By PAUL LASTER, AUG. 2015
Taking the world as a source of inspiration and examination, Global Imaginations features 20 international artists from all continents. Organized by the Museum De Lakenhal in the historical Dutch city of Leiden in celebration of the 440th anniversary of Leiden University, this contemplative show of contemporary art takes place in a complex of factory buildings known as De Meelfabriek, an abandoned grain mill that’s one of the city’s largest landmarks.
The vast exhibition, which includes nine new commissions, addresses such global concerns as the environment, natural resources, cultural differences and the history of the world we share. Like a collection of 20 solo shows, works are placed in and around several building with single artists often occupying a whole room or floor. The buildings are old and rusty and have no elevators or heating and air conditioning, so maneuvering the spaces is akin to exploring caves and climbing mountains—making discovery of the art an adventure.
The notable curatorial team—consisting entirely of women—features National Museum of World Cultures contemporary art and photography curator Anke Bangma, Museum De Lakenhal director Meta Knol, Museum De Lakenhal contemporary art curator Nicole Roepers, Leiden University art history professor Kitty Zijlmans and art historian Manon Braat, who also serves as the project leader for Global Imaginations.
Chinese artist Chen Zhen’s sculpture Back to Fullness, Face to Emptiness, displayed in the plaza of the mill, is the beacon of the show. A metal globe, surrounded by aluminum-cast chairs from different countries, holds a red neon text of human rights. Nearby, Australian Brook Andrew’s Jumping Castle War Memorial conflates an amusement park bouncy castle with a memorial for victims of genocide from colonialization.
Meschac Gaba, who splits his time between Benin and Rotterdam, hangs an enormous flag made up of all of the flags of the world—a symbol of world harmony—between two of the factory buildings, while Lucy and Jorge Orta (from the UK and Argentina, respectively) have constructed a water purification system from simple materials, which addresses the growing global shortage of clean drinking water, on a plaza alongside the Zijlsingel—one of the many canals of Leiden.
Indoors, American Mark Dion presents 3-D printed copies of natural history objects—including fossils, rocks, minerals and animals—in the form of a surrealist, Day-Glo cabinet of curiosities. Lebanon’s Mona Hatoum offers a prayer mat comprised of upturned nails and a woolen rug that depicts the whole world as a danger zone with seismographic yellow circles and shifting continents. Simryn Gill, meanwhile, invites visitors to make paper boats by tearing out pages from a castoff set of Encyclopaedia Britannica. The installation grows daily as more people add to the pile of fragile vessels.
Other highlights in the exhibition include Brazilian artist Rivane Neuenschwander's video of a map of the world made from a plate of beef carpaccio, which gets torn apart by devouring insects; Moroccan sculptor Batoul S’Himi’s household objects traditionally associated with women, which S’Himi uses to comment on gender inequality by cutting out the continents and contours of the Arab world in pressure cookers and gas canisters; and Chinese video artist Tsang Kin-Wah, who projects a moving text from the Book of Revelation about plague, hunger and war—covering the floor of a decrepit building—that starts out readable but soon turns into a tangled web of words.
Another standout, American artist collective Ghana ThinkTank did research in Leiden by asking the inhabitants about the consequences of globalization that they experience on a daily basis. The number one problem cited was the growing division between Muslims and non-Muslims, which has created an increase of intolerance in a nation known for tolerance. They then consulted think tanks in Islamic nations, who suggested that the Dutch look at their history with Islam—one that peacefully goes back to the 16th century—and their past record of respect for others.
After processing this information, the Ghana ThinkTank artists—Christopher Robbins, John Ewing, Matey Odonkor and Maria del Carmen Montoya—constructed Monument to the Dutch, an architectural installation that unites elements from an Islamic mosque with references to the Anne Frank House, a venerable symbol of Dutch tolerance.
Accompanied by an extensive program of talks and events, Global Imaginations is a perfect fit for an enduring college town—deeply rooted in the arts and sciences—that’s ready to pose some new perspectives on our rapidly changing world. WM
Global Imaginations remains on view at the Museum De Lakenhal in Leiden, The Netherlands through October 4, 2015.
Paul Laster is a writer, editor, independent curator, artist and lecturer. He is a New York desk editor at ArtAsiaPacific and a contributing editor at Whitehot and artBahrain. He was the founding editor of Artkrush.com and Artspace.com and art editor of Flavorpill.com and Russell Simmons's OneWorld Magazine; started TheDailyBeast.com's art section; and worked as a photojournalist for Artnet.com and Art in America. He is a frequent contributor to Time Out New York, New York Observer, Modern Painters, ArtPulse and ArtInfo.com.view all articles from this author