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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.

OCTAVE – on Trevor Paglan’s ‘Code Names’

October 25th, 2013 by Steven ten Thije

Trevor Peglan, ‘Code Names’, 2007 – today. Copyright photo Peter Cox

A small joy I have these last weeks is walking past Code Names (2007 – today) by Trevor Paglen. It’s an endless list of names that designate fake firms that appear in government budgets. These firms function as the fiscal infrastructure for the vast amount of money connected to classified NSA and military programmes. Reading them you enter into an absolutely weird world of imagination and speculation. You immediately see nerd-like men sitting in fancy offices, or just in the unobtrusive rooms, all over the world thinking of a new name in which they can hide their next morally debatably plan. They imagine things like ‘Alembic’, ‘Bell Weather’, or ‘Zodiac’, but also more telling ones like ‘Goodbye’ or ‘Hollow Tile’. With ‘Goodbye’ you immediately see Bond-like action, the extermination of some evil villain somewhere in an exotic land. Whereas ‘Hollow Tile’ sounds like important data stolen and stored somewhere in a secret location. But of course everything is just a product of my own imagination.

Today however suddenly one of these words gave away some of its secrets. Browsing the NRC-website (a Dutch newspaper) I came across a short article on the recent scandal around the eavesdropping NSA did on German Prime Minister Angela Merkel. Apparently she wasn’t the only one to get this ‘special treatment’ but 34 other ‘world leaders’ were also tapped. The information came, not surprising, from the classified files disclosed by Edward Snowden, also a vital source for Trevor Paglen. To give the article some weight the NRC published the memo that inspires NSA-operatives to listen in on world leaders. I’m adding the image in the text.

Disclosed NSA-file. Source NRC-website.

In the second paragraph you’ll read the sentence: ‘These numbers plus several others have been tasked to OCTAVE.’ Of course, you can imagine that after reading the mysterious word in capitals I jumped up from my seat and walked to the list to check and there it is:

Trevol Paglen, ‘Code Names’, 2007 – today, Photo by author.

Now this word, one among many, lost its status as semi-fiction and can be linked to a real fact, a real programme. Also a programme that truly did surprise me, because somehow I did not imagine that the US would be so rude to tap one of their major allies, but they did. Knowing this changes the work, even if formally it stays the same. The world of the ‘special programmes’, even if you know they exist, is too much coloured by action movies and thriller novels to be ‘real’. Now all of sudden this one word and fact brings the entire list slightly closer to the world of physical facts in which I live. As a result the work goes through one of the oldest artistic processes: it makes the abstract concrete. It brings the world we know mentally into the world we inhabit physically. Even if today this process doesn’t concern the divine, as it did once upon a time, but reflects the God-like power that superpower states have access to and use. It makes Paglan’s work next to completely contemporary also already classic.

Ps. For those who want to know. It seems our own PM was a bit disappointed to not be on the list of 35. See this Speld-article (sorry Dutch only). Don’t worry Mark, you’ll get there. Next time only don’t arrest a Russian diplomat, but try a US-one for a change…

“1848 – 1989″ – second L’Internationale exhibition in Van Abbemuseum: the research begins

October 8th, 2013 by Steven ten Thije

Horace Vernet, Painting of Battle at Soufflot barricades at Rue Soufflot Street on 24 June 1848

Starting the research for an exhibition is always difficult; especially if the exhibitions is part of a five year project with a name that is so enormous it feels like a whale: ‘The Uses of Art – on the legacy of 1848 and 1989″. It feels like diving into very deep and very rough water without a life vest, but here goes. And to be honest, we already started, as one always starts thinking about an exhibition not on a well-defined date, but somewhere in the middle of the night in a bar, or drinking your morning coffee, reading a newspaper, or just talking with a colleague.

This particular exhibition dealing with 1848 and 1989 is a typical variant of such an organic process. It isn’t even based on the thinking of one curator, but is more the organic growing together of several people of even various organisations, most notably Grizedale Arts and the Van Abbemuseum, later brought into the current L’Internationale project on the The Uses of Art. The tile of the exhibition is “New Republics – 1848 – 1989 – today” and it is one of the most complex, essay-like exhibitions we conceived, but also one of the most exciting ones. What it aspires to do is offer a wide-angle reflection on the formation of the modern world and the role art and aesthetics have had within it. The reason to ask such a big question is informed by an awareness that the current, systemic change in world economy, politics and culture affects the entire fabric of modern society. This is the reason not start for instance in 1945 at the horrible tabula rasa, but to go back to that iconic year in the 19th century – 1848 – which marks the moment when the French Revolution went European and all over the continent you had different uprisings and reforms (the introduction of the new Dutch constitution being one of them) that aimed to dramatically reshape the way in which people – as citizens – participated in society.

