This blog is a project of the Van Abbemuseum

Welcome / Welkom

This is a blog dedicated to the museum musings of the curators and guest curators, invited to the Van Abbemuseum, who work (and play) within the context of the permanent collection and other museum projects. ‘de keuken’ provides a look into the chaotic kitchen of their thoughts, opinions and generally anything else as they cook up a storm of experiences with the city, its people and the museum. We invite you in as a sous-chef to comment/participate in our forum and nose through the drawers and cupboards of the archives for interesting insights into outsiders inside the VAM.

New / Nieuw van de dag

On this page we have a weekly/topical focus, for example an interesting event or biennale coming up, or some more general issue raised recently within the art world. We invite you as a visitor to jump headfirst into the stew of opinions, facts and angles.

What do blogs do? – the makers of this blog have some pillow talk about what goes on in the kitchen… Read on »


What is left of The Seasons of the Year

June 13th, 2015 by Willem Jan Renders

(Please read the first part of this blog if you did not yet.)

Inside the new Garage you are welcomed by a huge Bulatov painting (poster would be a better word) that says: “everyone to our ! garage” (at least I think it should be translated as “to” and not as “in”). The other side, equally big, just says “garage”, surrounded by balloons.

And indeed everyone seems to have come to Garage tonight on the occasion of this not so private opening. The whole international flying art circus is packed in this 5,400 square meter building.

Unlike many here I am not looking for people I know. I will meet hem anyway (or not). As your dedicated reporter I am also carefully avoiding the delicious vodka that is being served in large quantities and in various combinations.


Eh, no thank you, I’ll have a sparkling mineral water please…


First of all I am looking for the parts of the original Vremena Goda (Seasons of the Year) building. One part, the mosaic, is prominently present in the central hall. But to call the preservation of this prominent part of a Soviet restaurant and some of the original walls “a renovation of late Soviet architecture” would be too much said.

There are a few more walls of the original building, but this is undoubtedly a creation by Rem Koolhaas. A nice building, undoubtedly, smart looking, a clever interplay of volumes, severe, even austere sometimes, but this new Garage is certainly not a museum.

It would have been a nice start for Dasha to ask Rem to make a building – any at all- and to look for the function afterwards. The outcome of this architectural experiment would have been a ‘folly looking for function’ and interesting in all respects.

But this building, opening now with so much aplomb, has been intended, designed and built as a museum. And it’s not! The way in which the few original ‘old’ artworks in one of the opening expositions are shown already announce that this is not and can never be a museum. The delicate original drawings by Malevich, Suetin and Yakerson (I leave out some other artists) are shown in far too much light, behind reflecting glass and with the shadows of the frames casting over the drawings. The anonymous Moscow collector who owns these works is probably the only one in the world to allow drawings of this kind to be shown like this. I think the climate control of this building will prove to be very difficult, especially during the hot Russian summers and the proverbial cold winters.

To make exhibitions in a Koolhaas building was never and will never be be an easy task. Function follows form in his mind and the use of a building was never a real issue for him, whether it was an office he designed, a private home, a concert hall or a museum. So exhibitions will have to be made to fit into this new Garage or one will have to make a special architecture inside to house them. Hopefully this environment of black concrete walls and sanded underlayment floors will generate a new type of exhibitions, but new ideas to show contemporary art feel already perfectly at home in old buildings too. And an old factory for instance makes the artworks on show a lot less pretentious.

Forbidden for wheelchairs


And that’s not everything. Unlike the Kunsthal Rotterdam the entrance and exit is clear for the public fortunately. But an easy chair is hard to find in these Spartan surroundings, even in the restaurant. And I would certainly not like to be in a wheelchair here, not only to move around in the building but also and especially to go to the toilet. Looking for a book in the bookshop is also forbidden for those who cannot walk.


Koolhaas citing himself





I walk up the stairs towards the auditorium, another citation of the Kunsthal Rotterdam. Let’s have a look at some of the exhibitions now.



A New Garage for the Seasons of the Year

June 11th, 2015 by Willem Jan Renders

A recent discussion on the function and structure of the ‘read and share’ department of our website made me think about the kitchen blogs I wrote so far. Although I am still not convinced that the ‘format’ for these blogs is the one that I would like to develop – the blogs about my Russian adventures are a bit like ‘Tintin in the Land of the Soviets’ in more than one respect – I could not resist the temptation to write one more. I have met several people who encouraged me to do so, but a critical opinion on my writings is harder to find. Anyway, now I have some readers in mind and that helps me to start. There we go.

