you are there
and I am here
but what if you were here
and I could be there
Welcome to Being Here for You.
We are two artists living and working far apart:
Hannah Loewenthal in a rural part of South Africa,
Rita Hoofwijk between The Netherlands and Brussels.
When travel became impossible in 2020
and the distance between us became fixed,
we began an exchange of written requests
and embodied responses.
Can you experience the world
through the eyes, ears, hands of another?
Can you see, hear, touch your everyday for another?
It’s April 6, 2020. Everything has changed overnight. Going outside is limited to essentials, I spend my days indoors and find the chance to escape at night. I sit on one of the benches of the deserted Grand-Place and look up at the night sky. The stars are still there, but still only few of them are visible in the city. It makes me long for your nighttime view in rural Vermaaklikheid. I want to look at the stars from the small verandah outside your kitchen. I wonder:
Could you sit there for me tonight? Could you be my eyes?
The weather is getting colder. I put on my warm jacket (the red one) and a light green woollen hat and went outside the kitchen door:
You sit down on the verandah with legs dangling over the side of the low wall. You realize quickly that the moon is full which means that the stars are not at their brightest. There is a moment of disappointment. Your gaze keeps coming back to the moon and then wandering out into the sky. You can still see the Southern Cross and other stars which you can’t identify. You think you can see Venus (but you aren’t sure). You can see craters on the moon and find it impossible to grasp how this bright ball hovers there, illuminating the night throughout time. There is hardly any electrical light; a world almost entirely lit by moonlight. The light is hard to describe now….. a kind of ‘dark light’. You look at the landscape and feel tempted to take a walk but you stay and sit quietly. The quieter you become, the louder the landscape sounds. You focus on the sound. Birds, insects, animals which only exist after dark are all awake, growing louder…singing, chirping, calling, communicating. You want to lie down in the soundscape, the night song; lullaby for a full moon.
I have the urge to play loud music – without disturbing any neighbours – and move around freely; to dance, jump, let go of all the things going on. I was thinking that your studio, standing alone in the olive grove, could be perfect for this.
Could you go there for me? Will you be my feet and legs and ears today?
I think this might have been the best part of your day today…
You aren’t wearing the ‘right’ clothes to move in but that’s ok. At first there is some resistance, maybe tiredness and it also takes time to find music – you decide to put i-tunes on random select so that you do not have to make the choice. Very quickly you feel energised and it’s almost as if the studio is also warming up, coming alive. Your legs are a bit stiff but the rest of you moves easily and freely and takes the space. There is a moment when you imagine dancing and dancing for days but thirty minutes is the time it takes. You like the brushing sounds your feet make on the wooden floors..the floors also creak now and then. You notice how quickly thoughts and feelings come and go. You feel all the uncertainty and the chaos and the fear and the mess of a world in crisis. At some point you even feel angry – it is hard to tell what it’s really about but you feel it constricting your throat.
It was a very good thing to have done. You should consider doing it more often.
This morning, as I put on my everyday clothes, I thought about how there are no more occasions. I mean that there is nowhere to go to, nobody to visit, nothing to ‘dress up’ for. I miss it. Could you put on a dress and some red lipstick and take a walk to my favourite cafe there (the one on the corner)?
Today you wore a dress:
Just before putting on the lipstick, you hesitate. Perhaps because I seldom wear it and also it doesn’t feel totally appropriate to go outside dressed up in these times. Anyway, you go ahead and do it. You leave the house in a floaty, yellow dress with red lipstick (and you even took care of your hair; you wear it down instead of in a bun). You notice that your way of walking is different to yesterday. Slowly you start to like it. Near the cafe on the corner, you lean against a tree. The cafe looks like it’s in hibernation.
You see no one there and you suspect no one sees you.
I don’t think you have any regrets and I believe you enjoyed feeling the soft and loose fabric of the dress on your bare legs while walking.
Tomorrow morning I’d so love to wake up early in nature, with the prospect of a whole day of quiet ahead. I would like to go outside and feel the wind for a moment while watching the valley come alive. After this I’d come inside and have a coffee or a tea (both fine). A quiet morning far from here, in your middle of nowhere.
