The 2013 Prix de Rome exhibition at de Appel in Amsterdam got me thinking about payoff, the rewards of looking at art. I’m not mad at “Museums as Playgrounds” or Banksy – as far as I’m concerned, if you’re getting people into museums or talking about art, that’s a good thing. Nor do I think anyone would accuse me of hating on difficult art. For me, one of the best parts of writing about art is pushing myself to be more open minded, to spend time with art, struggle with it. I savor the challenge of unpacking an exhibition, and the rewards, when they come, are that much sweeter.
This brings me to the esteemed Prix de Rome, the oldest Dutch visual art (and in some years, architecture) prize, which carries an award of 40,000 Euro and a residency in Rome. The work of this year’s nominees falls largely into the aforementioned “difficult” category. The NRC Handelsblad called the 2013 finalist presentation a “tragic exhibition” while the Volkskrant deemed it “more hermetic than ever,” questioning whether Queen Máxima, who attended the prize announcement, could understand the artwork. These appraisals opened onto debates about whether criticizing art for being too obscure is lazy or insulting to the general public, or whether it does a disservice to art in the Netherlands more generally, particularly at a time when so-called populist concerns have jeopardized institutionalized art funding.
It’s easy to generate outrage about art awards, but the problem is not that this work is difficult, out of touch, or ostensibly boring, but rather that once you put in the effort to get past these qualifiers, it doesn’t seem worth it. Of course, the more you put in, the more you get out. But if you’re expecting some big edifying payoff for your efforts as thoughtful art viewer, this isn’t the show for you.
Falke Pisano, Prison Work, installation view, de Appel arts centre, Amsterdam, 2013; Courtesy of the artist and de Appel arts centre, Amsterdam; Photo: Daniel Nicolas.
The 2013 winner is Falke Pisano, whose exhibition Prison Work builds on her complex The Body in Crisis series. Pisano’s latest research considers the privatization of prisons in America and how incarcerated labor changes our understanding of the body. Featuring presentation tropes like graphs, charts, and diagrams, the installation is like a 3D PowerPoint report on steroids. Each element builds on the next until the work is barely legible. In a video, for example, a ticking clock, voiceover narration, drawings, a scrolling ticker, headlines, and labels simultaneously compete for attention. It’s demanding work, but the foundations are strong. When you unfold its convoluted layers, there’s enough substance to keep you absorbed.
Across the hall, Ola Vasiljeva’s The Limp of a Letter is a deceptively haphazard installation featuring office furniture, slide shows, video, cloth, and abstract sculptures. Unfortunately, the occasional discovery of a repeated shape, gesture, or idea isn’t quite enough to sustain interest. The staged environment feels internally consistent, but unedited.
Ola Vasiljeva, The Limp of A Letter, installation view, de Appel arts centre, Amsterdam, 2013; Courtesy of the artist and de Appel arts centre, Amsterdam; Photo: Daniel Nicolas.
The most accessible project by far is Remco Torenbosch’s investigation of EU flags. Blue rectangles presented on the wall and in vitrines are, in fact, yards of fabric used by twenty-eight European countries as backdrops for the EU flag. As you compare one country’s midnight blue to another’s cobalt or cerulean, you hope to find embodied meaning – Europe united in its diversity. It’s the start of a great metaphor, but feels like a work in progress.
The show’s most exciting moment is the dramatic entrance to Christian Friedrich’s guarded installation. There’s an occupancy limit, countdown clock, automated sliding doors, suspense! Sealed inside a dark chamber six privileged visitors listen to beautiful, florid, nonsensical prose. Like a linguistic exquisite corpse, a train of thought lasts for half a sentence before moving on. Within twenty minutes, my companion and I were the only ones remaining. I admire the artist’s dedication to controlling the experience, yet when we eventually made our way to the exit, Friedrich’s narrator was left speaking to an empty room until the next six visitors were admitted almost forty minutes later. It’s hermetic, literally.
Populist/elitist disputes tend to overshadow the actual artwork. Art needn’t pander; it can be abstruse, alienating even, but something has to keep you looking for its rewards, be they knowledge, beauty, emotional release, or insight. I don’t regret the time I spent with the 2013 Prix de Rome exhibition, but I can’t say you won’t. As my companion and I went through the show, we saw more than a few visitors walk into a room, glance around, and walk back out. If an artist makes an installation and no one is there to look at it, should we change the subject?
(Image on top: Remco Torenbosch, European Contextualising in Analytical Sociology and Ethnographical Representation on History and the Present, 2013, installation view; Courtesy of the artist and de Appel arts centre, Amsterdam / Photo: Daniel Nicolas.)