Review/interview: Sculpting This Earth, complex and nuanced film, directed by Victor van Aswegen, featuring land artist, Strijdom van der Merwe- world premiere at the 2022 edition of Solo Studios Intimate Art Encounters in the Riebeek Valley

Sculpting This Earth– documentary on South African land artist, Strijdom van der Merwe
Director: Victor van Aswegen
Film trailer:

World premiere: August 26-28, 2022 at Solo Studios Intimate Art Encounters in the Riebeek Valley (about an hour drive from Cape Town). Info here: and info re film screenings, here:

Sculpting This Earth is an illuminating epic scale feature documentary (95 minutes), directed by Victor van Aswegen, on internationally renowned South African land artist, Strijdom van der Merwe. Sculpting This Earth tracks Strijdom van der Merwe, creating his art in outdoor landscapes in South Africa, over a 16 month period in remote settings – sans people. It is a complex and nuanced film – documentary/document and an art work in itself – as it is a repository of a body of work- created by this seminal South African artist. The film is invaluable in many respects. It stands as a physical record and container of Strijdom van der Merwe’s work: The process of van der Merwe creating his land art, on site and his insights into his work. Beyond record/document, the medium of film as moving image, conveys potent insights into the work which is for the most part, transient. The viewer benefits from seeing the work from multiple aspects- very different from looking at photos of the artist’s work in a book.

The world premiere of the film is happening, at Solo Studios Intimate Art Encounters, in the Riebeek Valley [about an hour’s drive from Cape Town], from August 26-28, 2022. The annual event is a weekend of immersion in the visual arts – art and artists. Visitors can interact with artists in their studios, one-to-one and also take advantage of guided walks, talks and other events. There is food, wine and entertainment. One of the big attractions of Solo Studios 2022 is the premiere of Sculpting This Earth, which is screening in Die Kelderteater,the basement cinema in Die Kunshuis – (The Art House), a private home- owned by Mike and Lorna Spittal. Mike Spittal is a primary funder of Sculpting This Earth and it is fitting that he has opened his home for the world premiere screenings. The other film screening at Solo Studios, is Displaced [2020], an art documentary, also directed by Victor van Aswegen, on the work of Riebeek Kasteel artist, Emma Willemse.

The film spans four seasons and took over 16 months to film

Filming of Sculpting This Earth began on December 15,2020 (shortly before the Summer Solstice in the Southern Hemisphere). Van Aswegen: “Filming continued for over 16 months, until April 24, 2022, with some additional ambient sound recordings done thereafter until end May 2022.”The filming started in Stellenbosch in the Jonkershoek Valley and continued in Stellenbosch area and elsewhere in the Cape. The film segues to winter and then there is spring and the return of summer. Van Aswegen: “At the end of the film we have seen the artist at work in nature during all four seasons over the course of a year – sharing a body of work produced in the year he turned sixty.” Van Der Merwe has lived for over four decades in Stellenbosch and in the film, he muses how the landscape there has inspired and continues to inspire much of his work. He talks about how he loves the area and the fact that many people live off the land in Stellenbosch– making their living in the wine industry and how fortunate he is to live in a landscape which has fulfilled him artistically and personally. It would have been easier to simply interview the artist and juxtapose that with footage of his work. Instead, van Aswegen accompanied the artist, in the outdoors, or perhaps we should say, he shadowed him, and bore witness, with his camera, as the landscape was sculpted. For the most part, van Aswegen worked solo (without a support crew), doing the filming on his own. Van Der Merwe was born in June 1961, so 2021 was the year that he turned 60. Sculpting This Earth- is not only a vital document of the artist at work on the land in his home country, South Africa, but also a homage, tribute and recognition to him as an innovator of land art.