This morning you had a chance to watch the sunrise over the hill:
You go outside while the world is mostly still asleep. There is some smoke in the distance (probably people making fires to warm up and to cook). Anyway, the sun suddenly appears and shines straight onto your face, and you close your eyes as it is blinding, (but the warm brightness also feels good). After about ten or fifteen minutes you come inside and you pour some coffee into a small glass. You have to heat the milk. You sit on the couch and watch hundreds of dust particles caught in a beam of sunlight. You think about particles. You like that word p a r t i c l e s.
You watch those tiny particles floating around for about ten minutes, usually invisible but now made visible by a beam of light shining through a gap in the shutters outside.You sip your coffee. You are interrupted but you let the interruption come and go. You are slightly irritated by it as this is your quiet morning time. Besides watching the dust particles, you think about ‘then’ & ‘now’ and you look forward to a whole day ahead.
The sun goes down now just after 6pm and it’s as if someone switches on the night. The darkness is abrupt and I miss those long summer evenings. I wish to be outside at dusk when the light is lingering, possibly with a glass of wine (which is now prohibited here and seems quite extreme? Oh and cigarettes and tobacco also banned – the black market must be thriving).
In the early evening you are aware of the light, as it’s still there. It introduces a stretched kind of time that belongs to summer, when the day is over but it is also not yet night. Perhaps it’s time to stay a little longer; to watch the clouds and the sky and the intensified colours that precede the sunset. That’s what you do. The soft blue mingles with streaks of pink. And then a bright dark orange that seems to come through the blue, as if it had been waiting behind it, shading the bricks of the apartment building across the street, as if the light temporarily coats everything it touches with a layer of specialness. Take a final close look, before the world goes dark.
Only now I read that the rays of the Sun encounter atmospheric particles which filter the sunlight (like dust and water droplets) when the Sun is just above the horizon, creating this special light, the golden hour. It makes me think of the beam of Sunlight yesterday morning and the floating p a r t i c l e s that became visible.
I had bought some wine earlier, a bottle of Shiraz from Western Cape, for the occasion. You are watching a perfectly shaped triangle of birds flying over as you start to feel the effect of the alcohol… you are not so used to alcohol these days… It quickly alienates you from your surroundings and ironically it makes you fall asleep before the sun is down.
I’m writing to you from my sofa, staring at the ceiling. Like most ceilings, it is painted white.
I’m aware that the following request is restricted for you at the moment, which makes me hesitant.
Still, if you could make your way to the sea in the coming days, can I have a look at the waves and the horizon, take a deep breath of sea air?
It might be the thing I long for most.
I had been postponing this trip to see the sea, or rather trying to work out the best way, well actually, the best view at a time when it’s illegal to go to the beach. Eventually I realised that one can simply cycle towards the coast (even though also illegal), and I thought of a possible track which would lead closer to the sea:
The day is grey with a cold wind. You cycle along the gravel road with the wind hitting your face. You suddenly wonder whether the sea would be visible with all the clouds, but you continue. At first you go to the best viewpoint where you can watch the sea rolling out forever and hear the crashing rumbling sound made louder by the wind. After a short while you realise that the fence in between you and the view makes the watching feel a little trapped (if I can put it that way) so you cycle and find another road winding towards a small cottage and into the hills. You find a new place which is much more open and you sit down on the rough, short, prickly grass and watch.
A big silvery grey mass moving endlessly, reflecting the shadows of the clouds. Towards the horizon the sea becomes lighter, almost white, and you think you can smell the sea but you aren’t sure as the damp plants around you also smell strong.
It was so good to be alone in this big open landscape watching the sea, despite wondering what would happen if I was caught.
I’m seldom alone these days. With the curtains open, I can even sense the presence – and the eyes – of the neighbours across the street (who are always at home these days too). I would like permission to disappear for a while. Would you find a place and way for me to be completely alone? No one will know I am there, I will meet no one, it will be just me and the landscape and other, non-human creatures.
