On Display Nowhere (In Defense of Transcendental Quests and Lost Causes)

Today we continue our week-long series Force of Failure with Danielle Sommer’s article on Hans Waander’s project with the humble kingfisher.

FORCE OF FAILURE: DailyServing’s latest week-long series

Flashback:  1982.  Somewhere in the Netherlands, a man alone on the river Maas – a Dutch artist by the name of Hans Waanders – encounters a kingfisher.  The encounter is so striking that Waanders spends the next nineteen years of his life creating project after project based on the kingfisher, projects which take the form of photographs, books, and prints.

Excerpt from Edinburgh Kingfishers (1999), Hans Waanders

The most poignant of these is a series called Perches (2001): a collection of hand-placed perches on rivers all over Europe by which Waanders hoped to woo the kingfisher (or any kingfisher) back. As legend has it, however, the artist passed away in 2001 without ever witnessing (much less documenting) a kingfisher using one of his perches, although there are romantic reports from his friends about posthumous sightings.

Excerpt from Perches (2001), Location: Ourthe, Sy, Belgium, Hans Waanders

As failures go, Waanders’s is striking: Perches can be read as a record of the kingfisher’s persistent absence.  To this day, Waanders himself remains an unknown and perhaps even unpopular figure.  His art, in its apparently un-ironic embrace of the totalizing and the transcendental, exacerbates all of our contemporary suspicions about archival projects.  Not only does he give us an origin story for his practice, but included in his body of work are pieces that actually disturb, such as Our South African Birds (2001), in which he uses a handmade rubber stamp of a kingfisher to stamp out the images of other birds.

Excerpt from Our South African Birds (2001), Hans Waanders

Perhaps, though, the failure is not just Waanders’s, but our own. As viewers, or consumers of Waanders’s project, or any project, we persist in believing only what we can see, tag, taste, or witness.  Even as we theoretically reject the totalizing nature of the archive, we refuse to allow space for the undocumented.  To interpret Perches as failure is to forget that Waanders’s perches live in real time, not the frozen moment of the photograph.  At any given moment, a kingfisher might be hovering.

Alcedinidae (Date Unkown), Hans Waanders

I can identify with Waanders’s project:  eight years ago, I stood in a scrappy grove of aspen trees in Wayne County, Utah, about 100 feet from a cow pond that had gotten just enough monsoon rain to become a real watering hole.  Surrounded by tall, waving grasses, I watched as the black bear I’d startled away from the hole turned tail and ran in the opposite direction.  The wind seemed to affect the bear’s fur the same way it affected the grass; I remember thinking that the bear looked more like an otter swimming gracefully away through ocean waves than anything as clumsy as a land animal.

White-Throated Kingfisher, Image by Ziga Camernik

Waanders may have failed to woo a kingfisher to one of his perches; he may have failed to capture the kingfisher’s essence or totality (as all archivists are so doomed); he may even have failed to either a) embrace the beauty of other birds beyond the kingfisher or b) be obvious with the more tongue-in-cheek aspects of his project; but there is one arena where he did not fail, and that is in his stubborn attempt to sustain that searing and confusing moment in which so much art gets born: the accidental encounter with something bigger than yourself.