Wasteland, unused spaces, abandoned industrial areas: the Catalan architect Ignasi de Solà-Morales called them terrains vagues, islands that geographically speaking count as parts of the city, but that do not have a function in its daily life. Forgotten spaces, overlooked spaces, spaces that take no part in the dynamics of the city, but have meaning nevertheless. According to De Solà-Morales they reflect the postmodern subject’s fear of everything that protects one from fear; a fear that is inspired by the very safety net that we have designed to protect us, which fails to catch certain people. Domestic comfort, he says, reminds us of homeless nomadism. Images of terrains vagues construct the urban experience in the negative.
De Solà-Morales spoke of photography, but Harm van den Berg paints these non-sites; paints them and names them. Titles such as “Corner” or “Harbour” speak of what they are, while other titles, such as “Stash” or “Hangout” speak of the uses they are put to by the homeless who make them their temporary homes. The titles often refer to the way they are perceived. They can be neutral, such as “Vacancy”, “Vacuum” or “Gaze”, but normative as well, such as “Castle” or “Boulevard”. “My home is my castle”: a house owner’s pride becomes an ironic commentary on a vagrant who uses a play tower as a roost.
Sometimes the motif is clearly recognizable, but most often the colors are so dark and the shapes so unclear that only the title offers a clue. Van den Berg’s images and titles form a safety net that the viewer can fall through only too easily, but that he or she can ascend from as well. These paintings are terrains vagues in themselves. As De Solà-Morales puts it, they express emptiness and absence as well as promise, encounter, possibility and expectation. And although if the viewer is kept in a state of uncertainty, the paintings themselves are intimately acquainted with the sites they describe. They have lived there themselves, they have experienced them in person. As a viewer, you can retreat to a safe distance and look at the images through half-closed eyes, but if you move up close, you will see the damage they have sustained during their stay on the spot they portray.
The paintings combine the eye and the body, the scopic and the experiential. They oscillate between what the French philosopher Michel de Certau calls espaces and lieux, spaces and places. Viewing the city as espace, space, means recreating oneself as an all-seeing eye, a sun-eye, a voyeur. As lieu, as place, on the other hand, the city is only accessible to the pedestrian. A space is clearly defined and legible, a place is something one can only immerse oneself in.
According to De Certeau, the city that belongs to the totalizing gaze emerged in the bird's eye perspectives of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance and culminated in modernist city planning. The rational organization of the modernist city suppresses every form of contamination that can compromise it, whether it is of a physical, mental or political nature. According to modernist urbanist logic, urban spaces can only perform one function, and everything that does not support this is regarded as a waste product. Administrative circuits such as health care and social security are able to process ever more waste, but although their mesh becomes ever finer, waste products keep on falling through.
Movements still exist that fall outside panoptic power. They constitute a power in their own right, but it is a power without a legible identity and rational transparence, a power that only consists of processes that contaminate the city like microbes. The footsteps of the city's countless inhabitants shape it as lieu. They recount its stories. Every speaker appropriates the city, performs it, narrates it as a set of relations between differentiated positions. The urban wanderer causes places to emerge and continue to exist, creates local identities by making choices and recreates the city as a mobile and organic whole. Places are practiced space, space that can be occupied and reoccupied, used and reused, defined and redefined by passer-by after passer-by. Rules, symbolic meanings and conventional expectations are ignored, new rules are written. Space has to do with power, place with social delinquency.
Van den Berg's The Green Hotel is a series of painting, but an installation as well. The paintings are not hung on the wall, as they usually are, but lean against it and lie on the floor. Conventions are abandoned, the distance between the painting and the observer is shortened and trajectories through the space are changed. The exhibition takes the shape of an installation. The viewer looks down on the paintings as if from the panoptic viewpoint of the voyeur-god, but chooses his/her own route between the paintings like a pedestrian-microbe at the same time. The space is ordered enough to create a mental map of it, but the disembodied gaze of the city planner or the cartographer is incomplete without a walk past the paintings and an intimate encounter with them. The Green Hotel documents the sites where the homeless live, but also invites to thought about vagrancy and functionlessness. In The Green Hotel, the visitor is a city dweller and a city planner, a vagrant and a home owner at the same time.