Sabine Winters, philosopher, about silence in the work of Helena van Essen
The space is pitch black. There is a barely perceptible breeze blowing, the ground is wet and boggy and the smell of marshland hangs in the air. It is completely quiet, but as soon as you put on the headphones you are immersed in the cackle of noisy waterfowl and the sound of thunder rolling in the distance.
With the installation Drasland (Wetland), which she created for an exposition in the town of Roden in Drenthe, Helena van Essen aims to enable visitors to experience the surrounding boglands in a sensory manner. “One of the central themes in my work is tranquillity. If you want to experience real silence, you have to focus intently and ignore all distractions. In the Drasland installation I provide the visitor with the time and space they need to achieve inner tranquillity without being interrupted by any kind of distraction. My decision not to use visual images was a very deliberate one and was based on the idea that images can also be created by the other senses when you open yourself up to that possibility. Listening and feeling require time and concentration.”
Originally, Helena van Essen had her studio in the middle of Amsterdam, but in an increasingly noisy world her need for peace and quiet grew stronger and stronger. Eventually, in 1995, she moved her studio to the outskirts of the village of Boskoop 50km south of Amsterdam. It was here that the silence in her work was able to find room to grow. But what does she understand by silence exactly? And how does she express it in her work?
“Silence is an everyday phenomenon, but it has a very special significance for me. When do we ever give ourselves enough time and space to experience silence fully? Do we ever really allow ourselves enough room for contemplation? This requires attention, effort and time. And art can facilitate that process. Art has the ability to silence the voices in our head, even if only for a fleeting moment. To achieve this I search for new ways of expressing silence in the works I create. I aim to stimulate introspection in the viewer, thereby creating the opportunity to turn down the sound of everyday life and experience inner quiet.”
Interestingly, Helena prefers to work in short bursts and on one-off, short-term projects whose forms are forever changing. Almost as if she is constantly trying to reinvent the concept of silence. Her working method is a bit like holding your breath; for a moment there is nothing, and then all of a sudden you become fully conscious again, you hear your own blood pumping in your veins and the world breaks through the curtain of silence once more. All you can do then is find a new starting point and begin the process all over again.
Helena’s creations, which include pencil drawings, ink paintings and three-dimensional pieces, are as fragile as they are powerful. In one of her drawings we see hundreds of lines converging and then diverging again. The result is a delicate composition that stimulates contemplation through its subtle use of colour and form. Her work does not refer to reality, but rather to itself: tranquillity in rhythm and in colour. It engulfs you, sometimes even literally, like in the dark space in the Drasland installation, and more often figuratively, when it can calm your mind and even cause you to catch your breath for a moment.
Helena’s propensity to use almost endless repetition in her work requires great concentration and a clear and composed state of mind. “In my work with pencil I sometimes make the same stroke up to 1500 times, one after another, and often in twelve different colours, too. This is the only way I can achieve the desired result. In my ink drawings, on the other hand, I apply the ink to the paper in one single flowing movement. There is no room for error; what’s done is done.”
In a series in which she worked with acryl on paper, Helena applied between 20 and 30 layers of acryl paint on top of each other, with the result that the finished work is so transparent you can still see the first layer showing through the rest. This transparency is achieved by repeatedly applying the paint under great pressure to the paper, layer after layer. The title of this series is ‘the richness and depth of silence’ by analogy with the silence to be found in the forest: the longer you listen, the more you hear.
In her work, Helena strives not only to evoke a sense of inner silence in others. The process of creation also requires her to seek the tranquillity within herself. This often results in a ritual-like process, such as her installation in a baker’s window in the Koningsstraat in Amsterdam in which she counted out 119,700 grains of wheat one by one in memory of the same number of victims of the Holocaust. Or the pencil drawings in which she meticulously archived the number of lines used in a notebook in an attempt to cling to something that was already consigned to the past.
Given the significant role that silence plays in her work, it is no surprise that Helena also draws inspiration from the silence in others. In the installation ‘The soul unto itself’ the visitor is invited to enter the silent, white world of Emily Dickinson, the American poet who lived a life of self-imposed isolation. In the space in which the visitor sits – alone – at a table, one hears the sound of a woman’s voice reciting the first lines of a series of poems by Emily Dickinson. The words amplify the silence in the room. Or as Emily Dickinson herself once said:
The words the happy say
Are paltry melody
But those the silent feel
Are beautiful –