Many years ago, when I saw what Christo and Jeanne-Claude had done for Central Park in New York, I remember I was pretty disappointed. Those guys had wrapped up entire buildings before, so their Gates were a bit too small of an element for me to be impressed. As somebody who didn't get the chance to actually experience the installation, the most interesting feature to me was that saffron orange, in striking contrast with the park's greenery. But color is only one aspect of a public installation, so I will forever reserve my judgement on that piece. Moving on.
Steve McQueen, one of the world's most prominent video artists, has recently done something similar to what the duo did in Vondelpark, Amsterdam's most popular green area. Since it doesn't happen every day that an artist is invited to act on a whole park, I couldn't wait to witness an intervention of that scale. As it turns out, this time I can actually say I'm disappointed.
A brief introduction for those who don't know Vondelpark. Sitting right beyond the touristy yet culturally thriving Leidseplein, the park is hands down the most social area of the city during the day. That's where people of all shades of color flock when there is a hint of sunshine, either to jog, get drunk or barbecue, and also where people traditionally get initiated to psychedelic mushrooms (because of the many dogs and kids spreading good innocent vibes). Rumor has it one can even have sex outdoors legally in the park (a law was almost passed, but this is actually untrue). In short, no matter who you are, Vondelpark is a beautiful, lively place.
The concept of McQueen's installation in Vondelpark is simple and potentially great: he had all the lightbulbs changed from their traditional dull yellow to a mysterious electric blue, so that at nighttime the whole space is illuminated in a new, uncanny hue that transforms the whole experience. The thought of a blue-tinted Vondelpark was thrilling to me, so the day after the launch I was cycling obsessively in circles around the park, waiting for the lights to turn on (until I got tired and decided to come back a few hours later). I imagined little crowds of people wandering and hanging out under a weird new light, strangers talking to each other and standing together in awe at such an inspiring sight. That wasn't really the case.
Steve McQueen, Blues Before Sunrise, Intervention in Vondelpark, Amsterdam; Photo by Nicola Bozzi
When I came cycling through and finally saw the lights, the first thought I had was that they were too weak. As I continued, almost running over more than one lonely walker (that's right, no new crowds), I kept feeling the place was too dark and, rather than giving a new light to the park, McQueen's lamps had taken most out of it. You could see blue lights lined up in the distance, but you couldn't behold the color reflecting on the objects around you. All the shining dots looked like jellyfish from outer space, lazily descending on Vondelpark and hovering over it like a flat sci-fi painting (with the dark the sense of depth is not at its best). I think the problem was that each blue halo wasn't powerful enough to merge with the next one, so that instead of making the visitor appreciate the surroundings in a different way, he or she could only behold the constellation of the lights that were further away (the only exception I encountered was under the first bridge coming from Leidseplein, which I can describe as looking David-Lynch-creepy).
I remember that at the last Documenta, I particularly enjoyed a piece by Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle, placed in a room where the light was bright red. When you walked from there into the main hall, which had blue carpeting, the optical effect was quite trippy for a while. Nothing like that in Blues Before Sunrise, since the lights are trapped within their shallow halos, so well-defined up in their lamp-shaped boxes that even the passing bike lights (white for the front and red for the back, for those who don't cycle) are enough to disturb the picture.
I understand cranking up the electricity bill for a few weeks might have been economically and environmentally unsustainable, but – at least in my mind – the main flaw in McQueen's intervention is, very simply, that the park is not really lit up. Maybe I was expecting too much, like with Christo and Jeanne-Claude, but I can't say the experience has been memorable. After his excruciating Shame - a one-note cavalcade through the life of a sex addict, devoid of any empathy with the viewer – I am sorry to say Steve McQueen has already bored me twice this month.
(Image at top right: Steve McQueen, Photo: Ernst van Deursen / Courtesy Stedelijk Museum)