Terra Incognita

Terra Incognita

To celebrate the work of Art which is placed in Shell’s new EPI building in Rijswijk, The Netherlands a limited edition book will be published about the creation of this artwork. It includes photos of all stages of the work.

Following are selected quotes from the publication:

Terra Incognita literally means ’the Unknown Land’. In many ways, the realization of this artwork has resembled a voyage of discovery into an alien world. Free artists are always probing their limits and constantly trying to push back the boundaries. What is unique about Ap Verheggen’s large-scale art project is that it can be compared to a grand expedition to an unknown world. The diverse and enthusiastic team of intrepid explorers succeeded in pushing back the limits of the unknown a long way. Paradoxically, this also makes the unknown world much larger.

‘I think I’ve had a nonconformist method of approach ever since. When I left college, I decided to focus exclusively on the free arts in the broadest sense of the word. Because I’ve been able to develop my own method of working, my approach is also a nonconformist one. I believe, for example, that it’s impossible to sketch good three-dimensional shapes in advance. That’s why I always take a spatial approach when I start “designing” my pieces. You have to be able to touch a piece of sculpture, even during the design phase. The tactile value is essential.’  — Ap Verheggen

The history of Terra Incognita:

The world in Relief

‘If I reproduce part of a continent with a certain degree of poetic licence, the result is disappointing. The wide frame of reference that we all have is an enormous obstacle. A flaw, even if it’s little more than a millimetre, is considered out of place. Before consigning the entire project to the dustbin, I came up with the idea of comparing it to painting a portrait. A good portrait painter never copies an individual’s face but emphasizes all of the person’s character traits. The strange thing is that the portrait then resembles the individual even more.’ 

To apply this technique to an artwork depicting the world, you have to faithfully reproduce all the contours and grossly exaggerate all the relief. This is why Ap henceforth referred to his Shell project as ‘a portrait of the world’.

His first ‘portrait of the world’ was an upright relief of South America. The bronze sculpture is roughly 50 cm high. Because a sculpture is three-dimensional, and the reverse also plays an important role, Ap placed here an abstraction of our solar system. This first figure prompted him to approach Shell with an offer to create a global artwork.


The location

To obtain a good impression of the building that would accommodate his work, Ap assembled all the drawings and plans of the Mainstreet in the new Shell building, where the row of sculptures would eventually be positioned. He then visited the hall when it was being built to absorb the atmosphere. Ap says: ‘The first time I saw the drawing of the hall, I was really impressed, but I wasn’t struck by its height until I had actually walked around inside the enormous, tapering space. This automatically gives the hallway a narrow appearance. The enormous space is a decisive factor for the direction of the entire building. It almost transforms it into the needle of a compass.’

Another curious element was the contrast between the interior and exterior. On the one hand you have a wall of glass, which because of its size completely disappears against the backdrop of the external environment. Despite being transparent, the office windows on the other hand give the impression of an outside wall. Because the ground-floor windows are set back further, there is a suggestion of the wall being suspended in mid-air. The effect is amplified by a footbridge suspended at a great height, which runs along the entire length of the building. The dimensions are such that all references to human dimensions disappear.


The basic concept

Setting up an art project to make an impression on an important client demanded a revolutionary approach in which technology and science would merge. This was why Ap called on the assistance of Taco Zwaanswijk, the graphic designer of this book. Ap says: ‘He has the gift of approaching complicated issues by looking at their basic concepts and then formulating them into a clear project. With his help, I thought I’d be able to develop a concept, which could be worked out in detail and as such would leave nothing open to question. I am by nature someone who works more instinctively and leaves a large number of things to chance. After my first meeting with Shell, I’d already discovered that you can’t explain things in terms of chance or feeling. I knew I needed him to instill structure and direction into my project.’

Shell’s EpiCentre building in Rijswijk is a nerve centre from where global processes are developed and coordinated. This fact was also to form the basis for the new artwork. It was to radiate the concept of a central point.

The search initially focused on reference points: ‘magic places’ that are compellingly attractive and evoke a universal ‘yes of course’ response. After an evening spent brainstorming with several friends, Ap’s desk was full of transparent sheets on which he had noted down these geographically significant locations. These sheets soon emanated an almost magical force of attraction because they were covered with variously coloured stripes. An interplay of lines that meant nothing to anybody except the brainstormers for whom they were perfectly clear. Ap recalls: ‘Our initial plan comprised references to the Seven Wonders of the World, but we soon found that almost all of these wonders were located in the same geographical area. So we took different lines of approach: we played around with geographical elements: deserts, seas, oceans, etc., until at a certain moment we finally came to the phenomenon of mountains. What is more magical than a mountain? Mountains intrigue us all in some way. Mountains are recognizable but have a different meaning for each of us. The problem is that all the high mountains are again located in the same geographical area. The Himalayan massif has almost all the world’s high peaks – a similar problem to the one we had with the Seven Wonders of the World. After investigating many possibilities, the solution presented itself almost automatically: take the highest mountains of each continent. What a brainwave!’

