The small Dutch city of Utrecht is receiving worldwide attention this weekend as its charming canals and cobbled corridors play host to Le Grand Départ: the launch of the Tour de France, which hits the road on Saturday.
As with any major sporting event, the rights to host Le Grand Départ are as much rights to major commercial and tourism opportunities as they are to the Majesty of Sport. Naturally, Tour merch abounds and nearly every shop in town has a decorated Peugeot racer, sleek fixie, or clunky omafiets (“granny bike”) in the window. But much of the city’s fiets frenzy comes from the cultural sector: Utrecht’s museums, historical monuments, and artists—from students to design legends—all have their place in the week's activities.
If you’re not into cycling or sport, there’s still loads to see. Here’s a round up of the best bike art, design, and décor at the launch of the Tour de France.
Follow the white rabbit:
2015 Grand Départ car with polkadot Nijntje at the 2014 Tour de France. Photo: Sander.v.Ginkel
Second place = first loser
Tour junkies will be seeing a lot of Nijntje this year, as 2015 also marks the 60th birthday of this illustrated bunny. The city’s most famous resident—better known as “Miffy” for foreign tongues—is the creation of 87-year-old illustrator and writer Dick Bruna, who hails from Utrecht. There’s even a popular museum dedicated to Bruna and his progeny. Nijnte (pronounced nine-tchuh) also happens to be the 2015 Grand Départ mascot: bunny-topped Tour de France cars have been driving around since the launch of the 2014 Tour in Yorkshire, England.
For Nijntje’s 60th, see also the Nijntje Art Parade. Sixty artists and designers were invited to decorate Nijntje statues, which are currently on display across the Netherlands and Japan. Fun fact: Miffy is extremely popular in Japan, and despite their resemblance, she predates Hello Kitty by nearly 20 years.
Cycling in Stijl
(above) Menno Anker (below) Rietveld Schröder House. Photo: Hay Kranen
Nijntje and Dick Bruna aren’t the only Utrecht design icons. Architect and furniture designer Gerrit Rietveld is another Utrecht native. On Saturday, cyclists will pass within a kilometer of his most famous building, the Rietveld Schröder House. This UNESCO World Heritage Site embodies the colors and principles of the famous Dutch art movement De Stijl, whose most notable practitioners include Piet Mondrian. For the 2015 Tour Utrecht designer Menno Anker worked on a number of topical projects under the title Boulevard Grand DépART, but the best is this punchy “Rietvelo” poster, which combines cycling mania with De Stijl graphic sensibilities.
Rietvelo has also been turned into a mural near the time trial course by local students from the Nimeto Institute, in the department of Restoration and Decoration:
Utrecht's Centraal Museum (which manages both the Miffy Museum and the Rietveld Schröder House) has also set up a display in town featuring an updated uniform from 1980s cycling team La Vie Claire. The team's classic cycling jersey, originally designed by Benetton, is based on Mondrian's paintings.
Other artists and designers have also made posters and prints commemorating the Tour. Some of the best are on sale atCatch Projecten, a favorite local print shop. Fedor van Rossem populated one of his enchanting Escher-like illustrations of Utrecht with a labyrinth of racers. Henrik Hey makes unique woodblock prints using the Japanese moku hanga technique, including a new edition for the Tour.
In a town already saturated with bicycles, it can be hard to tell what’s business as usual and what’s especially for Le Tour. But, even so, it’s clear that Utrecht’s gone a little more bike crazy than usual. On Jaarbeursplein—home to both the Tour starting line and the largest bicycle parking facility in the world—hundreds of abandoned bicycles have a new home in an installation on the side of the Beatrix Theatre.
In the main market square, this mural reproduces the lyrics from a song written for the Grand Départ: Your training wheels come off, you cycle your whole life long, from the cradle to the grave, your own tour, a circle.
Photo: Patrick S. Bäuerlein
The students at Nimeto, who painted the "Rietvelo" mural above, also executed "Peloton" (Lotte van Laatum) and "Bon Voyage" (Job, Joris & Marieke) murals in residential neighborhoods along the course. These murals were part of their "Painting the Town" initiative, along with a number of other design projects in partnership with the Tour.
Just some—really, a fraction—of the bicycles adorning shop windows in Utrecht right now
The Grand Départ is obviously a huge commericial opportunity for the city—and its shopkeepers aren't letting it go to waste. There is hardly a bike-free window around, with two-wheelers being used to sell everything from shoes to olive oil, mid-century design to marijuana.
It's not all high street decorations, though. An honorable mention go to the Aboriginal Art Museum Utrecht (AAMU), which commissioned local artists to make “Art Bikes” inspired by artworks in the museum's collection for its front windows.
Another top decoration comes from Kwartier, a lighting and furniture store, which made these Duchamp-like window installations.
Put a bike on it:
From beer bottles to model train sets, peanut butter to subwoofers: there's a Tour version of that
You know that Portlandia sketch where design consultants advise shop owners to "put a bird on it" to make their goods more desirable? Change "bird" to "bike" and voila! I won't get too into merch, but suffice it to say, there's probably a bike (or red polka dots) on it.
