Artistry in times of Corona. Herman Van Bergen
1 year after the inauguration of the Cathedral of Thorns.
by Josée Thissen-Rojer
The current COVID-19 pandemic has significantly changed everyone’s daily life to some extent, and this is no different for people working in the visual arts sector. In this series, we visit local visual artists to ask them how their lives have changed, and how they are dealing with the situation. This time, we visit visual artist Herman van Bergen. Today, February 2nd, 2021, marks the one-year anniversary of the inauguration of his greatest work, the Cathedral of Thorns.
Herman van Bergen (1953) has lived in Curaçao since 1989 and is mainly known for his sculptures of thorns and the Art Calendar. He first becomes acquainted with Curaçao in 1980, and he notices that the art climate here is very favorable compared to the Netherlands. He regularly has successful exhibitions, and after settling here, he also had the opportunity to represent Curaçao at biennials in the region and at exhibitions in the Netherlands. Over the years, he undertakes all kinds of projects, including a book about the local snack bars “Snèk Book” (2008) and a collaboration with poet Hans Vaders (1949-2015) which culminated in Herman’s illustrations to accompany a poetry collection “Kate Moss in Mahaai” (2011).
Meanwhile, his work with the thorns of the Acacia Tortuosa, better known as the sumpiñas (thorns) of the Wabi, becomes increasingly important in his oeuvre. In his thorn art pieces, he experiments with, among other things, the effects of light, and different formats, and also combines them with other materials. Herman gradually starts developing the concept of a monumental building, a cathedral, inspired by local nature and made of thorns. It would be a project that would take 15 years to realize, and many people and organizations would collaborate with him on this project.
On February 2, 2020, the inauguration of the Cathedral of Thorns, his masterpiece, took place. It’s a labyrinth in which Herman van Bergen’s ideas are expressed: an ode to the free spirit. There is room for everything: art and culture, creativity, nature, religion, spirituality, and history. In addition, fellow artists were invited to express their visions of the free spirit, in niches placed inside the walls of the labyrinth just for this reason.
The performance for the inauguration was directed by Felix de Rooy (Curaçao, 1952) who masterfully took the audience on a journey into the history of Curaçao, interwoven with the cathedral’s message. The local media pay attention to it, and so do the NOS newsreel and the newspapers in the Netherlands. After the inauguration, the project is opened to the public and it immediately takes off, with an average of 600 visitors a day! Herman and his wife Daisy Casimiri are relieved that the project is finally generating income, which allows them to keep it up and running, and complete the last part. It’s hard work, but everything’s going well. The future looks bright, until the first case of Corona is detected in Curaçao on March 13, 2020, and the government almost immediately announces the lockdown. The cathedral is forced to close, there’s no more income, and the workshop closes too.
Just like everyone else, Herman is at home for 8 weeks. Because he always has materials in stock, he can still work. He creates the series ‘Los Pulmones’ (The Lungs), inspired by the local flora in colored pencil on paper. Each one of the 12 works is a local tree species: the Flamboyant, Wabi, Barba di Yonkuman, etc. He wants to underline the importance of nature because the trees are the lungs of the earth. It’s a series that he’s wanted to make for a long time, and he finally has time for it, mainly because of the lockdown. The irony that the Coronavirus is a lung disease is not lost on him. The series ‘Los Pulmones’ can be seen in the Curacaosch Museum until March 31, 2021, and has also been used for the Art Calendar 2021.
After the lockdown, the cathedral, which had been reclaimed by nature in the meantime, is cleaned up and reopened. People slowly start visiting again, but the large influx of visitors is gone and doesn’t return. Due to the increasingly strict regulations, it’s also impossible for Herman and Daisy to organize activities. It’s as if the magnificent project has ended up in some kind of no man’s land.
Fortunately, there are also some bright spots in 2020. Abroad, especially in the United States, there’s a lot of attention for the Cathedral of Thorns. The project has won two prestigious prizes there. In the international, online art and design competition 2020 CODA awards, the cathedral wins in the “Landscaping” and “People’s Choice” categories.
Today, February 2nd, 2020, marks the one-year anniversary of the inauguration of his life’s work, the Cathedral of Thorns. It’s been a year in which a lot has happened, but also in which a lot hasn’t happened. Herman and Daisy need to reflect on this milestone. Studio Loos, which provided the music for the inauguration, will reflect on the cathedral’s first anniversary through an online streaming event. Interviews with different artists discussing Herman van Bergen and the Cathedral of Thorns have been recorded. You’ll hear from Tirzo Martha, Godelieve Smulders, René Guillot, Philippe Zanolino, Willem Blankenburgh, Junior Tecla, Tania Kross, Peter van Bergen, Sinuhe Oomen, Gigi, Otti Thomas, and Felix de Rooy.
Herman is also preparing for the upcoming Open Atelier Route 2021, which will take place in March. His work “You reap what you sow” was specially made for this. “The pandemic and the economic crisis have exposed our vulnerabilities, and it takes a lot of creativity to deal with it,” explains Herman. He also has a message for the government, because he sees that our education system is focused on fueling the economy when it should be focused on the earth and how we should treat it. It’s the same message that the Cathedral represents as well: “The world belongs to humanity and the earth, we’re simply allowed to exist in it”.
This publication was made possible by the financial support of Prins Bernhard Cultuurfonds Caribisch Gebied.
Previously published in Amigoe, on February 2, 2021. Photographs by Ken Wong. This text, in whole or part, may only be reproduced with reference to the source: Curaçao Art®️, www.curacao-art.com, and the author. Copyright of the artworks remains the property of the artist.