Circus Europe

Peter van Lier

[This essay was first published in two parts on the site of The Project Room in Seattle. You can read the parts on that site here and here.]
During recent years the news has bombarded us with disturbing reports about the European Union. The once applauded opening of national borders has been criticized relentlessly: were we not making criminals’ and illegal immigrants’ lives too easy when it came to freedom of movement? And was is not too hasty to introduce a new currency so rapidly? In the meantime we have come to realize that certain EU countries have failed to meet the financial requirements and legislations laid down by the European Union.

Right-wing parties gained voters thanks to strict immigration policies, even making pleas for renewed border controls. Furthermore, many are already predicting the fall of the euro. Communal efforts to save the economically weaker member states lack effect, be it financial or moral. In sum, all the member states are facing an uncertain and turbulent future.
Presided over by a communal flag, Europe has always remained a patchwork quilt of numerous independent countries. The economic crisis has illuminated that a United States of Europe is a distant dream. The division of the European Union even became a serious threat, with an affluent northerly part and a less well-to-do southerly counterpart. And so, future times may be more likely to bring us further fragmentation than integration.
These insecurities set the tone for Machteld van Buren’s works which were made in 2012 and 2013 under the title Circus Europe. In the coming years this series will be extended. She shows us how the European countries are embroiled in the battle to survive. In a series of larges collages (140 x 100 cm) the countries are depicted as animals. The bodies comprise of maps to which have been added a realistic animal head. Germany is a bird of prey. However, not the traditional eagle but a vulture. Great Britain has been adorned with horses heads which, in turn, form part of the landscape, though in an extremely awkward set-up: the country not only appears to be in conflict with its implicit involvement with the European Union, it also seems to have fallen prey to internal disputes.

The tricks with which the circus animals manage to keep their heads above water illustrate how the separate countries function. It is not clear, however, how these tricks work precisely. It makes sense to allow not only politicians to envisage Europe’s present and future predicament, but also to allow artists to depict this. Playful or visionary alternatives can benefit the present state of mind. Therefore: 'Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to Circus Europe!'

How to read a map

The unavoidable presence of animals in these works draws the attention; these are animals which, strangely enough, are performing tricks. Everything is clad in the brightest of colors, clearly depicting the circus. It’s as if each image is expect an applause, but we spectators hold our breath momentarily because the animals haven’t yet finished their tricks. We don’t know if they will succeed. These works draw you in and holds you captivated.

The technique used to fabricate the works arouses our curiosity: we’re looking at collages which consist of several paper layers. A subliminal world can be seen through the translucent interim layer, on top of which we encounter uncompromised juggling animals. The background and foreground form a whole which is difficult to fathom. In most cases the animals’ bodies are maps of countries. Elsewhere, the maps are suitable surroundings in which to perform the tricks; the land’s role is that of arena.

The collage Amazing Twins depicts two Italy’s: a clear, colorful version on the surface, and it’s mirror-image, dark and vague, emerging beneath this layer. These manifestations appear to be the bodies of two identical monkeys. Yet they are different: by means of small, drawn corrections, one monkey appears displeased while the other is smiling. The displeased monkey appears to be linked with the shadowland, which could symbolize the underworld, synonymous to crime and illegal activity. The cheerful monkey could be connected with the body on the surface, possibly making it the world of legal activities,  which is more visible on the surface of society. The monkeys are remarkably united in a nest or simultaneously emanate from a collar.

Monkeys of varying species, lions, horses, dogs, birds such as vultures and seagulls and even ants - they all perform acts. The depicted animals all appear to have a lot of willpower. They show confidence in their very being. Is this because their bodies consist of maps, which guarantee precision and correctness? A tailor-made outfit of maps would therefore bring confidence. What is more, maps hold our gaze as there is always something or other to discover on them. The plethora of information cannot be absorbed in one go.

Color differences stand for different aspects in the surroundings: green, grey, and different shades of blue characterize towns and villages, mountains and hills, lakes and seas. Dotted and unbroken lines of many colors attempt to show motorways and railway tracks and to distinguish counties from regions. There are also many words on country maps: names of towns, regions and counties alongside those of rivers and lakes, all in different sizes, thereby showing their relative importance. Numerical codes point to roads but also to altitudes of hills and mountains. And maps are often riddled with miscellaneous symbols indicating churches, hospitals, police-stations, parking lots, viewpoints, camp sites, cemeteries... Nothing of any importance whatsoever is kept from us.
Reading maps ultimately means studying something which - even when scrutinized - remains a mystery. Is that line still a motorway or not? What kind of a road is it then? Should we take this turning? That place name’s got to be here somewhere! These types of questions and comments. Miscommunications, usually concerning a square centimeter of a map, are never far off. This can cause irritation in traffic or on holiday, but in the calm of an artist’s studio it will more likely give free reign to the imagination. Machteld van Buren proves this: for the purposes collages the maps have been transformed into animals’ bodies. Rounded land contours reappear in the bodies as a stomach; long, thin countries form the supple figures of other animals. Motorways, colored red, are an intricate network of arteries and veins, which sustain the body in a perfectly natural manner.