Global audience

Sculpting This Earth is said to be the first major feature film on a land artist, working in the Southern Hemisphere and is an opportunity for a global audience who may not have had the opportunity to see the Strijdom van der Merwe’s large scale land art. It is an opportunity to step into his studio, in nature watch him close-up as he creates his, mostly using materials that he finds around him, such as stones, leaves, feathers, sand water. He has been commissioned to create land art in Australia, Japan, Kenya, Malta, United States, Europe – over 20 countries. As we see in the film, a great deal of van der Merwe’s work, involves minimal intervention. For instance, he uses his feet to ‘draw’ spaghetti scribbles in the soil, imprinting images in the earth, rather than placing objects on it. There is footage in the film, where he pours water into drill markings in old stone in a quarry. After the water has dried/evaporated, the stone block will revert to being a block of stone. Much of van Der Merwe’s land art is transitory and is meant to be fleeting. This film tenderly documents the magic of transfiguring a piece of abandoned stone into a piece of art and then the artist walking away. The wind blows away line; water washes over his markings. At a preview in Riebeek Kasteel, prior to Solo Studios 2022, van Der Merwe mused that “once it is done, it is done.” He walks away and that is it.

Land as image

Mention ‘land’ and it pings in multiple directions. For many, especially in Africa, it is a contested body: Who owns or has a claim to it. Sculpting This Earth has been stripped back to the artist working on the land, sculpting the earth, finding the line which he says at the core of everything that he does.  The geo-political is another conversation but it is not the conversation of this film, which has its gaze on van Der Merwe and his engagement and conversations with the earth. Climate change is referenced but not as grandstanding. Speaking to van Aswegen about the conceptual arc of the film he said that yes, the intention was to focus on land and speak to a global audience, without diverting into the politics of land ownership. The artist’s humbleness and deep respect comes across profoundly as we see him working in Tankwa in the Karoo- a place with no water. Van Der Merwe, talks about his respect in treating ancient landscapes. He says in the film: “Drawing the line is essential. You realise how fragile and small you are in nature.” The title of the film was ignited by two books on Van der Merwe’s work: Sculpting the Land (2005) and Sculpting the Earth (2011). 

Meditative and contemplative

Sculpting This Earth is a film which has pared down to minimal dialogue.  Strijdom van der Merwe is humble and quiet. In the film, van Aswegen has gone for a minimalist approach in the use of commentary. Van der Merwe almost speaks in whispers as he reflects about his work. The soundtrack includes 11 tracks of original music composed for the film by classically-trained composer Kristi Boonzaaier and 10 tracks of existing musical numbers, sourced by Aswegen. There is a stirring soundscape of ambient sounds (birds and insects chirping, water swishing, wind etc) recorded in nature by van Aswegen and which have been overlaid, across the music tracks. On my first viewing, I watched the film, with headphones and the sounds heightened the experience of being on the land, with van Der Merwe. In my 2nd viewing, I enjoyed watching on the big cinema screen but I found that some of the dialogue was lost and drowned out by the music. It would be great to view this film on a big screen, with headphones. I initially found the film too long (it is 95 minutes) and then on my 2nd viewing, I wanted more. The film has a stillness and Zen quality. The pace is measured and unhurried. I asked van Aswegen how he would describe the aesthetics of the film: “It is interesting that you mention stillness and a grounded feeling as aspects of the film’s aesthetic, as these were certainly aspects of what I was aiming for. Obviously it was important to capture something of the spirit and nature of Strijdom’s work and to try to bring across something of his personality and being. Probably ‘meditative’ or ‘contemplative’ would convey something of the feeling I was after – a kind of Zen in the southern African landscape, I guess one could call it.”

