Ocean Conversation with



Kaap is on the beach of Ostend. Visitors bring in the sand of the beach on their shoes when entering. The floor is therefore “crunchy” and a bit slippery. On the inside, to the right of the entrance, is a large window front. The view to the sea and the beach is undisturbed. The space is mainly used for concerts. Directly behind the large window front is a small stage with a grand piano. Small wooden tables and chairs for the audience, a bar, and towards the back, a large working table for the staff. We sit there for the conversation. Before we start, I offer T. a drink from the bar.


T.’s voice is not too high, not too low. It has a certain depth to it, alluding to her depth of character. When speaking, she’s direct and clear. There’s a certain disarming honesty that her voice helps carry.

M.M. What’s your relationship with the ocean?

T.v.A What do you mean when you say ocean?

M.M. I mean the “world ocean”. The term refers to the fact that all the seas and oceans of the world are connected to form one huge body of water.

T.v.A To start, I want to say that I’m totally in love with the ocean. I’m also very afraid of it. Or, rather, I’m in awe of it. It’s the most fantastic body that exists. When I was small, it was my parents that first brought me to the sea.
(It was in Middlekerke: we had an apartment there where we used to go for the summer.)

I remember loving the feeling of touching the sea or having it around me. Back then, I was not afraid of it. But then again, my parents only took me when it was docile + warm. That was the Belgian sea, of course. It was the only sea I saw for a really long time. I had to turn 20 before seeing another sea. (This is without counting Lake Como, in Italy.)

I remember taking the mailboat from here to Dover with my mother. We used to take it every year. For shopping. The journey is about four hours each way. It was my mother’s idea of going to England. We would only go if sea was calm, of course. Before the trip, my father would look out of the window in the early morning to assess the weather.

M.M. Did the weather ever change during the day?

T.v.A No, the sea was always very smooth if that’s how it would start out in the mornings. Here, there are no storms in the summer.

My relation to the sea changed during puberty → now I loved it also during autumn and winter. I started loving its dark side probably because I perceived it as connecting to my dark side.

I felt as if the sea allowed me to be there. It rang true somehow (the colors + everything) the loneliness of it.

I began to hate the summer sea – it rang false. I hated the whole culture of sunbathing. I didn’t like the summer sun. I didn’t feel the need to colonize it or own the sea. It was fine that it was there and I was here.

Now, as an adult, I feel I’m just reconnecting with the sea and how it used to make me feel. There’s something unconditional to just being in the proximity of the sea.

M.M. Do you experience it as a companion?

T.v.A Yes, as a friend (even though one should not anthropomorphize it). It gave me a normalcy when I most needed it.

For me, the sea is connected to a certain psychological state → that has to do with growing up and becoming a person + finding a way to be a person. Believing that I had the right to become a person. In front of the sea I experienced an infinite acceptance of who I was, or of the fact that I didn’t know who or what I was.

It’s such a power → it’s a huge thing and this gave me some kind of safety. As with every minority connecting to a majority → It gives you a sense of safety.

M.M. What was it about the sea, you think, that gave you this feeling?

T.v.A. Its vastness. Its colors + smells + earthiness. In Dutch, the word I would use is urkracht → in English it means primordial force. An acceptance from within the power of being. I think I felt safety also because of the huge contrast between my fragility and its generosity.

Even when the sea is at its wildest etc. It will always be frightening only if you try to contain it. If the rocks were not there, it would just keep on rolling. If you don’t fence it in it will keep on rolling, it won’t attack. Eventually, the rocks will have to go.

Like in the Orkneys → which is an island group above Scotland. On one of the islands is the Old man of Hoy which is, essentially, just a very tall and long rock surrounded by water. A car commercial was shot there, for which the car had to be flown on the rock by a helicopter. The driver had to climb into the car from a hole underneath it because there was no space on the rock to enter the car from the side.

Or, like the “Azure Window” in Malta, a limestone arch that crumbled a few years ago because of a huge storm. The waves slowly eat away the land. No human-constructed structure will hold. → Especially off the west coast of England where the Channel meets the ocean the sea is very wild.

I spent some time in the Shetland Islands in Scotland. To get from mainland Shetland to Fair Isle you either take a boat, which is called The Good Shepherd, or a plane. I became very seasick when I took that boat. That was strange because the water was calm. The waves crush the cliffs all the time so there’s an almost invisible current.

This crossing was really different from taking the mailboat to Dover. I felt the wind on my face. I felt on the same level as the seagulls that were hanging out on the water surface. I didn’t even know they did that. My favorite ocean bird is the Gannet.

M.M. What does it look like?

T.v.A. It’s like a seagull but more slender. It has a finer long beak, the back of its head is yellow. It has a thin black line around its eyes, its wings are elongated. Its the bird that can dive the deepest into the ocean. When they dive, their body turns into a a screw that penetrates the water. Gannets are also faster than seagulls.

M.M. → How do you know so much about wildlife?

T.v.A. When you’re in a place like Fair Isle, wildlife is just there, it’s a part of where you are.

M.M. What were you doing on Fair Isle?

T.v.A. I was there on a writing residency. When I work on a new play, I choose to go and work by the sea, usually on an island. This is not on purpose. When I write, I do not want to be disturbed by normal life. I am not attracted to mountains nor to warm countries. I end up in places like the north of Norway or the islands of Great Britain or Newfoundland.

M.M. Do you apply for artist’s residencies?

T.v.A. No, I just rent an apartment. I usually get turned down by “official” residency
because of my age or my relatively small body of work. So I rent an Airbnb.

M.M. For how long approximately?

T.v.A. Usually between 1 + 2 months.

M.M. It probably also takes some some to arrive there, physically and mentally…

T.v.A. Arriving is ok if the community is small enough. For example, in Fair Isle: you can only stay at the birds observatory: Breakfast, lunch + dinner are at fixed hours.

