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Give Me Shelter, An Interview with Dutch Artist Elis Vermuelen

Elis with one of her rough wool felt blankets. Photo: Henk Vermeulen

Dutch artist Elis Vermuelen’s Global Burrows Project is an exploration of the places we inhabit and what we leave behind. From the beaches of the Netherlands to a disused house in the American Midwest, Vermuelen’s two-year journey opens a window onto our relationships with ourselves, each other, and our surroundings.

 

When Elis Vermeulen went to the beach last February, she didn’t pack her bag with the usual sundry items. No bathing suit, no towel, no sunscreen. And although she planned on digging in the sand, there would be no sand castles for passing tourists to admire. No, Elis came to build something altogether different. She came to build a burrow.

Pushing the sand and silt up in a round ridge, Vermeulen revealed a crater in the wet earth. Then she laid a rough wool blanket over its center and crawled inside, taking refuge from the world: just Elis, the sand, and the sound of the beating waves.

Vermeulen says the idea to build a burrow came to her one day several months before, growing from contemplations on the nature of her practice.

“It began as a way for me to learn. Normally I make an installation for one building or one exhibit, and I take it down and never use it again. With this project I wanted to see, if you make a certain piece or have a concept for certain pieces, how it is influenced by the surroundings—by different cultures, by different people—and if that changes the work, or if it just changes me.”

Comprised of a series of one-time, site-specific installations, the Global Burrows Project aims to make visible spaces of revitalization and rest. The focus of the project emanates from Vermeulen’s observations of a changed world in her native the Netherlands, and a strong sense of shared ownership and communal responsibility for the environment and other people.

“The Netherlands has changed a lot in the last decade,” she says. “I think there are only four or five places left in the Netherlands where no human sounds can be heard. And it’s not just about being overpopulated. When people are really busy, they forget to sit down and they forget to get energy. They only spend energy. Life is too important…You have to take care of where you live and you have to take care of people.”

One of Vermeulen's burrows on a beach in the Netherlands. Photo: Henk Vermeulen

Though Vermuelen began her work in familiar surroundings, building burrows in favorite locations near her home in the southern Netherlands, she has since embarked on a two-year journey that will continue through the end of next year, building burrows in places around the world. To date she has built burrows in Spain, Ireland, Sweden, Belgium, and in several locations in the United States.

The concept of shelter is a recurring theme in Vermeulen’s work, making the burrow—a space of temporary refuge and protection—an obvious choice for the project.

“A lot of my work is about care and protection, and with Global Burrows I really wanted to make a piece that tells a lot about care and being silent. I use this hollow shape often and it makes sense in my work. It tells so much about what I want to say.”

To be sure, Vermeulen’s 2008 piece titled “Shelters” speaks it plainly, its curved shape gently cradling the human form. Likewise, her 2010 piece “Do not watch the waves” calls to mind the protective vessel carrying precious human cargo across unforgiving seas (watch a fantastic video of Elis installing this work here).

Vermeulen's 2008 work, Shelters.

 

However, the real strength of the Global Burrows project lies in performance and community building. Beyond the physical burrow is the “people burrow,” and Vermeulen’s work is a reminder that a safe haven can take many forms.

 

Ours is an endangered landscape of human connection and interaction, threatened into extinction by a world wherein we have grown ever more distrustful of our friends and neighbors. If this project is about anything, it is about Vermeulen’s very personal journey down a path of reconnection with what makes us human in the first place: our relationships with ourselves and with each other. And of course, our stories.

Though most of Vermeulen’s burrows have been constructed alone in remote locations, she is eager to get other people involved.

“People are an important part of this project. A lot of people are scared, and they’re scared of other people…I want to stir something. Let them climb trees, lay in the sand and relax a bit. Just enjoy “good stuff.” If you’re in a hurry all of the time, or live in an apartment block 24 stories up, you can still find soil in places, and find energy and be happy.”

In September Vermeulen launched a public event in an old harbor yard in Vlissington. In addition to being the first public event, it was also the first time burrows were built in an urban setting. While public support for the event was good, Vermeulen says she is sometimes criticized for not building more burrows in urban settings.

“I get emails from people complaining about me not making more burrows in city environments. I sometimes feel I have to, and it’s part of the project to work with people in cities. But I also think it’s good for humans to step away from other people and be silent for a bit.”

 

A woman rests in a burrow at an old harbor yard in Vlissington. Photo: courtesy of the artist.

Like her appreciation of solitude and nature, Vermeulen also has a strong connection to her materials. Her label, Comfort Zone, boasts a unique line of handmade rough wool wearables and blankets created using locally sourced fleece. She also teaches others how to work with felt, and is co-founder of Felt United, a collaborative project with artist Cynthia Reynolds that connects felt makers across the world to make pieces of handmade textile art.

 

“I’ve been working with felt for quite a long time now, and it’s a material I fought with in the beginning. The versatility is one of the biggest assets. It’s one material, but you can use it in so many different ways. You can make it really rough and thick, and so heavy you have to hire a guy to carry the material. And you can make it feel really light and fluffy. It’s great stuff. But it’s physically hard work, especially the big pieces.

“The felt, especially the rough felt, is also really comforting to people. The material I use [for the burrows] depends on where I am. If I’m on the beach, I use sand. If I’m in the forest, I use what I find. And I always bring my own felt. It’s the material I tell my stories in.”

And telling stories is after all the goal of the Global Burrows Project. Using photography, Vermeulen has documented each of the roughly 80 burrows constructed to date. This work, along with her personal journals will form the basis of a future exhibition chronicling her two-year journey.

 

Vermeulen's burrows in a Swedish forest and a house in Ohio.

Through Vermeulen’s images, a series of restful narratives come to life: salty air and ocean waves beating against a nearby shore; the crunch of hay beneath one’s body, bathed gently in long whispers of sunlight; and the ambient snap of twigs breaking beneath the soft thud of animals, padding through a surrounding forest.

 

But not all of Vermeulen’s burrows have happy stories to tell. While traveling in the United States, she constructed a burrow in a disused house, using the family’s abandoned belongings as her material.

“The people left in a hurry and left a lot of their stuff behind. I made a burrow with their belongings, but I’m still not sure if I can use that one, because it’s heartbreaking…I’m just not sure if I want to tell about the heartbreaking stuff, because there’s already so much of it around.”

But sometimes heartbreaking stories need to be told, because in doing so we make visible problems that are too often swept under the mat. Telling difficult stories takes energy, but it also opens doors to the kind of larger discussions needed for resolution and healing. One as yet unexplored impact of the Global Burrows Project is the opportunity it presents to comment on another kind of endangered landscape, the environment. Writing in her blog in October, Vermeulen observed, “Working in places like the Belgian Ardennes is good for so many reasons. Because of those silent woods which hardly exist in the Netherlands anymore, and because of the hills up to 500 mrt, the deer and wild boar tracks, brooklets, thick raindrops, beautiful white houses, lovely people, small chapels.”

Vermeulen’s love for the natural world and strong sense of personal responsibility in providing care make her an ideal advocate in the ongoing battle to save the environment. However, whether there is room in the Global Burrows Project for this sort of activism remains to be seen, as it would likely require Vermeulen to sacrifice some of the more solitary, introspective explorations that have proven integral to her work thus far.

The Global Burrows Project will continue through February 2013. To follow Vermeulen’s movements and learn about new burrows being built, you may visit the project website, or visit Elis’s personal blog.