But as enchanting this awareness might be, addressing such a complex transformation in an exhibition remains en enormously challenging task. To deal with this challenge we have thought to take a rather different approach then we normally do and open up our thinking and research via this blog and our other social media channels. Hopefully also attracting some interesting reflections from outside. In this sense it will be our first public research done within the framework of L’Internationale’s ‘The Uses of Art”-project and will use the new hastag #UOAresearch.

So come join us, as observer or discussion partner, and let’s see what kind of exhibition we will end up with.

The uses of art

September 29th, 2013 by Steven ten Thije

The Uses of Art partners

In May this year the Van Abbemuseum, together with five museums and four other partners, started a large five-year European cooperative project: The uses of art – on the legacy from 1848 and 1989. It is the second project of the new international confederation of museums known as l’Internationale. The network links the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven with museums in Antwerp, Barcelona, Istanbul, Ljubljana and Madrid. In the next few years the organizations want to examine how they can arrive at a new form of international museum cooperation with a large series of exhibitions and symposiums. The years in the title of the project (1848 and 1989) function as background and refer to the two civil revolutions in the 19th century and the 20th century. These were both moments at which large groups of citizens spread throughout Europe forcefully advocated a new social order. In the project we would like to use these moments, which were both creative and destructive, to help us reflect on the present and examine the current significance of civil institutions such as museums, art schools and universities.

For the Van Abbemuseum the l’Internationale project The uses of art is closely linked to the museum’s agenda in terms of content for the next five years. This agenda is not so much determined by developments in art alone, but rather provides a general reflection on the contemporary world. The internet, the crisis – both in political and economic terms – and the issue of ecology mean that society will undergo some far-reaching changes in the coming years. The general trend in this shift is characterised by a complex restructuring in the relationship between micro and macro politics, or, expressed in less abstract terms, the relationship between the individual, the small community such as a town or municipality, and the large political structures such as the province, the state and Europe. The NSA surveillance scandal, the Arabic spring and recently the protests around Gezi Park in Istanbul are all examples of the new relations between big and small. Local or personal themes such as religion, freedom of speech, or simply a park are at odds with the interests of powerful, national governments.

Also the way Europe, with its incomplete democratic legitimization, and IMF enforce rigorous protestations from southern member states, clearly indicate the difficult relationship between large supranational structures and smaller, national governments. In the Netherlands an almost infinite series of cabinet crises of governments which have silently transferred state responsibilities to local municipalities for nearly a decade, serves as an early sign of this revolution. As a result municipalities are longer referred to as “lower” but as “other” levels of government. These are all developments that indicate that far-reaching changes are taking place in the dynamics between the local and international levels.

This development has enormous consequences for our cultural experience, which has traditionally had a strong national character and infrastructure. Museums, universities and art schools have close links with the modern, democratic, capitalist nation state. One characteristic of this modern state was succinctly described by Auke van der Woud[1] in his excellent study of the creation of the modern Netherlands as a revolution of the classical “ideal civilisation”. While before the 19th century civilisation was, above all, a task for the individual, who first became cultivated himself and only then turned to his environment, the 19th-century citizen became civilised because he lived in a civilised environment. The point of departure for the 19th-century nation state was the notion that things could be made and the governing body at the top endeavoured to create a climate, both physically and culturally, for orderly and productive citizens: the state as an all-encompassing machine for the “good life”. In a similar vein, the museum was described by the French author Bataille as the lungs of the city, which people are pumped through on a weekly basis, to emerge at the other end refreshed and inspired. But it is this sense of order, control and security that we no longer find in the contemporary world.

It is above all the internet which has made this tightly-knit structure of institutions, interconnected by the rather arbitrary unity of the nation state, function less and less like it did in the past. While you used to move neatly and in an orderly fashion from one access point to the next, the internet now invites you to become involved in everything, as though you were sitting behind the counter yourself. Doctors, journalists, politicians, as well as art critics are confronted on a daily basis with citizens who are constantly testing the conclusions of the experts against the infinite ocean of information that is the worldwide web. That is not to say that all the civil institutions have become completely obsolete at a stroke. We still go to the doctor when we’re ill, buy newspapers when we want information, and visit museums if we want to see art, but in addition to these traditional services, we also always have other channels to gain access to information about what we’re looking for or about what has happened to us. The institutions may not have become obsolete at a stroke, but we do use them differently, and this also applies to art museums.