I had to be in Moscow anyway to further discuss our ‘Chagall, Lissitzky, Malevich project’ (see: synopsis lowres) with ROSIZO and the State Tretyakov Gallery and I also had an invitation to give a lecture in Moscow this week, so when I found the special card for the private opening of the new Garage building in my post, it was not difficult to combine things. There are many, many openings of art exhibitions and I am one of the persons who receives lots of invitations, but I am not so spoiled that an invitation from Dasha Zukhova specially delivered by FedEx gets lost in the pile.

Dasha makes me an offer I cannot refuse…


It’s obvious that you don’t go to the opening of a new museum building to see the architecture or the art presented in it. Openings are crowded social events and people go there to see other people. That’s why I avoid them more and more. A quiet Tuesday morning is the perfect museum time for me. But tonight I will jump into this crowd of the international flying circus out of pure curiosity. Shuttles will take us from the Ritz Carlton to Gorky Park, where the red carpet shows clearly that it is not easy to enter this event. In fact I wonder how my invitation will get me in.

My hotel is in the area behind the Bolshoi Theatre and far too luxurious for an ordinary curator of the Van Abbemuseum. It’s a good thing I was invited to give a lecture. This is an area like Fifth Avenue or other rich parts of any of the world’s metropolises. Here in Moscow we have the Kremlin, the Duma, the Opera and other theatres, the most expensive shops, restaurants and nightclubs and of course the famous Russian bath all in one square kilometre. The big 18th and 19th century buildings are too expensive to house an ordinary supermarket. Gucci, Armani, Prada and many more compete for the favours of the happy few. I see one pair of shoes exclusively arranged behind a large window. No doubt someone’s wife will buy these.

Walking in the sun (to find a supermarket to buy some cheaper bottles of mineral water than in my hotel) I hear a soprano rehearsing and a few blocks further a cellist is trying the most difficult part of his score over and over behind an open window on the first floor. Here you wouldn’t say that the standard of living is aspoor as my Russian friends assure me it is. The cars are almost all chauffeured, big and shiny black, (strangely enough almost all are black and some white or silver) ranging from expensive to more and even more expensive. We can see the chauffeur, but the blinded car windows hide the rich and (in)famous from public view. Around noon some of these huge black cars are escorted at high speed by police cars with loud sirens through the ever-busy traffic. A powerful man (surely not a woman) apparently has to be in time for lunch.

My talks with the director of the State Tretyakov Gallery today went OK as did my talks with the director of ROSIZO yesterday. My dear colleague Tatiana Goriatcheva takes me to the new Tretyakov Gallery on Krimsky Val in her car afterwards to discuss further possible loans and the concept for a new project. We exchange a lot of information in a few hours and I take home many notes and photos to go through later. Walking to the metro station I ask myself once more where all the money for this exhibition can be found. The insurances for the artworks are huge and transport costs are quite substantial too. But walking the entrance of Gorky Park and looking at the absurd the red carpet for the opening tonight I suddenly realize that you can only do such a project step by step.

The main entrance of Gorky Park…


but not so easy to enter.









I only have a few moments to refresh and change clothes in my hotel and then it’s time to party. I for once do not forget my camera and put some business cards in my pocket to give to the yet unknown sponsors I look forward to meet tonight. The shuttle bus takes me and a few other guests on a long trip through the evening traffic jam, twice the time it would have taken me to go by metro.

A new Kunsthal Rotterdam?


Again in Gorky Park I walk in the evening sun toward the new creation of Rem Koolhaas, a museum built over the ruins of the famous Vremena Goda (Seasons of the Year), a Soviet Modernist restaurant built in 1968. From the outside the building looks like the place where I worked twenty years ago: the Kunsthal Rotterdam, also by our great architect. Admittedly he did a little stretching and morphing but he cannot fool me. I am an expert user of a genuine Koolhaas exhibition building. For five years I have worked in the Kunsthal Rotterdam. I’ve seen people desperately seeking the entrance and exit of that building. Others fell from the steep stairs and I thought they would never get up again. My present colleagues there are still struggling to fit their exhibitions in this masterly creation of architecture.


