Polder Peil

Wilhelminapolder (NL), 2014

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Admittedly - this is not Thames Estuary. Not even UK. 'Polder Peil' is an art project commissioned on the occasion of the 200th anniversary of the Wilhelminapolder in Zeeland, an area entirely reclaimed from the sea (as quite frequently the case in the Netherlands). Aside from the fact that I really like the work, there are in my view enough parallels to the Thames Estuary to justify the project's inclusion: not only are the features of the landscapes on both sides of the Channel very similar, but also the precarious relationship between the low land and the sea; when The Great Tide of 1953 consumed the lives of 300 people in Essex, 1400 lives were lost along the Dutch coast. And much of Canvey Island and the Fens of East Anglia owe their very existence to the skill of the Dutch engineer Cornelius Vermuyden, and the labour of a largely dutch workforce. 

The project consist of 9 concrete sculptures spread across the 1700 hectares of the polder, and is to my knowledge one of Michael Beutler's most ambitious works. In a landscape that is commonly considered to be completely flat, the sculptures gauge the existing subtle differences in level. Each sculpture consists of two intersecting concrete spheres, with the intersection line set at a consistent level throughout. The distance from the ground up to this artificial horizon determines the extent to which the sphere is visible; at the lowest point in the polder the two 5mØ spheres are almost intact, the sculpture standing an imposing 10m tall. The height decreases incrementally according to the ground level; in sequence, the sculptures evoke the effect of the sun setting into its own reflection in the sea.

In its fabrication and installation the project proved extremely challenging, thus reflecting some of the effort that went into the creation of the very landscape the sculptures sit in; yet there is also a sense of precision and subtlety within the work which lends it a very poetic quality. Upon visiting the work a few years ago I also couldn't help thinking that the sculptures, despite their considerable scale have an air of fragility which reflects the precariousness of the landscape, and I kept thinking how the sculptures would at some point remain half-submerged once the polder has to be abandoned due to rising sea levels, like strange markers of a bygone time, visual reminders of a landscape reclaimed from, and again lost to the sea.

The project was published in a book, which can be ordered from CBK Zeeland.

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