The Captain’s Log Book 44
Amsterdam, May 6, 2024

Artist August Dirks: ‘My life revolved around camaraderie’

What makes life worth living?

August Dirks sailed his Ship of Fools around the world with artists and is now at his home in Amsterdam in the last stage of his life. “The madman rings his bells whenever he wants; “I will continue doing it until my last breath.”

The ship is on the beach in Ecuador. More than a century after its first voyage, in 1916, it finally found its final port.

The captain is back in Amsterdam. Forever. “Actually I’m already dead,” he says, a gleam in his striking light blue eyes. “Three years ago I was diagnosed with three months to live. I live in overtime. There’s something about that too. I regularly think: how special it is that I’m still experiencing this.”

August Dirks (71) bought his boat in 1989, a rusty thirty-meter long fishing boat. It has been his home, his life, for 32 years. The members of his team were musicians and actors. Dirks was captain of a theater ship which he named The Ship of Fools. Ideas for the performances were developed during sea voyages, spectators sat on stands on the docks during the performances.

Travel was the goal, the ship was the means. It took him and his crew to countless ports in the Baltic Sea, the Mediterranean, Africa and Suriname. In 2021 she set sail for Australia, via the Atlantic Ocean, through the Panama Canal, along the coast of Ecuador.

There she was stranded. In critical condition: lung cancer, with metastases. He made drastic decisions quickly. He would leave his ship behind. With axles and wheels under the keel he was dragged to the beach of a town near the city of Manta. It now functions as a cultural center, a center of attraction for crowds along the boardwalk.

August Dirks took the plane to Amsterdam. “Happy ending!” He wrote in his logbook in November 2021.

Happy? Also sad?

“No. I am used to living with uncertainty. I have no problem with that. I consciously sought out that uncertainty. Detachment brings surprises, good and not so good.

“I have strived for a life without material needs. I have always been prepared for the possibility of losing everything. My boat has been chained twice for years. All my money was in that boat, I had nothing else.

“I literally lived on the edge. But it has been priceless. She has taken me to the most beautiful places in the world. The landscape around me was constantly changing. I spent a winter in a Venetian fortress on a Greek island. The jungle along the Suriname River, an industrial port near Marseille: each place has its own beauty, its own history, its own people with stories.”

The meaning of life is not found in bourgeois existence, but in pleasure and wine.

The desire to travel becomes evident when August Dirks talks about his youth. He wanted to become a missionary after, when he was ten years old in primary school, he saw exotic slides about people and people from Africa, shown by a missionary priest. He seemed to him the way to escape an orderly family. His father was a tax inspector, his mother was a housewife, they had six sons and one daughter.

He grew up in a mansion on the road from Leiden to Rijnsburg. Behind it is a green neighborhood, on the edge of Leidse Hout. “I passed by it on the way to school and I remember thinking: I definitely don’t want to live here when I grow up – how nice, but how oppressive!”

The year he was born, 1952, naturally led him into the wild 1960s. The Cuban Missile Crisis in late 1962 made him realize that the world could be destroyed by a nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union. . . “It seemed completely useless to me to study and look for a paid job. At any moment humanity could sink into the abyss.”

In 1963 he was allowed – at his own insistence – to attend the White Fathers seminary in Santpoort, where he was preparing for missions to French-speaking African countries. “A paradise,” he calls it: “I freed myself from my parents’ supervision and immersed myself in the anonymity of the group. I had educators full of doubts about the usefulness of converting Africa to the Roman faith. His missionary zeal had cooled. I have never had that impulse.”

At seventeen he moved to a squat in Amsterdam. There was much unrest in the city, with student protests and worker riots, as previously in Paris. A French motto from that time is still etched in his retina: “Sous les pavés, la plage!” – The beach is under the cobblestones! “That’s what I felt: the meaning of life is not found in a bourgeois existence, but in pleasure and wine.” When nuclear war did not occur, to his surprise, he decided to undertake a serious study. Russian literature.

Why Russian?

“I consciously chose a completely different direction than most Dutch people, who then flocked to Spain as tourists. In that sense, I have always been a provocateur who avoids the beaten path. I loved Russian literature, and I still do. I wanted to delve deeper into ancient Russian civilization. That’s how I ended up with Russian, out of curiosity, I was looking for a challenge.

“I completed my studies successfully. I also did something with it: together with some fellow students I had a small office for exchange between Dutch and Russian artists. I like doing beautiful things with beautiful people. I believe in art, in artists, in people who turn their lives into works of art. In the late 1980s there was a certain artistic freedom in Russia. That gave me energy. I thought: artists are paving the way to a more beautiful world.”

Disappointed that things turned out differently in Russia?

“Enourmously, yes. But that disappointment came later. In 1989 I changed, or rather expanded, my direction. My parents were dead, I had inherited money. I could have bought a nice new Mercedes with that. It became a rusty ship.

