Na / After

One of the key influences of Satellites came unexpectedly one summer several years ago, in Amsterdam.

My aunt Margriet Gehrels, a painter, had told me about an exhibition happening in the Oude Kerk (Old Church), by an artist called Christian Boltanski, called Na (After). He has been a big influence on her work, which is made up of memories, or the imaginations of memories. The themes she described- existence, erasure, light and shadow, transience- resonated with the work I was trying to make, so I decided to go to the city for the afternoon and see what it was all about.

The Oude Kerk is a church dating from 1213, set in the heart of the infamous Red Light District. I went inside not knowing what to expect.

The first thing that struck me was the sound- a gentle rustling, and somewhere in the distance, the tinkling of tiny bells.

Image courtesy of artsy.net

Image courtesy of artsy.net

Boltanski had split the interior of the church into sections using large boxes which were covered in black plastic. As you meandered through the alleyways they created, you saw snatches of the building revealing itself- part of a window here, a doorway there. Occasionally you saw another person, and then in an instant they were gone. 

Coathangers stood with empty coats hanging on them. As you moved closer, you heard whispers coming from the folds of the fabric.

In a wide open space in the middle was a series of coats lying empty on the ground, as if the wearers had simply vanished into the sky without a trace. The chandeliers had been lowered close down to the stone.

An alcove was decorated with fairy lights, and one was programmed to go out on each day of the exhibition. At an altar, there was an offering of dried roses.

At the end of the installation was a confession-style booth. I stepped inside, where there was a chair and a small desk with a large book on it, and a microphone. The artist had invited each visitor to contribute to the work- to sit down at the microphone and record, whispering, some of the names of the many thousands of people who were buried underneath this historic church, as listed in the book. When you were done, you mark where you’ve got to in the list ready for the next person to take over. Your recordings are then added to the sounds which are piped out from inside the coats- eventually, the name of every person, back to 1213, would have been spoken aloud, and for a moment, if you believe in those sorts of things, brought back to life.

Image courtesy of artsy.net

Image courtesy of artsy.net

As I stepped out into the sunlight and the tottering groups of drunk tourists heading to the nearest pub, I was filled with peace. The way Boltanski had managed to communicate so many complex ideas about death in just a few objects arranged in a specific way was amazing to me. The exhibition has stayed with me and been a huge influence on what Satellites has started to become.

Find out more about Na at the Oude Kerk.

Read about another large-scale Boltanski piece, “Personnes” at the Grand Palais, Paris.

Image courtesy of artsy.net

Image courtesy of artsy.net

The Empty Chair

We never talked about our history. I knew fragments, from my grandparents’ generation, but nothing beyond that. I know my father and his siblings grew up on a farm near Amsterdam, where they grew potatoes and sugar beet. I know that farm was sold in the 1980s, so they could build the motorway to Schiphol airport. I know my grandfather, who invented the most bizarre mechanic contraptions for irrigation on that farm, died before I was born, of leukaemia, and that he was missed. Aside from that, there was not much discussion. It was a mystery to me- a jigsaw puzzle with half the pieces missing.

In uncle Tom’s autobiography, he said, were stories that were important for me, because they would help me understand my place in the world. It was not until after he died that I started to read it, and my own hidden history unspooled before me.

It started familiarly enough. He wrote of the flat miles of boggy farmland where he grew up in north Holland, in a place called Baarn, near Hilversum. I have never been there but I know what it will be like- iron grey skies, emerald grass, grazing cows, criss-cross canals with little bridges and low-roofed houses with big windows. 

He wrote of singing old folk songs, of riding his horse, of stargazing, and of being forced to attend the Sunday services at the Calvinist red brick church- most likely with a square steeple, that his father (my great-great-grandfather) revered, because it ‘points our way to heaven’.

He wrote of his older brother Cornelis, who he idolised, who had bright blonde hair and twinkling blue eyes, and rode his motorbike at breakneck speed along the canalside; Cornelis who would die emaciated, feverish and broken, in a camp in Germany- we think- just a few days before the end of World War Two.

Someone had mentioned him before, at a family meal several years previously. It was the night before my aunt’s wedding, and the conversation moved to the people who could not be sat around my Oma’s table that night. We talked about Opa of course, and each of us was given a button from his military uniform to wear on our person at the ceremony. Someone spoke of “Cor”, who “died in the camp”, and moved swiftly on. There was an empty chair at the table, and it’s emptiness was bright and shining. 

The Book

Some time during our postal correspondence, what I received through the letterbox was significantly bulkier. Still the same air mail stickers and stamps, still the same spidery handwriting that all our Dutch relatives seem to have adopted. 

Tom had sent me a book- hardback, with a glossy dust jacket. The photograph on the front was of a lunar-like landscape, all rocky promontories and craters and dust. The book was titled “On The Glassy Sea: An Astronomer’s Journey”, and it was written by him- his autobiography. 

In the accompanying letter he told me that I was probably too young to read this book, because there was a lot of complicated science in it that I wouldn’t be interested in. But he urged me to read it one day, because there were stories in it about our family that I should know. I put it up on the shelf, and for a while I marvelled at the Gehrels name sandwiched up there between Salman Rushdie and George Orwell (we’re not big into alphabetising in our house), but over time it became just another part of the room, and faded into the background.

I’ve had something of a complicated relationship with my Dutch heritage. I didn’t grow up with my father, but thanks to my Oma (grandmother), I have always known my family and visited them regularly. I did not learn the language- something I am now trying to remedy- but to my shame they spoke English with beautiful precision. I hated cycling and am only now forcing myself to overcome my fears of it- they can cycle through a busy intersection while sending a text and eating a sandwich, as if it’s an extended part of their body. When I am in Holland, I never feel fully Dutch; but when I am in the UK, I never feel fully British either.

Oral history is an important component of being part of a family. Being an intermittent visitor to the Netherlands, I missed out on the familial storytelling that makes up a huge part of who we are and how we see ourselves in the world. I knew the histories of the immediate family, but even my grandmother’s past was something of a mystery to me until very recently.

After hearing that Tom had passed away, we were moving house. One of my jobs was to box up the books, and send the ones we were unlikely to ever read to charity. Into my hands fell Tom’s book, and there among the boxes, I started to read.