11fountains, how it started …


Why have I not been here before? That question stuck, constantly, in my mind when I first travelled around the eleven Frisian cities in 2013. Years ago, when climate change was not an issue yet and the broadcasting of the Elevencities skating competition excited the whole nation, I had seen TV images of a beautiful panoramic Frisian landscape. But why did I not know anything about the old, rich history here? And the wonderful cultural treasures which are a testament to this history? The Frisians are known for their loyalty to their identity, but as an outsider you often don’t know what this is based upon. And now I saw beautiful historic cities whose history goes back to the early Middle Ages, a history shaped by what the sea brought and took away. I saw people who, based on that history, still cherished their sense of community, and yet, as an outsider, I was kindly shown around. And all these special characteristics I found spread throughout a landscape where the light, with a silver brush, touched the many lakes, ponds and ditches.

I visited Friesland when Leeuwarden was one of the candidate cities for European Capital of Culture 2018 title. Nice plans, the jury said, but could they not be more international? The organisation then asked me to come up with an international art project for the eleven cities.

After my round trip I very quickly realised what it should be: eleven fountains, made by acclaimed artists from the international art circuit! That would attract people from nearby and far away, because where in the world do you find eleven contemporary water artworks in eleven historic cities? Does Friesland have to remain a shrinking territory? Fountains should be made, because everyone merrily sits together by sparkling water. And they have to be works of art that the residents are happy with as the fountains tell something about their local history. So the community must be involved as much as possible in the process.

And then something happened that can only happen to the Frisians: Leeuwarden became Cultural Capital of Europe.

At May 18 2018, almost 5 years after my first cultural Elevencities tour, it will be done. That day, in in Frisian baptized as ‘Kletterdei’ (‘Splashing Day’), the fountains will all be in place to sprinkle, splash and splatter. And they will be there to stay, that we know for sure now. Because the Frisians came together to support it, and when that occurs things happen! But what a road we have travelled!

Initially I just walked into the local tourist office or pizzeria and asked who the most active, concerned citizens in the city were. Then followed presentations for local interest groups and promotional clubs. And from this beginning, in every city* fountain committees formed which decided the location for the fountains as part of a broad consultation. They prepared a warm welcome for ‘their’ artist, told him or her about the city, and evaluated the first draft design, always in consultation with a larger group. And they held strong, even when the storm broke out. Because you do not just make changes in Friesland. Certainly not if it concerns changes in public space. And, what’s more, with work by non-Frisian artists!

Yes, why not Frisians? Because a stranger’s eye sees things that inhabitants themselves are often too familiar with to really appreciate. Of course this is no different in Friesland than everywhere else. For me, it was important to always choose an artist who would have a sense for the special character of a city. Because Harlingen, as the only remaining port city, has a completely different character than the small, intimate city of Hindeloopen. An artist must sense that, and be able to deal with it based on his or her own body of work. In one case this required an artist who was able to make ‘a big gesture’ in relation to the sea. In another, an artist who appreciated refined traditional craftsmanship. It was a search, particularly because artists who want, or can make work for public space are few and far between. And it gets even more demanding if you ask them to enter into a conversation with the local population and relate to the history of the city. But there they are: eleven artists from eleven different countries, each with a reputation that deserves respect. And each of them has created a design that sheds a new light on a forgotten or unexpected aspect of the history of the city or the location.

They are almost there: eleven fountains for which, for the first time in history, the eleven cities have joined together in order to realise them. And to preserve them as a new cultural heritage. Eleven fountains that relate to the water, nature and culture of Friesland and revive its stories. Eleven fountains that glisten and sparkle like life itself. Come and see for yourself!

From 18th May onwards!

Anna Tilroe
Artistic director 11fountains

* With the exception of Leeuwarden, where the artist has been involved from the start in the redevelopment process of the station area.