[My husband, son, and I are in Amsterdam for 2 months this spring. John is a writer-in-residence with the Dutch Foundation for Literature, I am working/visiting artists/seeing art, and Henry is doing an exhaustive analysis of each of the city’s sandboxes.]
The other day I made an afternoon tour of a few art spots in Amsterdam—my list made manageable by the fact that it was a Tuesday and many galleries were closed—and wanted to give a brief report.
1) Stedelijk Museum Bureau Amsterdam (the museum’s project space) to see Alfredo Jaar’s The Marx Lounge, a reading room in which to peruse books by, about, or relating to Karl Marx, Marxist theory, capitalism, and post-colonialism. Jaar’s curated selection is laid out in a neat grid on a vast table, surrounded by red walls and carpet, along with couches, lamps, and neon lettering quietly humming the project’s title. As I do whenever I encounter a work by Jaar, I braced myself to be overwhelmed and to feel the enormity of that which I do not know, but should. You would think this would be a negative experience, but somehow, with Jaar’s work, it is not. I spent a while here, picking up books I wish I’ve read, browsing a few, making notes of books I plan to read, and feeling relief when encountering books I have read. Handily, the website provides a reading list, in case you’re feeling ambitious.
Another iteration of the lounge was part of the 2010 Liverpool Biennial, bringing to mind how site-determined the work is, that the reading list alters in each location, and that the social and political histories of each site, city, and nation come to bear on the interpretation of the piece. While the installation could have had a little more teeth for me if installed in a commercial gallery space, The Marx Lounge felt concise, sobering, and relevant—a plea for literacy and academicism in a time in which folks aren’t acting so literate or academic. Like all Jaar pieces, I felt like he was telling me to think and to remember. And I always appreciate that reminder.
2) Then to see Ryan Gander’s show at Annet Gelink Gallery. The gallery is in the midst of a Venice Biennale bonanza, with a number of their artists in this year’s event: Yael Bartana representing Poland, Barbara Visser jointly representing The Netherlands, and Ryan Gander participating in Bice Curiger’s exhibition ILLUMInazioni – ILLUMInations at the 54th International Art Exhibition. Gander’s installation at Annet Gelink shows he is clearly thinking about art history—in particular Modernism, de Stijl, and one of its leading figures Piet Mondrian. His installation Your present time orientation (Second Act) – Random abstraction is composed of an array of monochromatic, reflective planes that engage the colors and geometries of Mondrian and other de Stijl artists in their iconic abstract paintings. Resting on the floor in a way we are led to believe is random, the installation constitutes an interesting reflection on abstraction—it’s history and how it is manifested today.
Also on the floor of the gallery is a sculpture (You Ruin Everything (The Economy of Zeros), 2011) that takes as its point of departure Edgar Degas’ La Petite Danseuse de Quatorze Ans, which I am told has always engendered pity in Gander when he encounters the sculpture. The dancer, in Gander’s figuration, has shed her pedestal and taken up a variety of actions and positions, in this case she lies on her belly on the floor, gaze directed at a small blue cube resting upon its own minute white pedestal, which she is poised and ready to flick with her finger. Another of the sculptures (not at Gelink) shows the dancer leaning against a pedestal and smoking a cigarette. More than Modernism, the work made me think about sculpture, and how glad I am to be part of the post-70s world of art production that takes for granted the expanded field.
3) My last stop was a survey of Mika Rottenberg’s recent work at de Appel Boys’ School, a perfectly un-museum-like setting for the artist’s superbly bizarre video installations. With installations that mimic the elaborate structures and assembly lines that set the stage for her videos, Rottenberg’s presentation at de Appel (titled Dough cheese squeeze and tropical breeze) offers a gloriously intensive survey of the artist’s highly imaginative and elaborate narrative videos. Once I recover from the initial revulsion of the human oddities on display—women (mostly) of all sizes and proportions struggling, sweating, working, secreting, producing— I am able to fully bask in the gloriousness of Rottenberg’s vision. I had seen Rottenberg’s work before, but never so many of the works together—and the effect is impressive.
Her narrative loops present seemingly unending assembly and production lines, the characters expending huge amounts of energy to produce items such as maraschino cherries out of magically regenerating red fingernails, or (my personal favorite) Tropical Breeze Lemon Scented Moist Tissues made from the sweat of a professional female bodybuilder.
The focus on labor and industry so central to Rottenberg’s work called to mind not only the seeming arbitrariness of art production, but also couldn’t help but remind of my visit to The Marx Lounge earlier in the day. A coincidental alignment only possible in a city with as rich of a cultural life as Amsterdam.