2 - 54
The Vistas of Radek Dabrowski
‘Hier blitzt, dort donnert es, der ganze Aether stürmt,
Die Fluten sind auf Flut, und Wolk auf Wolk gethürmt,
Das Schiff zerscheitert itzt, und mir ... ist nichts geschehn,
Weil ich dem Sturme nur vom Ufer zugesehn.’1
In 2007, Radek Dabrowski decided to travel, preferably to thinly populated areas off the beaten track. He wanted to leave his studio in search of direct experiences in and of nature. Radek had felt this need as early as 2003, when he saw the painting Der Wanderer über dem Nebelmeer (1818; Wanderer above the Sea of Fog) by Caspar David Friedrich at the Hamburger Kunsthalle.2 The painting shows a backlit figure seen from behind (a Rückenfigur) standing on an outcropping and looking out over a mist-shrouded valley from which dark rocks emerge. In the blue beyond, veiled high mountains can be seen above which a mysterious light illuminates the clouds. This painting is often associated with the sublime experiences which Romantic landscapists tried to evoke in their work. Although Radek was very impressed by this work, it did not encourage him to paint landscapes. In fact, he did not want to look at the painting itself but identify with the ‘Wanderer’ and thus experience what it means to stand perilously on such a peak, subjected to the splendour of nature.
His wanderlust took the artist to various countries in Europe, North and South America, North Africa and Southeast Asia, and he continues to travel. On his way to awe-inspiring places, he experiences nature both as a ‘wild animal’, often hostile and dangerous, and as a fascinating entity that he can learn to handle. The latter is also necessary, since he often becomes exhausted during his travels, finds himself in highly uncomfortable circumstances and even in situations that are so dangerous that he must fear for his life. Radek is not explicitly looking for danger but he does not avoid it either when it comes his way. He submits himself to unexpected events and vast spaces to shake off the lethargy of ordinary life and shatter the humdrum ritual of the studio. In this way, he wants to test his physical and mental abilities, learn who he really is and become a better painter in the process.
Radek only makes the vaguest of plans for such journeys. Although he picks an appropriate location, once he reaches it he lets himself be guided by happenstance. Sometimes he travels alone, sometimes he meets companions on the nature trail, trekking through landscapes that have been virtually untouched by human hand. However, he always intends to take a picture of himself analogous to Friedrich’s Wanderer whenever he reaches a ‘limit’ where the next step could be risky or dangerous. He takes such a photograph with the help of a self-timer or asks a travel companion to take it for him. It always depicts the artist seen from behind, looking over the landscape, searching for a path or continuing the trail. He writes about these photographs: “The most important ones are those taken where the road stops, which are snapshots of moments of great joy and the immediately following low point. This is the end of my trail; the next step would mean death. And I have already gone through hell to reach such a wondrous endpoint. Although I feel euphoric, I am sometimes disappointed as well, and would like to start my next journey as soon as possible. That is why there are also photographs of me walking away, in search of a new and challenging adventure.”
Radek sees these photographs as documents of his thought processes and as rewards of his difficult treks to such nature spots. If the path proved easy, taking a picture is not worth the effort, while at other times he is too exhausted physically and mentally to take a photograph. The experiences along the way are important for the pictures, which therefore have different moods. They also provide the artist with visible mementos of the experience he pursues and which he calls ‘the sublime’. Thus, he shows himself to be an heir to a desire dating back more than two centuries, which has a particular structure.