I’ve been waiting for a few days to find your way into the landscape alone, to disappear from sight for a while. I had made a rather elaborate plan to cycle and then walk in a place further away, to be certain you would not see people or cars. But funny how in the moment a plan can seem pointless..
You walk out of the house just as one would in the city. You open the kitchen door into the garden and then you just start walking further along the ridge of the hillside. If I said to you ‘the hill where the setting sun creates a line’ I think you would know the location I am talking about. You walk until you lose sight of any house and you know no one will encounter you and you know that you won’t encounter anyone. Suddenly a hare with long ears leaps out of the bushes and scrambles up the hill. (Later I find out that this is the Riverine rabbit, it is one of the most endangered mammals in the world, the main reason being that the female only produces one offspring per year.) As it disappears, the sun shines through its long ears and you wonder why it has developed such long ears?
There is no path on the hill that stretches out from the house into the distance and so you just have to walk through this rocky landscape, looking at the remains of a burnt place and at the same time a landscape slowly refreshing itself….so many tiny green plants living between the rocks. And you notice that you can hear the sea in the distance.
After about fifteen minutes of walking you lose sight of houses and a little further on, you find a perfect alcove of stones where you sit down. They’re a little sharp so you have to move onto the ground where a plant has become a ground cover, softer and easier for your butt.
This rocky landscape wherever you turn, gives you a kind of vertigo, harsh without any shelter. Maybe your survival instinct kicks in – if there was danger there would be nowhere to hide… and then you question the desire to disappear. In this landscape you feel quite exposed and the ‘I’ of you seems to become louder, maybe more visible?
I miss the anonymity that you have in the city. I know all of the few people I meet here.
Today I want to go to a place full of people, knowing that no one knows me.
I want to become invisible (in a crowd).
In order to become invisible in a crowd, you need a crowd. Usually that would not be a problem here, but now I had to think about where to find one:
You set off on your invisible mission. For the first ten to fifteen minutes outside, you notice people on the street looking at you. Perhaps because you are paying attention, or possibly because you are somehow foreign to the environment today. One man asks for your phone number from a distance… is this what happens when you try to disappear from sight? You see your reflection in a shop window and think you are wearing the right clothes for anonymity; jeans and a grey t-shirt. Still, it isn’t until you enter the busier area that you slowly become part of the scenery. You don’t encounter anyone I know and no one looks at you in particular. The kids are playing with the kids. The dogs are barking at the dogs. The parents and the owners are looking at each other across the enlarged space between them (that the children and dogs don’t care about) and you just fit into the scene: a woman walking in a park. Nothing odd or remarkable about it, and so you become one of the trees. One more, one less, no one would notice.
You become invisible.
Then you decide to walk barefoot (because of a painful blister) and you have to admit that this isn’t the smartest move. It attracts the attention of almost every person passing you.
I’m thinking so much about the kids in your village today. I wonder how they are. I wonder how the situation affects them. I remember them vividly.
I know you can’t go and visit them at this time. Is there anything you can think of to bring me closer to them?
On the day that you have this thought and this wish, and after many weeks of not seeing the kids (lockdowns..), they arrive totally unexpectedly as if out of nowhere and for the first time ever, at the house. They are calling from outside and it’s clear that they are missing the studio, or the time together, or maybe even missing you? You are taken aback by the intimacy of them appearing like this and also touched by a certain boldness they have to come and find you.
I know that you are visiting your parents as it is permitted and ‘safe’ now in the Netherlands. It makes me realise how much I’d like to see my father (again), and have another walk with him. I quite often try to recall the memory of our last walk together on the farm so that I don’t lose it. The pace was painful; each step was a huge effort.
Can you take a walk with your father for me? It’s a chance to have another walk as a daughter.