From the outside the new Garage has the same skin deep beauty as the Rotterdam Kunsthal had 25 years ago. The building looks great on photos, especially in this late sunlight with the guests gathering for this obviously not so very private opening. The men from the big black blinded cars have collected their women in colorful dresses and together they are immortalized by professional photographers against a white background with black Garage logos.

Against logos


Enter the new Koolhaas monument!












People that are not on the list are trying to get in, but the delicate and beautiful girls in black dresses that are checking the names of the guests on their tablets can say “no” with an elegant smile because they are backed up by huge muscular men, of course also in black, but with a little white earplug enabling them to hear the instructions of the supreme security commander that no one has ever seen. A wonder! My name is on the list, so I get a black plastic wristband with a white Garage logo on it. Now I am really one of the incrowd.

Et in Arcadia ego…

The Bigger Picture – Reactie op “Kunstenaars: Musea zijn soms krenterig” van Lucette ter Borg

May 21st, 2014 by Steven ten Thije

Dan Perjovschi

Op 8 mei publiceerde NRC een artikel van Lucette ter Borg “Kunstenaars: Musea zijn soms krenterig”, over de honorering van kunstenaars door musea bij solotentoonstellingen. Het artikel schets het beeld van het museum als uitbuiter van kwetsbare kunstenaars. Een beeld dat een dag later in een redactioneel commentaar nogmaals bevestigd wordt. Beide artikelen stellen een belangrijke thema aan de orde, maar musea afschilderen als de boeman doet de werkelijkheid te kort. Hier onze poging om een iets vollediger en genuanceerder beeld te geven van de situatie.

Musea zijn net als de fondsen spelers in een veel bredere kunsteconomie die gedomineerd wordt door de kunstmarkt. Die markt is zeer internationaal en niet erg transparant met een jaarlijks omzet van 50 miljard dollar. Een klein aantal kunstwerken wordt verkocht voor astronomische bedragen. Het levert een zeer onevenwichtige inkomenspiramide bij kunstenaars op, waarbij een handvol kunstenaars goed verdient en de grote massa het nakijken heeft. Toch is en blijft de logica binnen de kunstwereld dat kunstenaars hun inkomen halen uit verkopen.

Publieke musea hebben op de kunstmarkt een ingewikkelde rol als belangrijke keurmeesters met weinig middelen. Ze kopen aan, treden op als coproducent bij nieuw werk en tonen. Alle drie de activiteiten kunnen kunstenaars geld opleveren. Bij een aankoop is dat evident, maar een geproduceerd werk kan worden verkocht en tonen kan de marktwaarde verhogen. Het is daarmee lastig om een eenduidige methode te bepalen hoe een kunstenaar te ondersteunen. Soms is een honorarium op zijn plaats, soms een aankoop, soms een coproductie om een werk te realiseren en soms is zichtbaarheid alleen al genoeg. Probleem is dat musea zelden met kunstenaars een goed en helder gesprek voeren. De vraag daarbij is hoe krijg je belangen helder en hoe zorg je ervoor dat die fair bemiddeld worden.

Waar we voor moeten uitkijken is dat de oplossing de situatie niet onnodig vercommercialiseert. De directeur van het Mondriaan Fonds, Birgit Donker, suggereert bijvoorbeeld dat een kunstenaar zou kunnen delen in de opbrengst van de kaartverkoop.* Maar los van het feit dat kaartverkoop vaak maar een klein deel van de kosten dekt, geeft een dergelijke constructie ook een prikkel om een bepaald type kunst te maken. En het opent de deur naar andere marktgerichte redeneringen: moet bijvoorbeeld een museum of een fonds niet, bij verkoop, de investering in een werk terugvragen? Al dit soort constructies introduceren financieel rendement als criterium voor succes en vermengen zo steeds meer inhoudelijke en financiële argumenten. De publieke gelden van het Mondriaan Fonds zijn juist bedoeld om ook andere afwegingen te maken, waarbij publiek belang centraal staat.