The term ‘sublime’ was used in the 18th and 19th centuries to denote a new kind of experience, first in nature and later in art too. From the 15th to the 18th century, it was mainly the ‘beautiful’ – attractive and harmonic qualities – that was appreciated in both nature and art. In the 18th century, however, people also came to value the fierce and seemingly infinite aspects of nature, which transcend harmony by their power and magnitude. Natural phenomena such as mountain peaks, volcanic eruptions and tempestuous oceans were perceived as threatening but also highly exciting. Such paradoxical feelings were thought to uplift the human ‘soul’ because they would enable people to transcend themselves via the grandeur of creation and come into contact with the Creator himself. This ‘delightful horror’ or ‘terrible joy’ was called the sublime after an elevated rhetorical style discussed by Longinus in the first century AD.3 It did not take long for the sublime to be introduced in painting. In the second half of the 18th century, it was already such an established concept that even philosophers began to study the sublime and the feelings associated with it. In England, Edmund Burke (1757) wrote a treatise on the nature of the beautiful and the sublime, and in Germany Immanuel Kant (1790) analysed the character of sublime experiences and the conditions conducive to them.4
According to Burke, observable properties of natural objects or works of art evoke emotions because people are able to respond physically and mentally to them. Huge, unfathomable natural objects and events such as tempests, shipwrecks, glaciers and volcanic eruptions but also grandiose subjects in art such as the Apocalypse and the Last Judgment arouse strong emotions in us that are related to our sense of self-preservation. Anything that reminds us of pain and danger, and thus could threaten our lives, evokes the strongest emotion we are capable of feeling: the sublime, which can be characterized as supreme astonishment mixed with horror. Whenever pain and danger come too close, we only sovereignty experience the horror announcing the end of our life. If there is some distance, however, and therefore no direct threat and only a hint of pain, we feel a special joy in which the horror is still present. Burke believes that it is important for pain and fear to be mixed in with such an experience – albeit to a small measure – because only then do we encounter the sublime. First we feared for our lives, then we appeared to be safe after all and in response, we experience the ‘sublime sensation of being truly alive’. Less intense stress and problems which we overcome can arouse uplifting feelings because they break up the dullness of ordinary life and protect us from melancholy and despair. They function as a daily medicine but they are far less intense than the forceful emotion of the sublime.5
Kant partly built on Burke’s ideas. He, too, links the sublime to vast, overwhelming and seemingly infinite objects in nature and culture. However, while Burke based the sublime on physical and mental responses, Kant’s sublime has to do with human cognition and subjectivity. If we are confronted with gigantic objects, we want to perceive them in their entirety; however, we are unable to do so. Our sensory system is incapable of fathoming the whole, which makes us feel tense and frustrated. Perception fails and yet, according to Kant, the human mind still has a way out in the form of reason or, as we would call it today, the imagination. Kant states that reason contains ‘regulative ideas’, for example about the human soul, God, the infinite and the world as totality. Although none of these can be experienced through perception, by using our reason we are able to think (we would now say imagine) them. This motivates us to explore and incites us to achieve imaginary goals. Although we cannot fathom the infinite outside ourselves, we can, according to Kant, turn inwards to experience the sovereignty of our own mind. Thus we overcome frustration and feel admiration, not for something outside ourselves but for something inside us. At such times, we elevate ourselves, as it were, above nature and experience ‘the sublime feeling of the self’.6
In the 19th century, the theories summarized above first became part of the ideas of Romantic artists and then permeated the whole of Western culture. The accompanying thoughts and feelings have become incorporated in present-day culture in watered-down form, in conjunction with images of ‘sublime landscapes’. This can be seen, for example, in advertising, where the sublime is often used as a cliché. Contemporary artists find themselves in a slightly different position. Although they possess tacit knowledge of the sublime in culture, their training has also acquainted them with theoretical notions of this concept. This is true for Radek as well; he does not concern himself with theories. He has assimilated the theoretical notions into his vision of the world and in his ideas about artistry a long time ago. This is clear when we compare his strivings and desires described above with Burke’s and Kant’s theories. Like Burke and Kant, Radek is concerned with vast and unfathomable objects, particularly in nature. If, during his travels, he is confronted with the unfathomable, he experiences what Burke describes as the sublime experience: great danger, the fear of life it evokes and, when danger and fear subside, the euphoric sense of being truly alive. Radek also shares Burke’s notion that the tensions to be overcome and the problems to be solved can break through the indolence of everyday life, although he does not opt for daily doses but for daunting challenges. Some of his goals, for example testing his physical and mental abilities and getting to know himself, also show some similarity with the Kantian sublime, in which elevation of one’s mind is the central concept. He combines these theoretical notions to form guidelines for a ‘praxis’, as we will see from the description below of some of Radek’s photographs in conjunction with some of his written comments.7
We have seen before that the artist takes photographs of himself on his travels in which he is shown from behind. On only a few occasions does he turn and reveal some part of his face. The photos are sometimes in black and white – when colour is not relevant – and sometimes in colour; however, most have a dramatic lighting due to processing.8 They usually show Radek’s backlit outline. In some photos, he first explores the terrain or walks along a path towards a specific site. We see him, for example, as a small dark figure in the rough Atacama desert in Chile, walking towards the high mountains in the background (entitled Salar, p. 30). The ominous sky over the landscape appears to announce a storm. Although the artist is following an existing trail in this picture, elsewhere in the Atacama he did not do so. The small dark man must still feel his way around a vast geyser field (Geysers, p. 20). That this track is not without dangers is assured by the fuming geysers that can erupt at any time, spewing high jets of hot water. In the white gypsum dunes of White Sands National Monument (New Mexico, USA), there is not even the notion of a path. The dark figure now walks across the vast sands, attracted by a ray of light penetrating the clouds, luring him to infinite distances (Ray, p. 2).
