Art Rotterdam 2016: The Modern Way With Bosch And Birds

Art Rotterdam

A good fair needs a combination of quirky or spectacular extras, good location, plus of course  quality art in the main section. Add that the cool yet comfortable Citizen M hotel helped my mood, and  Rotterdam delivered well – Paul Carey-Kent

The Extras
Leonard van Munster: Ein Goldener Berg (top photo)
The extras may seem an odd place to start. but first thing I saw as I entered the fair grounds was Leonard van Munster’s golden mountain – set back where no-one else seemed to notice it, but very popular with the geese! The Dutch artist has made several striking public commissions, but is probably best known for his kinetic self-portrait The Dancing White Man, 2012. Here his intervention is made of lifesaver foil – as used to wrap people in post-traumatic situations – and so brought in all sorts of current affairs associations beyond the initial epiphany of its improbably aureate presence. And it was hard not to think of what I was soon to see: Bosch’s great triptych in which hay stands in for the gold which the foolish pursue at the cost of their eternal damnation.

Bosch: The Haywain Triptych, 1510-16 (detail)

Other less predictable presences included a house transported from Detroit by Ryan Mendoza; live baking, photographing and consumption of bread; a mysterious cordoned-off corner protected by a VIP-style bouncer which – if you were persuasive enough – turned out to lead to a studio visit by Skype with an artist; and a the programme of 56 one minute videos curated by the impressive trio of Cécile B. Evans, Nathaniel Mellors and Shana Moulton. Off site was the chance to see Erik van Lieshout’s new installation in a church and to visit the Atelier Van Lieshout studio, so putting an end to any danger of confusing Rotterdam’s most famous artists. And a bus would take you to various institutions, the hardest to ignore being the Museum Van Beuningen (Mike Nelson plus a spectacular if not fully persuasive Ugo Rondinone show featuring life-sized clowns in a rainbow of colours) and Michael Portnoy’s compelling two hour series of linked performances using a troupe of actor / dancers moving around Witte de With and having no problem taking the audience with them). 
 Children loved mimicking Rondinone’s clowns
Slightly further afield, the Stedelijk Museum in neighbouring Schiedam mounted an excellent Jan Schoonhoven survey. He’d be an auction star has he been Italian. I was surprised – given that Schoonhoven (1914-94) was a career civil servant who made papier mache constructions in his spare time – to find photographs of him being painted with spots by Yayoi Kusama at the Museum in 1967, then dancing naked save for those embellishments, glasses and socks. 
From this…

Jan Schoonhoven: R 71 – 20, 1971

To this…

Kusama and Schoonhoven

Of course, I didn’t like everything: also at Witte de Witte, obsessive teddy bear collector Charlemagne Palestine delivered one of the most self-indulgent and vacuous whole floor displays I’ve ever seen. Ulay is embroiled in a court case to obtain a fairer share of earnings from his collaborations with Marina Abramovic, so I guess he could do with more substantial recognition of his solo photographic work, but his his Polaroids at the Netherlands Photo Museum fell some way short of making the case (though the ‘Quickscan’ survey of new Dutch photographers was good), Then there’s the Rotterdam Contemporary Fair, which is such a consistent festival of bad art it maybe deserves some credit for clarity of vision (though the organisers slipped up with a pretty good video programme, and by allowing interesting artist Martijn te Winkel to take a stand); and opposite that the Kahmann Gallery somehow got away with charging an entry fee for a what turned out to be simply a display of its own artists.
Hironimus Bosch: Visions of a Genius at the Noordbrabants Museum, ’s-Hertogenbosch
You could cheat slightly this year by counting the convenient fact that the 500th year since Bosch’s death is being celebrated – as the centrepiece of a year-round festival – by a stunning, if unsurprisingly crowded, show in his home town 80 km away (13 Feb – 8 May) . The vast majority of Bosch’s known panels and drawings have been brought together* from around the world, and the combination of a medieval worldview with what can seem a proto-modern way of envisioning it remains startling. Culled from Bosch’s less well-known drawing practice, the central image above didn’t feed into a known painting, increasing the fresh impact of a typically bizarre scene: a man armed with a lute is about to try to bash back the birds emerging from the anus of figure immured in a basket. 