Lowland dreams of mountains:
Speaking of red polka dots: the most hated decorations around are trees wrapped in bolts of polka-dotted fabric. I've heard more than a few residents complain, but I’m more intrigued by the repetition of this particular motif: red polka dots refer to the jersey worn by the "King of the Mountains," the cyclist who leads the Tour's arduous mountain section. Saturday's time trials have a whopping elevation of zero. Gotta love a hill-less town so thoroughly embracing the mountain motif.
OV-fietsen are "public transportation" bikes available to rent all over the country. They got the polka dot treament as well, of course.
In the archives, on the canals, in the theatres:
Penny-farthing race, anyone?
The first cycle lane in the Netherlands was built in Utrecht in 1885, and a section of Saturday's course follows along this original bike path on the Maliebaan. To celebrate the city’s cycling history, the Utrecht Archive is hosting the exhibition Utrecht Fietsstad, honoring 140 years of bike culture in the city.
Kraftwerk performing "Vitamin" from Tour de France Soundtracks
Saturday and Sunday will see a citywide music festival, Tournée de la Musique, and music events with questionablepuns for titles have proliferated in recent weeks. Electronic music pioneers Kraftwerk will even be in town to perform a 3-D multimedia concert of their album Tour de France Soundtracks.
I’d be remiss not to share this adorable love-and-bicycle-themed animation, released last fall by studio Job, Joris & Marieke. Apart from its characters’ uncanny resemblance to sausages, the film offers a pretty convincing representation of Utrecht (and accurately depicts the traffic nightmare we’re all anticipating this weekend).
The number of tourists pouring into Amsterdam increases steadily every year. Obviously Madame Tussauds, the Anne Frank House and—of course—the red light district are popular destinations, but in the last decade or so museums have become a serious pull-factor. Number one on the list is the Rijksmuseum, welcoming more than 2.4 million visitors in 2014 and on track to break that record this year. For the exhibition Late Rembrandt alone half a million tickets were sold.
Besides happy faces on the municipal tourism board, this resulted in criticism in newspapers and on TV: the museum was simply too crowded. Rather than art, visitors could only see other visitors. When confronted with this complaint Rijksmuseum director Wim Pijbes snarked that the nagging party-poopers “should get their own Rembrandt.”
Late Rembrandt visitors at the Rijksmuseum, 2015. Photo: Andrea Alessi
Pijbes, a self-declared advocate of “intelligent populism,” was being sarcastic, but there are some who would argue just that. For them looking at art is an inherently elitist activity and it should preferably be undertaken in an intimate, private environment. Only under those circumstances—being able to get close to a work and take as much time as you need to study it from all possible angles—can one truly experience and appreciate the work. The museum setting is inadequate, not only because of the crowds blocking the view, but also because of its very nature. Museums are artificial spaces—often disproportionate in relation to the artworks—creating a distance between viewer and art. Here works become icons, objects to be registered but not seen, let alone experienced.
For art in public space it’s a different story altogether. Especially if it’s been at a fixed location for a good number of years, public art tends to blend into the cityscape. It becomes like urban furniture, not something people notice. No one seems to care about monuments or how they’re perceived, whether they’re perceived at all. It takes a conscious effort to really see them again.
Taturo Atzu’s artistic practice is all about helping along this process. Operating under a myriad of names—Tatzu Nishi, Tazu Rous, Tazro Niscino, Tatzo Oozu, Tatsurou Bashi—the Japanese artist has reactivated monuments by encasing them in specially built constructions. Around the Columbus statue standing on a 60-foot pedestal on New York’s Columbus Circle he created a penthouse, with the 13-foot-high statue itself resting on the coffee table. In Helsinki he conceived a hotel room around a fountain near the waterfront market square, with the bronze nude penetrating one of the mattresses like the nuclear missile in the 1985 comedy Weird Science.
Atzu has now taken his act to Amsterdam, to tackle one of his biggest monuments yet: the Oude Kerk, Amsterdam’s oldest church. He has built an enormous scaffolding on the eastern side of the building leading all the way to the roof. A massive terrace has been erected around the belfry. The weather vane has been encapsulated by a cabin that from the inside looks and feels like your average Dutch living room. It’s got prints on the wall; a bookcase contains literature about art, Amsterdam and religion; the vane sticks right through an Ikea-like table, looking like an oversized table ornament to be admired from the couch. It’s homey and surreal at the same time.
If God is in the details then this installation’s title, The Garden Which Is the Nearest to God, is right on the money. Climbing the scaffolding and strolling around on the terrace you get to see things you’ve never seen before and they’re awe-inspiring: the pointy roof construction, the parts where extensive restoration work has been done, the elegance of the tiling, the rhythm of the gothic architecture, the robust wall anchors. Plus you get a view of the city that is unrivaled. Suddenly, you notice the names on facades across the canal, quirky annexes and rooftop sundecks usually hidden from view. It’s an exciting and enriching experience—even on a rainy or overcast day. You’ve been granted a fresh perspective on the city you’ve walked around in for years. It’s like being handed a new set of eyes. And being handed back a part of the city you weren’t even aware existed.
That’s what makes the group of citizens opposing the artwork so incomprehensible. “The church has been taken away from the city,” they complained in the local newspaper Het Parool. But what Atzu is doing is the opposite of excluding. He manages to marry two seemingly contradictory values: a democratic experience of art and the intimacy necessary to make that experience meaningful.