Then the artist reaches one of his destinations, in this case the island of Santorini in Greece, which was formed when a volcano erupted in antiquity.9 He explores his surroundings, looking for a way out, which cannot be found anywhere in this semi-circular archipelago, however (Mapping, p. 36). The dark figure stands forlorn on an outcropping at the edge of the huge water-filled caldera. He has reached the end of the trail; one step further would mean certain death (Lost, p. 5). Still he longs to continue, to step off the rock or perhaps to fly away, like the birds on the horizon (Birds, p. 33). These pictures show a glimpse of the difficult path to the sublime experience. Again and again, distractions forestall the expected euphoria. While walking on the granite formations of Prescott (Arizona, USA), he seems most intent on exploring the terrain (Granite, p. 3). Standing on the rocks of Cibola National Forest (New Mexico, USA), he is still unsure whether this is the right spot (Cibola, p. 22), and on the edge of the Grand Canyon (Arizona, USA), the layering of the deepness and the beauty of the colours are what impresses the artist most (Absorb, p. 28).
Although these photos approach Friedrich’s painting, which shows the Wanderer as the personification of the sublime emotion, their formal parallels do not mean that the photographs and the painting are similar. During the long and labour-intensive process of preparation and painting, Friedrich concentrated several experiences, which a rambler may have during such a trip, into the sublime moment. By contrast, photography can quickly capture many aspects of several quests. That is why a kind of film can be made of many Rückenfiguren, showing a sequence of situations: before, during and after the sublime moment. The climax of this ‘film’ is formed by the photo taken at Torres del Paine in Chile (Fruition, p. 46). In the photographs described above, the artist is small, moving or seen to hesitate; in this picture, however, he towers above the landscape. His legs slightly apart, he stands firmly on the high outcrop, his arms tight against his body and his profile outlined by the sun. The tense, dark body and the side-lit profile which just allows us to follow his gaze at the landscape suggest that he is in a special emotional state or, as he describes it himself, has reached ‘fulfilment’. However, such a moment may be short; a sense of disappointment – in Burke’s terms, that bit of pain and fear that is always part of the sublime experience – breaks through the euphoria (Letdown, p. 11). For the first time, we see him turning towards us as he steps off an outcrop in the Nationalpark Säksische Schweiz in Germany. A clear, cool light pervades the landscape, corresponding with a sense of the mundane reality.
Although the process and the moment are implicit in Burke’s and Kant’s theories, both philosophers emphasize the latter. They disagree about the nature of the sublime moment; however, contemporary researchers have discovered that the sublime process always – and thus also in the texts of the philosophers – has the same structure.10 First there is a confrontation with something very large, dangerous or powerful, then a crisis manifesting as fear and frustration and finally a solution accompanied by relief and great joy. The above description of Radek’s photographs shows that he is concerned with the sublime process, part of which may be formed by the moment. Moreover, the pictures suggest that the process is cyclic and that the sequence of feelings associated with the sublime does not proceed in a fixed order.11 In every adventurous journey undertaken by Radek, fear, frustration and relief frequently occur, even if he is not confronted by something totally unfathomable. Sometimes he misses the sublime moment because he is distracted by his own preoccupations. And when he does experience sublime moments, they may be interrupted by a sense of disappointment.