Voor het Van Abbemuseum zou de discussie niet alleen over honoraria moeten gaan, maar zou deze zich moeten richten op de structuur van de kunsteconomie die ervoor zorgt dat zo weinig in de zak van de kunstenaar belandt. Hiervoor zouden kunstenaars, musea, fondsen, galeries en verzamelaars, gezamenlijk moeten zoeken naar oplossingen en niet vervallen in vingerwijzen. Laat bijvoorbeeld Nederlandse Museum Vereniging, Platform Beeldende Kunst, de Galerie Vereniging en het Mondriaan Fonds de tijd nemen om tot een vorm te komen die transparantie in het veld bevordert en als centrale doelstelling heeft om de inkomenspositie van kunstenaars te verbeteren.

Het Kuratorium van het Van Abbemuseum

Nick Aikens

Christiane Berndes

Ulrike Erbslöh

Charles Esche

Diana Franssen

Annie Fletcher

Steven ten Thije

*Rectificatie: Birgit Donker heeft ons erop gewezen dat wij het standpunt van NRC Handelsblad met haar standpunt verwarren. Zij vindt niet dat kunstenaars moeten delen in de opbrengst van de expositie, maar dat ze een honorarium moeten krijgen.

Arte Útil and the attempt to change the world

April 28th, 2014 by Alessandra Saviotti

When in 2010 Charles Esche, Van Abbemuseum’s director, decided to invite Tania Bruguera for a personal exhibition, she came up with 29 different proposals. The event suggests some interesting clues about Bruguera’s personality, either an artivist – as she calls herself – or a performer or again a political artist.  However the final idea didn’t need so much time to emerge and in a short time the museum’s curators, Annie Fletcher and Nick Aikens together with the researchers based in the museum, decided to embrace her proposal which was the transformation of the traditional museum in the Museum of Arte Útil.

From the beginning the project was a challenge for both for the institutions involved in the process (Van Abbemuseum and Queens Museum of Art), the artists and the researchers.  Everyone was asked to put up for discussion his or her role, identity and work methodology. Thus artists became initiators, researchers became activators, artworks changed name in case studies, curators turn out to be composers and visitors became users. The entire process was named Social Power Plant.

Tania Bruguera. Courtesy of the Artist

The idea behind Arte Útil has been developed and implemented with the Immigrant Movement International, supported by the Queens Museum of Art, New York. In that museum – which organised an exhibition called Useful Art in 1981 – Tania Bruguera had the intuition to connect artists with their ongoing projects worldwide. The first step toward the Museum of Arte Útil was the transformation of the first floor of the Queens Museum in the “Arte Útil Lab”.  A space for discussion, where laboratories, seminars and talks took place around the idea of using art as a tool to change the reality we live in.

Little by little Bruguera, together with the museums’ team, felt the urgency to try to trace a history and an develop an archive of case studies. Step by step we felt the desire to define a new movement, which soon became the aim of our collective effort. Hence at the end of 2012, after countless meetings via skype between the two teams based in New York and Eindhoven, the eight criteria, which define what Arte Útil is, were written.

Today the archive has a pivotal role for the entire project, and the fact that was occupying the central room of the Van Abbemuseum is not a coincidence. According to Charles Esche’s words, the museum always places itself in a precise historical moment; it relates to the past, but it has to look at the future. How can a museum reinvent itself and change its function in a transitional moment such as the one we are living in? How can it face a crisis, which is not only economical but also social and cultural? Thanks to this kind of groundbreaking projects, the museum reveals its vulnerability, but precisely through this auto-critique we can try to define why and if and institution should survive.

Apolonija Šušteršič, Light Therapy. Photo Peter Cox

Through the composition of the archive, we decided what makes sense to preserve for the future, but also what to remember. This is the reason why we decided to invite a number of international correspondents – chosen among curators, writers and critics engaged in social practices – who intervened suggesting artists and projects worldwide, and to launch an open call for the submission of projects. Arte Útil is a movement that arose form the 20th century, but aims to tell the history of the 21st century, so it must use the instruments of our present-time, one above all, the Internet. The next challenge was to give a spatial shape to the 213 selected case studies out of 507, which compose the archive. However the most difficult task was to include inside the museum spaces projects and practices that are implemented in the real world, in other words in 1:1scale. Thinking about how to display actions producing beneficial outcomes for its users in the real world. Once again every role was challenged, starting from the space itself. 

