Belgian topography is characterised by the extreme urban sprawl that has taken root between the major urban hubs. Ribbon development, zone-unfriendly constructions and garden districts that ignore any notion of landscape integrity form only the most visible aspects of this sprawl. The latter semi-residential neighbourhoods classically feature hedges and plantings that corral the plots of land: almost without exception, they are meticulously coiffed and maintained to create a particular spatial composition with the other greenery and strategically planned to obstruct the view of the actual property.
This does not sound so different from what we see around the world in suburban areas: homes are surrounded by areas of green that are often bordered by fences or hedges. These developments are built as show places – they enjoy great visibility from public roads - and that in turn provides a certain status to the owners. It is well known that this is often accompanied by competitive behaviour between the neighbours. The exuberance of the hedge culture in Belgium does seem fairly unique.
So this involves decorative, at times imposing demarcations between public and private spaces, with natural elements used as the building blocks. While these elements are technically trees, shrubs, ferns, flowers and grass, they have been neutered: these are varieties seldom seen in the wild, which have been clipped and deformed to look a particular way. It is fascinating that this aesthetic is being used to shut in and shut out inhabitants.
The untitled series of black-and-white images that Dieter Daemen is currently working on is concerned with this specific form of partitioning. He is photographing in his own region, Flemish Brabant, where there are innumerable examples of this culture. The pictures appear to be exemplary exercises in form: the camera is rather low, thus eliminating any sky; the layers of hedges, shrubs and trees along with the buildings behind them are keenly balanced and the contrast of textures in the images – various varieties of foliage, lawns, tiling, rigid brick walls and flat expanses of glass – shines through due to the quality of the prints.
Furthermore, a sense of intimacy is generated, which is further enhanced by the small, square format of the photographs. This literally draws in the gaze of the viewer: an experience that contradicts the whole idea of barriers. But the paradox remains that any actual intimacy is taking place on the other side of the green wall, in all exclusivity and heavily guarded. Daemens perfectly captures the opacity and low-key secrecy that prevail in these places.