Since the early 1990s, the Dutch artist herman de vries has installed several works in public space with the title sanctuarium (or sanctuary)—empty plots of land, surrounded by a fence, where nature is left to grow uninterrupted. For the artist, these sanctuaries communicate a consistent universal plea: that of rediscovering and reconnecting with nature in its pure, unspoilt form, from which modern life has alienated us. By resituating the sanctuaries in their actual environments and looking at their evolutions throughout the years, this paper shows how the ideas and affects instigated by the sanctuaries are actually contingent, and differ significantly from one place to another. These works are continuously reshaped, both physically and symbolically, by ongoing negotiations between the "object", its (social, environmental, and geographic) context, and varied interventions by local actors. This brings to the fore a couple of broader issues as well: first, the impossibility of perceiving the human–nature relationship merely in phenomenological and universalistic terms, since this relationship is always locally embedded. Secondly, the understanding that, from a semiotic perspective, a work of public art is a radically dynamic entity—owing both to its installation in the politically charged public space, and to the possibility of local publics to experience and interact with the work in a myriad of spontaneous ways.
Copyright (c) 2021 Arnon Ben-Dror
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