For this interpretation of Radek’s photographs I have consulted his comments, in which he describes the feelings he had at the various sites where the pictures were taken. Some elements of my interpretation would have been impossible without these texts and knowledge of theories of the sublime. However, the images themselves also divulge something, although they are not direct expressions of emotions. Romantic painters already knew that such complex and paradoxical experiences as the sublime cannot be depicted only evoked. To achieve this, they used artistic methods which unlock the viewer’s imagination and put it to work. Such methods can also be found in Radek’s photographs, which are also aimed at viewers, although there are differences in the use of these ‘artifices’.
By placing a reproduction of Friedrich’s Wanderer and Radek’s photo taken at Torres del Paine, Chile (Fruition, p. 46) side by side, we can investigate the similarities and differences in artistic methods. Central to both images is a Rückenfigur (not fully backlit) who looms large against a mountainous landscape, with a clear compositional relationship between the figure and the landscape. In both images, the combination of composition, lighting and colour scheme suggests a special experience. The similarities end here, however. The protagonist in the painting is an anonymous person, while the photograph shows the artist. The landscape in the painting comprises several vistas, with the soft, nebulous colour perspective creating the effect of infinity. By contrast, the photograph is a detailed cropping of an existing landscape. The lighting is dramatic, but not unnatural, and infinity is not only implied by the colour perspective but also by the scenic effect of the landscape and the banks of clouds.
Even though the differences are partly caused by the artistic methods and media used, they also arise from historical developments of ideas and customs. In Friedrich’s time, the general public still had to get used to the idea of the sublime. The anonymous figure in the painting helped them to take the place of the Wanderer, as it were, and the generic landscape and mysterious lighting confirmed the pantheist beliefs of many 19th-century viewers.12 Despite the fact that a distinctive individual takes centre stage in the photographs, which makes the images more personal, the Rückenfigur facilitates identification even today because it allows us to concentrate on the entire image, without being distracted by a facial expression. When the painting was created in the 19th century, its effect had to be phenomenal since most people could not travel to awe-inspiring places and thus had no first-hand experience of the feelings accompanying the sublime. Today, we can travel to the most exotic locations, although we prefer to do so as part of a tightly organized travel package, which virtually precludes a sublime experience. We can have a lot more quasi-experiences, however, by way of ‘magnificent’ photos and ‘breathtaking’ films offering the so-called ‘sublime’. In our spectacle-soaked culture, the extraordinary is so often presented and reproduced that it has become a blatant cliché.13 How should we understand Radek’s search for the sublime and the photographs taken during this search in an era in which the media present us with a deluge of ‘sublime clichés’ every day?
This question can only be answered after a discussion of the goals that Radek wanted to realize through his travels. As we have seen before, he wanted to test his physical and mental abilities to get to know himself and to become a better painter. After ten great journeys, Radek can now say that he has indeed learnt much about himself and has taught himself a lot too. In the studio, he used to be a careful planner who responded slowly to unexpected situations. After facing extreme challenges during his travels, however, he now knows that he can improvise, overcome problems that seem insurmountable and escape perilous situations. During his adventures, the familiar and the secure were often stripped away, and the only thing left was the fight with nature, which he had to win by any means. Thus Radek learnt to tolerate stress and to control panic. This improved his quickness of response, sharpened his senses and heightened his confidence. He has therefore learnt much that can help him when working in his studio. Yet not every artist is willing to travel to Tierra del Fuego, for example, to increase his self-knowledge and perfect his artistry. Radek did do so, when he began to understand that travelling could offer opportunities surpassing anything that he could ever experience in the studio. He thus implicitly linked the creative and the sublime.
