In 2019 I was asked to preserve the skin off a bull calf. This calf, Gerrit, had been taken over from a dairy farm as surplus at a young age. He was raised with much love and care in an urban farming area (NL).
Before I feel ready and comfortable to work with his skin, I visit his habitat.
The first thing I see upon my arrival is: reed. High collars line ditch sides. It forms the slow waving, tousled hair of the otherwise so open landscape. It is November third, clearly autumn. Most of the foliage is browning and reed stems are broken. I walk past these reeds, further into the yard. There, lumps of dark clay stick to the soles of my boots. That heavy, wet clay is slippery. I take my steps with caution, this walking is difficult and unstable. I keep my arms slightly off my body and try to find balance with every step I take. A little further the calf is standing. A light gray cloudy sky forms the ceiling of his herbaceous meadow. He watches me. I walk up to him and stroke his warm fur. Its hair is the color of the brown reed and feels both coarse and fluffy. There’s clay on its flanks and it forms rough slabs of hair and earth. Some dried herbs are entangled in his pelt. The calf is quite a beast and the moist earth gives way under its weight. A hoof print forms in the clay, surrounded by chickweed, dandelion, grass and clover that this bull feeds on. I follow the prints further into the land and so I wander through Gerrit’s habitat. The calf has rubbed against a tree, a tuft of fur has remained between the bark. From that hairy bark my eye slides, past clay and herb, further into the land until it lingers on the horizon. The place where the earth stops and heaven begins. The sky here feels big, light and deep. The earth dense, empty and wide. Gerrit stands quietly in between that and I wonder where he stops and his habitat begins?
I am called away from my reverie, for coffee and cake. A discussion follows. About reclaimed land and how difficult it is to build on this clayey soil. Piles had to go twelve meters deep into the ground to provide some stability. Although it seems as if this is newly reclaimed land, people already lived here many centuries ago. Their land was flooded, disappeared under a layer of water and later under a layer of clay. And so, layer by layer, the land and life here arise and pass away.
During this visit a 'Primordial Perspective' on the land and Gerrit's existence has settled under my skin. Something cuts through time. Something that I cannot name. I take this primal feeling with me. It will provide guidance as I go work with Gerrit's skin.
Once at home, I pick up remnants of clay from between the deep sole profiles of my boots. (I put this clay in a container, for later?) I smear the earth that is still on my fingers on a piece of paper that happens to be next to me. In that thoughtless sweep I see the landscape I just walked through.
It's December, five in the afternoon and I'm in a parking lot along a highway. There it is dark, wet and cold. The air is filled with the sound of cars speeding past. The trunk is open. A large plastic bag is pressed into my arms. I hold that heavy bag firmly against my body to prevent it from falling. It feels sinister, there is clearly something in it that once lived. I quickly put it in the back of the car, say goodbye and drive away: this is not a place to stay too long. Once back in my studio, that bag goes in the freezer.
Time stands still…
Gerrit comes out of the freezer like a block off skin ice. It takes 2 days for that lump to thaw somewhat. I unfold the skin while creaking. It lies flat on the ground and reminds me of a map. I stroke his damp fur with my hand, it is full of blood and salt now. I tell him what I'm going to do and put him in a cleansing bath. I wash his skin, rinse of all that is dead. I will tan his skin to prevent it from decaying. I also want to preserve his habitat, which is so intertwined with him. That is why I choose a different, suitable tanning method for each. I tan the lower part of the hide as dense, tousled fur and the top part as smooth, cloudy leather. These different methods create a horizon that connects Gerrit and his habitat.
The tanned hide can now go back to the place where it all started, surrounded by clay and reed.
The skin as a horizon (of gerrit's existence).