This morning, on the second to last day of my visit, I invited my father to go on a walk. He agreed:
For the first few metres you are walking slightly uphill on a paved road. It’s a little tiring for both of you. There is some tension, most likely because he seems to be thinking that there is something in particular you wish to discuss with him. You consider mentioning that you have no agenda other than enjoying the proximity of another walk together, but you keep quiet. As you leave the house further behind, into the fields he knows so well, onto the dirt roads, the tension dissolves and you share familiar thoughts on familiar topics, like other family members, politics and future plans. You notice how you walk with the same leg in front.
After some time (and miles), you start talking more about yourselves and inner stirrings, slowing the walking pace. There’s a question, raised by him, that you have to think about for longer. (You are now walking so slowly that you almost seem to come to a standstill.) It goes something like this:
‘Yes ok and what about your personal needs and longings, apart from the ability to attune to others?’
It moves you, the way he’s able to see – you.
Back at the house, you sit for a couple of minutes outside on a wooden bench in silence.
Resting legs, thoughts, hearts.
I am moving between places. After having spent so much time at home in lockdown, it’s quite disruptive. I feel restless and vulnerable. I want to be able to come home and be at ease there. When I think of your place with its large wooden dining room table, the herbs growing outside the kitchen and the Persian carpet, I can imagine feeling at home there. Could you be (t)here for me?
I took some time to think about what it really means to feel ‘at home’. All the tangible things like the smell of a place, the style of the space, the way things are placed and which things you choose to place around you, but I kept returning to the feeling of being at home. As if it is a sense unto itself. The sense of feeling at home. I realised that to feel at home you must inhabit – this means you must simply spend time in the place. Lots of time. The feeling of being at home for me means that ‘you are held by a space’; it is a place where you can rest, a place where you are contained in the huge spinning of the planet and all the complexities of a wide open world. But how do you make a space do that? Well, I am not entirely sure but perhaps through the rhythms which tell the house it is holding you. Through your presence.
Over three days you choose an hour in the day and you spend time just being in the house. Some of it is spent moving things around but mostly it is a way of putting yourself into the space:
You watch the two swallows building their mud nest just underneath the roof outside the kitchen. They are making a home… for obvious practical reasons like protection from the weather they have chosen this place, but there are so many options, you watch them building and wonder why this particular place? You watch the swallows and all of the life around that seems to be making home around your home at the same time. You think about stretching this further than your home, feeling at home in this place, in this country, feeling at home in your own skin. The feeling comes and goes like waves, or seasons and maybe the feeling itself changes, or what you need in order to feel at home changes. It was initially part of growing up in a family, your parents and your family held this feeling for you- it was simply there. Wherever the family home was, that was home. Now it is up to you. You pick a very delicate white rose from my mothers’ garden and put it in a small glass vase on the dining room table.
I’ve been here in the countryside for months and months now and I am really missing life in the city. I think it’s intensified by not being allowed to leave. Could you spend some time in the city for me?
Lately, the city opened again. I may have read too many articles on (not) going back to the ‘old normal’ to see this as only positive. Yet I cannot deny that it gives me joy; watching the vibrancy people bring to this city. The day before yesterday you were one of them:
It is an early morning, the cafe has just opened its doors and you find a seat on its terrace. The tree against which you had been leaning in April on the day of the dress is still there, greener though.
A man in sloppy clothes sits reading a newspaper. Behind you two women are conversing in English with lowered voices so as not to disturb the peace. There’s the shrill sound of a spoon tapping against the porcelain cup and then being placed on the saucer. You can see the cathedral and a nicely tree-shaped shade on the brick wall. The stillness of this place in the morning is so good. But isn’t it this good because of the vibrant city life that’s about to begin? Soon the square will be filled with inhabitants and visitors. Cars and buses and taxis, bicycles and pedestrians. All these things to have seen and done! The possibilities!
A woman with orange earrings takes a sip of her coffee. Her bare foot rests on her sandal, she yawns. A woman in a blue suit puts her hair up as she walks by. An elderly man walks his dog and hums a tune. One square of a city, it slowly fills up. You count the faces of people frowning while they pass. Seven. On the right a man with his belt loose. The waiter asks if you want another drink. You think about how you always like your milk heated and served in a separate jug. You think about the hill near your house where the setting sun creates its line without me. You think: the city needs (y)our presence.