Apart from Burke’s and Kant’s theories, there is another – contemporary – theory linking the sublime and creativity. It was developed by the Dutch philosopher Renée van de Vall (1994), who believed that the conflict between the familiar and the new reveals a similarity between the sublime experience and the creative process.14 Many artists know the feeling of tension that arises when they want to deviate from the known to create something totally new. At such times, they often feel anxious and insecure and descend into a kind of chaos. Yet they want to open their minds to the unknown and try to continue to work until something new emerges.15 Then the tension disappears and the artist feels great joy caused by the unexpected scope of his own creativity. This process follows the structure of confrontation, crisis and solution which we have already seen working in the sublime process. There is also an analogy between the discovery of the possibilities of one’s own creativity in artists and the sense of elevation described by Kant, when the subject becomes aware of the superiority of his own mind. However, the creative process does not need outside stimulation, which according to Burke was necessary for the sublime and which Kant to some extent also required. This process occurs within the mind of an artist or thinker. Van de Vall concludes that all forms of creativity have the same dynamics: “between anxiety and insecurity on the one hand and the delight of a new vision or form on the other hand.”16
Seen from this perspective, Radek’s determination to travel to far-away places becomes understandable. Because of the sublime, he did choose an external cause and made drastic decisions which regularly subjected him to serious danger. The need to truly experience and truly live, accompanied by a certain desire for adventure, got the upper hand in him. The extreme experiences he gained will not improve his painting technique. However, he did learn much about his capabilities and trained himself as best he could to hold his own under most circumstances. At all times, he can now act in accordance with his adage ‘Shake off lethargy and burn your fingers on reality’.17
The Rückenfiguren photographs are part of the radical ‘training regime’ that the artist has imposed upon himself. Nevertheless, he is concerned about their status: do they only document his thought processes and experiences or are they works of art that must be shown to others, and how does this presentation relate to his own ideas about gaining direct experiences? Even during his training, Radek was much critical of contemporary culture, in which we mainly deal with reality via the media and thus only obtain second and third-hand impressions. Eventually, however, he realized that his criticism did not specifically target the media culture – although it continued to annoy him – but that he is at odds with the artificiality and dishonesty of culture in general. With deep regret, he watches how authorities, institutions and social media fill our minds with lies in order to manipulate us. And he continues to emphasize the necessity of gaining as much direct experience as possible, since this can provide a yardstick of genuineness. Radek’s desire for the sublime is thus part of his struggle against all that is indolent, easy and false. This is one of the reasons why he questions the status of his photographs, since they have been realized with a medium and are shown to others, feeding these viewers with even more second-hand impressions on top of what they are already bombarded with every day.
This seems to be a dilemma that could incite an artist to never produce art again, since art uses media by definition. Can Radek’s photographs be compared with the spectacular images within our culture, or do they resemble his earlier work, in which he used his paintings and videos to shake up the viewers and stimulate them to confront ‘true reality’?18 As far as their content is concerned, his earlier works were usually stern and explicit, while their form was restrained, particularly when compared to sensational media images. The latter is also true for the photographs which, although their atmosphere is dramatic, have nothing in common with glossy images as published in National Geographic, for example. Radek himself is in these pictures; he has been to these remote places, he has had these adventures. As Rückenfiguren, however, the photos are nothing like the vain selfies that only serve as self-promotion and will smile at us on the social media for all eternity. Their relationship with Friedrich’s painting brings the photographs closer to an age in which the individual became more important but was still far removed from present-day fake individuality. From a formal perspective the photographs are thus consistent with the artist’s earlier work, but do they also relate to it in terms of content?
Although Radek longs for unmediated experiences himself, and would like to offer these to others, he knows that art is not able to do so. He is an artist and while he uses photography and film, he remains devoted to painting, about which he writes the following: “For me, everything flows from painting, as painting can bring forth that which ‘does not exist’. I am not concerned, for example, with representing a landscape: I want to make viewers feel that they are part of it.”
This statement suggests that painting conveys something which itself is not, namely ideas, feelings and desires, and this can be applied to both Radek’s earlier work and his photographs. Admittedly, the photographs make use of a medium that is also used to create sublime clichés but they have other origins and destinations. As with his earlier paintings, which insult or compliment viewers through texts on the canvas to stimulate them to act, the photographs also have a built-in connection with viewers.