Eureka: 7summits.com

Ap continued to think about this but was convinced that there were 6 continents and did not want to use the number 6:

‘I’m the kind of artist that can get into such a state about something like this that I’ll abandon the entire idea. I searched around for new lines of approach over a couple of weeks, also on the internet, and I chanced upon an interesting site at www.7summits.com. And what is that? You might imagine what a “Eureka” moment feels like, a feeling of total victory, that you’ve scaled the highest mountain, without bottled oxygen. The site was set up for mountaineers eager to scale the summits of the highest mountains on the seven continents. SEVEN continents! I realized we had forgotten to include Antarctica in our initial list.’


Dimensions of the sculptures

Looking for reference points within the space available and with a view to finalizing the dimensions of his sculptures, Ap studied the construction drawings of the new building again. He thought it would be a good idea to reproduce the size of the planning grid, the building’s basic dimension of 3.6 m, in his artwork. ‘The sculptures would look their best if I took this length as the defining factor for each individual element. After all, humans are always looking for reference points within an existing system of dimensions. I suspect the architect wanted to create a fantastically impressive environment in which people can catch their breath. I obviously didn’t want to interfere with that idea. That’s why my morphological idiom doesn’t conflict with the spatial dimensions. It did however result in other problems: how far can I go? To what extent is it possible to execute an art project of such dimensions? Can I maintain my credibility? What on earth have I embarked upon? – those were the things I kept asking myself at that time. Numerous questions and no answers…

The midpoint and the scale of the sculptures
Taking this basic length as his point of departure, Ap soon discovered that Mainstreet is a kind of connecting path between various structures within Shell EpiCentre. Geologists and employees in other disciplines work at this Shell location, and they all have one thing in common: travel. This makes their geographical frame of reference very wide. So the artwork obviously had to be a challenge for them, which is why the puzzle could be very elaborate. That is why from the very beginning Ap put forward the idea that anyone looking at the artwork should be able to make a sort of voyage of discovery before finding all the references. The highest mountain was to be the very centre of each segment, irrespective of its position relative to the North Pole. Around that midpoint, the composition of a continent would determine the direction of the North-South axis. This resulted in different dimensional scales, which means the continents on the seven sculptures are no longer dimensionally interrelated, making their recognition increasingly difficult.

The position of the sculptures
To complement his ‘puzzle’, Ap has also incorporated several other riddles in the positioning of the sculptures within the building. People rarely ask themselves why an artwork is arranged in a certain position or sequence, but this setting makes it impossible for anyone not to ask that question. The sculptures are positioned in such a way that the heights of the highest mountains on each element decrease as you walk towards the rear of the building. Consequently, Mainstreet starts with the sculpture depicting Mount Everest and ends with Carstensz Pyramid, the artwork’s lowest mountain. The individual sculptures are positioned so that the segment of the earth’s crust points towards the actual mountain. The interesting thing about this is that it may prompt a discussion about which direction is the shortest.

Final thoughts

Terra Incognita stirred up many thoughts and questions in Ap Verheggen’s mind. Some remain unanswered. Some, which he jotted down almost in diary form during the course of the project, he revisits now the project has come to a close.

As he sees it, the Terra Incognita project has built a bridge between the world of science and that of art, this time from the perspective of art. The bridge could have been designed in various ways, but opting for this particular link has resulted in the final product, a work of art.

In retrospect he says: ‘The success of this artwork is attributable mainly to the collaboration of four totally different individuals. Start a dialogue involving an engineer, an architect, a designer and a sculptor, each with a creative vocation. That’s something we have demonstrated collectively. This artwork can be the result. I use the word “can”, because the result depended so much on the boundless confidence that developed between us while the artwork was being made. This is something that commanded my admiration. I’m still surprised about the result today when I walk into Mainstreet. It’s sometimes impossible to find the words to express a feeling.’

Before Ap started work on this project, he was under the impression that the entire world had already been charted and that all the unknown locations had already been discovered. In his eyes, therefore, voyages of discovery were unnecessary in this day and age. With Antarctica however, he realized that an entire continent remains practically undiscovered.

‘It’s not so much the expanse of ice so many kilometers thick, but rather about the question of what lies beneath. A similar question also occurred to me while I was modeling the oceans. Only a fraction of the deep has been explored in any detail. We are certain to find things there that will surprise us. So there are still many voyages of discovery that can be undertaken on our own planet. The numerous discussions I have had during my work on this project have prompted me to formulate the following proposition: In our eyes, present-day technology and science are very advanced. We know more and more. But, because we know more and more, the area about which we know nothing becomes greater and greater.’