Long live the animals!

On maps we often discern cities from a distance because of a multitude of converging roads. For this series, the maps of Spain and Ireland have been cut to form countries in such a way that their capitals are an anus or navel. Spain’s body appears to be sagging, the reason being a clear case of constipation, which is causing swelling around the anus. The word Madrid is printed next to it. And Ireland, which is also proffering it’s beautifully rounded belly created by Dublin as navel on the right-hand side, is even circled by a hoop so that it becomes a veritable belly dancer. 

Italy, on the other hand, is long and thin. This gives the country a very different character and appearance. Thin means agile! Ponder the animals used to portray this country: a type of spider monkey. By standing on the tips of two toes this country appears to be keeping itself and its shadow-image in perfect balance. Here we see a performance at its climax, as if we’re looking at two ballerinas dancing en pointe. Everything is under pressure and is in balance. Time-wise, we find ourselves at the stunt’s culmination, just before the audience breaks into applause.  

Several animals are present in the collage of Greece. A total of seven seagulls glide through the sky above the map. Are we witnessing a trapeze act? On land there are several nests - also made of segments of maps - in which lie the most stunning, sky-blue eggs. The nests probably symbolize islands which are portraying their potential. The eggs are waiting to be incubated, but whether these birds hover to attack or hover to protect is unclear. As with all the other collages, the exact manifestation of the act and the final outcome is undecided. Here too we wait with bated breath awaiting the outcome. Judging from their pose, the two identical seagulls appear to be embarking on a synchronized nose-dive. However, they might also be bound to the spot behind the colorful banners, which serve as motionless clouds. Is Greece embarking on a revival or will it be pillaged for everything it has?

There are photographic elements in all of the collages. In most cases we see the head or heads of animals, sometimes whole bodies. If you stick a photo of an animal’s head onto a map of a country, it transforms itself into a body. In the collages we can experience how fast results are attained using this method. See the vulture’s head with its piercing eyes. When a curving body is added, the character of the country depicted on the map (in this case Germany) materializes.

Nevertheless, an animal’s nature and that of a country do not always flow seamlessly into one another. Indeed, we may wonder why a chimpanzee’s head has been equipped with a plump, sagging body. An orang-utan would have made more sense with their turgid, soft-natured presence. It would have suited such a body. But don’t forget that the animal depicted is engaged in a complicated task. In the picture it has to keep a total of 7 balls airborne and there may even be more balls beyond the collage’s boundaries. We know instinctively that an orang-utan couldn’t cope with this task, but the more playful and intelligent chimpanzee might. We encounter him mid-act; the act itself, which consists of keeping all those balls in the air, still stands a good chance of succeeding.

Still, the question remains, why has the chimpanzee got such a puffy body? It must impede the execution of such a difficult performance. But perhaps an exterior object forced it into this shape. If we study the map used for this collage, we can distinguish Spain. It’s quite possible that the chimpanzee acquired this body thanks to a simple but very influential fact. Spain appears expansive, it looks a little square – the black shape behind it appears to be its vague outline. Note the tail, which irrevocable joins the square and the body.


Certain lands seem to be experiencing the crisis more deeply than others. The animal that depicts Germany, the vulture, seems unable to fly any longer. Instead it has arms with boxing gloves at the extremities, which flail around alarmingly. One of the bird’s legs is equipped with some type of garden shears. Yet, on close inspection, we see that the confetti-like pieces falling to the ground come from the vulture’s own heart.

Great Britain is also in conflict, but instead of being in dispute with the outside world it is in dispute with itself. Two horses desperately try to disentangle themselves from the surroundings in which they are enveloped. Their vigorous movements have disrupted the country greatly: on the map Northern Ireland has ended up on the same level as Scotland. Nevertheless, whether the horses will manage to free themselves is uncertain: their legs have changed into what most resembles rigid table-legs whose only function is to stop them from falling over.

Ireland, on the other hand – with the North being renowned for nearly half a century of bloody conflict between Protestants and Catholics – seems to have settled. In the Northernmost corner of Ireland we spot a few dogs’ heads with mouths wide-open. Are these dogs bored and therefore yawning or are they howling in unison? The country’s turbulent past would make this supposition plausible. But it could also be a dog choir in action, thereby suggesting perfect harmony.

