The city as an artwork. That's quite a broad premise for a group show, even more so considering the increasingly heterogeneous ways in which contemporary artists dabble with public space these days. Visiting the exhibition currently hosted at De Appel, though, I didn't find so much of the mapping, downscale modeling, installation-erecting that so much abounds when it comes to tackling the urban within the gallery space. The zoom is rarely on the “bigger picture”, and maps are quietly understated – if you exclude conceptual ones, that is, of which Thomas Hirschhorn and Marcus Steinweg's Spinoza Map (2007) is a solid and aesthetically intriguing example. Also, architecture appears as something small and playful rather than monumental: Carlos Garaicoa's transparent floor plans are pasted right onto a window, thus rendered almost marginal, and Hans Op de Beeck's crafty Staging Silence video allows sugar buildings to shape up just in time to be melted by a rain shower. Perhaps the giant Fantasio wall drawing by Jan Rothuizen, a caption-heavy dissection of De Appel's own architectural history, counts as an exception, but then again it does intersect the real protagonist of the show: Amsterdam's people.
Thomas Hirschhorn and Marcus Steinweg, Spinoza Map, 2007; Photo: Cassander Eeftinck Schattenkerk; Courtesy of the artists and De Appel Arts Centre, Amsterdam.
Artificial Amsterdam is in fact centered on inhabiting rather than building, and historical, experiential layers seem to pile up far higher than bricks in the exhibition's priority list. Amsterdam's hip and subcultural youth, as well as the city's more traditionally clothed fishermen, seem to be the main objects of interest in the videos on show (there's quite a few of those: by Lawrence Weiner, Ed van der Elsken, Bert Haanstra, and, arranged into an eight-set circle, Linda Bannink), which also put spatial voids – Dam square, the IJ waters – as their area of focus. Egle Budvytyte & Bart Groenendaal's Multiple Deviations from a Form of Psychomagic for the Dutch (2013) likewise portraits regular individuals, trying to bring out that extra, subconscious meaning famously championed by Alejandro Jodorowsky through discourse (the piece also included an audio-based performance/tour out in the city). About magic and the rediscovery of the ordinary is also James Beckett's Dowsing Schools (2013), who invited two professionals of this non-scientific yet fruitful divinatory practice from the UK and had them search Amsterdam with their sticks for metals and mysterious artifacts.
More than “artificial”, perhaps, the Amsterdam showcased at De Appel might be subjective, possible, volatile. The artists invited do not engage, for the most part, in the city's body – with the exception of Lara Almarcegui, the Rotterdam-based selection for the Spanish Pavilion at the current Venice Biennale, whose piece on vacant spots is as close to urbanism as the show gets – rather they renounce morphology in favor of a fragmented, transitory portrayal of the Dutch capital. While this in a way opens a wide variety of points of view, on the downside, the abundance of aesthetics and the whole overarching “subjectivity” I just mentioned spread the exhibition a little too thin, with few pieces really achieving a relieving synthesis and demanding to be beheld rather than understood. In this sense, I would say the aforementioned Spinoza Map and Barbara Visser's Moving Rooms: Baroque Ceiling (2013) are among the highs, with Cristina Lucas' gimmicky Red Light District version of Mondrian paintings (an animation of strippers working the Dutch artist's iconic stripes like poles) on the lower end. As for the many videos on view, while I personally felt they make the show slower to absorb and create an attention bump with the other pieces, they definitely represent a fascinating source of vintage Amsterdam imagery and are easy to appreciate for their documentary value.
James Beckett, Dowsing Schools – Preliminary Findings and Corresponding Survey Kit, 2013; Photo: Cassander Eeftinck Schattenkerk; Courtesy of the artist and De Appel Arts Centre, Amsterdam.
It's always tricky to judge a group show as a whole, but if I have to go by the title as the main parameter of consistency I'd say Artificial Amsterdam outlines a much wider notion of the city than it would lead us to believe. Perhaps, though, it's too broad even for its own good.
[Image on top: Hans Op de Beeck, still from Staging Silence (2), 2013, video, 20”; Courtesy of the artist and De Appel Arts Centre, Amsterdam.]