In the fourth shot of her film Beweeg maar niet (Better Not Move), Petra Noordkamp focuses on the extractor fan in the bathroom of the place where she is staying in Tokyo: a small, square plastic vent in the middle of the ceiling, framed by neat, moisture-proof seams of sealant. A beautiful but also minimal image that, combined with the monotonous hum in the background, evokes both silence and tranquillity as well as a certain sense of claustrophobia.
The film is playing in a small room in the gallery that was designed in collaboration with Benjamin Roth, where those mixed feelings never release their hold on you. The structure is small and narrow. To enter, you may have to duck for a moment – the entrance is 160cm high and tailored to Noordkamp’s height – and it is constructed of sheets of grey plasterboard. However, with the rhythmic arrangement of the black plasterboard screws, the apparently floating roof, and the floor that comes just a little off the ground, the structure also feels elegant and serene. In this light, the untreated sheets of plasterboard become a gentle mouse grey and the building evokes associations both with the concrete buildings of the Japanese architect Tadao Ando and the simplicity of a Japanese tea house.
Mood attaches itself to a setting. Noordkamp (b. Losser, NL, 1967) is a master of projecting memories, dreams and desires onto the surroundings. As she explores the environment with her camera, her personal stories merge with empty streets, concrete walls and shuttered windows. They speak silently, reflecting her story and drawing the atmosphere inescapably close.
In 2020, Noordkamp went to Japan as an artist in residence. She was interested in contemplative spaces and walled gardens but was also confronted with her fear of earthquakes. The anxiety that disaster might strike at any moment became a reality a few months before her departure, when her loved one died after a second cardiac arrest. During her time in Japan, the mourning and grief mingled with her fear, while the will to remember, not to forget, conflicted with her need to keep going.
At first, Noordkamp, within the walls of her Japanese residence, sought refuge in clear images: the lines of cupboard doors, the grain of the wooden ceiling, the desk at right angles to the bed – all sharply defined and without any adornment. The balanced composition and the measured tempo at which she shows these images create a sense of calm but also seem imperative, as if she is looking for something to grip onto with her concentrated gaze, as if Noordkamp is literally clinging on to the images. At the same time, they emphasise emptiness and absence and form the claustrophobic surroundings of her temporary home, where the windows are covered with rice paper. A space that intensifies her sadness and fear – ‘what if it happens now?’ A space like an echo of the space inside her head – no matter how hard she tries to compose herself and gain perspective by standing at an imaginary distance.
"Where we "fill" a garden, a Japanese person makes it emptier, so that the essence of things become visible. The art of leaving things empty, Cees Nooteboom wrote in 1987. (1) Does the essence of things reside in their intrinsic beauty? When you look at Noordkamp's photographs, which hang around the plasterboard house in the exhibition, you want to believe that.
Outside, in parks and on the street, she regains control by filming and photographing, as looking and the search for beauty prove to be vital necessities that overcome fear and sadness.
She loses herself in the poetic power of stones, in their structures, in the lines that seem to represent the depth of time and in the light that lends them a soft and intimate appearance. She photographs these stones in gardens, where their balanced poses evoke emotions of longing and equanimity. Stones in which present and past come together in, as Deborah Levy puts it, ‘collapsed time’. She photographs the stones that have been lying in position for hundreds of years, and simply ‘being’ for even longer than that. And she photographs stepping stones, which force us to take every step with awareness, compelling us to be in the here and now – speaking of past and present. She photographs a landscape that is free of memories of her loved one, free of mourning and grief, while at the same time adding a new layer.
translation Laura Watkinson
 Cees Nooteboom, Japan, De Bezige Bij, Amsterdam, 2019, p. 67
We thank Mondriaan Fonds and Nederlands Filmfonds for their generous (financial) support.