The Rückenfiguren photographs do not ‘record’ the artist’s sublime experiences during his travels. As we have seen before, the sublime cannot be represented. The photographs function as mementos for the artist himself and document his thinking, but they are also ‘more’, as they are explicitly aimed at other people. In the same way as Romantic paintings, they can, for example, evoke the desire for adventurous travel, infinite spaces, untamed nature and the associated sublime experiences. Moreover, they show something which the Romantic painters knew existed but could not present directly: the possible failure that is implicit in any desire.19 The photographs are therefore part of Radek’s oeuvre in content too, also because his work functions in a similar fashion as Kant’s regulative ideas. The paintings, the videos and the photographs can stimulate us to explore, and they can help us to focus on idealistic goals instead of practical ones, while at the same time not promising that we will succeed in our efforts. And this is a genuine gift in the untruthful times in which we live.
Katalin Herzog, May 2018
Translation: Paul Hulsman
1. Johann Joachim Ewald, fragment from the poem Der Sturm (The Storm), approx. 1755. Radek Dabrowski recognized the sublime in this poem.
2. All information about the artist and his work in this article, including the quotes, are taken from e-mail correspondence between the artist and Katalin Herzog during February and March 2018.
3. Longinus, Over het verhevene (About the Sublime, originally written in the 1st century AD), Atheneum-Polak & Van Gennep, Amsterdam 1980.
4. a. Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origins of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, P. F. Collier & Son Company, New York 1909-1914 (first published in 1757).
b. Immanuel Kant, Kritik der Urteilskraft (Critique of Judgement), Gerhard Lehmann (editor), Reclam, Stuttgart 1986 (first published in 1790).
5. See note 4.a. Mainly used: Part I, pp. 11-38 and Part II, pp. 38-73.
6. See note 4.b. Mainly used: Zweites Buch. ‘Analytik des Erhabenen’, pp. 133-169.
7. Radek wrote these comments at the request of Katalin Herzog.
8. The artist takes both analogue and digital photographs, which he then digitally enhances.
9. Santorini is part of the Cyclades group of islands. The huge volcanic eruption occurred sometime between 1627 and 1600 BC.
10. See Kiene Brillenburg Wurth, The Musically Sublime, PhD thesis, University of Groningen, 2002, p. xvii.
11. A distinction has already been made here between the sublime process and the sublime moment; however, theoreticians disagree about the structuring of the sublime. Brillenburg Wurth believes that pain and pleasure do not neatly follow each other, but constantly oscillate within a single experience. See note 10, p. xviii. A similar idea was suggested by Ton Mars in an e-mail. In it, he also made a distinction between a directly perceived and a remembered sublime experience, with the latter always reinforcing the desire for the sublime.
12. According to pantheism, the creative power of God permeates the entire universe. God is no longer outside and above nature but present in nature. The Romantics believed that they could reach God through nature.
13. Spectacle generally implies an extravagant and exciting show. In his book La Société du Spectacle (The Society of the Spectacle, 1967), Guy Debord viewed the spectacle as a characteristic of modern society, in which the mass media and advertising have a hold on people by offering up seductive images to stimulate consumption. In this improper manner, objects start to control people instead of people controlling objects.
14. a. Renée van de Vall, Een subliem gevoel van plaats (A Sublime Sense of Place), Historische Uitgeverij, Groningen 1994.
b. The link between the sublime and the creative process was first felt in the 18th century as people started to appreciate the new and unexpected more than tradition. In the 20th century, this relationship was made explicit for example by the Abstract Expressionists in the United States.
15. In this case, Van de Vall based her ideas on Anthon Ehrenzweig, who in his book The Hidden Order of Art (1967) described ‘unconscious scanning’ as one of the phases of the creative process. Van de Vall defines this as follows: ‘a kind of unconscious thinking that can combine data that appear incompatible to conscious observation and conscious thought’. See note 14a, p. 400. Translation: Paul Hulsman.
16. Ibid, p. 402. Translation: Paul Hulsman.
17. The artist has been lived according to this maxim for a long time, and it remains his motto to this day.
18. Katalin Herzog, ‘The talking pictures of Radek Dabrowski’, published in: Radek Dabrowski Works, 2015.
19. a. Jos de Mul, Het romantische verlangen (The Romantic Desire), Ad. Donker, Rotterdam 1991. De Mul states that the Romantics (particularly writers and philosophers) had a ‘fierce desire for the infinite and absolute’. At the same time, they did understand that the desire could not be fulfilled and that this insight leads to ‘lethargic passivity’. That is why they used irony, to enable them to cherish the desire without descending into lethargy. See pp. 7 and 10.
b. Irony is highly effective, particularly in language, and works by claiming something while simultaneously twisting it around or denying it. It is more difficult to apply and detect irony in the visual arts. Only since Dadaism and Surrealism (1920s and 1930s) has irony been used successfully through collage and combinations of images and texts.
studied art history and philosophy. She was lecturer in Modern Art at the faculty of Art History and History of Architecture at the Rijksuniversiteit Groningen, The Netherlands.