What we have, is what we really want? Is it possible to break up the idea of white cube and traditional spectatorship, which we are used to refer to when we are inside the museum?

The Museum of Arte Útil is an attempt to reform the modernist idea of the museum: every room, every object, everything inside the museum should be useful and produce a real beneficial outcome for the users.

The Museum of Arte Útil, Room of Controversies. Photo Peter Cox

The Museum of Arte Útil, Room of Controversies. Photo Peter Cox

Our aim was not to have the most popular exhibition, but the one in which people could spend more time in and interact with. Thus, the Museum of Arte Útil was free for its users. The scenography has been designed by Construct Lab, a collective which comprehends designers, sociologists, artists and graphic designers, who literally transformed the white cube, building a circular wooden wall, which cut the museum’s 10 rooms and connected the extern with the intern of the building. The connection with the city is not only symbolic, in fact we included in the team some students from the Design Academy Eindhoven and we tried to actively involve the museum’s volunteers. During the 2 weeks dedicated to the installation – which happened in the spaces of the exhibition – every team member; the curators, the artists who came for the opening, the designers, the students and even some journalists, used the spaces as office, kitchen or working place trying to implement the idea of Arte Útil, from the beginning.

Finally, December the 7th 2013 was the day of the opening, which marked the beginning of the following phase, the so-called activation. Yes, because this museum doesn’t really function without its users. The archive needs to be fed with new case studies, the projects must be used and every room should be filled up with people and concrete proposals to develop either in the city or elsewhere, wherever it may be useful.

Bik Van der Pol, Loompanics. Photo Peter Cox

The way towards the museum 3.0, as Stephen Wright defines it, is long and difficult, but it is necessary to transform the role of the spectator into user, in order to overcome the idea of consumer. The use of the museum, indeed, produces new value, a sort of surplus, which should be redistributed to the community. One of the projects presented in the exhibition, the Honest Shop by Grizedale Arts, could be considered as an example in order to understand roles and significances shifts inside the museum. The Honest Shop is an unstaffed shop, which sells local and homemade products. The whole idea is about clients and suppliers trust: clients should pay the right amount of money based on the product label and register their purchase in a customer book. Thus the museum becomes a sort of facilitator for the development of a local micro-economy organized by people who can benefit from their skills. This process generates both an economical and a social value because money is re-distributed both between the producers (80%) and the museum (20%) that uses the profit to organize the public program.  48 artists were invite to present their works in the frame of the exhibition; some of them are included with more than one project, for instance the Austrian collective WochenKlausur. 

The Museum of Arte Útil suggests a new possibility toward the museum of the future, what is going to happen after?

To conclude with Tania Bruguera’s words, “Arte Útil is not neo-liberal art, it’s not relational aesthetics. Arte Útil is the form of practical utopia, it is also civil disobedience art. Arte Útil is trying to close the gap between contemporary art and our contemporary non-art trained audience.  She always says that the world is divided in two kinds of people: those who think who are going to change the world by making fun of it, and those who have fun trying to change the world”.


This post was originally published in Italian on Exibart


Dinner is being served. Come and see it!

February 6th, 2014 by Willem Jan Renders

My favorite part: hanging.

Only two days ago we were installing and now it looks like an exhibition! 

The Garbage Room in the Kunsthaus


Yesterday while giving an exhibition tour to the Kunsthaus guides together with my colleague Katrin Bucher, I realized that this was one of the last tours I will give in this exhibition. In fact, I will give one more today after the press conference and then it’s over. Another goodbye is near and the feeling of melancholy that inevitably comes with it grasps me for a moment. What a project! What a show! It took me from Eindhoven to St. Petersburg and then to Moscow and Graz. Each time it was different and each time surprising. What an excellent idea of Charles to ask Ilya and Emilia and what a genius thought of them to come up with these different themes to juxtapose the oeuvre of Lissitzky and Kabakov!