The biggest shift in art is that it is no longer a clearly defined and self-evident field which can withdraw to the museum. Rather, art has become a sort of infiltrator with a latent presence everywhere, always ready to get going and become active. Art is no longer a thing with its own identity – the work of art – but rather an attitude: a specific way of looking or experiencing things which everyone actually always carries round with them, but which is only used from time to time. The basis of this attitude is an open-minded approach which observes things that are already visible, but not yet comprehensible. It is a way of looking at the act of looking itself, in which all the details which we are accustomed to ignore become visible. In the early modern period this looking at the act of looking was considered an autonomous field and art was seen as the place where the universal laws of this looking were analysed and exposed. The relationship between the public and the art institute was a passive one, based on the principle of representation. In the museum the citizen could follow the general development of art but did not have to become involved in it at all. Nowadays the importance of the representative function has declined and art has become more of a  skill which we sometimes use and sometimes don’t use, like a sort of idiosyncratic “app” on the smartphone of our citizenship.

With the l’Internationale project The uses of art the Van Abbemuseum is looking for a correspondence with this new “use” of art and the new relationship between macro and micro politics. The museum is part of a decentralised network of museum expertise, and the “raw materials” (the works in the collection) can move about freely as required. In this new structure the museum will still tell stories about art from the (recent) past and present. However, it will no longer do this as a neutral and omniscient storyteller, but will explicitly provide a specific perspective responding to the present moment. With l’Internationale the Van Abbemuseum wants to become part of a new structure which shares a number of characteristics with the internet. The challenge in this respect is above all to not just suggest in a superficial manner that the members of l’Internationale are interconnected in a hip, digital way, but to also change working patterns behind the scenes so that they start to fit in with the modern age. After all, an e-mail can be sent just like that, but transporting a Picasso with a value of several million euros requires a greater effort.

However, in our opinion, the starting point is not the collection or the institution, but the user. In this respect the micro level is more important than the macro level, with the individual as a member of a community as the point of departure. The cultural heritage owned by all the l’Internationale members is collected for and by a community – by yourselves. The story about 1848 and 1989 is therefore not a story about or for Europe, but a story about and for the people who live in Europe. When you ask yourself the question “Who am I?” you always ask it against a background of “we” in which you exist as an individual. The European “we” is diffuse and comes in many different forms, and it consists of many different communities which each have their own story. Exchanging these stories in such a way that you can experience both the differences and similarities with people elsewhere is one of the main aims of the Van Abbemuseum and l’Internationale. We hope that you will use art and the museum in this way in the future in order to make sense of the world that is coming and that the museum can be a place where you feel at home and where you are invited to think about your place in the world, today and tomorrow. This may sound like a utopian dream, but it is not inconceivable. After all, every journey starts with a dream about what can be, compared to what is now – certainly when that journey can take five years.

 

L’Internationale comprises Moderna galerija (Ljubljana, Slovenia), Museo nacional centro de arte Reina Sofía (Madrid, Spain), Museu d’art Contemporani de Barcelona (Barcelona, Spain), Museum van Hedendaagse Kunst Antwerpen (Antwerp, Belgium), SALT (Istanbul, Ankara, Turkey) and the Van Abbemuseum (Eindhoven, the Netherlands). The other partners of The uses of art are Aprior / Royal Academy of Fine Arts (Ghent, Belgium); Grizedale Arts (Conniston, United Kingdom); Liverpool John Moores University (Liverpool, United Kingdom) and Universität Hildesheim (Hildesheim, Germany). For more information about l’Internationale and The uses of art see the temporary website: http://internacionala.mg-lj.si/ (the new website will go live at the end of November).



[1] In addition, this text made use of, amongst other things, Auke van der Woud, Een nieuwe wereld, het ontstaan van het moderne Nederland, (A new world, the creation of the modern Netherlands), Amsterdam (Bert Bakker), 2006 (tenth edition, 2013).

Interview with Fotini Gouseti on ‘Kalavryta 2012′ part of ‘Making Use: Dutch Art Institute at the Van Abbemuseum’

August 5th, 2013 by Steven ten Thije

This week is the last week to visit the exhibition ‘Making Use: Dutch Art Institute at the Van Abbemuseum’ (runs until 11.08.2013). This exhibition presents 10 new projects by the participants to the master seminar taught by the Van Abbemuseum at the Dutch Art Institute (DAI // ArtEZ) this year. Part of this exhibition is the work ‘Kalavryta 2012′ by Fotini Gouseti. In a short interview with her she explains more about the complex but also intriguing background to this visually impressive work.