There are bird counting sessions at the observatory. There are rangers that stay there in order to count the bird population. It’s a ritual that lasts for about an hour in which the rangers sit around the table and compare the numbers of each population of birds that they counted. There are also ringed birds to identify, their migratory patterns, etc. The rings are a way for scientists to track the birds across different areas.

A lot of the islands I have visited have migratory birds passing through them. It’s nice to sit there on an island and to have the bird-world passing by and over you.

There are around 30 people on Fair Isle. When you meet someone they ask: Are you a bird person? or an island person?

People leave the island from the age of 12 to go to school. The school in Shetland only has 12 children. Once I met an older man on Fair Isle who told me: “I came back to die here.” – it made sense. People spend their active life off the island and only go back there to die.

On Fair Isle, the sheep belong to everybody. Once a year, all the sheep are gathered up → the non-productive ones need to be slaughtered. But they cannot be slaughtered on the island. So all the sheep go on to The Good Shepherd – first alive and then dead. Everybody on the island gets a number and according to that they are allotted a (dead) sheep.

Similarly, all the jobs are divided amongst candidates. So for example, one of the tasks of the fireman is that he or she has to take the truck + drive three times in a circle around the runway with the siren on in order to make sure that there are no sheep around when the plane lands. They have many such rituals on Fair Isle. The rurality makes such activities seem funny to us but they are part of the everyday life there.

The plane that goes from Fair Isle to Shetland is very small. It has a capacity of 8-12 people. Once, the pilot of the plane drove me to my hotel cause we landed after the last bus had passed.

One of the most amazing things that happened to me on Fair Isle was the following: I was standing on a cliff (it was not dangerous.) I had binoculars and was looking through them at birds all around me. Suddenly, I had the feeling that I could touch the birds because I could not see the land through the binoculars, it was covered by the black edges of the viewers.

So it felt like there was just ocean + birds + me + no land. It felt like I was flying with them. It felt like there was no difference between what they were doing and what I was doing. It felt fantastic. I was too close to the cliff to walk around. I get scared really easily.

I was not using the binoculars to look at what was far away but they were blocking the physical reality instead. Because of the blackness within the binoculars. I could hear the sounds of their wings flapping It really felt as if I were amongst them.

M.M. How many birds were there?

T.v.A. I think there must have been around 20-30 birds around me. The birds are always there. I was just allowed to be close to them + they didn’t seem to bother. I went to Fair Isle two times. Now they’ve built a new bird observatory.

M.M. Have you ever thought of going back?

T.v.A. Yes, but nowadays I try to keep my carbon footprint to a minimum. And actually, I do not need to be somewhere physically in order to have an emotional connection to the place. I can travel to it mentally.

At Fair Isle, the art is very community-based. There is a museum of knitting, for example, showing special knitting patterns invented by the locals.

M.M. Sounds like this island could be a model for a more communal way of life?

T.v.A. Yes. Yet for me it’s actually quite comforting that I am not required to participate in the community. I like it when I’m the outsider. I don’t see it as an escape from my own reality, in search for a better life. Places like Fair Isle are a haven for opening my thoughts in a different way. This I cannot do
an everyday life situation.

M.M. Is there a connection between the sea + your artistic work?

T.v.A. Well, that’s more complicated. It’s more about well being. Because of the well-being, I feel freer with my thoughts.

I have discovered different ways of opening my mind. For example, I read the Daily Telegraph. It’s not the best newspaper if you need information. But it has the best short stories. The best reports on the weird + the wonderful. So when I work on something, I cut out different things from the Daily Telegraph + glue it in a book → this works better for me.

In fact, I do have a practice of painting the sea every day – this does open my mind. I go to the same spot on the beach in Ostend and make a polaroid image of the sea. Then I paint the polaroid. Every time I think: Puh, this is a difficult one; I don’t know if I can do it. But when I start, I don’t have that thought anymore. I conquer the fear of starting and that makes it easier to start.

Taking the photograph → is not directly connected to my artistic development → but the practice of taking the pictures and then painting them makes it valuable for me on an artistic level. It’s become a developing work of 150 little paintings.The sea has rarely been the subject of my work. But, in fact, I did make a 160 min. video of the sea, I’ve also drawn and painted the sea before; I developed a pastel technique for drawing the sea.

In the texts I’ve written, the sea has always appeared one way or another. But only for a minute or so. Seabirds, also appear regularly. On the other hand, I’ve never talked about birds of prey or of mountains. The city + the sea form a universe from which I draw.

I also have a huge collection of books on whale fishery in the 16, 17 and 18th centuries. Or on the exploration of pole-regions by boat. Those themes appear a lot in my work as points of reference of how human behavior develops. No idea why.

M.M. Is there an element of the ocean that you find particularly relevant or towards which you have a particular affinity?

T.v.A. Power (on the one hand) – don’t want it to be the power, not the power that comes.
Approachability /friendliness. But
the sea is not friendly, at least not in an anthropomorphic sense.
Completeness. So complete that it represents so many things at the same time. I think that’s what attracts me so much.
→ It’s Depth. But a depth on all levels. It resonates on multiple levels/there’s a complexity.
It’s impossible to know it. Like the spot where I take the photographs: I don’t know anything about it + I have been there 150 times. You think the sea is predictable but it’s totally not. Even though all those things are true, I don’t feel frightened by it.

I love watching the tides. My relation to the sea is defined by proximity and observation. But its not about the sea surrounding me I’m just accepted in its proximity.

That’s your space
That’s my space and that’s good.
It’s an interaction of respect.

There's also something about the smell of the sea. Like the smell of fresh rain.

M.M.Do you mean the smell of the sand?

T.v.A.I would say it's more the smell of rocks.