On my way to the island and the dolphins, I find myself in a bus beside one of the windows. Like a chicken hunting for worms, I move my head up and down and from left to right so that I can look outside. The glass is so dirty that it is hard to see anything of the landscape. The image is blurry and divided into two large planes, blue above and orange below. Perhaps it is for the best that I cannot see much since we are driving along a deep ravine and there is no crash barrier. The idea of a hurtling fall makes me feel sick.
Upon arrival at the fishing village, I see a few hand-built shacks constructed of wood and metal plates. Along the shore fishermen stand beside their boats. The sun is already high above the horizon, and it is quickly starting to get warm. The air tastes like salt. I walk to the fishermen and ask if someone can take me to the island, so that I can watch the dolphins. One of them gives me a bottle of water and I get into his boat. After just over an hour we arrive at the island, a great pile of rocks. I want to get off but the fisherman says it is too dangerous due to aggressive penguins.
We decide to drop anchor in the shadow of the rock and wait for the dolphins. It gets hot eventually, the shadows disappear and the water runs out but the dolphins fail to show. At first, I could still see the horizon and two blue planes that seemed to ripple up and down. Now everything is pale blue and the light is so bright that it hurts my eyes. When I close them for a moment, everything turns orange and they still hurt. As we sail back to the village, I am immensely disappointed. The other fishing boats are back too, their nets full of fish. I am invited to stay for a meal.
I get into the bus to go back to town. Along the way we stop at a village. A few people get in. The engine makes a grating noise followed by a thud and the sound of a cannon blast, and then stops. We are asked to wait outside while repairs are being made. The wait takes a long time. Up ahead, I notice a pall of smoke approaching rapidly. It appears to be an orange dust cloud blown up by a VW Golf convertible. The two girls in the car agree to take me to town. We drive fast along the edge of the ravine. The girl driving turns towards me and offers me a plum. At that moment the car hits a bump in the road, veers off course and starts to swerve left to right. The driver tries to get back on track but this only makes the swerving worse. In turn I see the ravine and then the plane, the ravine and the plane and the ravine and the plane again … The orange plane appears littered with green cacti. Some are lighter in colour and have outstretched arms, others are small, dark and have long thorns. Other plants have round leaves with yellow spots reflecting the sunlight. Rocks loom ahead, in various shapes and colours: brown, ochre, umber, purple, lilac, pink and carmine. The landscape looks like a huge colourful aquarium, with the blue sky almost tangible above. From behind the rocks, a dolphin appears. At least, it seems to be a dolphin but then suddenly turns into a whale spraying a plume of water.
After a huge bang, the car abruptly comes to a halt. I end up between the front seats, and the girls hit the dashboard hard. I hoist myself into the back seat again and touch my body to feel if I’m all right. It is dead silent; the only sound I hear is the tick-tock, tick-tock of the indicator. Because of the orange dust cloud enveloping us, I can see nothing. The girls start to move and to make sounds; they seem all right too. The dust settles and we slowly get out of the car, which has hit a rock on the ‘good’ side of the road. A car suddenly appears and stops. An elderly couple get out. They appear to be the parents of one of the girls. They touch us to see if we are all right. The man asks if I can walk and says that it would be better if I made my way to the village on foot. I agree and start walking. Night falls quickly, the moon rises and the landscape loses its colours. The cacti are grey silhouettes in the plane.
Back in the village, the driver has repaired his bus and invites the passengers to get in. Once on the bus, my limbs start shaking; I am unable to stop. In the dark we drive by the site of the accident, where only an orange rotating light can be seen. Did the girl swerve the car to the right side of the road on purpose to save us, or was it just a lucky coincidence? I will never know.