Your August is in winter, mine is part of summer. I can’t believe it’s already mid-August. Didn’t we start this exchange in April? The pandemic has done something strange to my sense of time. I’m afraid that summer will be over soon now and it makes me feel rushed. I haven’t felt this way for so long.
There, unlike here, weeks and weekends seemed not really separate and the overall experience of time was different, slower perhaps.
I’d like to keep this request simple:
Could you take your time for me?
You had some time today, alone in the studio. It’s almost as though when you give yourself to time, you can expand it. It is yours. Time belongs to you, that is what you felt today… not only as something which marks beginnings and endings, deadlines and birthdays, years and minutes but as a way to experience a kind of spaciousness:
You wonder how animals experience time, like the cats, which come to glance at what you are doing through the studio door. A ginger cat and a black cat. They stare at you for a moment, suspended, and then turn and run. You realise it isn’t you but rather their fascination or shock at seeing themselves in the glass ‘mirror’ of the door. Time must be tied up in various rituals of eating for these cats and other animals. Suddenly you are hungry, it’s 3pm and you haven’t eaten lunch but you like not adhering to time specific markers for eating, for sleeping, for waking up, for working. However, you do like rhythm and rhythm cannot exist without time, you think.
Can anything exist out of time?
You fantasise about getting lost in time or out of time. The sensation of sometimes drifting in a half awake half asleep state in an aeroplane might be the closest to this feeling. That was a long time ago now.
I count the months. Six.
Time changes or we are changing in relationship to time. Drifting. Drifting now and thinking about some vague landscapes to paint with watercolours. Waiting also arrives in these thoughts from somewhere behind you because it does seem like these are waiting days. Waiting also exists on the sidelines of time as it were, because the waiting is for something to start or to happen, something scheduled. The train is either ‘on time’ or not, as is the person you are waiting to meet or the answer to the message you just sent. You like waiting, you like dreaming, you like drifting, all seem unpredictable in the spinning of time.
These days I feel the weight of this time, a world that seems heavier than usual. I am finding it hard to justify having ‘fun’. Fun might seem to be trivial but I do miss it. Play. What does fun mean now?
Today your world became very small; just you in this living space, with this one other person as a witness. No telephone, no news, no future work, no agenda or plans, nowhere outside of
You find yourself running from one side of the house to the other across the bed in the middle (instead of walking around it) towards the kitchen and you decide to have lunch in a corner of the room on the floor. I don’t know what it means exactly but today this is funny to you. Light..headed..hearted. You eat your sandwich with your back leaning against the wall, just beside the chimney. You can almost hide behind it and you laugh since it’s such an odd place to sit. Outside it’s pouring and everything seems simple and uncomplicated from your tiny corner of the world today.
Now I remember us having fun together.
However I try, I’m just not able to find any rest at the moment. I need to rest deeply. Can you find some rest for me?
I believe the rest found you.
It began in the car:
You are in the passenger seat and you lean your head against the headrest. There is a bag between your legs with a dessert inside that has already been prepared. Someone else will cook dinner. It’s late afternoon and there is nothing left for you to do now. On the radio a sensual French voice introduces a Jazz musician. It’s getting dark already. You start to yawn, one after another, deep and long.
In the evening the resting extends as you are lying on a carpet in the living room. The fabric is soft and you are on your back with your knees bent so that your feet are flat on the ground. You press your toes into the wool. From the kitchen comes a delicious smell of food. Around you (above you) there’s a conversation going on about a movie you haven’t seen and there is no need for you to attend to what’s being said. You are happy about the familiarity of the voices, their accents and laughs. You feel safe here.
And then you welcome the rest, as a visitor, a friend, perhaps even a lover. “Well hello,” you go, “There you are.. please make yourself at home in this body.. stay as long as needed.”
