Saturday 18 August 2018

Friesland fountains of reinvention


The 11Fountains project has taken years to come to fruition and includes the spectacular 'Wild Lions of Workum' situated in the town of Workum
The 11Fountains project has taken years to come to fruition and includes the spectacular 'Wild Lions of Workum' situated in the town of Workum

Louis Furney

When life gives you lemons... make lemonade!

Or, in other words, necessity is the mother of invention. The need to adapt to the environment has created some of the world's most interesting customs, but what happens when life stops giving you those lemons?

In Friesland, a province in the north of the Netherlands, a harsh winter climate meant that their world turned to ice and from this they developed customs that made the province famous. Climate change now means they can no longer rely on the same conditions, Friesland doesn't always freeze and necessity is now the mother of re-invention. But then, these people did push back the sea.

Friesland is a province with its own language, culture and history and was the defensive line for the rest of the Netherlands against the Normans. It was once entirely underwater but centuries ago dykes were built and the land reclaimed from the sea slowly became populated and farmed. However, it remains largely marshland, so when the seasons turned cold, much of the land was frozen and from this grew the tradition of Elfstedentocht. This ice-skating event is almost 200km long and takes in all 11 cities of Friesland; there is both a speed-skating event for several hundred competitors and a more leisurely tour in which up to 16,000 people take part. But, in order for it to happen, the natural ice must be 15cm thick and this is an increasingly rare event. In fact, the last time it happened was 1997.

There is no question of giving up on the Elfstedentocht, but, when Friesland's capital Leeuwarden was named European Capital of Culture 2018, they decided it was time for something new.

To honour the tradition, but thinking outside the box, they still used the idea of the 11 cities, and they still used ice, but this time in its raw form, water, and so the 11Fountains were born. The idea was to have something that would not be climate dependent and would be more permanent and accessible to a broader public all year round. The result is a series of unique fountains, one in each city, an Elfstedentocht pilgrimage of sorts.

Artists from all over the world were chosen to design the fountains, each artist selected because their personality and work was considered to match the unique characteristics of each city. They each also worked with a local fountain committee to make sure every piece of art had local input.

Friesian people are very proud and protective of their heritage, so there was some criticism of the fact that none of the artists involved was Friesian. There was a €5.6m budget at stake and the authorities argued that no Friesian artists were yet up to the challenge of such an undertaking. Native artists disagreed and in one city, Workum, made their point by crowdfunding a 7.5-metre protest fountain, which was covered in 220 wooden penises, a reference to the Dutch phrase for someone who is excluded. The fountain doubles as a toilet, and when you flush, it squirts.

That protest was unique, however, and the first official fountain to be displayed, and the first we had the pleasure of seeing, was Jaume Plensa's 'Two Children' which was unveiled in the capital, Leeuwarden. This features two seven-metre stylised children's heads, a boy and a girl, facing each other but with their eyes closed, which according to the artist represents the children dreaming and a future full of promise. It was met with a very warm response, which was a rather huge relief to the artists, organisers and locals alike.

Leeuwarden is about two hours by train from Amsterdam and is a really nice small city. There is a former prison converted into a museum, cafe and the Alibi hostel where you can stay from under €40 a night. And who needs Pisa when Leeuwarden has its own leaning tower, De Oldehove which has been leaning even more than the Tower of Pisa since it was built in the 1500s.

And, although there weren't any local artists selected for the fountain design, Leeuwarden does have a very famous graphic artist son, MC Escher, an exhibition of whose work is running until October in the city's Fries Museum. Mata Hari, the dancer who was executed in Paris for treason in 1917, was also from Leeuwarden and was also the subject of a Fries exhibition earlier in the year.

Currently, Claudy Jongstra has made a serious name for herself in the art world with her truly breathtaking textiles, but what sets her apart is her process. Firstly, she uses the wool of the Drenthe sheep which are only found in Friesland, and are so unfairly overshadowed by its more famous cows! The Drenthe are bred solely for their wool and are not culled for their meat.

Claudy uses that wool and exclusively natural dyes from age-old recipes, a process that can be long and complex. She grows the plants in her dye garden and then extracts the colours. Indigo, for instance, isn't easily found in nature and the dyes have to be fermented to draw out excess yellow. Claudy works from a farm called The Kreake in Huns, Friesland, and it is really worth a visit, it's a different way of living and the art is incredible.

The 11Fountains project has taken years to come to fruition, many of the artists worked with urban planners for what is, in some ways, the regeneration of the whole area. Although, unfortunately, we didn't get to see all of the fountains, we did enjoy a visit to Shen Yuan's 'Flora and Fauna' which tied in the importance of rocks and water in the artist's Chinese culture with the smaller, more natural city of Hindeloopen.

I confess to not having heard of Friesland before I got the chance to visit, and it really is a lovely place.

What struck me, too, is that it is one of the few places in this part of the world that hasn't lost its sense of self, it feels really authentic, but it is also evolving. Life isn't providing lemons, or ice, but these people pushed back the sea, so there is no question that Friesland will keep on reinventing itself.

Getting there

Friesland, the north-western  province of The Netherlands, and its capital Leeuwarden, share the title of European Capital of Culture 2018. The unmissable programme showcases how Friesians do things just a little bit differently and champions the positive impact that art and community can have on the world. It ranges from a major retrospective of Leeuwarden-born graphic artist MC Escher, to an epic production featuring a herd of 100 Royal Friesian horses, De Stormruiter. For more information, visit

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