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).