We are in a second lockdown here, which means I’m mostly inside the atelier again. It’s harder for me to surrender to it this time. I know the room and I know the view from the window. Close to everything that I see is human made; the houses with the brick walls, the gutter where the pigeons perch, the copy machine in the office building across the street, this desk and chair, my water bottle, the tea bag and its text card (today it says no joke: life has meaning).
I reflect on this word lockdown. Indeed, I feel locked in and long to break free. If I could just go into ‘the wild’ for some time…
You tried to make time to go into the wild on Monday and on Tuesday but nothing felt quite ‘wild enough’ so you decided that today you would take a trip to the desert.
You set the alarm for 4am but in anticipation you wake up at 3am. You lie in bed for awhile wondering if you might go back to sleep – and if you do, then wondering if you’ll miss the morning because you have your heart set on seeing the sunrise.. You don’t go back to sleep. At 3.30am you get up and make coffee and pack some food and leave the house. You have to drive for just over an hour, mostly in the dark. You arrive at a gate on the side of the gravel road and you pull over (remember we’ve passed through this place together). You stop the car, put on your backpack and start walking through the scrubby bush towards the mountain. The air is still very cool, cool enough to be wearing a jersey.
There is no clear path but you are aiming for a mountain ridge and find a way through a dry river bed. Now everything is still in the shadow. The Sun is not up yet. The smell of the early morning is fresh… herbal smells from the plants and the dry air make you feel like you are somewhere far away from home. You think about the wild and what it means. The immediate idea of a jungle or thick forest, exotic animals and danger. There is none of that here but you feel lost in a huge landscape with no sign of other people, only hills and scrubby bushes stretching out into the distance, hitting ranges of blue mountains far off. The insects and you, and some birds calling as the Sun rises. That is all.
You see the Sun hit the tip of the mountaintop and you know there is no going back, the Sun will soon envelope everything, the day will become too hot to handle but inevitably night would come and everything would end and start again. You feel the silence, a deep silence sustained by the mountains towering around you. It is too hot to stay too long but you feel satisfied with your choice of place today.
My dreams are vivid and detailed at the moment. As if the night compensates for the decreased activity of my days. I wake up and I think: it was a dream. It wasn’t real. Was it? I reminisce about each of my visits over the past months in your here. They have a dreamlike quality. I wonder: Will you remember my dream for me tomorrow morning?
You remember only a short part of your dream from last night. It is absolutely clear. There is a woman (I remember her from my childhood), the mother of a boy called Adam in my school class. Her name is Penny.
You know that Adams’ parents are divorced, but in this dream they reunite and are going to open a shop together. And then that is that, the end of the dream or rather, the end of what you can remember of the dream.
Yesterday I lost my sense of smell due to Covid. It has completely gone. I find it disorienting and quite scary. I had no idea how much I rely on this sense, how much I love this sense and how much I want to smell everything again !
Lemon. Coffee (you open a new container). Warm bread (the best smell in the world). Cheese. Mustard. Toothpaste. Face cream. Washing powder. First the heater, then the hallway of the house. Fresh air / outside. The park (grass, bushes, earth, all together.) Engine gases. Food (coming from restaurants as you cycle down the street). Spices. Fried chicken. A mix of piss and alcohol and something else unpleasant that’s hard to identify. A hint of cigarette smoke. The lining of a tram seat. The facemask. Your breath in the facemask. A man’s perfume. An orange (while being peeled). A woman’s perfume. Dust or sand, something earthy (in the studio). Rhubarb lemonade. Metal (in the palm of your hand, from the keys you’ve been holding). The wood of the staircase. A friend (while you hug). A book (I remember someone saying, ‘it’s the glue binding the pages together’). Something rotten (and then you find an apple rotting under other fruit in the fruit bowl). Garlic in oil in a hot pan. Rosemary. Thyme. Cumin. Fresh Mint. A rubber mat. Sweat. Soap (something fruity, ‘apple’). Shampoo (coconut). Verbena. Ginger. Smoke after you blow out the candle. A sweater (it has its own scent, maybe it’s mine). The sheets. The pillowcase.