Radek Dabrowski, Punta Choros, Chile, 2009
Translation: Paul Hulsman
Mystical and enigmatic
Cusco is beautiful: colonial architecture, russet and umber-coloured houses with wooden balconies, and a Baroque convent. At some point, a leaflet is pressed into my hand with the following text: Walking from one ancient Inca ruin to the next is a mystical and enigmatic experience you will never forget. And indeed, it has impressive pictures of mountain paths winding along streams and mist-shrouded forests. I want to see this, I want to experience it. A staff member of Inca Trail Tours, the publisher of the leaflet, tells me that I am not allowed to visit the park on my own. I need to book a guided tour. However, all upcoming tours are full. What I can do is take the train to the city of Aguas Calientes and walk the last part from there.
The train is half-full. The passengers lounge in their seats, eating food that they have brought along. Beside the tracks I notice a group of people carrying rucksacks, probably an Inca Trail Tours party. We are now higher up in the mountains. In the distance, I can see the red roof tiles of the city.
After forty-five minutes of slow travel, and still far away from the terminal station, the train suddenly stops. The delay takes a long time, and people start to complain about the poor service. After about an hour, we hear a gunshot. Guards with grim faces hurry along the corridor towards the end of the train. Although the shot startled the passengers, they are now starting to panic. What is going on? About a dozen armed men have surrounded the train. A guard and a man with a gun enter our compartment and order us to stay put. We give each other questioning looks. A moustached man sitting in front of me wipes large drops of sweat from his flushed face with a pale-blue handkerchief. The elderly woman sitting beside me takes a small wooden cross from her handbag and softly starts to pray. Across the gangway a couple embrace. The woman sitting beside them is crying. Her tears slowly flow along her cheeks, and her mouth is wide open but she makes no sound. We hear two more shots. Time passes, slowly or perhaps quickly, but it feels like an eternity. The armed men outside leave and the train starts to move back along the tracks.
I don’t know what happened exactly. I never reached Aguas Calientes – nor Machu Picchu with its ‘mystical and enigmatic experience’ for that matter – but I did experience something sublime. Later, it appeared that the train carrying us had ended up in the middle of a conflict between the national government and local authorities.
Radek Dabrowski, Cusco, Peru, 2007
Translation: Paul Hulsman
On our way to Camp Grey. It is already late in the afternoon. We are a group of four, as the park rangers had recommended. It is easy for people on their own to get lost or fall off a cliff. We must hurry; we still have eleven kilometres to go and it is impossible to find your way here in the dark. The metalled path is lined with high grass. On our right, a mountain range rises up. It has about half a dozen peaks. Suddenly the path stops. We climb the rocks trying to find it again. Sweating profusely after about thirty minutes of climbing, we reach the plane where the path continues. On one side we see thick clouds hanging about halfway up the peaks; it looks like the peaks cleave the blue sky. On the other side is a cliff, behind which a lake is visible far below. Behind it, other mountains rise up. Big blue-white chunks of ice broken off from the Grey glacier are floating in the lake. The view grabs our attention like a siren’s song.
The sun is starting to set, however, and we must hurry. After several kilometres, the path starts to wind up the mountain slope. Barbara is the first to start climbing; Martin follows, then Lorna and me. Barbara rounds a bend just above me. I look up and see her losing her balance. In slow motion I see how she closes her eyes, exhales and bends her knees. Her arms hang down along her thighs. Gravity first pulls her rucksack down, then her torso and then her limbs. I take a step, plant my left foot near the path’s edge and reach out to catch her. Then I press her with all my might against the rock face. Wedged between the rock and my body, she stops falling. Small stones fall around us and clatter into the depth. Lorna and Martin have now reached us. I keep pushing Barbara against the rock face until she regains consciousness. We ask if she can go on. She nods. Martin takes her rucksack and we continue climbing. After a while, the path becomes level and winds through a forest. Intent and silent we continue walking, while it gets increasingly dark. Although still far away, we can already hear people talking and other sounds coming from Camp Grey.
Radek Dabrowski, Torres del Paine, Chile, 2015
Translation: Paul Hulsman