This weekend I visited Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum for the first time. While this probably sounds like an unforgivable oversight (or just plain laziness) to you, it’s not. The Stedelijk, Amsterdam’s only modern and contemporary art museum, has been closed for years undergoing renovations and the construction of a new extension. Don’t get too excited – this is no grand reopening; more construction and closed doors are yet to come – but from August 28, 2010 until January 9, 2011 visitors are treated to The Temporary Stedelijk, a one-time only gallery preview with a program comprising two major contemporary art exhibitions.
This temporary opening showcases the new museum as much as it does the artwork on display. Loads of galleries are intentionally empty leading me to overhear at least one confused visitor ask, “Waar zijn de kunstwerken?” (She was, in fact, in Willem de Rooij’s route along 18 corners (1993/2010), a brochure-guided walking tour featuring the empty and now renovated corners of six first floor galleries). The new museum is awfully pretty; it’s glossy, bold, and spotless without erasing the identity of its historical building. Old brick walls and wrought iron ornamentation are painted super-white; the new parquet floors shine brightly, especially in Ger van Elk’s The Well Polished Floor Sculpture, an almost indiscernible triangle of floor buffed slightly more than its surroundings. The museum’s entryway is filled with bright and graphic posters from the past century of exhibitions. These set off the pristine white of the building’s interior and are joined by multicolored Daniel Buren stripes nestled in over fifty corners of the museum’s archways.
The Buren installation is part of “Taking Place”, one of the two exhibitions in The Temporary Stedelijk. It comprises site and time-specific works as well as a number of pieces from the museum’s permanent collection. There is an emphasis, it seems, on the minimal and/or photogenic, as in a tremendous black-and-white Barbara Kruger-ified room, and a succession of galleries lit by Diana Thater’s twilight-colored blue neons. Each room hosts a single artwork ranging from a nearly imperceptible brick (taken from the museum’s renovation) to epic mural-sized prints. These works alert visitors to the gallery spaces (large walls, high ceilings, new floors) as much as those spaces give way to the art. “Taking Place” has a clear sense of humor, not only with empty and almost barren galleries throughout, but also with cheeky artworks such as a Martin Kippenberger pharmaceutical forest installation and Louise Lawler’s audio-work, Birdcalls.
The concurrent exhibition, “Monumentalism”, part of the museum’s annual “Proposal for Municipal Art Acquisitions”, is an exploration of history and national identity. Included artists live and work in the Netherlands, though not all are Dutch. Nor are the histories or identities they mine, represent, and tease apart necessarily Dutch ones. It’s an appropriate topic for the reopening of the museum, which could itself be viewed as a “monument”. Indeed museums are themselves part of national histories – for better or worse, they confer value, canonize, reify, historicize, organize, and consolidate. They both retell and create the material histories of the subjects they aim to represent.
The “monuments” presented and investigated in “Monumentalism” are almost exclusively not bronze and stone totems. Instead the artists look at the ways histories and national identities, often complicated ones, are scripted onto material culture and even the body itself. Lucia Nimcova’s tender video Exercise had viewers laughing out loud as elderly Slovakian subjects tried to recall moves from the compulsory calisthenics routines broadcast during the communist regime of their youths. History is mapped into the muscle memory of aging national subjects – it is embodied memory that will cease to exist once they are gone. History is also mapped onto, well, maps, as examined by Gert Jan Kocken, whose large prints overlay fifty maps of WWII Amsterdam representing various instrumental agendas and political points of view. Other works include Renzo Martens’ infamous Episode 3 (better known as Enjoy Poverty), Yael Bartana’s ambiguously conciliatory video A Declaration, Lonnie van Brummelen and Siebren de Haan’s exegesis of the Pergamon altar entitled Monument to Another Man’s Fatherland, and Job Koelewijn’s transcendental sand-drawing atop the pages of Spinoza’s Ethics.
While we’re on the subject of mapping history – with museums being in the business of preserving, organizing, and creating the past – Roman Ondák’s temporal work in “Taking Place” seems a fitting note to end on. Ondák’s project is a living infographic, a plotting of visitors’ heights whose mean will become increasingly apparent over the four months of The Temporary Stedelijk. As I visited on the exhibition’s second day, participants’ names were still readable, but already there was some overlap. Soon there will be nothing but a dense black line circumscribing the room and only outliers’ names will be legible. In some ways Ondák’s work reflects the great challenge of the Museum as a vehicle of history. The Museum thinks in movements, grand narratives, and big pictures, but these stories should remain alive. Individuals must and will emerge, and artists like those featured in “Monumentalism” will resurrect and bring to the surface those narratives marginalized and forgotten by the nation or the institution.
With this brief teaser the Stedelijk shows that it is looking to the future as much as to the past, and we can only look forward to its doors remaining open for good.
~Andrea Alessi, a writer living in Amsterdam.
(Images: Lucia Nimcova, Milkmaids; Daniel Buren, Installation; Barbara Kruger, Past / Present / Future, 2010; Roman Ondák; Courtesy of Stedelijk Museum)