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Witness at the End of the World

Although unknown to mass tourism, the Ouessant Island can be a truly exotic destination for those who want a trip to the end of the world. The island looks more like a place from the tales of Jules Verne, a space of adventures, marked by ancient legends, with sailors in the midst of storms, with ghosts from shipwrecks and songs of mermaids.

Situated to the northwest of France, in Brittany, L’Île d’Ouessant is interposed between the Celtic Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. Its name designates a type of sheep which dates back to Roman times and which is exclusively conserved in this region. The closest continental harbour to the sister islands of Ouessant and Molène is Le Conquet, known for being the last fort of the Nazis. The bunkers of Kermorvan stand as proof of this historical fact.

Putting aside any other descriptions and pieces of information which may be accessed anyway on Wikipedia, the unique atmosphere is what makes you forget yourself if you have the privilege of stepping into this setting. Although it has a surface of only 15 square kilometres, a stroll on foot through the island is not an easy endeavour, especially if you are taking part in the international land art camp. You get the chance to feel like a true scout, much like the treasure hunters or explorers which gather annually to assess the state of the weather, of the vegetation and the soils. Only that you are much more privileged. Yes, the landscape will steal you away, but you are here to steal as well, at least visually, a piece of it. The “Green and Brown” land art project was – for the majority of the participants – a proof of the fact that nature, in certain places, is itself a grand work of art.
In the presence of the seas and the cliffs, you feel small and helpless in your role as man. As an artist, you get the impression that everything becomes possible, that there are no limits. Between the ocean and the sea, within the fury of the currents, you somehow sense the border between freedom and death. A good friend, the organizer of this expedition, was to tell me at the end of it: “After seeing this, you can die in peace.” She was right. The tranquility of the island and the turmoil of the sea overwhelm you in equal measure.

If I were to build an ivory tower for myself, I would build it here and retreat to it whenever I felt like a silent witness, as is the du Créac’h lighthouse. This is the way to play God. You see everything and guide the ones that venture into the storm, you are a silent witness before the wind, the rain, but a watch keeper of the ocean as well. You see everything, but say nothing. However, you light the way, knowing that without you, the darkness and fury of the waters would be unfathomable.

The interior of the island seems rather haunted than populated. Modernized, of course, the centre of the small town Lampaul looks like a resort in off-season, with terraces which barely open their doors before the timid signs of springs, with fishing boats which do not venture too far away from shore. The tide only comes in in the afternoon. The tranquility from before the tide can be sensed in the air, in the heavy smell of seaweed and clams, in the rocking of the almost capsized boats, in the sporadic hysteria of the sea gulls and of the spring lambs. There is no one on the streets and the windows of the stone houses remain covered by the blue shutters most of the time. Wild daffodils, tiny thistles and pine trees are everywhere and look as if they were taken straight out of the paintings of the classics. There are only a few trees, cramped – it seems – in the backyard of a single person, seem more like shrubs with squid tentacles. The two mills for grinding barley work only when a direct order comes from the Environment Centre. The rest of the time, they are steadfast in staying motionless, despite the unexpected storms.

The southern fishing area of the island is peaceful, touristic, and mercantile, the northern area is stormy and much wilder. So are the people. The northerners are withdrawn, they regard themselves as descendants of the great European sailors; what a shame that of these, only the widows and spinsters are still alive, with their stories and their pastime of knitting socks out of the precious Ouessant wool. The average age is 70. The younger islanders cannot be called residents anymore, but rather small entrepreneurs. Their role is that of attracting tourists, of giving purpose to this territory. Many of them are farmers and they find their place here only in the summer, when their main activity is agritourism.

The entire Ouessant Island is an open field. Rabbits, wild ducks and fat pheasants, nightingales, blackbirds and other feathered creatures which have found their refuge here abound, much to the delight of ornithologists. Sea gulls dominate the shores, but gather in the centre of Lampaul as well, having terrible fights on the tower of the neo-Gothic church and the silver-coloured crosses of the cemetery. The air is salty and damp, the sounds seem to emerge out of a shell: it is the ocean which summons you, like in a dream, towards the shore.

Wandering on side roads you can encounter deserted homes in which ivy and tufts of wild daffodils have built a small paradise for themselves, a paradise forgotten by man. In the middle of the northern neighbourhood, another church, this time in miniature, stands surrounded by thistles, swamps and bizarre thickets. It is the Notre Damme de Bon Voyage church, a simple room with stone walls, with a main stained glass window, with chairs for the devotees and a small table, stridently adorned, serving as an altar. Behind the small church – a stone pool filled with water, in which the coloured figurine of a saint stands. On the other hand, the statues of Virgin Mary can be found in the yards of the people as well, sheltered in fountains and in other stone sanctuaries. But at a closer look, the road that leads to the pool of the church is marked by two black slippery plaques. They have inscriptions on them and you come to notice only after a while that they are nothing less than the graves of former priests.

It is hard to step onto the soft grass and the moss grown in the swamps. It is even harder to climb the cliffs, exposed to the breeze and the waves of the sea. The gusts of rain can hit you at any time. Nevertheless, you get the urge to face all of these obstacles. There is something that retains, hypnotizes and summons you. Everything starts with the rattle of the first tide on the beaches with white stones, shaped like ostrich eggs. Then everything is transformed from one minute to the next, in a wild unstoppable gallop. The brown seaweed is hit at the same time as are the pebbles, the torn fishing nets or the forlorn pieces of plastic drifting in the ocean. I don’t know why but the wooden stems of the seaweed, bulging at the ends, make me imagine that Moses’ staff must have looked like that. They form a sinister cover in layers of mould, which then take on the form of fossilized snakes, black as coal.
The northern beach takes you from the lighthouse to the ruins. The cliffs are shaped by salt water and rain, taking on the form of moving figurines. The furious ocean sometimes carries immense masses of white foam which it powerfully smashes into the dark gulfs. The traces of the man-built constructions were grinded by the passing of time and by the waves: a bridge, the ruins of a mill and the Nividic lighthouse.

You are silent and watch silently. You cannot control any of it. The intervention of man upon nature is actually a twist. Nature stands up to her own creation. The artist knows that he depends on her, on her fury. So that something comes out, he must accept her and learn her story. To understand her progression and respect it. Here the genius occurs: the blend of will, imagination and the much-acclaimed law of hazard. The chaos of nature interferes when the idea of the creator cannot take form. The landscape gives it an outline and breathes life into it. The artist is obliged to know when to stop. Before creation, the look and quiet amazement are beneficial. It is the only reality and a privilege which the eye and mind of the artist are often lacking.

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