and the Garbage Box


Here in Graz the setting again is a totally new invention. If you have time you really must come and see it. Anyway: it is your last chance! In Eindhoven you might say we were ‘confronting’ the two artists. But here in this specially designed exhibition architecture in Graz, Lissitzky and Kabakov are not facing each other anymore, at least not most of the time. Instead they are separated and thus the differences between them are stressed in the themes. But eventually they both come together in the ‘belly’ as Ilya calls it, the central room: the fallen angel is lying at the feet of the Pressa Star, the Red Wedge is opposed by The Fly, hard-core Soviet propaganda is next to delicately illustrated children’s books. The exhibition has become an organism, one big installation. El and Il. What a pair! What a pity that their creative marriage is over and done with after this! Before the opening I already face the final curtain…

Outside announcement of the exhibition


But I will not go on with a choked voice, although my eyes are getting wet and I am fighting against my tears. Let’s be a man about this! I clear my throat and blow my nose. Come on Willem Jan! There are plenty more interesting exhibition ideas to be found in the abundance of this life! There must be another exhibition project worth developing!

and inside









Comforted and encouraged by myself I take a stroll along the murmuring Mur and eat a sausage with mustard in an Imbiss. The radio is playing ‘I did it my way’ in a very melodramatic version. It could well be by Andy Williams. I cannot get it out of my head when I continue my walk. It is thawing in Graz and more and more water is dripping from the roofs, turning the danger of roof avalanches into refreshing little drops on your head. It’s goodbye to the city with its voluptuous Baroque churches and its excellent Styrian food and wine, only one tour, the opening and a Russian dinner to go.

Ilya and Emilia with Katrin Bucher after the press conference in the Kunsthaus


My last tour was not my best. I kept on mixing up German and English. Anyway, I think I got the message of the exhibition across and people were certainly very interested and they seemed to like the show. I went to the hotel and quickly changed for the opening. In my short speech I described the venues of the tour and paid special attention to the present installation in the Kunsthaus, which is indeed outstanding.


Many thanks of course to director Peter Pakesh, curator Katrin Bucher and the excellent team of technicians here. It has been a pleasure to work in the Kunsthaus. Last but certainly not least one more thank you to Ilya and Emilia Kabakov. And now it’s time for some vodka and new ideas!

Cooking at full speed

February 3rd, 2014 by Willem Jan Renders

“Mind your step” is what you have to keep in mind too while walking down the streets in Graz. While large parts of Austria suffer under the burdens of extreme quantities of snow, here in Graz it rains ice, glazed frost. The sidewalks are covered with it and the branches of the trees seem to be made of crystal. Signs everywhere in this Swarovski city warn for roof avalanches and people put large wooden sticks at an angle against the walls to further warn the pedestrians. What comes down from the high roofs is pure ice in lumps. If you are hit by such a cold twist of fate you might not survive…

crates everywhere and only a few days to go…


Luckily our hotel is not far from the Kunsthaus, so the slipping and sliding takes only five minutes each time we go there. Never hurry. Festina lente. That’s what we also practise inside the exhibition; when working with artworks you should slow down and know exactly what your next steps will be. But it is Monday now. On Thursday we will have the opening, so we are a little rushed.

condition checks




It is eight in the morning. Ilya and Emilia Kabakov are arranging and hanging the garbage on strings with two assistants. My colleague Toos Nijssen has checked the Lissitzky works on paper together with a colleague from Graz. Now the restorers are checking the Lissitzky paintings and condition reports are being made.

the Pressa Star is lifted on a pedestal








In the meantime the Pressa Star is lifted on the pedestal and people are unpacking the Kabakov works from the crates. The last bits of grey and brown are painted and I am arranging the Lissitzky works in the first rooms. Photo’s are delivered and pedestals are made.


The kitchen in Graz is cooking at full production speed.


The last station

February 1st, 2014 by Willem Jan Renders

“Mind your step!” Like a computerized mantra this warning sounds louder and quieter all through the departure hall of Schiphol Airport. Sometimes it is more distant and other times it is so near that you really have to mind your step on the treadmill. After a while it becomes abstract and mingles with the other sounds: snatches of conversations, intercom announcements and the continuous murmur of the airconditioning.

While I doze off these sounds become a ‘zaum’ poem by Chlebnikov:


-  -  -  -  -  -


-       .        .

pom pom pom

-      -  .    .   .   -   -    .   .

wiw ta pa zj zj ov flt tu tu


These three sound sentences are to be performed simultaneously and ‘ad infinitum’: airport poetry.