“I still remember the first moment I thought: I want to buy a boat. That was in 1979. I worked for a while in a factory where I had to pick rotten pearl onions off the assembly line. Some time before, I got off my bike in Zouthaven, where a boat was being sold. Behind the conveyor belt, with those nasty pearl onions, I had plenty of time to think. I thought: that’s it, a boat!

“With my hard-earned money I went on a trip to southern India. There I sometimes came across a church or a fortress from the Dutch colonial past. The idea arose of taking a ship from Amsterdam to ports from which capital was once raised through trade, privateers and the slave trade.”

To return capital?

“Yes, human capital. The human voice is the most beautiful instrument I know and in opera it can be fully appreciated. That’s the most expressive form of performance art I know. My dream was: my boat will become an opera boat. I was inspired by two films: The Ship Goes by Fellini and Fitzcarraldo by Werner Herzog. Both are operas set on a ship, with a charming story. When I saw those movies I thought: I have to hurry, soon someone will run away with my idea.”

Dirks’ idea included more than an opera boat. It was a way of life. He recites a phrase from the bylaws of the foundation that would eventually become the legal owner of his ship. He would live on: “a seaworthy ship for the transport of animals, humans, objects, ideas, music, etc., to give artists and anyone the opportunity to carry out their transubstantial activities and thus promote a global cultural exchange.”

That, the captain says, was his mission. He explained: “I transformed an idea into 180 tons of iron, and that in turn into a group of people, into a trip, into a theater, into a cultural exchange. I consciously called these “transubstantial activities”, a concept I took from the Catholics. They practice cannibalistic rituals, with wine and hosts: ‘The word has become flesh.’ “I created a group of theater makers with iron.”

The passion to risk everything, that sums up my life well.

Can a doctoral student in Russian language and literature set out with a lugger to sail the world’s oceans?

“The Amsterdam Maritime School was my first study. But that lasted one day. I saw my classmates and thought: this is not my world, I have to get out! Later I obtained the necessary navigation qualifications, but it is true: I was a clumsy captain who managed to gain control of his ship with great difficulty. In reality, it was irresponsible to spend years wandering the seas with a ship full of beautiful and talented people. It ended well. “We have never had any major accidents.”

The boat that August Dirks bought in 1989 began life as a Scheveningen herring vessel, the SCH4. He first renamed it Azart, which also became the name of his theater company. Five years later he was followed by another name. Dirks proudly notes that on Amsterdam’s Java Island there is now also an Azartplein square, in honor of his ship.

Why the name Azart?

“Coincidences bring you the biggest surprises. Browsing in a Russian dictionary I found the word ‘azart’, translated as: ‘passion, fire’. I thought: that sounds good, it can be used in all languages, ‘art from A to Z’. Later I discovered that this word traveled from Portugal through Europe like a game of dice. In Russian the context was given: “The passion to risk everything.” By pure chance, I chose a word that sums up my way of life very well.”

And why did the name later change to Ship of Fools?

“It’s also a coincidence. One night while we were in Amsterdam, a South African artist came on board and proposed holding a parade on the dock, which he wanted to call The Ship of Fools. At that time he had just read cultural historian Herman Pleij’s dissertation, The Guild of the Blue Barge. These are jesters, madmen and other misfits who were banished from society. I thought: this is us, as creators of nautical theater. “The Ship of Fools” is the nickname of my ship.

Does this also indicate an artistic development, from the more or less serious opera genre to colorful street theater?

“It points to a constant reversal of roles, in a life as I have lived it. What is the game, what is reality? Who is the fool here: the jester or his spectator? A madman holds up a mirror to the king and his court. I have always lived in total freedom, at sea, on coasts where the wind took me. I never wanted to make a lot of money. In ports I have seen the super-rich on their yachts, completely bored in the stern. Such a yacht apparently costs 1 million euros per linear meter. My boat was thirty meters long. “So I was a millionaire thirty times and I didn’t have a cent in my pocket.”

The game continues, it seems. You’re still wearing a jacket with dozens of bells on it.

“A church bell rings at fixed times. That is a form of submission: the terror of time. The madman rings his bells whenever he wants. I will continue doing it until my last breath.”

What was it like living close to each other for more than thirty years with a group of artists, fools as companions? “I have always lived in groups: in our family, in the seminary, in squats, on my boat. That formed me. My life revolved around camaraderie, mobilizing people, unexpected encounters, fun. With such an attitude, you will not easily enter into an argument. Relations on board were clear. I was the captain. But I let everyone do their thing, he needed them all. This way you can express your creativity. After all, that’s why we were together, as fellow travelers and theater makers, determined to make beautiful things and something beautiful in our lives.”

And now, looking back at the last phase of life: has this life been worth it?

“I have difficulty with the word difficulty. The work is painful and there is no point in torturing yourself. It’s about comfort, beauty, pleasure, passion. I couldn’t have imagined another life for myself. I lived, I didn’t get buried alive in a race. “I am a lucky person.”