Fotini Gouseti, ‘Kalavryta 2012′, copyright Peter Cox

Steven ten Thije (StT) – Fotini, for some years you have done extensive research on a village in Greece Kalavryta. In this interview we hope to learn more about this dense topic and how you realised the work. I would like to begin very simply, by asking if you could explain why this village is so important?

Fotini Gouseti (FG) – Kalavryta has a  double symbolic character in  Greece throughout the modern history of the country. Starting by being the nation-wide symbol of the struggle for freedom from the Ottoman domination, as it is the place that the revolution started in 1921. But more  relevant to  my research  is that  Kalavryta became a symbol because of the total destruction of the town and the mass execution of its male population on December 13, 1943 by the Wehrmacht Army. This is considered the greatest holocaust that happened in Greece during the Second World War. For both of these reasons, this small place of about 2000 inhabitants, is  charged with meanings in Greece.

StT- And, when did you become interested in this village? What is your relationship to it?

FG – I lived in Kalavryta for four years, between 2006 and 2010, working as an art teacher in the local schools. I consider that period as very fruitful for my development as an artist. My time there had a big impact on me and helped to form my general understanding and position towards art. The local society contributed in that development through everyday life,  lots of questions and human relations, which was quite different to what I had experienced until then. Those conditions made me realise that I’m interested in directing my research and art practice in relation to society and real life, using art as a way to live better.
In April 2012 I was in The Netherlands following the daily news about the harsh conditions in Greece due to the financial crisis, which resulted in social upheavals and drove people to desperation. It seemed like the financial crisis was accompanied by a social and ideological crisis. One day I came across an article that was about soothing that had been written on a wall in the area of Kalavryta  mentioning that “ A new Holocaust; to rid the place of dirt. Golden Dawn” Golden Dawn is an extreme right party that countenances violence, hate speech and a similar ideology to that of Nazism. The sudden growth and support of GD  was alarming. The next news regarding Kalavryta that took me by surprise, came the day after the Greek elections of May. 635 votes for the party of Golden Down were attributed by the press to residents of Kalavryta. Numerous articles mentioned an “erasure of historical memory of the residents of the martyr town of Kalavryta”. This news amazed me as I had formed a totally opposite impression of the politics of the village during my stay there.
That was when I decided to travel back to Kalavryta in order to understand what was going on. I started researching not only books, newspapers and archives, but also contacted a series of interviews with  inhabitants of a variety of ages, in order to see how the present is getting formulated as a result of the past.

StT- The work itself in the end is a carpet made from two thousand silk neck ties, using a traditional weaving technique specific to the area. I know that this relates to something that happened in the village, could you tell the story behind the carpet?

Fotini Gouseti, ‘Kalavryta 2012′, copyright Peter Cox

FG – After December 13th 1943 there were no men left above the age of 14 as they had been executed. There were no houses or food resources in Kalavryta due to the fire, theft and the general destruction. It was freezing as Kalavryta is located in the mountains, 750m above sea level. The women and children that who remained in  the breaches were supported by the inhabitants of the surrounded villages and Red Cross in order to survive. The following years UNNRA (United Nations Relief and Rehabilitations Administration) contributed a lot by offering packages with provisions to the affected population.
This work refers to a story from the post war period in Kalavryta, that a family called Vagia   told me. One day they received a very big package from UNNRA, they had to use a donkey to bring it home. When they finally opened it they found out that it was full of silk ties. Two to three thousands of them. There was nothing else in the package. The mother, Eleni Vagia, turned the silk ties to kourelou (a traditional Greek carpet), and as her son says today laughing “we were starving and freezing but walking on silk”.

StT – How did you realise the work? Did you get help to do the weaving?

Taxideutes Politismou

FG – The initial idea was that the carpet be weaved in Kalavryta the same way as the original one. But there was not a working traditional loom available in the region. The carpet was made by Culture and Laographic Society ‘’Taxideutes Politismoy’’ who are based in Athens. Taxideutes Politismou (TP) means culture voyagers. It is a community founded 2 years ago by young people who are seeking solutions in order to help their neighbourhood out of the frustration and the problems of the crisis. Now they are about 250 people of all ages. Their medium to do so is culture and tradition. They offer several activities among which are workshops on photography, traditional dance, weaving, percussion music, etc. TP believe that the only way to find ways out of crisis is through solidarity. They look for humanity, which they believe is an element that has ceased existing in contemporary life. They state companionship as their God. Believing that “it is joyful to offer without having expectations, respectively you receive much more than you could possibly expect’’. They are not only motivated but also self-funded. When TP and I met we had reciprocal feelings: they found the concept of ‘Kalavryta 2012’ appealing and I was amazed by them as they have a very practical and down to earth way of acting out their ideals.
For, the fact that TP made the carpet adds extra value to the context of the work as, one of the most important – prominent concepts of Kalavryta symbolism is that of solidarity. Solidarity between the women and children that were left over in the ruins is considered the basic reason that kept them alive.