Filming outdoors, finding the ideal light

I was interested in the challenges of filming outdoors. Van Aswegen explains: “I shot the film in 4K RAW with a Blackmagic Production Camera and three Zeiss CP.2 lenses: 15mm, 50mm, and 135mm. As the entire film is set outdoors almost all the shooting had to be done either very early in the morning or very late afternoon, to avoid the harsh light in between. Occasionally we were lucky – as with the circles made with tiny gravel stones in the Tankwa – to have an overcast morning which allowed for extended shooting on that day for far longer than would have been possible in the absence of cloud cover. This also meant that a lot of the filming was done under time pressure – Strijdom and I both mostly had to work against time during these shoots. For early morning shoots we would typically arrive on site long before dawn even to set up and get ready to start shooting as soon as there was enough light for the camera’s sensor – and then there would almost always be a very definite cut-off point by which time we had to be done because the light was too harsh or direct sunlight was beginning to fall on the artwork which we did not want. In quite a few cases we only just made it – the oval work with tiny yellow twigs in the forest being an example, where in the very last shot, showing the completed work, you can see some spots of direct sunlight already beginning to penetrate the forest foliage and falling on the ground in the area of the artwork. Minutes later the lighting would be too uneven – with spots of direct light all over the work – to continue shooting.

For late afternoon shoots we would arrive on site well before the light was soft enough to start shooting so we had enough time to set up and get ready so Strijdom could start making the work and I could start filming as soon as conditions were favourable. But then immediately the time pressure would start, with a hard cut-off point: both the artwork and the shooting had to be done by the time after sunset when the light would become insufficient for the camera’s sensor.”

A 16-month period of constant weather-forecast watching

The filmmaker and artist had to contend with the vagaries of the weather. Van Aswegen “Obviously another aspect of filming outdoors for almost a year and a half is the weather-dependence. As a result, for me and Strijdom this was a 16-month period of constant weather-forecast watching. Once Strijdom had identified a site where he wanted to make a work and we had been there together to look at the angle of the light at certain times of the day, the direction of shadows, sometimes particular unsightly objects in the background that had to be framed out and so on, and we knew how we wanted to shoot it, it was a matter of waiting for a day on which weather conditions were favourable for the shoot. This was always challenging, as weather conditions such as wind in particular can be very local. A wind that would make shooting a particular work difficult could be blowing in Cape Town before I left for a shoot outside Stellenbosch, for example, and could also be blowing at the entrance to the Jonkershoek valley from the Stellenbosch side, but then just a few kilometres up the road into the valley at the particular spot where we wanted to shoot there would be no wind whatsoever.

Looking back, it feels as if we were often lucky with the weather. Two examples come to mind. The work consisting of big bamboo leaves is about the wind and Strijdom had to put it up on a particular day, and it just so happened that that day was particularly windy, so we got much more appropriate and interesting footage of the work than would have been possible if it had all happened on a wind-free day. The other example is of the large oval consisting of a single curly line in the Tankwa: the drone shot of this work was critical to show its size and position in the landscape, but when we arrived on that site long before sunrise on the morning of the shoot, which was also our last morning in the Tankwa, so the work had to be done and shot on that day, a very strong wind was blowing – the drone pilot’s wind meter indicated greater wind speeds than are allowed for by the insurance: at those speeds the insurance would not cover any damages in the event of an accident, so: no drone shooting. As it was our last day Strijdom nevertheless did make the work and we got the shots we could from the ground – filmmaking is all about accepting constraints and doing your best within the boundaries of the possible. But after many hours of work I noticed that the wind had subsided dramatically. The drone could take off and we got the beautiful shots of the work from very high above that we needed.”

Privacy and intimacy

It was intrigued how the privacy and intimacy in the film was attained and wondered about the logistics of shooting the film, without a crew. Van Aswegen: “I would estimate that 97% the shots you see in the film were done with just me and Strijdom on site, which meant I did all the filming for those shots myself and on my own, along with the recording of all sound, working as a team of one. This obviously meant a lot of hard work, often under time pressure as I described above, but it also meant that Strijdom and I could be alone in the landscape with no disruption or the distraction of a big production team on site.”

Drone shooting for Sculpting This Earth

What I loved about Sculpting This Earthis the sense of scale that one gets watching van Der Merwe at work. We see clos-ups of spaghetti scribbles in an oval in the sand and then we get a different perspective, from high above, via drone footage. I also loved seeing his bamboo leaves installation, from a distance. Regarding the wind, he talks about how one cannot measure/define wind. However, we can gauge wind direction and how much wind there is by the movement of leaves. Van der Merwe has made his bamboo leaves installations around the world and he re-creates the work, Catching the Wind, in this film, in Koloniesland Stellenbosch.

