fig. 1 journal vom alten buchenwald, kleinengelein, 2002

journals & journeys
In his many journeys to other places in the world, however exotic or remote those places may seem to be, it is what de vries prosaically calls the 'facts' that make their way into the journals that he creates as a documentation and a record. As with the seeings of my beings, it is what singles itself out from the infinite diversity of possibilities that is caught in the frames of the journals, which are composed of random samples thus encountered in whatever place the artist finds himself at a given moment. How could any plant, blade of grass, leaf, shell, rabbit dropping or earth specimen be more significant than any other? Every natural object is like Blake's 'ev'ry bird' - 'an immense world of delight'. 'If the doors of perception were cleansed' wrote Blake elsewhere, thinking of the 'clos'd senses five', 'every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite.' For de vries, the opening of the senses - sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell - and the consequent expansion of consciousness are primary purposes of art.
The significance of the senses other than that of sight is emphasised in a conversation recorded with Paul Nesbitt at the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh, while de vries was preparing for his exhibition there in 1992: "perhaps the most direct connection to our environment is our sense of smell (i prefer to use the word life-space rather than environment, because for me it has the sense of us being part of it more). when we were in the rock garden and the peat house, i smelled the juices from the small-leaved species of ledum and rhododendron. every species smelled different and you can with some experience identify many plants from their smell. we have no words to describe this, and it's nice to do something that we don't need words for. our nose has perhaps the most direct connection to our environment of all our organs." [see Paul Nesbitt, 'a walking conversation' (1993)]. At Inverleith House in 1992, de vries dramatically demonstrated his point with 108 livres de fleurs de lavande, a work made at Mouans-Sartoux the previous year, whose perfume permeated the beautiful house. Elsewhere, he has made similar scented floor works, such as rosa damascena - l08 pounds of rose petals in l984 and 2003 and hopfen(hops) in 2001.
For his installation human life (1989) de vries brought back from the market in Kathmandu thirty-six food samples - rice, peas and pulses, aromatic spices, etc. - and set them out in terra-cotta bowls in a grid-array, adding to them three further bowls, containing earth and water, the necessities of all living things, and cannabis, an example of the 'mind-moving' plant substances that have always aided human contemplation of the mystery of life itself. In documents of a stream (1976-1981), de vries recalls sound-works, such as water, the music of sound (1977): "once i made a recording of water ... it contains the sounds of rain, the sound, of the sea on the west coast of ireland, and the sounds of six little waterfalls from a brook here in the forest [steigerwald]. and every waterfall had its own sound, its own individuality. and still it is the same stream... and still it is the same water...". To the seeings of our beings, then, we might add those other bodily senses by which we establish our reality in the unstoppable all around-us 'round world' of our phenomenological experience, not forgetting that with every step we take we touch the earth.
On the title page to his diary of a visit to pashupatinath, january-february 1989 de vries appends a further note: with some additional facts from kirtipur, patan, nagarkot vajra bahini, kathmandu and pokhara. This elaboration serves both to make for accuracy of record and to enact in the procession of names the progression of his journey. But by his simple description of the entries in the journal as 'facts' - they include, as do all the journals, plant specimens, fronds and single leaves, earth rubbings, photographs of natural objects and cultural artefacts - de vries is subverting the Wittgensteinian distinction so baldly stated in Tractatus 1.1: 'The world is the totality of facts, not of things.' Things, for de vries, are facts, and contra Wittgenstein (Tractatus 1.2), 'the world' does not 'divide into facts' but is composed of things. They may fall into generic categories but the things here present in the journals are of a specific place collected at a particular time: Mouans-Sartoux (1991), Leros and Patmos (1996), l'Île Sainte Marguerite (9th April 1997), Gomera (2000), Eschenau (2002), etc.

Passage from Mel Gooding, herman de vries : chance and change (Thames and Hudson : London 2006) 91-95.
© Mel Gooding; courtesy Mel Gooding.