StT- And what made you choose this form and this story for the work?

FG – The (hi)story of Kalavryta is made out of tragic (hi)stories. Every family has a drama to narrate. When the Vagia family told me this story among others I thought that the artwork was already there. So in this sense the story chose the work. This story consists of the histories (hidden and known), includes the consequences of the holocaust, as well as an ironic critique of the contemporary state of financial crisis. While I was listening to histories and narratives from the holocaust of Kalavryta, I kept thinking that the trauma of the second world war is not healed. It is just covered. The present is getting formulated also out of the outcomes of this trauma. In that sense the reenactment in this work functions as a catharsis.

StT- Do you see parallels and differences between what you are doing and what the group of volunteers are doing who helped made the carpet?

FG – Both TP and I are interested in finding solutions. I don’t believe that the medium is as important in this case as the goal. I happen to be an artist so that is my medium. There are electricians, plumbers, social workers, retirees, unemployed,  students and so on.. They state that for them culture and art is a way out. They are laughing at me saying that my way is their way out, while I don’t actually have a way out, as my life and my work runs on parallel tracks. What I find very challenging is that  for them art  is perceived as necessary tool, even if that is not clearly related to contemporary art.

StT- What does it mean to you that this work is now in a museum exhibition? Is there a specific relation to the context of the museum and this work?

FG – Van Abbe’s interest  for understanding the plurality of histories and how they communicate with each other  creates a common ground with the context of my research and this work. Out of my research in Kalavryta, I understood that there is no such a thing as “the history”, but there are instead a multitude of histories. These histories can be as many as the people experiencing a certain situation and through every individual person they can be reformed due to different conditions, contexts and perspectives. Personally, I see in the materialisation of this work both the concepts of solidarity and the network of the histories and narratives of the Kalavrytans, through which the present is getting formulated. I also believe that the combination of Anna’s Dasovic work together with mine, in this exhibition, creates the ground for further interpretations.

StT- What will be your next steps? Will this work be shown again elsewhere? And will the installation change?

FG – I would like this work to travel a lot and to communicate it’s context to different environments. I would also like to think that the installation of the work could be free according to the space and the given circumstances.

Fotini Gouseti, ‘Kalavryta 2012′, copyright Peter Cox

Sitting on the steps of Greek democracy – reflections on an excursion

February 19th, 2013 by Steven ten Thije

Antonis Pittas – Landart (2012)

Saturday was the last day of a three day excursion with students from the University of Hildesheim, concluding the seminar ‘The Art of Describing Art’ that I taught together with Julia Heuser this winter semester. We ended visiting Annet Gelink Gallery, where artist Antonis Pittas (part of the Chasing Rainbows exhibition on until 23-2) was finishing his last ‘performative’ public writing of the word ‘implementation’ on a rectangular slate of marble that has the same dimensions as one step of the stair leading up to the Greece parliament. As it goes with these excursions everyone was exhausted at the end of the three days, so when Antonis invited us to sit on the sculpture, everybody immediately obliged! One of the students noted with a sense of irony that the steps of the Greece parliament was now ‘occupied’ by German students. The observation was more than just a funny comment. It was a precise historical image of where we were: resting on the steps of Greek democracy, while trying to figure out where we are, how we got there and where we can go from here.

In the last days we had looked at modern and contemporary classics from Lissitzky to Kabakov, from Cézanne to Mike Kelley and with our eyes and bodies confronted the battlefield of aesthetics in the American-European 20th century. In a sense we had followed the simultaneous move inward and outward that marked this creative and destructive century. For it was in the depths of the human subject, in the movement of the eyes, the innate sensibilities of the bodies, in the unconscious, that during 20th century the workings of the world – both natural and social – were discovered, which offered the foundation for utopian designs to reshape the world. As Benjamin stated in his famous essay on ‘art in the age of technological reproducibility’ commenting on the complex spatial organisation of modernity (the moving in- and outwards): ‘the modern masses have a desire to come closer to things’, to ‘absorb’ the world in their being, to overcome the distance of reflection, to counter alienation, to let the aura of the work of art whither and decay into a new substance, a new subject, who would approach the world no longer as a Cartesian Mind, but as a complex weaving of body and mind. In the three days we were such a mass of bodies that tried to absorb modernity – perhaps to get beyond it.

