In Holland there is hardly any natural nature left. Sure, there are forests, meadows and the lot, but they’re cultivated landscapes: trees are planted in neat grids, making Dutch forests look like small green Manhattans (small indeed: there is usually no more than ten paces of silence between the sound of the motorway to the east and the railway to the west). Still, a tree is a tree and trees equal ‘nature’. It is this idea of the cultivated landscape, if not the Dutch landscape per se, that plays a pivotal role in Daniel Roth’s work. Roth, native of the Schwarzwald in south Germany, uses the juxtaposition of nature and culture as a frame for his disconnected stories.
At Fons Welters’ gallery in Amsterdam, the setting of Roth’s story is a peninsula in the north of Wales. The peninsula apparently was, romantically speaking, the site of a major struggle between man and nature, as it was inhabited and abandoned multiple times. Its most famous ‘local’ was Clough Ellis Williams, 1883-1978, the self taught architect responsible for the village of Portmeiron—a tiny piece of Italy on the Welsh coastline. Williams never meant the village to be inhabited, but since its 15 minutes of fame (the TV series The Prisoner, 1968, in which resigned spy Patrick McGoohan was mysteriously held captive by an equally mysterious organisation with even more mysterious goals, was shot in the village), it has been turned into a holiday resort. It even started a second life on YouTube as the scene of countless of tourist takes on the original series.
Roth cleverly weaves the romantic history of the peninsula, its eb and flow between nature and culture, through his latest works on show at Welters. ‘Portmeiron, Gwyllt Woods’, also the name of the 15-part installation that is the pièce de resistance of the show, at first comes across (as often the case with Roth’s works) as stark and distanced. The sculptures, with their weathered looks are the first objects to point the viewer towards the direction of Roth’s obscured and shattered narrative. A huge mask made of twigs, ‘Mask’, 2008, hovers over a floating slab, ‘Island’, 2008, marked all over with tiny scratches. Two black towers, faintly reminiscent of modernist sculpture and alluding to Williams’ Portmeiron towers, hover in the background, surveying the space.
Their interiors are the subject of a series of drawings in Roth’s familiar ephemeral and meticulous style. At first sight they appear to drown in the equally white surroundings before slowly revealing thin lines, which form architectural spaces merging with natural forms and textures. In both sculptures and drawings nature and culture play a subtle game of claiming and reclaiming ground, a game most evidently played by ‘Untitled’, 2009, a floating form simultaneously a tree, it’s surface a puzzle of small pieces of bark, and a cloth blowing in the wind. The encore is the big c-print at the back of the gallery space, with white spheres, once again, floating over water. For once-upon-a-time followers of The Prisoner the reference is obvious: the spheres refer to the eight-foot weather balloon cast as Rover, the ‘guard’ of the mysterious village in which McGoohan is held. And there’s more: both McGoohan’s and Roth’s Portmeiron share an important quality: once captivated, escape is impossible.
Erik van Tuijn is a writer and web-editor of Metropolis M