.
Tom Herck used and combined these two graphic and iconic elements, message in a bottle and bottle vessels. We see a warship, made in origami - a Japanese art form, developed from techniques for folding paper-. The childlike, pure and honest shape of this warship and the fragility of paper contrast with the hardness of the 'normal rendering' of a warship in a bottle. The origami warvessel Tom Herck creates, is a seemingly contradictory combination of patience and aggression.
The use of paper in this work is deliberate choice. It is one of the oldest man-made materials, and one of the most versatile. The culture of paper art flourishes all over the world. There is a primitive quality to paper. Something basic and pure. Light and shadow play along the rough folds and layers, creating a work that exists in real space, that asks to be touched, yearns to connect. Aesthetic philosophy contributes to origami’s appeal. Origami celebrates the importance of minimalism in art. Reflected in the term, shibumi(渋味), which refers to a kind of understated beauty or simplicity, origami is often praised for transforming an unassuming object into something beautiful. Like life, paper is fragile and temporary, but origami artists attempt to harness it in a single, tangible form in hopes of creating something with a sense of permanence.
Although commonly known in Japan today as a childhood pastime, origami (折り紙) has evolved into a major medium for artistic expression. It can be found in widely-known stories from Japan's history. In the aftermath of the World War II, a 12-year old girl named Sadako Sasaki fell ill after being exposed to radiation caused by fallout from the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945. There is a famous Japanese legend that says that, “the one who creates a thousand origami cranes will earn one wish.” Bedridden and suffering from leukemia, Sadako decided –in vain- to fold one thousand origami cranes in hopes that she might survive. The paper cranes became a symbol of hope and peace.
Herck doesn’t just emphasizes the transience and duality of life through the use of origami or the bottle mail theme. The concept of folding the message also gets a new and deeper dynamic. The message, normally an emergency letter, is now a 5 Euro banknote, folded in the shape of a warship. Why exactly 5 euros?This refers to a TV documentary the artist recently watched, that stipulated a grenade can be acquired for 5 euros. The extremely low sum is alarming. Food and basic necessities are rising in price, while the price of weapons is dropping.
To indicate this imbalance, the artist might opt for a milk bottle, as milk continues to rise in price.The milk bottle then symbolize food and drinks. The milk bottle with cork cap in the sketch looks more traditional. Represented with a metal cap, the bottle would look more contemporary -also an option-. The sea under the ship could therefore be as white as milk.
The choice of money can be elaborated further, by folding two old banknotes together: the simple calculation shows us that two banknotes of 100 Belgian francs are equal to 5 euros now. The world-renowned James Ensor -Herck's personal favorite Belgian artist, also from the city of Ostend- is depicted here. We should however be careful that the work does not draw too much attention to the persona James Ensor, because the concept might get lost as a result.
If artists were to be dictators, warships were playful and paper-like, childlike, vulnerable and creative, thrown into a bottle that safely enveloped the ship and allowed it to wash ashore and create magic somewhere. The wordplay in the title is an ode to the many sunken ships, that became war wrecks, with or without a final wish or message for the strangers who first saw the bottle. Just like the artist’s message for the many unknown spectators of this work.
The work is a stark reminder of humanity’s core contradiction. The very spark that marks us as a species -our thoughts, our imagination, our language, our toolmaking, our ability to set ourselves apart from nature and bend it to our own will –, those very things give us the capacity for unmatched destruction. How often does material advancement or social innovation blind us to this truth? How easily we learn to justify violence in the name of some higher cause.
Every great religion promises a pathway to love and peace and righteousness, and yet no religion has been spared from believers who have claimed their faith as a license to kill. Science allows us to communicate across the seas and fly above the clouds, to cure disease and understand the cosmos, but those same discoveries can be turned into more effective killing machines. The wars of the modern age teach us this truth. Technological progress without an equivalent progress in attitude can doom us.
Ostend (in common with nearly the entirety of the country) was occupied by German forces and used as an access point to the sea for submarines and other light naval forces for much of the duration of World War I. As a consequence the port was subjected to two naval assaults by the Royal Navy. World War II involved a second occupation of the town by Germany within a period of little more than twenty years; an occupation which it shared this time with most of northern Europe. Both conflicts brought significant destruction to Ostend. In addition, other opulent buildings which had survived the wars were later replaced with structures in the modernist architecture style.
© Text and translation by Lara van Oudenaarde