As construction on the Stedelijk nears its end, Huize Frankendael is hosting one of the final installations of “Stedelijk in de Stad”, the Stedelijk Museum’s interim series of off-site exhibitions. The Living is a ten-day presentation of six video works from the Museum’s permanent collection, curated specifically for Huize Frankendael, a unique country-style mansion set on a seven-acre park in East Amsterdam.
The private house (Huize Frankendael) was built in 1659 and today it functions as a commercial and cultural space, full of contemporary furniture contrasting its restored 17th century architecture. The site hosts a restaurant, occasional art shows, and hires out its rooms for a variety of events. For The Living shutters are closed and furniture removed to create dark, uncluttered viewing environments in the house’s six central rooms.
The exhibition program touts the videos’ site-specificity. With a couple exceptions this professed relationship between the videos and space seems to be aesthetic rather than conceptual. Douglas Gordon’s Hand and Foot (1995), in which an oppressive relationship between disembodied, anthropomorphized limbs unfolds, is set in the bedroom where city architect Ben Merkelbach died in 1961. While the organizers might relate the cool palette and seeming lifelessness of the strangled hand to this event, there is no contextualizing information to let viewers in on the history. Indeed, without furniture or context the disemboweled house seems to act as a mere shell for the exhibition rather than an inspiration.
Peter Bogers’s Heaven (1995) is the only work that addresses the reinvention of space, with nearly twenty video monitors carefully scattered around a first floor salon. Each monitor presents a different image moving back and forth every couple of seconds to an ever-changing yet metronomical soundtrack. The various subjects include a nursing baby, a spoon mixing coffee, a tensing forehead, crawling maggots, shuffling feet, and a breathing cat. Related purring, sucking, ticking, and slamming noises occasionally emerge from the rhythmic commotion. These brief videos create an overwhelming environment that revitalizes the space, exhuming the ghosts of Huize Frankendael past. A monitor high on the wall depicts the second hand of a clock; a pensive woman with blowing hair “looks out the window” into the windy English garden; a curtain hem rests near the opposite window; and a door ceaselessly opens and closes next to the room’s actual door.
The wound-up tension created in Bogers’s installation relates it to the five other works. With the exception of Ulay and Abramovic’s orgasmic Breathing Out, Breathing In (1978), the videos are all non-narrative loops, building toward an unresolved climax. Job Koelewijn is stuck in a human-sized hole, perpetually and comically trying to jump out. In Marijke van Warmerdam’s looped projection a woman kicks in and out of a handstand, forever revealing her white panties, contrasting childhood playfulness with adult sexuality. In Sam Taylor Wood’s Travesty of a Mockery (1995) a couple engages in a vague and endless argument, oscillating unpredictably between tragicomic violence and silent reflection.
This collaboration is a truly contemporary affair. History has been left behind and instead we focus on The Living. The Stedelijk videos breathe life into the old house, just as Huize Frankendael itself rescues the videos from museum storerooms. I visited during a crowded and lively afternoon; the video soundtracks mingled with the clinking of china from the downstairs café, and I could hear the buzz of children playing in the adjacent gardens. Though I look forward to the Stedelijk’s reopening in the new year, I have enjoyed their exhibitions “in de Stad”. They remind us that museum collections are not static or “dead” but can join and inspire us in a dynamic, modern world.
Images: Douglas Gordon, Hand and Foot, 1995, video still; Ulay and Marina Abramovic, Breathing in - Breathing out, 1977, video projection on PAL DVD with sound, 11'34" loop. All images courtesy of the artists and collectie Stedelijk Museum)