Looking at Lissitzky

We discovered this looking at Lissitzky in the Lissitzky-Kabakov exhibition ‘Utopia and Reality’ (still in the Van Abbemuseum until 28-4-2013). We followed with our eyes how the Prouns of this Russian avant-garde artist were not offering the mind an image that it could read as a story, but that it juxtaposed complex and contradicting shapes that activated eye and mind at the same time, producing a flux between imagined three dimensional space and physical shapes on the canvas. The picture addressed a ‘new man’, who would learn to think through doing; a man who would overcome the body-mind split through a new type of dynamic unity between form and content that marked constructivist graphic, architectonic and artistic design. This was the aesthetic utopianism that accompanied the Russian revolution at the dawn of the century. Looking then at the work of Kabakov after this we saw the clumsy and everyday man who struggled with the impossible demands of this clinical, mechanical constructivist dream that had turned into terror as quickly as the French Revolution did. Approaching human beings no longer as spiritual machines as Lissitzky, Kabakov introduced human beings as filled with stories and dreams, trapped in an everydayness that in no way reflects the exalted rhetoric and dream-like images that the Soviets made of their earthly, socialist paradise.

Attentive Audience

After experiencing this confrontation between the two Russian giants, students the following day gave presentations to the Van Abbe-staff that focused on the website. Talking today about the ‘art of describing art’ requires talking as well about where these descriptions will be made public and here the Internet still poses many questions. By making proposals for the Van Abbe-collection-website, the students gave their views and ideas and were offered generous, but also critical feedback by Daniel Neugebauer (head of marketing, mediation and fund raising) and Christiane Berndes (curator and head of collection). It was a nice moment of exchange not only between the people involved, but also between the world of the university and the museum and as such another good experience in the now already three-year old structural collaboration between the Van Abbemuseum and the University of Hildesheim. During the days we also visited Onomatopee, MU and Piet-Hein Eek, which made the exchange not limited to the two institutions, but also made it an encounter with Eindhoven in a broader sense. (And, for those who also read the earlier blog-entry on this seminar, another high-point of course was the physical encounter with the Buste de Femme, from Picasso that had made the trip to Palestine and was subject to an assignment in the first part of the class.)

The last day we visited Amsterdam and went first to the Stedelijk Museum, who generously welcomed us by giving us free entrance. Walking through the quite majestic presentation of the collection of the Stedelijk, the story that had been presented to us in the first days through the iconic figures of Lissitzky and Kabakov now unfolded in its many different manifestations through the traditional narrative of Western art of the 20th century. In the end the visit became a kind of crash-course in Greenbergian aesthetics looking first at Cézanne, then Mondriaan and then Newman. Of course, there are many reasons to critique this modernist tradition, but when studying art within Europe it is difficult to ignore this history. Also, since it belongs to a much broader and more general history of exchange between art and society and the role aesthetics plays in politics it is impossible to ignore this episode in an art history curriculum or to consider it in only negative terms. And, as an added advantage, it proofed a good exercise before entering the absurd, humorous and terrifying world of Mike Kelley, whose work still seems very much connected to the aesthetics of the modernist period preceding his work and is legible as critique only from within this tradition.

Ilya & Emilia Kabakov – Let’s Go Girls (1995)

And then, after all this looking and walking, we ended up sitting on the steps of the Greek parliament in Annet Gelink Gallery. In our discussion Antonis Pittas openly admitted his strong affinity with the modernist sensibilities of the Minimal and Conceptual artists.  Like Kelley, he still has one foot in the old world of modernism. However, as he explained, what he does is ‘unforgivable’ to those Minimal and Conceptual artist’s whose aesthetics he borrows. Closer to Lissitzky than to Kabakov, these artists also worked in an anti-anecdotal way and wanted to produce works which would, in the formula of Donald Judd, be ‘specific-objects’ that told of nothing but themselves. Antonis in contrast, takes as the measurements for his Judd-like slate of marble the real historical staircase in Athens. On it he writes with graphite a quote by Christine Lagarde (director of the IMF) ‘implementation’, which refers to the implementation of the hard austerity measures to get grip on public spending and reduce the deficit. But the work reflects the contemporary moment in many other ways. When Antonis visited Athens some time ago he noticed that everywhere marble stones had been smashed on pavements or from buildings to to throw at the police. The marble that was considered the strongest and noblest material with which to build the city that is the historical birthplace of democracy, today serves as a weapon for common people to fight a system that they no longer understand and see only as an enemy. The current situation gives wings to the proto-fascist movement Golden Dawn that is scarily popular. And even if it seems unlikely that they will follow a military trajectory similar to National Socialism, the fact that such open fascist sensibility can manifest itself again in Europe in synchronicity with an enormous economic crisis is cause for deep concern.

