Amsterdam’s histories are revisited in the present in ways ranging from the spectacle of the Amsterdam Dungeon to more serious approaches like those of the Anne Frank Huis. Every tourist knows the way to the latter and I can understand why. The hiding place where a girl penned her gripping diary captures the imagination. Anne Frank’s story might be the most famous, but she was just one of many forced to hide during the German occupation. Another former hiding place, less well known but equal in its historical value is Castrum Peregrini. Themes inherent to these spaces’ (hi)stories – exclusion, xenophobia, survival, solidarity, and war – transcend time and are unfortunately still relevant today. Castrum Peregrini is no static artefact; it is a living space, and its heritage is embedded into a contemporary exhibition program that actualizes historical themes in a relevant way.
In 1940 a young artist, Gisèle van Waterschoot van der Gracht (1912), bought a house on Amsterdam’s Herengracht. During the war her book- and art-packed apartment became the refuge for a group of young Jews. They spent their time in hiding finding an escape from their dreadful situation by means of art and literature. “Castrum Peregrini”, named by its inhabitants, is loosely translatable as “Pilgrims’ Stronghold”. After the war Gisèle and the group of former refugees started a foundation that transformed Castrum Peregrini into a cultural institution with a program focussing on friendship, art, and the relationship between the individual and society. Their current on-going program is called “My Friend. My Enemy. My Society.” and looks at the many meanings of friendship in contemporary society. The organization’s current exhibition, Shapeshifting, is part of this program and it focuses on the shadowy side of friendship – no Yin without Yang, you could say. Friendship, solidarity, and trust are contrasted by fear, exclusion, and suspicion: important concepts shaping our world and the current political climate.
Jasmijn Visser, Tzigane (detail), 2009, acrylic on paper, 150 x 750 cm; Courtesy of the artist; photo: Gert Jan van Rooij.
Curators Maria Barnas and Danilla Cahen cover a wide range of themes connected to these big issues in only fourteen works. The danger in these types of thematic exhibitions can be that the works merely serve as illustrations of a topic, thus appearing flattened and narrow in scope. Fortunately, in Shapeshifting the art thrives, its strongest aspects coming forward. Aernout Mik’s Convergencies (2007), for example, features two screens depicting footage of immigration procedures and safety exercises. The work’s intentions are clear; it shows procedures relating to exclusion and inclusion, fear, danger, and safety. But at Castrum Peregrini Convergencies' further themes such as nationalism, xenophobia, populism, and terrorism are also foregrounded. Other works are more autonomous in nature but also fit well into the show, giving its concept a certain interpretative air to breathe. Take, for instance, Willem de Rooij’s Blacks (2013), a square of black fabric woven from ten different shades of black or Jasmijn Vissers Tzigane (2009), a huge drawing showing observation towers slowly being swallowed by red and white obstruction tape. Most of the selected art is layered, allowing the exhibition a thematic broadness despite its limited amount of works.
Unfortunately not all the work shares the same depth. Felix Weigand’s animation This Is Only The Beginning is a hypnotizing spiral interspersed with the sentences DON’T BE AFRAID and THIS IS ONLY THE BEGINNING. It’s quite ominous, but not that rich. Another example is Rob Schröder’s Dialoogbom (2008), which isn’t much more than a compilation of populist statements uttered by Dutch politicians accompanied by a heartbeat. These types of oversimplified expressions by Dutch political representatives are painful to watch one after another in succession, but regrettably I see them all the time when I turn on the TV. Schröder’s appropriation doesn’t bring new insight to them. In this case, the need the curators felt to make a clear reference to populism was perhaps greater than their critical artistic criteria.
Aernout Mik, Convergencies, 2007, video still, two channel video installation; Courtesy of the artist and carlier | gebauer, Berlin; documentary images: ITN- source, AP Archive, RNN7, Brainware, and other sources.
Castrum Peregrini’s past is cleverly intertwined into the show, not only by its display of two of the works in the former refugee hiding places, but also by its incorporation of works by Simon van Keulen, one of the people hidden in Gisèle’s apartment. They show his imaginings of nature unavailable to him while in hiding. The institution’s history has so much bearing on its present, that it was unsettling for me to hear that while I was writing this review, Castrum Peregrini’s founder, Gisèle, passed away at the age of one hundred years old. People like her generate creativity and love that will continue to spread long after they are gone. She will be missed by many, but her heritage survives in exhibitions like Shapeshifting. Even after Gisèle’s passing Castrum Peregrini will hopefully continue to use top notch cultural means to promote historical awareness and a critical involvement in society in times when this is very necessary.
(Image on top: Alfredo Jaar, The Ashes of Pasolini, 2009, video stills, 39 min.; Courtesy of the artist.)