Cathedral of Thorns, 2013–20. Mixed media, installation view. Photo: Courtesy the artist

Spiritual Labyrinth: A Conversation with Herman van Bergen

Recipient of the 2022 Innovator Award

Herman van Bergen’s environmentally friendly Cathedral of Thorns, hovering between sculpture and architecture, consists of built-up acacia branches pressed into a mold and glued together to form airy building blocks. By using organic matter, van Bergen takes on the history of architecture from prehistory to the present, across our world, while his references to labyrinths and cathedrals address ancient myth as well as more recent forms of religious expression. The walls constructed of thorns give expression to suffering, and to the hope for triumph over injustices political, economic, and environmental.

Cathedral of Thorns (detail), 2013–20. Mixed media, installation view. Photo: Courtesy the artist

Michaël Amy: You live and work on the island of Curaçao. Were you born there?
Herman van Bergen:
I was born in Nijmegen, the Netherlands. When I was in middle school, I met my future wife. She is from Curaçao; and in 1980, she took me—for the first time in my life—to this beautiful Caribbean island. Nine years later, we moved here. The way of life on Curaçao is perfectly described by V.S. Naipaul. The splendid chaos of colors, sounds, emotions, and historical scars proved irresistible.

MA: Is there a connection between Curaçao’s drive for independence and Cathedral of Thorns?
We did not plan on building a cathedral; 9/11—that extreme act of monotheism—planted the idea in my head of erecting a spiritual labyrinth, all made of thorns. Since then, Curaçao, which is striving for independence from the Netherlands, has obtained status as a separate country within the kingdom.

Cathedral of Thorns, 2013–20. Mixed media, installation view. Photo: Max van Aalst

MA: Like a medieval cathedral, your sculptural building has been a collaborative enterprise.
HVB: Political, economic, social, and religious issues play an important role in this work. These aspects of humanity lead to disastrous outcomes, which justify a labyrinth built up of thorns. The structure constitutes a manifesto of our misbehavior, toward the earth and one another. This building, 10 meters tall and covering a surface of 400 meters, could only be realized with the help of a community. Subsidies from the Dutch cultural sector amounted to only a small percentage of the cost. Happily, we received contributions from many individuals and companies. The government of Curaçao contributed from its social fund, which enabled 25 disenfranchised youth, teenage mothers, and former offenders to help us over two and a half years. The lives of many of these individuals have improved because of their exposure to the project’s demands. We were also helped by volunteers and a small number of artist-colleagues.

MA: Does this work expose the role played by the church in subjugating those with other worldviews? You bring old and new and competing religions together, a unification that cannot
be accomplished in real life.

HVB: The arches, which are borrowed from religious structures, reinforce the building. There are also arches bearing symbols tied to the animism of this region, as well as to the Mayas, Incas, Tejanos, and Berbers. The labyrinth signifies our search for the meaning of life: Why are we born to die? The religions of the world purport to answer this question, which—cynically—may lead to warfare. The building is decidedly anti-monotheistic since it aims to bring parallel worldviews together. When Cathedral was inaugurated on February 2, 2020, an Arawak dance constituted the principal performance. It was blessed by a bishop, an imam, a rabbi, and a pandit, representing four of the world’s religions.

Performance in front of Cathedral of Thorns. Photo: Courtesy the artist

MA: You do not shy away from utopian thinking. Artists must dare to dream.
The subtitle of Cathedral of Thorns is “Ode to the free spirit.” Works made by 55 artists with ties to Curaçao and embodying free spirit are embedded in the walls. The free spirit is subjugated at birth. Artists are experts at interpreting life independently of systems of control. Both religious and political leaders seek to rein in these free creatives, who can—perhaps—lead us to a better world.

MA: A labyrinth, which brings up old myths, offers different passageways; one, usually, leads to freedom. Does your labyrinth amount to a pilgrimage?
HVB: The threat posed by the walls built up of thorns symbolizes the era of reining in. At the heart of the construction lies that most recent example of the suppression of creative thinking, namely “the digital wall of gods,” which consists of well-known icons that appear on our smartphones. Although there are positive aspects to the digital world, algorithms harm humanity. During the guided tours that I lead through Cathedral, I highlight the present psychic framework of humanity, with its hyper-individualism. Our cognitive powers fall short. We delude ourselves into believing that we are greater than the planet that supports us. The labyrinth’s corridors stop at walls that record the rock drawings of the island’s original inhabitants.

Cathedral of Thorns, 2013–20. Mixed media, detail of “the digital wall of gods.” Photo: Courtesy the artist

MA: The walls bear a variety of meanings.
The form of the building was inspired by El Indjan, a rock on the island in which a head can be discerned. I toppled that composition so that the nose of the head points upward, toward the sky. The head is asleep and at one with the universe, which provides the roof for the cathedral. People lived on nearby islands as early as 5,000 years ago. Cathedral amounts to an ode to the first inhabitants of Curaçao. It is said that the red earth on the northern side of Curaçao is mixed with the blood of those early inhabitants, which expresses their love for both the earth and their fellow man, whose blood has also seeped into the ground. We have lost that connection because of our present economic and political materialism. Red soil is brought now and then to Cathedral.

MA: Up close, the walls exude danger—their thorns can puncture and rip the skin. Seen from a short distance, they become a system of lines, a lacework of sorts. The building is spiritualized, de-materialized; it appears soft when seen from afar.
HVB: The skin of the building resembles that of a teddy bear, but nothing is what it seems. The thorns come from the aptly named Acacia tortuosa. Everyone on Curaçao knows the pain these thorns can cause. In order to work with this material, we use uniform blocks throughout the building, with dimensions of 70 by 100 by 10 centimeters. The blocks in the upper reaches are less densely structured, to allow the wind to blow through, while those situated lower down are heavier, to support the weight above. We erected hollow walls—one cathedral inside the other—to allow for 300 meters’ worth of LED lights between the walls at floor level, with reflective material at the top. The metamorphosis is fascinating. We transformed a detested thornbush into something like gold. There is a light within.

The Acacia tortuosa came to my attention during my walks through the kunuku (wilderness) on the island. The hills turn gray because the acacias quickly lose their foliage when drought hits, then rapidly turn green after the first rainfall. Here and there, one sees a green dot, consisting of a lone tree. Beginning in 1499, all the hardwoods were cut down during a period when the island was considered “useless.” Meanwhile, in the Americas, 100 million Indigenous people died because of a clash of civilizations, and Africans were imported to serve as slaves, all under the banner of Christianity. The impact that Caucasians have had on the ecology of this island and the demography of the American continents is immense. The thorns are an ideal medium to express the impact we have had across our planet.

Detail of Cathedral of Thorns, 2013–20, with work by Annemieke Dicke. Photo: Courtesy the artist

MA: Light plays an important role in this work, which is filled with light/dark contrasts. Light typically symbolizes the good, and reason; darkness alludes to the opposite.
HVB: The association with the Christian crown of thorns is an obvious one. In this case, however, thorns are not pressed into a forehead. Instead, the building in the shape of a head is made of thorns, for it is we who are the source of all misery, we who all too rarely think of an immaterial paradise. That is why I added angels made of plastic, referencing how we are creating continents built of plastic in our oceans. Light cannot exist without darkness, and the same is true of good and evil, and life and death. Not everything can be controlled in a work like Cathedral of Thorns. Surprises occur. The work is not yet finished. I want to introduce sun gods from all the continents and install works by other artists.