* though not without its issues around cost, attributions, withdrawn loans etc, as set out at

The location and its ripples
Rotterdam is a dynamic background city, and the Van Nellefabriek factory – a modernist icon which swallows the fair easily enough – has the added advantage of giving work a characterful context to play against. That’s something artists don’t really have at Frieze, for example.

Valérie Kolakis: Almost Familiar Place, 2016
Greek-born Montreal based Valérie Kolakis had a solo booth (for London’s FOLD) which collapsed modernism by unbuilding elements of a house in quietly uncanny style. More strikingly, she had covered the entrance area’s extensive glass doors and windows with an intricate lace-like pattern of Vaseline. I say ‘strikingly’, but those who didn’t know the building may not have suspected unless they spotted a smeared section, so convincing was the way an aspect quite other had been slid onto the Van Nellefabriek. Whether noticed or not, I like how the entrant above has clothing transformed on pushing through the doors… 

Richard Woods at WORKS | PROJECTS, Somerset
It’s hard not to enjoy Richard Woods’ sassy melding of art, design and architecture, and  this mixture of old and new didn’t buck the trend. It included the seasoned  Leaning Wood and Light Sculpture, 2011, a Dan Flavin rendered satisfyingly absurd; and the sappy wall painting Duck Weave, 2016, which jazzes up what Woods says is an ancient rush-based method of constructing houses, but is also bound to trigger an art association with cotton duck canvas. Either way, a tidy contrast to Leendert van der Vlugt’s highly rational building.

Pierre Derks at LhGWR, The Hague 

Dutch video artist Pierre Derks navigates wittily between the personal and the collective as aspects of our identity construction through two main approaches. First, found scenes which fit his agenda, such as what I’m assured was the remarkable coincidence of how a passing party’s coats matched a less nuanced piece of modern architecture than the Van Nellefabriek’s (Here We Are Now #1, 2016 – still above); second, photographing the same scenes at different times and overlaying them so that, for example, commuters emerging from a subway feature in phone adverts behind them, or passers-by walk seamlessly between a quiet street and a protest march. 

Joep Van Liefland: Video Palace #41- Corrupter, Orbiter, Eraser (Lost Archive 1) at Van Zijll Langhout Contemporary, Amsterdam
I was amazed to find that this shrine to discarded technology set up in a building which preserves a different moment was former punk musician Joep van Liefland’s 41st iteration since 2002 of his ‘Video Palace’ project. The Berlin-based Dutch artist uses cathode ray TVs and video cassettes and their players as his building blocks: some cassettes are arranged in painted grids, and apparently abstract stripe paintings depict the red, green, and blue light of analogue TV signals. He was a frequent viewer of low budget movies on VHS who saw them as ‘a sort of punk… low budget, improvising, but also creative in their solutions’. He then developed the idea of ‘exploring and collecting the lowest segments of the culture industry’, hinting through posters declaring its wonders at how ephemeral our superior digital means will also prove to be.
Indeed, much of the best work saw the artist, like van Liefland, put forward a distinctive view of the world, often with a focus on the mediation between human / technological and animal / natural.  Bosch would have fitted right in, if you count God as technology instead of technology as God…

The World Between Nature and Technology
Bram De Jonghe at Billytown, The Hague
Perhaps the most eccentrically interesting stand was the Belgian Bram De Jonghe’s. A neighbouring gallerist told me she’d been pleased to find considerable greenery was to be introduced, and was disappointed to find that the substantial hedge in front of Billytown’s booth remained shrink-wrapped, in line with much of De Jonghe’s work (Untitled, 2016). Perhaps the artist was blocking off any rash short-term acquisition by hedge fund managers of the sculptures which he makes out of fired tar, alluringly shiny black shapes which retain slow motion liquid properties, and so will return to a pooled state in ten years or so.