on the steps of Greek democracy

It makes me wonder what the meaning of ‘describing art’ could be in such a tense political moment. I don’t have a clear answer to this. But thinking about it I’m reminded of the way in which the French philosopher Jacques Rancière describes how there is an aesthetic component to (democratic) politics, because it requires ‘recognition’ before any change, any decision, is possible. First we have to see the danger, we have to see our neighbour (strange and close) and recognize the fears and dreams of one another, to discuss possible solutions. It is the dream of democracy perhaps, extremely fragile and maybe more a vision than a reality, but what else do we have other than this vision? Even if it is no solution, the work of Antonis makes us see, and writing about it allows us to share what we see and as such allows us – perhaps – to see a little more. It may sound simple, but seeing is not simple, neither is talking about it. Seeing and saying are a crucial part of the human ecology and a world that doesn’t care for them constantly is exposed to the risk of forgetting the difference between fact and fiction, between what is there in front of our eyes and what we intellectually know. The artist, the art historian, the art critic, the art mediator, the curator they all belong to a delicate economy that provides a platform where we can exercise the skill of seeing and saying. Of course, this alone will not solve our social or political problems, but I do believe that it is part of the solution. So, sitting on the steps of Greek parliament we rested from three days of hard work to gather strength, strength that I’m afraid we might need more than we would like in the days to come.

*Thanks to my colleague Nick Aikens for reading over the text

**Photos from excursion-participant Paula Rathjen

Standing Face to Face – Picasso in Palestine in Hildesheim

December 3rd, 2012 by Steven ten Thije

Last Friday evening, I picked up the newspaper to read about what is called the ‘birth certificate’ of Palestine by president Abbas. What I understand of it is that the new status of Palestine doesn’t change much, but does open new possibilities for the Palestinians. For instance they can now potentially go to the International Criminal Court and press charges against Israel if it acts in contradiction with international regulations like building settlements in occupied territory. This sounds significant. However, what the paper considers as more noteworthy is the small support Israel has left in the International community. Within Europe only the Czechs support Israel, even Germany refrained from voting and as result have given up their unquestioning support.

Perhaps I wouldn’t have thought so much about the waning support, if not earlier this week the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was the subject of a heated debate within the seminar that I teach at Hildesheim University. The seminar is entitled ‘The Art of Describing Art’ and the subject of it is also very simply writing about art. I teach the seminar together with Julia Heuser, an almost-graduate student who studies creative writing. In the seminar the first assignment was to write a description of Picasso ‘Buste de Femme’ from the Van Abbe-collection, the painting that was sent to Palestine a year ago. When giving the first assignment however we did not yet reveal the trip the painting made and asked them to stay close to the work itself. In the second assignment we asked the students to now use their understanding of the picture and try to integrate it into a text in which they also reflect on the Picasso in Palestine-project.

Being part of the Van Abbe-team, I’ve heard so many things about the project and have been in or at so many discussions about it that I perhaps start to become blind to the challenging nature of the project. So when I proposed this trajectory of two assignments, in my naivety, I thought that the biggest challenge would be to connect the content of the painting in some meaningful way to the content of the project of bringing the painting to Palestine; a challenge many students dealt with very beautifully. However, when we discussed some of the texts in class – using a creative writing method that is new to my dry, academic deformed art historical eyes – suddenly all the emotional historical booby-traps located right underneath the surface exploded.

One girl corrected a fellow student who had dared to connect in two paragraphs the Nazis and Israel, stating more or less that ‘this can never be done.’ Something said with such a conviction that I myself started to feel guilty that I wasn’t as shocked as she was when reading the text. Another international exchange student who was born neither in Israel nor Palestine, but close, had a hard time to sit still and not comment on each attempt of her fellow students to describe the political situation in the region. In a friendly, but also persistent tone, she offered an inside account of the conflict. And, minute after minute, I saw the whole class become more and more uncomfortable, becoming more and more afraid about what to say, and what they wrote. The image of Picasso’s painting projected silently on the wall slowly stopped being the subject of our discussion, more the still observer of a tense, but also beautiful encounter of a group of people talking about a subject which they feel unable to talk about, but still feel the necessity to do so.

