Amsterdam Art Weekend
November 22 - 25, 2018
Presented by: Amsterdam Art
By JEFFREY GRUNTHANER, December 2018
Amsterdam remains a city where the phenomenon of the mega-gallery has yet to take hold. While not aspiring to usurp the prestige of, say, Pace or Gagosian, the non-profit organization Amsterdam Art posits an alternative to the arrogating influence of those spaces. While the mega-gallery is an institution with serious financial backing, and various properties situated internationally, Amsterdam Art is locally focused. Amsterdam draws to itself an international crowd; its galleries, project spaces, ateliers, and museums are a reflection of this. As an organization, Amsterdam Art seems designed to hone in on this, offering a peripatetic alternative to the exclusionary ways that art is generally exposed, interpreted, and collected.
This past November I was invited by Amsterdam Art to see what they offer. As I discovered, the organization operates less through ownership than structure. I met my press liaison at Ron Mandos gallery, which was exhibiting two shows by two artists: Kendell Geers's Voetstoots (titled after an Afrikaans word meaning "sold without guarantee at the buyer's risk") and Kristof Kintera's Naturally Postnatural. Both artists share in an anti-capitalist and anti-colonial attitude. Kendell Geers is a South African artist whose work is entrenched on the colonist legacy of his native land. Meanwhile, Kristof Kintera’s work highlights how the design-thinking of capitalism has overgrown any originary experience of the natural world. Works by both artist were honest and direct. Any trace of symbolism was overwhelmed by the materials they put to use, which involved shards of glass sticking out from a wall (Voetstoots), or industrial detritus (Naturally Postnatural).
Amsterdam Art links disparate practices, institutions, and even histories in a way that doesn't discount the regionalism of creative influence, and the many ways in which artists are informed by their locality. Opposed to dislocation, many of the works Amsterdam Art introduced me to were concerned with immigrant identity within Dutch society. At the Stedelijk, example, I was given a tour by Karen Archey, curator of the museum’s biannual, open call exhibition. The present iteration, titled Freedom of Movement, is on view through March 17th, 2019, and spotlights socially engaged works by artists working in the Netherlands. Deniz Eroglu’s video installation is representative of the themes around which Archey constructed the exhibition. She explained to me about Eroglu’s contribution to Freedom of Movement:
“This is retracing Deniz’s father’s footsteps. [Eroglu is] going to the same kebab shop that his father owned. It’s his way of kind of dealing with the legacy of his father living as a Turkish man in Copenhagen. I think there was even a New York Times article published recently about how homogenous Danish society is—and how hard immigrants have it there, in order to feel part of that cultural identity. This is [Eroglu’s] way of dealing with that—of going through one’s life as his father did.”
The work was as humorous as it was troubling. Topical perhaps, it eschewed any too-easy reference to current news cycles by having the aura of a documentary, retro-fitted to the screen of old school television monitors.
Later on during my trip, I visited the Oude Kerk. A functioning Protestant church, the space doubles as a museum, while also sheltering a history of religious and social dischord that dates from the 14th century. Originally a site for Christian worship, the church is founded on that eerie innovation Christians introduced into Roman architecture and ritual: the tomb. Every segment of floor you walk on covers the remnant of a decayed corpse. A sort of subterranean, chemical museum in and of itself, curating that peculiar site poses a special challenge. As Jacqueline Grandjean, artistic director at the Oude Kerk, explained to me about her curatorial approach: “What we do throughout the year is we invite two or three contemporary artists—mostly an international working artist who is also relating to time or space, and is able to work in a space like this—to make a new work that resonates this building in terms of space, architecture, cultural and historical meaning.”
Similar to the architectural legacy of the church, the way of working endorsed by Grandjean is what she calls “slow curating.” “We take time to develop with the artist,” she told me, seeking out only those projects that can rightly integrate themselves with the space, responding to its history. As she spoke I glanced out of a ground-level window, and could see a prostitute behind a window opposite looking onto the street—a view that many visitors and occupants of the room (situated in the heart of the red light district) must have seen for centuries.
The highlight of the curated exhibition at the Oude Kerk is a collaborative installation by artists Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller. The piece looks like an organ—in truth, it’s a metatron—with each separate key programmed to make audible a specific sound, relative to the culture surrounding the church’s history. Often recorded with an ambient microphone, the 28 speakers that environ you give way to the feeling that you’re really inside of something. Each key, combined with the others, becomes a droning narrative, featuring troubled voices, choirs, the mechanized sounds of war, and other samples you can endlessly permutate and collage, resonating with the architecture of the cavernous space.
Less historicized but equally majestic is the Rijksakademie—a mecca for some of the most important artists in the Netherlands and beyond. The night before my visit, I had attended an opening celebration at the Fotografiemuseum Amsterdam, where a local gallerist advised me, somewhat mischievously, that if I went to the Rijksakademie, be sure to go the roof.
When I finally did make it to the roof of the building, I was puzzled by the long line leading into the exhibition. It moved quickly enough, though; and when I was finally situated near the entrance, I saw people leaving the space with small bags of weed. When it was my turn, I asked the girl working the door how I should go about maneuvering the space. “You’ll figure it out,” she said.
The elaborate installation by New Zealand-based artist Arvo Leo—aptly titled, Lungs of Flowers—presented a room filled with potted and draping mint trees that deceptively resembled marijuana plants. Originally I thought these were the plants everyone was getting their weed from, but then I noticed a small group of people huddled near to a particular wall. Watching them, I figured out a part of the ritual. An extended pole, cupped at the end, would deliver weed through a hole in the floor, so long as someone placed a rock into the cup. A mound of rocks was piled into a corner of the room. Nothing about this process was mechanical; everything was humanized. Perhaps it was the artist himself, but someone was underneath the floor, collecting rocks and exchanging them for pot.
There was also a video component to the installation, narrating without words the habits of a white-shrouded being who collects rocks, only to pass them through a hole in the wall into the gallery where we were all standing. It’s rare for contemporary art to portray any kind of sensual indulgence apart from pain, sex, or delectation. Leo’s installation was really a kind of social practice, smartly aestheticized and radicalized in its humor.
Amsterdam Art featured into all this less by arrogating anything than by allowing works, galleries, and artists to be and to be themselves independently. What Amsterdam Art makes visible is a wholistic appraisal of the myriad artistic currents coursing through the city today, creating an open and vibrant way to experience Amsterdam’s art scene. WM
Jeffrey Grunthaner is an artist-writer-musician-curator currently based in Berlin. Essays, articles, poems, and reviews have appeared via BOMB, artnet News, The Brooklyn Rail, Archinect, Hyperallergic, Heavy Feather Review, Folder, Drag City Books, and other venues. Recent curatorial projects include the reading and discussion series Conversations in Contemporary Poetics at Hauser & Wirth Publishers (NY).view all articles from this author