In an attempt to allay the European Union’s crisis, the placing of this in the context of a circus is a brilliant move. Portraying the individual countries as circus animals with maps for clothes not only makes the chance of success desirable but it makes it necessary too. Maps need to be precise to the tiniest detail and in a circus even the most difficult of tricks must and will succeed. The maps’ precision support the animals in the desired perfection of their performances. Just as an audience buys tickets in order return home jubilant, likewise, every citizen contributes to their country’s prosperity as taxpayer. As circus managers, the governments must deliver the goods; they can’t allow any stunts to fail.

The world of circuses is that of successful illusions; the near impossible becomes reality. By depicting the European Union as a circus, our hope for the different countries’ collaboration and unification is given the best chance of success. The circus culminates in a round of applause after each successful act and in an overwhelming final applause at the end of the show. The European countries which have been transformed into juggling animals are trying to avert political failure. They stand the most chance of achieving their goal. And theirs is an alluring and pretentious performance in its own right. Thus the exhilarating circus entourage strengthens our faith in a favorable outcome to the current crisis in which the European Union finds itself.

Translated by Liza Berry

Peter van Lier (1960) is a poet and an essayist. He made his debut with the philosophical essay Van absurdisme tot mystiek (From absurdism to mysticism) in 1994. As a poet he published five volumes of poetry. Miniem gebaar (Slight gesture, 1995) was awarded the Vlaamse Gids Prize, Gegroet o... (Hail, oh...), published is 1998, was awarded the Jan Campert Prize. His most recent collection of poetry is Hoor (Listen, 2010). 

The circus, the citizen and the shadows of power

Fiona Woods

Long before Europa was first used by Greek geographers in the 6th C BC, to refer to an area of land east of the Atlantic and west of the river Don, it was the name given in Ancient Crete to a mythological queen. Europa was a Pheonician princess, dazzled by Zeus in the guise of the White Bull that abducted then raped her, fathering her three children. The foundational violence of this union seems appropriate as a base from which to consider some representations of the geopolitical entity to which her name was given.

One of the earliest of the European civilisations, the Minoan, was so-called after Europa’s son, the mythical King Minos. Civilisation is a contested term at the best of times: technically it refers to the material organisation of a culture based on levels of urbanisation, technological development and systems of representation. As early as 2000 BC, a number of Minoan cities had large-scale architectural developments and complex drainage systems. Government was administered through institutions. A complex script was in use that has not yet been deciphered and a highly influential visual culture, based on pictorial realism, was everywhere in evidence. The power of the Minoans was such that obligatory tributes were paid by other city states in the Aegean.

And yet, at the centre of this civilisation, mythology placed a terrible shadow. Through an act of arrogance towards the gods, King Minos drew down a punishment. His wife, Pasiphae was enchanted with an ardent desire for a magnificent bull; their coupling produced an offspring in the form of the Minotaur. The Human-as-such can only exist in opposition to the Animal. It must be continually produced through a policing of the human/animal boundary, both without and within. As monstrous evidence of that boundary breached, the Minotaur could not be tolerated, yet neither could he be killed. Minos ordered the construction of a prison directly beneath the palace to which this creature, this child of his wife, was banished.

Here then is an original heart of darkness. Recognising that no physical space would be adequate to contain this terrible hybrid of human and animal, Minos had the Minotaur confined in a labyrinth. Both a physical and a symbolic space, the labyrinth is unmistakably the figure of a rational human mind, constructed paradoxically as an apparatus of confusion and disorientation. The power that the labyrinth exerts over the Minotaur derives from the nexus of its contradictory energies - knowledge and ignorance, desire and fear, pride and shame. The Minotaur’s partial human self is insufficient to transcend these energies; he is trapped as a consequence of his double-animal nature. Sustained through the blood of youths sacrificed as part of the tributes extracted from other city-states, the reign of terror that the Minotaur represents cannot be overcome until the arrival of Theseus from Athens shifts the balance of geopolitical power. 

The interplay of the mythical and the political that precedes and infuses early democratic form is significant. Four thousand years later, contemporary European ‘civilisation’ continues to operate both above and below ground, spawning many monsters. Some of these stem from the unholy alliance of states and corporations, fusions for which we do not yet have figures, hybrids that exceed representation. It is difficult to act in relation to nebulous shadows: myth once functioned as a political safeguard in this respect, giving imaginary form to the otherwise indescribable menace that resides below every seat of power.

