Everything is knotted

This writing was in assignment for Emmy Bergsma and Sarah Grothus for their project Lichtung . For more information about this wonderful project on what it means to feel at home or what it means to origin from a family who had to flee from their homes, please visit their project site.


Home is where you ran your fingers through my hair. Home is eavesdropping on kitchen table conversations. Home is framed pictures of family members on the walls. Home is recognising your arm hair on your father’s wrists. Home is effortlessly remembering the spices for a recipe. Home is your grandmother’s freshly made bed. Home is encountering your brother in your mother’s tales.

Home is the woodland with my favourite tree. Home is the home of my grandmother, and watching her hands.

Home is fragile and inexplicable. Coming home is recognition, a sense of belonging; the people we know, the memories we share, the connection we feel. The fascination for kinship, tacitly and consistently present.

It is impossible to designate a homeland as one would designate a place of origin on a map. The space of belonging is not a physical space; it is contingent on process. In a series of exhibitions, this process is embodied through the works of Emmy and Sarah. Their research is imbibed by time, both in the conversations that have transpired, as well as in the lived experience that each artist possesses. Although they bear singular histories and personal methods in dissecting the definition of home, their practices found their way toward one another, knotting at the centre.

For this project, Emmy and Sarah traversed notebooks, locations, photo albums and stories, attempting to trace back towards the genesis of kinship and refuge. What does it mean to feel connected? With every death part of the story is lost. Where do those memories go? But also; what does it mean to forget something that was once remembered? How far back do the ties to our forebears’ reach? What does it mean to feel ‘home?’

Considering where we’re going…

Owing to DNA-analyses with companies such as My Heritage, a swab of saliva can now connect us to the loci of deceased ancestors as well as current geographical locations of possible distant relatives. An online world map depicts the terrestrial migrations of your forebears by analysing the data in your DNA. The results of this analysis are known within a matter of weeks and can be solitarily observed from your glowing screen of choice. A biotechnological analytical method as intermediary between the past and the present; swift and simple.

There is a desire to know where we come from. In itself, this is nothing new, nor is it symptomatic for the times we live in. How we tend to that desire, however, has changed significantly. In the quest for our heritage and the attempts to decipher our histories, the applied methods seamlessly dovetail with society’s shift towards individualisation. In the vain hope to achieve kinship, to discover our origins and a sense of belonging, we send out our DNA in order to attach personal truths to a test result.

Emmy Bergsma: Hidden treasures – family history

… and where we come from…

By asking the wrong questions, we apply the wrong methods and fail to get the answers we yearn for. How much does a DNA-analysis really tell us? And what do we hope to achieve with it?

We traverse the globe en masse, get in touch with the other side the world; we log in on dating apps and we swipe to our hearts’ desire. Yet it appears that meanwhile, we are increasingly burdened by the structural resignation from a sense of connection. Individuals are suffering feelings of loneliness at unprecedented levels.

Although high-tech society provides us with every convenience imaginable, might it also be responsible for this sense of uprooting? We try to solve our emotional discomfort through technology and science. However, in most cases, the results of a lab test will not dispel our feelings of disconnect and rootlessness. We seek security, safety, and kinship at the hand of rationality. We have forgotten how to speak with one another, to listen to each other’s stories, to embrace our pasts. We are adrift.

Rather than handing in our DNA, we could also enter into conversations with our parents, our grandparents, or our cousins. Do you know where to find the house in which your mother was born? Do you know what it looks like? Have you ever returned to the street you used to play on as a child? Do you know what kind of work your nan did? Have you ever wondered how your former primary school teacher is doing? Or where the boy next door currently lives?

What happens when you dig into hidden pasts that—perhaps implicitly—stand in relation to you? Are we fearful of reopening old wounds, or do we recoil from potential confrontations? Confronting oneself is quite possibly one of the most exciting prospects; it takes courage to face what you can no longer change. Do you dare to ask about your grandfather’s time as a prisoner of war, or your mother’s voyage to the Netherlands? What will happen once you start to listen? And are these topics even up for discussion? What shall be unearthed from under layers of oblivion? Where do we come from?

Eerst was ze wolk. Nu is ze water.
Acrylic and charcoal on cotton and wooden frame
220 x 250 x 220 cm
Photo: Hong Kie Tan

…where do we remain?

The work of Emmy and Sarah articulates that which has fallen in between the cracks, or what has been hushed. Scars and affections that have been passed down through generations materialise in narratives of colour and matter, a collection of memories. The impenetrable and imperceptible maze of roots neither has a beginning nor an end. How and where these roots are knotted might never be fully clarified. Everything is connected. Certain idiosyncrasies, fears, or thoughts we once believed to be our own turn out to derive from family members whose existence had escaped us.

Experiencing connection is a process, an organic and growing assemblage comprised of memories, choices, emotions, relationships, and meditations. Living through family anecdotes is a way of rediscovering the past and perhaps the closest one can get to a sense of connection. By entering into conversation, major family events might gradually find their place within our own lives.  Home is the nexus into which all these memories and stories tie together to form a feeling of belonging.

New levels of knottedness can be discovered through investigation and reflection. Such knotting occurs when narratives from back then give new meaning to the present day. In this sense, the work of Emmy and Sarah is an expression of what rises up to the surface during that process. Their journey, however, goes deeper, towards a place of no control and beyond the fear of shame. The place where death can offer solace. Without being able to pinpoint why, we feel connected to a greater whole. Not by virtue of technology, or owing to scientific analysis; but by traveling inwards, towards our feelings. That is where our challenge lies.

Information about the project Lichtung

This text was originally written in Dutch. For the Dutch version, click here.

This essay is published in the book ;
Lichtung Vom Leben unserer Vorfahren

Website Sarah Grothus / Website Emmy Bergsma

Cover photo: Sarah Grothus
Eerst was ze wolk. Nu is ze water. Zuerst war sie eine Wolke. Nun ist sie Wasser. Acrylfarbe und Holzkohle auf Baumwolle an Holzgestell 220 x 250 x 220 cm, 2018 Photo: Hong Kie Tan

Translated in English by Josephine Baan