By starting this discussion through an artwork, however, it seems we had a possibility that perhaps is absent from normal discussions on the topic. Based in both personal experience and abstract reflection, through or with art, one is invited to be personal and general at the same time. Your own observations are translated in a ‘judgement’ that transcends your individual position; an ability that has a distinct significance in democratic society. Because in such a society it is demanded of each member that he or she can develop a position based on the ideas and experiences of others and yourself. What the discussion during the class made clear again is that even if it may sound quite complex and abstract, the reality of democratic exchange is that it is a very emotional process and the challenge of it is to balance and make productive those emotions in a public discussion. Something that cannot be learned through theory alone, as the discussion also showed, it has to be mastered through practice as well. And teaching such a practice perhaps does not so much requires ‘instructing’ but a levelling of the playing field in which teacher and student stand ‘eye’ to ‘eye’.

And by accident, writing this down, I stumble on a new reading of ‘Picasso in Palestine’. Perhaps the point of similarity between bringing the painting to Ramallah and the painting itself is located in this standing face to face. The museum facing the International Art Academy of Palestine; the women painted by Picasso with her strange and intriguing eyes, facing the Palestinians. What is seen; what is said during this encounter is neither complete affirmation, nor negation; what is seen is the other as a presence that cannot be ignored and which existence is complex. Addressing this complexity is difficult, close too impossible, but we have to try and for this trying we need both physical and mental space. Perhaps this is what the acclimatised white-cube space in Ramallah, with its solitary Picasso painting, helped to create: an open space to speak about a conflict that is so emotional, but which affects us all as members of a ‘general’ or global public. We in Hildesheim could share this space by simply talking about the project and the news of last weeks showed a change in international relations, which makes this discussion more urgent and open than it has been for a long time.

9 days until E.T. will visit the Van Abbe – Byars in Spirits of Internationalism

January 12th, 2012 by Steven ten Thije


Again a day closer to the opening and I have to make an apology. The photo I posted yesterday shows the room of Gerald Byrne and not Phil Collins. In all the stress I confused two rooms that both had dark painted walls. (One of them is already completely white by the way.) However, the mistake allows me to tell you what will vist Byrne’s room in 9 days: James Lee Byars ‘Extra Terrestrial’. This is another beautiful work and one of the highlights if I can be so self-congratulatory and again a work from M HKA, Antwerp. The photo above  is a snap-shot from the 3-D drawing we’re using to install the exhibition. As you can see, the work is a giant stick-figure, that will be partly mounted on the wall. It is made of  textile and was ‘used’ in performance in Antwerp in 1976. The figure is 245 meters (!) long, so the two ‘legs’ will lie in the middle of the room as large piles of cloth. We’ll also exhibit some documentary material, so you can see E.T. in action. If all goes well the work will arrive tomorrow and next week, we will see how big the pile will be.

10 days to opening of Spirits of Internationalism

January 11th, 2012 by Steven ten Thije

10 days until the opening of Spirits of Internationalism. Phil Collins room is being de-installed to make place for a remarkable presentation of Panamerenko’s old studio. The exhibition, dealing with the period 1956 – 1986, doesn’t exist only out of artworks, but also shows some unique archive material that gives a more intimate view into the universe of several artists and artists collective. We are especially proud to be able to show Panamarenko’s studio in Eindhoven. For quite some years he has several works on display in the Technical University and it is great to be able to give those people who pass his work everyday a sense of the ‘universe’ out which these works originate.

Coming soon – Spirits of Internationalism

January 7th, 2012 by Steven ten Thije

Exactly two weeks before the opening of Spirits of Internationalism an exhibition dealing with the art produced between 1956 and 1986, and which runs parallel in M HKA, Antwerp and the Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven. It’s the next and last exhibition organized within the framework of l’Internationale. Last week we finished the 3D drawing, installing the exhibition in the virtual. Yesterday we ended with the OHO installation, of which I had to do a small part in the real world seeing what fitted in the vitrines. Monday ‘Vanuit Hier’ will be deinstalled (so this weekend last chances to see), and then slowly Panamarenko, Antoni Muntadas, Jef Geys, James Lee Byars, OHO, Július Koller, Fina Miralles and many others will start to ‘occupy’ Van Abbe. Complementary there will be time line with some historical tv fragments containing among others the famous W. T. Schippers action emptying one bottle of lemonade in the ocean.


Van Abbemuseum