* * *

Against this background, the artist Machteld van Buren has given herself the seemingly impossible task of representing the ‘circus’ of representative democracy that we call the European Union. Circus Europe is an evolving project, a body of work comprising large collaged images and an extended series of exhibitions, publications and journeys through the countries in question. The choice of collage as the central medium of the project is very precise. In their physical construction, the images make reference to the vibrancy of collage in the early Modernist period, also drawing on the deconstructive and radical political impulse from which the medium originally sprang. Whether or not it is the artist’s intention, a link is forged between that moment of great ferment in the political unfolding of the continent, and this one. 

Van Buren’s method involves taking a map of each country, cutting it into pieces and reassembling these in new ways, changing the directions of the roads and the rivers, refashioning geographical or political borders. These are overlaid or interwoven with abstract planes of colour or pattern, so that many of the images exist in shallow relief.  A final layer of animal imagery is worked in, often as body parts that cause the topographic representations to morph into something more creature-like.

These are the Circus animals, captive creatures that perform ‘tricks’ of uncertain quality. The ants that populate the image of the Netherlands seem to be doing just what ants always do, while the seagulls nesting on the Greek archipelago are probably only interested in protecting their eggs. A few of the creatures might be juggling, or maybe they are just falling over. Some are definitely sleeping. They are a relatively unconvincing troupe, forced into close proximity by the circus ring, yet perhaps not so well suited in temperament. One suspects that their hearts are not really in itNowhere is the Circus Master in evidence, yet everywhere is his shadowy presence implied; the creatures are not performing of their own volition.

Real, live animals are not accorded the status of subjects in our legal or political systems. They are included in the realm of objects, things that can become the property of humans.  Yet the proliferation of animal imagery across cultures and histories makes it clear that non-human animals mean much more to us than animate objects. Non-human animals occupy an order in our psyches that Lacan called ‘the Real’, the pre-symbolic, pre-imaginary, pre-ego state, prior to the formation of our subjectivity. Human subjectivity guarantees us legal and political rights (in theory at least), but it emerges out of a symbolic order to which we are also ‘subject’. We seem to have a psychic yearning to reconnect with the Real. This manifests in part as a general human desire for proximity to non-human animals (albeit on our terms, not theirs). Semi-humanised animals feature everywhere in popular culture, in films, advertising, cartoons, novels, zoos, circuses and even, or perhaps especially, in wildlife documentaries, in spite of, or perhaps because of the fact that non-human animals resist representation. No matter how much we try to incorporate them into the symbolic realm, an excess always remains, an element that is foreclosed to us, something we can approach but not grasp.

Circus Europe raises questions about what it means to represent, in the dual sense of to signify and to act for. While much is made in the European context of the democratic ideal of equality of citizens, representative democracy in practice functions counter to this principle. Over 100 years ago Robert Michels argued that systems of representative democracy inevitably deteriorate towards oligarchy, the form of government in which power rests in the hands of a relatively small number of people (Michels 1911). Michels was merely re-articulating a problem that Athenians had already identified in the 4th C BC. Despite the foundational requirement of democracy that it serve the common good, Athenians recognised that when professional governing classes were allowed to form, they tended instead to use their skills primarily for their own benefit. As a counter-measure, lots were drawn for important executive positions in governmental institutions and in the civil service.

For Michels, the true oligarchical nature of modern, representative democracy is concealed by a confabulation of smoke and mirrors, in which the people are regularly given ‘the “ridiculous privilege” of choosing a new set of masters’ (Michels 1911, p 30). Circus Europe is a fitting allegory for this trick, performed in the glare of spotlights, but resulting from a coercion orchestrated offstage. With unelected bodies like the IMF openly directing the actions of elected governments, it is hard to see how the illusion can be sustained, although the willingness of the populace to be deceived must never be underestimated.
Circus Europe was first presented in Ireland in January 2013. Curated by Trudi van der Elsen, this stage of the project took the form of an exhibition and a book, produced through a collaboration between the artist and eight poets. Continuing to forge creative alliances with other artists, writers and poets as the project evolves is an important dimension of the work. As the expanding project moves across the continent, assembling and assimilating a multitude of voices, it serves to remind us that the public forum is the basis of democracy.

The bright lights and tricks of the circus ring have always concealed the terrible living conditions of circus animals behind the scenes. E.U. regulation has banned the use of animals in circuses, but Circus Europe playfully suggests that we the citizens have taken their place.  


Robert Michels, 1911, trans. Eden and Cedar Paul, Political Parties, A Sociological Study of the Oligarchical Tendencies of Modern Democracies, Kitchener, Ontario: Batoche Books.
Jacques Lacan, 1956, ‘Symbol and Language’, The Language of the Self, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. 

April 2013

Fiona Woods is a visual artist whose practice includes making, curating and writing. She is an Assistant Lecturer in Critical and Contextual Studies at Limerick School of Art and Design in Ireland, and is a member  of the Association of International Art Critics (AICA).