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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 »

 

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:

 

-  -  -  -  -  -

schschschschsch

-       .        .

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.

How on earth do you get to Vitebsk?

November 12th, 2013 by Willem Jan Renders

Let’s try to be in time again with this blog and give you some real news. After all a blog tries to be as near to the actual events as you can get. Il faut-être de son temps.

Sitting and waiting near the gate for my flight to Minsk at Schiphol airport and starting this new edition of the kitchen blog I ask myself why I’m always writing when travelling and never when working in the museum or at home. Sure, a lot of the preparations for our projects are negotiations, lectures and discussions that need travelling, but far more of the ‘cooking’ is done by means of a computer and a telephone behind a desk and in meetings in our offices. Maybe I write while travelling because of the idea that a lot more happens when you are on the road and maybe too on the other hand because what happens behind the museum desk seems not worth mentioning. But if you as a reader of this kitchen blog want to sneak into our kitchen and see, smell and taste some of the cooking being done this restriction would mean that you would miss the peeling of the potatoes, the cleaning of the vegetables and the slicing of the onions. And similar work is the major part of what needs to be done in order to get the museum meal ready. So I promise you now that I will write on some of that more mechanical and less ‘heroic’ preparatory work when I’m back.

Already in the air I decide to first write about the purpose of this trip. Tonight, somewhere between ten and eleven local time, I hope to arrive in Vitebsk, in the north of Belarus. So maybe I can publish this first part then.

 

El Lissitzky, Design for a city decoration in Vitebsk, 1921

 

Vitebsk started to interest me some six or seven years ago when we in the Van Abbemuseum bought a work by Lissitzky – or at least we think it is – and I started wondering where it had been made and for what purpose. Supposedly it was a design for the decoration of a building in Vitebsk, made by Lissitzky during the time when he was teaching there or just after that.

 

 

 

 

 

Detail: the building near the theatre

 

Through e-mail I got into contact with Professor Alexander Lisov, an expert on Lissitzky and teaching at the university of Vitebsk. He was able to ascertain the place on the photograph, a building near the central square where the main theatre is located. The building on the photo does not exist anymore. The Germans have destroyed this building during the Second World War and many other parts of the city.

 

 

Detail from the backside: label of the Museum of Artistic Culture in St. Petersburg

 

As happens often, with these first answers more questions arose around this work, especially about what was written on the back of it. Because my interest grew in what Lissitzky was doing in Vitebsk at the time I managed to get a small research budget and some time to go to there and look for further information. During this first visit in 2008 Alexander Lisov showed me around and took me to the places related to Lissitzky that are still there. Amongst them was the building where Marc Chagall founded the People’s Art School in 1918. Lissitzky was a teacher there and led the graphic department. I still vividly remember the first time I set foot on these historic grounds. After that I have been to Vitebsk one more time to do further research. And now I am going to give a lecture on the artistic movement that was founded in this very building of the People’s Art School!

 

If you want to go to Vitebsk in four hours, don’t take this train!

 

But to get to Vitebsk was by no means easy this time. I sat in a cab far too long because of the traffic jam in Minsk, I missed two trains searching for a cash machine in the main station, had to wait four hours for the next train and then tried to sleep in a coupé during an eight hour journey that normally takes four hours. So this blog is posted way too late. Anyway, I’m there. Tomorrow morning is my lecture. It’s the first one I do in Russian…

 

More old news: the Moscow morning after and later in London

November 9th, 2013 by Willem Jan Renders

(Still in Moscow in September 2013) The morning after the opening Charles and I decide to take a look in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, now called the Pussy Riot Church by many. This Cathedral was demolished by the Soviets in the early thirties. They made a large swimming pool on the spot. But religion – opium for the people – was as inextinguishable as real opium. The story goes that in the fifties you could secretly get baptised here while swimming around with a priest in swimming trunks, you could say undercover. Now the cathedral has been re-built and the well-polished golden cupolas can be seen from quite a distance in Moscow. You can already hear the low singing voices of the not so undercover priests when you are near this huge building because they put up large television screens outside were you can see and hear recordings of heyday masses. Tourists are warned outside by several pictograms not to use their mobile telephone and not to take pictures. But Charles is not a tourist of course, so in the church he takes his telephone to make a picture of the main altar where the riot girls were ‘praying’ to get rid of Putin. Two offences in one act: using you phone and taking a picture. Immediately we are led out of the church in a rather brusque manner. “Out, out!”

After this short visit to the cathedral we go to the Big Manege to see a bit of the Moscow Biennial that will open tomorrow. The show is not ready yet – in fact there is still a lot to be done – but we can go in already and have a chat with Joseph Backstein, the founder of this Biennial. Hans Ulrich Obrist, the omnipresent curator, you could say the most international of us all, is also there, helping to finish the installation. But however much I would like to go on to see the Biennial, I leave Charles after this visit because I still have to work on a lecture that I will give in London in two days. Duty calls. I already have prepared a bit of text and some images, but there’s no structure yet. It must be good. So I eat a sandwich and go back to the hotel to work.