From high, works like the spaghetti oval scribble and the leaves, seem to merge with the earth and become part of it, rather than something imposed on the land. We become immersed in the film – through the images, sound, music, commentary by van Der Merwe. I think that the drone footage, enhances that sense of immersion. Van Aswegen: “The drone work on the film constituted quite a small percentage of the total amount of shooting on the project, but it was really necessary for the film and added a lot to it. I did the drone work in collaboration with two great people from Skyhook, Timothee Ferreira and Joshua Branquinho. Almost all the drone shots you see in the film were done with the fantastic Alta 8, which is a powerful flying machine capable of carrying a heavy payload and delivering quite stable shots. We had one of my 4K Blackmagic cameras and a Zeiss CP.2 lens on it, and the Skyhook equipment sent the signal down from the camera in the air to a monitor on the ground so I could direct the shot and get exactly what I needed for the sequences as I envisaged them.”

Regarding the filming of Catching the Wind, van Aswegen says: “Strijdom put up the work on September 29, 2021 – the first shoot was a long and kind of crazy day that just became crazier as the day went on and the wind picked up a lot. Then I realised that it would be effective to show the work by contrast early morning on a wind-free day, so I watched the weather and went back pre-dawn on October 11. 2021 – and was rewarded with a beautiful sky full of interesting wispy clouds.”

Land vs urban work

Land art is the major focus of Van der Merwe’s work but he also creates installations and objects in urban settings and in environments which are not the remote settings depicted in the film, such as his Pencils installation in Makhanda [formerly Grahamstown], at the Amazwi Literature Museum and installation sculptures, for example, imaging dripping water, on New York sidewalks. Those works are objects and are not ephemeral like most of his land art pieces which are created in remote locations and which are transient. All that remains is a photograph. Van Der Merwe always takes a photograph, afterwards. With Sculpting This Earth, we now have a potent document, on film, tracing his work and process in nature, over a 16 month period, which reflects the changing seasons.

Line: Line is at the heart of Strijdom van der Merwe’s work. In the film, Sculpting This Earth, directed by Victor van Aswegen, van der Merwe says: “Drawing the line is essential. You realize how fragile and small you are in nature.” He says: “To make an art work is to make a mark- be fascinated by line. The line, mark is determined by the landscape. How you draw that line is determined by the landscape you are working on…. The work exists because of the land. One of best parts of being a land artist is that you don’t know what will happen. You clean your mind and go for a walk in nature – open yourself to the trees, rivers, rocks. You listen and take it in. You build a relationship with what is around you and nature tells you what you must do in that area.” Still from the film, supplied. The work does not have a formal title- it consists of spaghetti scribbles in an oval, made by the feet of the artist, ‘drawing’ the lines in the soil.

Conversations: South African land artist, Strijdom van der Merwe chatting to Victor van Aswegen who has directed a documentary film, Sculpting This Earth, featuring van der Merwe at work in remote locations in South Africa. The film is premiering at Solo Studios Intimate Art Encounters in the Riebeek Valley – August 26-28. This photo was taken at a preview function, August 2022, ahead of Solo Studios. Pic: © TheCapeRobyn/Robyn Cohen.
Imaging: South African land artist, Strijdom van der Merwe, taking pics of at the preview for the 2022 edition of Solo Studios Intimate Art Encounters in the Riebeek Valley – August 26-28. Sculpting This Earth, a film featuring van der Merwe’s work, directed by Victor van Aswegen, is premiering at Solo Studios.
Pic: © TheCapeRobyn/Robyn Cohen.

❇ Featured image: Catching the Wind, by Strijdom van der Merwe, from Sculpting This Earth, directed by Victor van Aswegen. This work has been created on sites around the world by van der Merwe, with bamboo leaves, erected on poles that he takes to sites (and removes afterwards). For the film, the artist made the work in Koloniesland. Stellenbosch. Still supplied