Wednesday, 13 February 2013


Charl van Ark: Company 1994-2013 (detail)
Rotterdam makes a sensible alternative to Amsterdam as a base for seeing Dutch art: Schiedam and The Hague, which lie at two of the end points of the straightforward underground system, both have vibrant galleries of their own; and Amsterdam itself is only 35 minutes away by surprisingly affordable high speed train (oddly enough, although house prices are probably only half in Rotterdam, I was told that commuting from there to Amsterdam remains rare). And the Dutch speak such good English that I stopped checking they could after a couple said they couldn’t – they were, of course, joking.

Moreover, having been obliterated in World War II, Rotterdam seized the chance to become a wholly modern architectural experience. That gives it a radical and distinctive atmosphere – just what you want to feed into its increasingly well-regarded Art Rotterdam Week (7-10 February).

Fashion and design are very much part of the scene too, with the first European stop of a major Jean Paul Gaultier show opening at the impressive Kunsthalle. The city’s trunks were bound in blue and white striped corsets, like fetish version of tree rings, in recognition of that. The most striking feature of the exhibition wasn't so much the clothes as the use of video-projected faces on the mannequins wearing them. Gaultier himself was in affable form, though the fashion journalists I met were unimpressed by his own choice  – below jeans and what was thought a rather fetching leather skirt – of black Uggs...  Small wonder, perhaps, that I was drawn among the following to several works which echoed aspects of architecture, design and fashion in the increasingly open-ended field of art… 

The Art Rotterdam fair itself is of manageable size (75 galleries) and has a relaxed atmosphere, a coherent aesthetic (emphasising Dutch minimalist traditions) and doesn’t go in for many ‘wow factor’ signature works – that was left to the city’s buildings and Art Warehouse – one of several patchy satellites, but bigger than the main fair!  The moving image was mostly restricted to the separate, but linked, ‘Projections’ fair in a hotel opposite: 19 films shown on cinematic screens with headphones for sound in an concertina arrangement which made very effective use of space. So here are some highlights from Art Rotterdam, two imaginative interventions from the Warehouse, a choice from the significant amount of activity parallel to the fairs, and my impressions from quick trips to Schiedam and The Hague. Throw in a couple of parties, and there’s certainly enough for a busy weekend!

Stephen Balkenhol: Tripod Man at Akinci (Amsterdam) in Art Rotterdam

German sculptor Stephan Balkenhol has been rough-hewing people out of fissure-friendly wood for decades now, but he keeps chipping his way to new directions. The more than life-size Tripod Man feels very fresh, introducing a third leg as a sort of flying buttress which somehow avoids being as silly as that sounds in its radical play between two and three dimensions. Is this, then, where we’ve arrived, rendered flat in essence however much we try to present a rounded whole?

Gareth Moore: Bouvard and P├ęcuchet’s Invented Desk for Copying at Torri (Paris) in Art Rotterdam

My favourite piece of gallerists’ furniture was this desk: Flaubert meets Judd in the ninth in New York based Canadian artist Gareth Long’s ongoing series of imagined designs of a desk to suit the copy clerks Bouvard and P├ęcuchet. The first half of the novel ends with their preparations to construct a two-seated desk at which to make copies: the second half was to consist of what they copied, but Flaubert suffered the unrepeatable fate before he could write it. The desk itself was copied from plans locally rather than shipped to Rotterdam, as suited the straightforward pine construction of conceptual furniture.

Folkert de Jong: Act of Despair at Galerie Fons Welters (Amsterdam) in Art Rotterdam

Whereby the Dutch artist known for sardonic historical figure groups made from the ethically and practically challenging material of Styrofoam switches to a still life in traditional bronze, albeit some of it’s painted to look like disposable foam cups. The title suggests a self-deprecating self-portrait of sorts: the circus balls read across to the juggling required to make art decisions, and the teetering architecture of the cups making the likelihood of failure clear enough.  . 

Navid Nuur: When doubt turns into destiny, 1993-2010 at Martin von Zomereren (Amsterdam) in Projections

You might say there are two main ways to go with video art: an instant idea with the resonance to carry rich interpretation, or narrative invention and deconstruction. The ‘Projections’ fair fielded a powerful example of the former in the trenchantly artificial form of Erkka Nissinen’s ‘Polis X’, but its easier to transmit the impact of Navid Nuur’s ‘When doubt turns into destiny’, even though it runs for twenty five minutes across three screens simultaneously. In each, we see the artist in Eindhoven’s back alleys by night, attempting to move slowly enough that he doesn’t trigger the security lights. Every now again he does, and freezes.  Quite apart from proving a succinct metaphor for Nuur’s general desire to ‘mediate between thoughts and their materialisation’, it’s rather funny. Will you be able to see it in the Teheran-born Dutchman’s overdue first major British show (Parasol Unit, 13 March – 26 May)? Maybe, but he’s so productive every which way I won’t be surprised if he’s moved on by then…’

Bettina Buck: Interlude at Rokeby Gallery (London) in Art Rotterdam

Were Nuur brings conceptualism to the city, Bettina Buck brings minimalism to the countryside with equal economy, resonance and wit. In the five minute Interlude, we follow the German sculptor labouring across the somewhat ominous cliff-top grassland of the notorious suicide spot Beachy Head. She’s carrying, in various uncomfortable wind-buffeted ways, a coffin-sized block of foam which weighs about what she does. At least it’s good to rest on when she tires…

Charl van Ark: Company 1994-2013 at Phoebus (Rotterdam) in Art Rotterdam

Made in parallel with his primary stream of  abstracts, Dutch painter Charl van Ark’s take on the cabinet is essentially a twenty year 3-D scrapbook of memories and inspirations. That’s not particularly novel in itself, though the fashionable Geoffrey Farmer’s similar aesthetic came later. Van Ark, however, has a winning light touch in how he selects and juxtaposes the personal, the art historical and the mainstream to keep the viewer moving across its teeming contents: potatoes and heads, art uses of sticks, a photographed trapezist given a real rope in an echo of Joseph Kosuth, Nauman as fountain matched with a pisseur etc...