“Mind your step” is also the motto while installing the Lissitzky – Kabakov exhibition in the Kunsthaus in Graz. It is the final venue of the tour, after the Van Abbemuseum, the Hermitage and the Multimedia Art Museum. We have little time to install but everything is well prepared. Now the transports have just arrived and crates are everywhere. You have to look carefully where to walk and there is no computer voice to warn you. Art works are being unpacked and the empty crates are labelled ‘empty’ and removed. This is the peeling of the potatoes and the slicing of the onions. After this comes the washing of the vegetables. The kitchen works at full speed to get the meal ready in time…

My colleague Diederik Koppelmans is working on the installation of the ‘Pressa Star’, a model after the huge star that Lissitzky made for the ‘International Press Exhibition’ that was held in Cologne in 1928. Diederik has two technicians to help him. The first thing is to hang the black circle with the words “Proletarians Of The World Unite” in German. They are almost finished. How is that for a motto?

the upper part of the Pressa Start is being installed

A Wedge To Open The New Year

January 1st, 2014 by Willem Jan Renders

A few weeks ago I promised not to write about the nice trips I make and the interesting people I meet, at least not for the time being. Many people fill their Facebook pages with that kind of information and pictures, assuring us that their life is one marvellous success story. I thought I would be able to keep myself away from that, but reading back I suddenly noticed that all sorts of glamor aspects of my work had entered unwittingly in this kitchen blog: a visit to a big city, an interesting international conference, a meeting with this or that person, huge receptions, copious dinners, delicious champagne and ice cold vodka richly flowing. I was caught in the blogger’s trap of keeping up Facebook appearances you could say. And that is the last thing I want.

Moreover I would like to ban this kind of ‘personal promotion’ from this kitchen blog because my working life is not at all only success and people around me fortunately are not always smiling into the camera. A lot of work is just work that needs to be done; planning, budgeting, letters, e-mails, meetings, contracts, payments and invoices. The cooking starts with the peeling and cutting of onions. My work for the Van Abbemuseum surely has its glamorous aspects, but all in all the glitter is only 5 percent I guess. So let’s talk about everyday down to earth work, about the 95 percent of sweat and about things that provide new ideas. Inspitranspiration.

The red wedge in our garden


While chopping wood for the stove during the holidays (real work just for pleasure) I remembered Lissitzky’s Red Wedge and suddenly realized why this is such a strong image. It is an abstract form, a triangle with two equal corners and one sharper one, let’s say two of 80 and one of 20 degrees. It remains just a triangle until you call it a wedge. You need a wedge to break strong solids that you cannot break with your bare hands. I needed it to split thick trunks that were too big for the stove. The wedge is the tool that enables you to do this; it is an extension of your hands for this purpose. It splits the solid into pieces that can be handled, dealt with.



El Lissitzky, Beat The Whites With The Red Wedge, 1920


You need a kind of wedge too if you want to split the opposing political party, or deal with a massive block of problems. So you draw the triangle, call it a wedge and show how it breaks what needs to be broken. The image shows that the problem can be solved and that the block can indeed be split. It encourages you to do so. Your work will not be in vain. Do not lean back in apathy thinking there is no solution. No, jump up, take a wedge and beat it into the opposing block! Slash and split it!




Nikolai Kolli, Red Wedge, Decoration on the occasion of the first anniversary of the October Revolution, 1918


Of course this metaphorical use of the wedge is propaganda. There is nothing wrong with that. You could also call it useful art. The image of the wedge can be used to activate people and to show that their purposeful action can indeed have results. Thus it was used by Lissitzky during the Civil War in 1920, but also by Nikolai Kolli before him in a design for a decoration on the occasion of the first anniversary of the Revolution.




Poster in Hamburg, 2013. Photo: Albert Lemmens.







And the image of the red wedge is still useful today as I saw on a political poster a few weeks ago in Hamburg. I also found a pink version of the wedge on a shirt recently designed by students of ArtEZ in support of the suppressed Russian LGBT community.

Shirt by ArtEZ students, 2013









There will be more of these visual wedges to break heavy blocks because the wedge works both literally and as an image. It is truly a tool for conviviality. Only once in a while it needs sharpening.

Why Unovis today?

November 27th, 2013 by Willem Jan Renders

(Late again with this post!)