Kate Fowl, Ilya Kabakov, John Baldessari, Hans Ulrich Obrist

I skip the public conversation between Ilya Kabakov and John Baldessari, a polite clash between two cultures. John talks about I and Ilya about we. John talks about what he does, Ilya about what should be done. But I said I would skip it, so I will not talk about Dasha Zukhova and her bodyguards, about the old man in the room that was not allowed to speak and about the enormous amounts of food afterwards in the Strelka Bar.

 

In stead I will take you to London where I went the next day.

“Good evening! How are you today, sir?” Coming from Moscow to London you immediately notice the English politeness, especially when arriving late at night in The Bloomsbury. What a splendid hotel they put me in! GRAD, where I will give my lecture tomorrow, said they would book a room for me. But this is really something! A pity my wife could not join me.

I wake up early, finish my lecture and check if it is less than the twenty minutes allowed to speak. It’s so clumsy to exceed the permitted time in a conference. Moreover, it often takes away time from other speakers. I decide to walk to GRAD and see a little of central London. On Oxford Street I pass at least 4 couples speaking Russian and still a bit sleepy I have to convince myself that I am really in London.

Klucis’s Bookstand by Henry Milner in GRAD

 

Everything is ready for my lecture and I go and get a bagel around the corner with one of the people from GRAD. When I come back John Milner is there. He’s the professor from the Courtauld Institute with whom we made the Lissitzky+ exhibition in 2009 so we know each other for some years already. John has the nice habit of introducing me to a lot of people that can help me with my Russian Avant-garde exhibitions. He seems to know everyone in this field. I will ask him to help me find a researcher who is fluent in Russian and English because there’s a lot of archival research needed for our next big project on UNOVIS.

 

 

 

 

Tatlin’s Tower and Letatlin by Henry Milner in GRAD

 

My lecture went OK and I notice there is a lot of interest here in what we are doing with the work of Lissitzky. The models Henry Milner made after sketches and lithographs in our collection are on display here and I wrote an essay on them in the catalogue. You could say I am here on a big promotion tour for our museum. The only difference is that we do not have to pay for this propaganda, on the contrary: we get paid for it! John introduces me to even more people that can be helpful with my new project. One of his bright and pretty female students whom I met in Moscow earlier this year now works for the Russian art department of Sotheby’s. She promises to look out for more UNOVIS works on the market. I shake hands with many more interesting people. How good that I took extra business cards! I have only a few left now.

The snacks and drinks are delicious but I am very tired and decide to go to my hotel for a long night of sleep. The pubs are piling out and half of London seems to be drunk or on its way to get there. After two beers from the minibar and some boring television a deep sleep takes me far away into unconsciousness.

In the morning I find the invoice for the beers passed under the door and The Times before it. Before breakfast I read the fresh comment of Giles Coren on the London Fashion Week: “Ye Gods, what a procession of vain lunacy and simpering dimness. What a mockery of all that is modest and decent. What a hideous picture of female priorities and preoccupations. What a nuclear explosion of vomitous superficiality, custom-made and hand finished to blast the public perception of women back to the Stone Age.”

(www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/opinion/columnists/gilescoren/article3875228.ece)

Oh, could I only write like that in English! We don’t have this kind of eloquent critique in Dutch newspapers. Quite refreshing!

Yesterday they put a booklet on the history of The Bloomsbury on the table in my room because I asked a few questions about the building at the reception. I ask if I can keep it and I can. “Good morning sir. How are you today?” I treat myself to a delicious omelette for breakfast; have a coffee and go and pack. Before leaving I go and see the library of Seamus Heany. He donated it to The Bloomsbury. What a place to read! In the lobby they serve you ice tea while waiting for the taxi and give you a little bottle of mineral water on the go. I have to be careful not to become used to this kind of service.

The taxi driver is a nice elderly man. I tell him I want to go to Victoria Station and he asks if I am going to Gatwick. I answer him that I am going to Stansted and he politely says: “I didn’t know you could go to Stansted from Victoria. I immediately realize that I have made a mistake: I came from Gatwick to Victoria, but now I should go to Liverpool Station to go to Stansted. I tell the driver so and thank him for his remark.

Luckily my suitcase turns out to be less than 20 kilogram at the airport. But my backpack is heavily loaded with books and it is not weighed. It’s been a long journey and I feel the weight, not only of my luggage. I look forward to see my wife again and spend the weekend together. Next week I will be in London again with our Promotors…

 


Van Abbemuseum