Salvatore Arancio at Frederico Schiavo Gallery (Rome) in Art Rotterdam (New Art Section)

The taller of these curious ceramics with some of Rotterdam’s architectural thrust are psychedelic version of a ‘lava trees’ from Hawaii – created by a volcanic eruption which took on some of the form of the trees it burned and yet preserved. Named for  Hawaiian gods, they continues London-based Italian Salvatore Arancio’s  interest in combining nature, science and myth.  That has often flowed into the subject of volcanoes, particularly as they appear in i9th century prints which frame them as opportunities for daring explorations of the romantic sublime – and which Arancio digitally alters for an age more aware of its own subjectivity. On the right, though, the approach is applied to the unusual geological formation of the Mushroom rock.

Kim de Ruysscher at Art Warehouse

Young Belgian artist Kim de Ruysscher was a significant presence on both floors of the Art Warehouse with work which yet pushed further in the well-explored territory of material transformation.  Downstairs, he himself – having won the right to  a stand - was revealing to all comers that the canvases, tubes of paint, packaging, rusting iron implements and plenty else displayed on contrastingly light polystyrene stands were actually made from various stones, cunningly  chosen to maximise particular effects. Upstairs, he showed giant nuts and bolts made principally of coffee – the useful rendered dysfunctional, and oddly olfactory, by scale and substance.

Mitsy Groenendijk at Art Warehouse

I suspect most visitors will have missed Mitsy Groenendijk’s installation, which was visible only through a small window into an ante-room halfway up the stairs. That, of course, made it all the more startling if you did discover three monkeys hidden away in the manner of illegal immigrants, of which they could be the ultimate example – appropriately enough in Europe’s largest port. They were child-sized, semi-anthropoid, covered in human hair. Amsterdam-based Groenendijk specialises in such primate figures, which tread a provocative line between sweet and repulsive, endearing and mawkish while implying some sort of challenge to our evaluation of the merits of evolution.

Paola Pivi: Tulkus 1880 to 2018 at the Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art
The oddest - and perhaps most ambitious - show of the weekend may well have been Alaskan-based Italian Paola Pivi’s attempt to document all the recognised reincarnations of the Buddha (ie Tulkus) in photographed  Tibetan history –  she’s found 1,100 so far.   It certainly featured two of the more unusual words in a press release, 'tulku' being joined by the claim that it’s ‘a mastodontic exhibition’ (ie one size step up from elephantine). That said, I found myself unmoved and the aesthetic uninvolving: the fault was probably mine, but for all Pivi’s monumental efforts, this seemed to fall into the category of exhibitions as interesting to read about as to see:.. 


Jan Maarten Voskuil: 'Pointing Inside' at the Stedelijk Museum, Schiedam

The Stedelijk Museum Schiedam is highly distinctive: four floors spread across two wings and accessible - prior to a forthcoming redevelopment - only via the basement in somewhat jocular style. The several current shows include highlights from its own astutely-purchased collection of early COBRA works; the large, meditative charcoal on coloured paper drawings of Rotterdam-based Indian Aji V.N; and an extensive presentation of the radical work of Jan Maarten Voskuil, who paints on linen which is applied around bent frames so that circular image appears as a square of sorts. He hasn't painted 'flat' since 2001, and has explored the vast range of constructions from this initial idea, including - in Painting Inside II - the deepest painting I've ever seen.

Bridget Riley: Two Yellows Composition with Cricles 4, 2011
Bridget Riley at the Gemeentemuseum Den Haag

The Hague, famous for its international courts, is an historic town with several museums, including the extensive Gemeentemuseum Den Haag. Its highlights included a thematic display demonstrating an imaginative policy of recent acquisitions (eg major installations of Kari Upson and Charles Avery), and solo shows by two British artists:  Karla Black's first such in the Netherlands - a vast cellophane construction alongside work as insubstantial as smears on the windows and powder on the walls; and a room of Bridget Riley in the context of a thorough survey of  De Stijl, which  pivots around the world's largest collection of Mondrian paintings. This recent use of circular yellows was neatly paired with the classic 'White Discs 2' from 1964.

Images courtesy of relevant galleries and artists and Aatjan Renders (de Jong)

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About Me

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Southampton, Hampshire, United Kingdom
I was in my leisure time Editor at Large of Art World magazine (which ran 2007-09) and now write freelance for such as Art Monthly, Frieze, Photomonitor, Elephant and Border Crossings. I have curated 20 shows during 2013-17 with more on the way. Going back a bit my main writing background is poetry. My day job is public sector financial management.