David Jablonowski: Two of the Replica series at Fons Welters, Amsterdam
David Jablonowski, a Dutch artist who examines the evolution of contemporary communication technologies in sculptures, videos, and installations, has moved into somewhat painterly territory in his new high-tech-meets-nature series ‘Replica’. Not, of course, that any paint is involved: computer-cut aluminium forms the iconic minimalist grid, on which what looks rather like a motherboard traps the chromatic flare of a parrot’s wings. Might this be the back of a computer revealing that the dreams of freedom once epitomised by flight have migrated to the virtual world? Or is there something more sinister in how beauty is pinned down here?

Pentti Sammallahti: Helsinki, Finland, 2002 at Galerie Wouter van Leeuwen, Amsterdam
How come Finland has produced so many good photographers? Pentti Sammallahti (born Helsinki, 1950) has travelled widely to make landscape images which are often literally animated by the fleeting and humorous role of non-human presences. Most famously he’s used dogs (emphasised by William Wegman’s canine oeuvre being shown nearby) but the best images here set their scale and temporal atmosphere by means of avian punctuation – one was of two birds on a Houston sidewalk. Yet Sammallahti retains a particular affinity for the almost visible silence and cold of the north, as in my choice of silver gelatin print, in which it’s hard to resist the ridiculous impression that a balancing act is going on.

Paul Kooiker: Nude Animal Cigar, 2015 at Kromus + Zink, Berlin
Paul Kooiker (born in Rotterdam itself in 1964) subverts the tiresome coding of sepia-tinted photography as nostalgic by using filters to make contemporary riffs on the form. His Berlin gallery showed 7 of the 66 triptychs which form his recent project and book Nude Animal Cigar. Each conjoins impersonal female art subject (voyeuristic, geometrically emphatic faceless nudes) with fully visible animal (much more engaging, taken in zoos) and personal if burnt-out male art maker (remnants of some the countless cigars Kooiker has smoked in the studio). The typology yokes genres to an effect which, absurd as it is, puts various possible contrasts and equivalences crisply into play. 

Mikko Rikala at Rotwand, Zurich
The Finnish artist Mikko Rikala is nothing if not ambitious, his goal being ‘to understand the world beyond the rational mind’. Whether or not he succeeds, that leads him to make varied, thoughtful  and elemental works: he covers a kilometre with meditative slowness by drawing it in 1,000 parallel one metre lines; has water write to the clouds; overlays the sea at different points to condense time into too-intricate waves (Water Equals Time, 2016, shown above); and makes a sculptural play on Venice as representing the paradox of wood holding up stone. 

Persijn Broersen & Margit Lukács: Establishing Eden at Akinki, Amsterdam
Margit Lukács (Amsterdam, 1973) and Persijn Broersen (Delft, 1974), who live and work between their two home cities, featured in the separate Projections film space with Establishing Eden. Referring to the shots used to establish a landscape location, and to New Zealand’s iconic role as a setting in recent cinematic history, Broersen & Lukács have reshot the original places, only to present them as moving collages of overlapping flatness which return the world-be-Eden to its status as illusion. The result is an effective new twist on the popular theme of how the mass media confuses reality and fiction. 

Olivier Mosset: Untitled, 2016 at Galerie Van Gelder, Amsterdam
Finally, a special prize for courage goes to Kees van Gelder, who may have been the gallerist posing himself the most problems. First, he had to recruit students to make the commercially unavailable grey confetti with which Olivier Mosset planned a floor piece. He then attempted to open with the floor unprotected, but as the odd trample occurred, was driven to increase the piece’s protection incrementally until it was cordoned off fully by the time I arrived: on the one hand less pure, on the other emphasising the value created – it was for sale at some £30,000 – by its status as the work of the veteran Swiss-born conceptual minimalist (Mosset, with Daniel Buren, Michel Parmentier and Niele Toroni, was a mid 60’s founder member of the BMPT group, which famously challenged traditional means of making and personalising art).
Words: Paul Carey-Kent © 2016