So why would it be a good idea to bring the Unovis movement to life again? First of all I think because there is a lot of inspiration and fresh ideas to be found in Unovis. We are talking about a crisis now, but we can hardly imagine the social situation in which the members of Unovis were working in Vitebsk at the time: post revolutionary civil war, lack of food and other basic materials, hardly any paper etc. Considering these circumstances it is the more remarkable to see what artistic ideas and plans were developed by Unovis. To put art in service of the development of a new society for instance, is an idea that is still very inspiring, at least to me. (Fortunately to some other people too!)

And then we must also take into account that Unovis was never fully developed. The movement ended much too soon because the contemporary authorities considered it too radical and more important: they thought that the art of Unovis would never be understood by the masses. The movement has never fully been able to prove its use. This was more or less the message of my short lecture.

Can you hear me stumbling in Russian?


(You can find the Dutch and Russian text of my lecture here. Unovis NOW lecture Dutch and Russian Sorry, no English this time!)







I announced that together with a few other museums we are working out the concept of an exhibition on Unovis (still very preliminary, but a serious and very big project). And I suggested that it would be a good idea on the other hand to bring Unovis as a movement back to life again in Vitebsk and see if its ideas could be applied to the present situation. There were some interesting questions after my lecture, but so far no one has come to me or mailed me to say that he or she wants to participate. So let’s wait and see what comes out of it. If no one in Vitebsk is really interested in our proposal, we will not go on with it of course.

just soap


and just shampoo








On my first visit to Vitebsk I saw a lorry – one of these heavy stinking machines with a simple big box built on the back – and on it only one word was written: ХЛЕБ (BREAD). I had never before seen such a functional indication of the content of a lorry. And I saw one of these lorries again on my last day in Vitebsk, walking over Victory Square to my hotel after many toasts on the future of the arts in Vitebsk, on future collaborations and on the Unovis revival. This time the word was painted in a different Cyrillic font, but still it simply stated: ХЛЕБ. When I came back in my hotel room, I noticed that the soap and shampoo wrappers were stating their content in the same functional way and I realised that I like this kind of direct no nonsense very much. The container just states what’s in it.

The other side of Victory Square in Vitebsk

The alarm clock woke me at 3 a.m. and half an hour later Alexander was there to pick me up with a car and chauffeur. He had arranged this for me because of my long trip from Minsk to Vitebsk that I described earlier. There would be no receipt of course, but for a relatively small amount I would go directly from my hotel to the airport 500 kilometres away. I had told Alexander there was no need to come along, but he insisted. So together we started our ‘Voyage au bout de la nuit’ over endlessly straight and dark Belarussian highways. The good Alexander had brought some sandwiches that tasted deliciously and most of the journey we did not speak. After a very pleasant silence of about four hours on the road I said goodbye to Alexander on the airport in Minsk and tried to sleep a bit in an uncomfortable chair, waiting for the check-in to open. At least I was in time for my plane…

From Unovis to uNOWis

November 14th, 2013 by Willem Jan Renders

Left group of the Victory Square in Vitebsk (4 ha.)

Right group of the Victory Square in Vitebsk (4 ha.)










I did it! I really did it! My first lecture in Russian! Only one year ago I would never have thought myself capable of doing this. Yesterday evening Alexander sent me some final improvements of the Russian text and after my lecture this morning he was full of compliments. Yes, they understood what I said! All the way from the conference to my hotel, all the way over Victory Square, along the long Lenin Boulevard and crossing Freedom Square I was singing ‘I did it my way’. Not too loud of course. You never know if there’s a law against singing in the streets here. Frank Sinatra might still be the enemy…

Alexander Lisov


So what was my lecture about? (As if that is of any importance in my euphoric mood!) It was about Unovis (Утвердитили нового искусства, the protagonists of new art). Malevich and Lissitzky founded the Unovis movement in Vitebsk in 1919 when they were teaching at the People’s Art School. But it was not so much on the history of this movement that I talked; it was a proposal to start Unovis again, here, in the city where it was founded some hundred years ago. Unovis today. Уновис сегодня. I cannot stop anymore.


The Unovis logo







The next question is of course why I would travel all the way here to propose this. But in order to post this text on time, we will save that for the next.

Van Abbemuseum