Iron Harvest: A landscape revealing concealed violence
Oscar van Heek’s film & photographic study of managed explosions of unexploded WW1 ammunition also reveals the shallow veneer of the human/nature compact, and however wild, rural, natural or pastoral a scene may seem, human violence is often not far beneath the surface.

The camera dwells on a natural scene. A recently ploughed field edging up against a row of trees. In front are a row of small mounds. There’s not much sound, but the relative silence is punctuated by singing birds. An unremarkable vantage, it could be any agricultural setting. This one happens to be in Belgium, not far Ypres.

Suddenly, the scene is ruptured. An explosion rips upon the ground, the mound on the left of the frame immediately transforms into a bright orange explosion, which in turn gives way to a twisting flume of smoke projected vertically into the sky. The birds now can’t be heard over the rumbling which seems to carry in the air as long as the smoke plumes.

The film is the work of Oscar van Heek, the explosions a result of the “iron harvest”, an ongoing process of demilitarising the former Western Front. These controlled explosions are just some of the estimated 500 million unexploded bombs which remain buried within the landscapes, remainders from the estimated 1.5 billion shells fired over the area in the World War 1. The landscapes rarely reveal their traumas, but this methodical process by which rediscovered bombs are graded, packed into crates, buried at set depths, and then detonated in a managed environment still brings a sudden moment of shock, and despite the fact it’s all controlled there is still a momentary haunting thought to action of these fields only a century ago.

The work reminds us of the darkness, death, tragedy, and trauma concealed within places which seem so calm, familiar, and distant from the great wars. It also reminds us how close to the surfaces such violence is, and how just a veneer - in this case of fields, planting, nature and regrowth - can quickly give way to reveal that which lies beneath.

When Iron Harvest was shown in a dark bunker-like space managed by the Govanhill Baths Community Trust, the volume of the explosions shook the building. The film seemed to leave the screen with every blast, and however expected each was it still shocked and shook the body. Exhibited alongside a images formed of grids of single frames from the films, capturing a moment from each explosion, fixing the disruption in space, holding the smoke motionless.

Experts predict it will take another 500 years before the Western Front battlefields have been cleared and the landscape made safe. There are many, many more explosions before World War 1 will fall silent.

As the smoke slowly drifts through the foliage, and melts into the clouds, sounds of nature start to rise above the mental echo of the thunderous blast. Birds returning to the trees seem to be part of a process of healing from trauma, their innocent resilience taking the rural scene back into the pastoral from the World War interruption.

Oscar van Heek works as film-maker, and fine art photographer and writer, having recently written and directed Dark Water a unique experimental collaboration with Scottish Opera and composer Malcolm Lindsay, which opened at Palm Springs Film Festival. The Iron Harvest. The Iron Harvest was shortlisted for the Sony World Photography Awards, and shown at Somerset House in London (2019), and more recently at Sonica Glasgow (2022). Oscar has lectured the MFA film course at Screen Academy Scotland for over 10 years, has been a board member on Street Level Photoworks Gallery in Glasgow and external examiner at IADT Dublin and Royal Holloway London.

Sonica Glasgow is a biennial festival celebrating visual sonic art and showcasing 200 events by over 85 artists from 10 countries.


All images and recording © Oscar van Heek, Courtesy the artist and Sonica.

publication date
08 July 2022

Belgium, Govanhill Baths Community Trust, ExplosionFilm, Landscape, Nature, Photography, Sonica, Trauma, Oscar van Heek, War, World War One


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